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Seven Key Values to Maintain As You Write Your Romance by Larry Brooks

by Jeannie Ruesch 22 January 2010 37 Comments

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Larry Brooks, bestselling author and the man behind one of my favorite blogs, StoryFix.com.  I stumbled across Larry’s website by accident and I promptly found his series on Story Structure (started here).  After reading every part, I printed them out and grabbed a notebook and set out to watch some favorite movies to test all I’d learned and to identify the four parts of a story.  It works, truly works.  So now I read Storyfix every day, and I’m thrilled that Larry has agreed to guest blog for us today!

storyfixcover1rev-300x300And as a bonus offer to my readers, I’m going to give away a copy of one of Larry’s ebook, Story Structure Demystified.

So welcome, Larry!

Seven Key Values to Maintain As You  Write Your Romance

a guest blog by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

Romance writers are sometimes viewed by authors in other genres as a different breed of literary cat.  That’s because such judgmental writers, a) don’t read romances, b) buy into an archaic perception that romances are somehow less than other genres of fiction, and c) writers of romances – J.D. Robb and a few others excepted – rarely jump genre into mainstream fiction.

This perception comes from a simple and completely honorable truth: romances are built upon certain expectations pertaining to structure, character and theme.  That perception is not wrong – indeed, it is spot-on accurate – but, when taken out of context, it is misleading, and unfairly so.

Because virtually every genre also bears the tradition and expectation of specific structures, characters and themes.  Romances are no more or less formulaic than other types of stories.  If you’ve ever read a mystery or a thriller, you already know this to be true.

That, forget these romance-critical writers, is what makes genre fiction qualify as genre.

I view romances quite differently.

No, I don’t write them.  I write psychological relationship thrillers, which are all about the ways and means people use to mess with each other’s lives and emotions within a romantic and sexual context.

Close second cousin genres, I’d say.

Here’s how, in my view, romances are no different from mysteries, thrillers and sci-fi, and especially literary fiction, whatever that means these days:

I believe the romance genre is superior in many ways to other genres, for the simple reason that the elixir of effective romance is theme, rather than plot or even character.  And because theme is the toughest core competency to master, successful romance writers are demonstrating a higher skill, by necessity, than other writers.

If you got into romances because you thought they are somehow easier to write and sell, think again.  Romance is the brain surgery of fiction.

With romance novels it’s all about relationships.  It’s all about love.  And that, folks, is the most powerful motivating force in the history of humankind.

It’s also a trap for newer writers, because it implies an undervaluing of plot and conflict.  The best romances are also highly plot-driven, with the relationships and any ensuing romances springing from it, rather than the delivery of episodic character vignettes.

Which, by the way, don’t get published.  If you want to sell a romance, you better have a killer plot at its heart.

Bottom line: romances are subject to, and benefit from the very same rules and principles of effective fiction that apply to other genres.  Indeed, to all genres.

Too many romance writers don’t get that.  Maybe this will help.

Here are seven of those principles, stated here in a generic fashion.  These are universal truths; there are no exceptions to them.  Break them at your own peril.  Master them, and you may find yourself in the throes of a successful career.

There are six realms of the fiction-writing proposition you need to master.

I’ve just described the value of theme in romances.  But theme is only one of six tools – four elements and two skills – you need to bring to the writing party.  The others are: concept… character… story structure… scene execution… and writing voice.

Omit any one and your story won’t work as well as it could, or should (which, in the publishing equation, means must). Nail all six and you’re in the romance business.

“Story” isn’t character, “story” is conflict.

Many writers fail to wrap their head around this concept.  Character without conflict is, in fact, merely a vignette.  Good for a short story, perhaps, but not nearly enough weight to carry an entire novel.

You need to give your character a goal, and there must be an opposing force that must be met and conquered before that goal is attained.  From that rigid principle you are free to do just about anything, story-wise.

But be clear: a story about two folks falling in love does not a novel make.  A story about two people who are prevented from falling in love as they would choose, as a result of forces that require conquering before love can triumph… that’s a romance novel.

The most important moment in your story is the inciting incident, or sometimes called The First Plot Point.

This principle is a sub-set of story structure, one of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.  There are sequential and geometric proportions dictated within this principle – in other words, certain things need to happen in certain places – which, if violated, compromise dramatic tension, character development and the ultimate intensity of the reading experience.

If you don’t know about story structure, or precisely what an inciting incident is and where it goes, stop writing and find out.

Thematic power is derived from a collision between inner conflict and exterior conflict.  You need both in your story.

Nobody sets out to write a two-dimensional character.  The definition of a fully-fleshed out heroine is one who battles interior demons and issues, with the reader experiencing how that character’s decisions and actions spring from them, and in context to them.

The conquering of interior demons is character arc, which is an essential criteria of developing an effective protagonist.

Theme – the very essence of romance – is the art of showing how that inner demon comes to bear, and is ultimately conquered, in the course of meeting and conquering the obstacles (the exterior conflict) to their ultimate need and goal.

Romance is effect, not cause.

Being too on-the-nose with romance can kill a story.  Romance for romance’s sake is less effective than romance that ensues from all of the above: conflict, resolution, inner demons squaring off with exterior obstacles, and the heat that comes from people interacting with other people in context to the world you’ve created for them.

What happens in your story is the cause.  How that leads to romance is the effect.

And the means of all this is the plot.

Don’t let your narrative get in the way of your story.

A common misperception among newer writers is that the quality of your writing, versus your storytelling, is the thing that will get you published and make you successful.

Absolutely not true.  Absolutely a backwards perception.

Sorry to break the news, but great writing is everywhere, even astoundingly great writing.  It is a commodity residing in the inbox of editors of every publisher in existence.

Solid writing is the ante-in to the chance of publication.  But it is your story that ends up being the single most critical variable that will close the deal.

Story planning will get you there quicker, and more effectively, than making it up as you go along.

At the end of the day there is no one single best way to write a story.  But what is always true is that, no matter how you go about it, certain principles must be observed and demonstrated within the final product if the story is to succeed.

The quickest way to achieve that is to focus on and master these core principles in the course of your writing journey.  Don’t use the story to discover them, learn them outside of, and prior to, trying to apply them to a story in development.

Just like a pilot or surgeon wouldn’t think of learning their craft as they go, with paying customers at risk, a writer who succeeds must bring the craft to the story, rather than use the story as a vehicle of discovery.

What is discovered in a successful story is the power those principles, when properly implementd, lend to the end product.

Larry Brooks is a bestselling novelist and the creator of Storyfix.com, an instructional website for fiction writers.  His ebook, Story Structure – Demystified, is available through that website.

Don’t forget to comment to be entered to win a copy of STORY STRUCTURE – Demystified!


  • Eliza Knight said:

    This blog was great! Thank you for sharing Larry with us Jeannie! I really enjoyed reading this, and it brought to light a few things I’ve been trying to work on.

    I’ll have to go check out Storyfix.com!

  • Laurie Ryan said:

    Great blog, Larry. And thanks for invitine him, Jeannie. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the cause and effect thing, though. Since romance is the primary story arc, it’s hard to think of it as an effect. Although you meet someone, you fall in love. He does something nice, you fall a little further in love. So I guess I can understand it. :) Thanks for making me think.

  • Lavada Dee said:

    Thanks for a great blog. Certainly makes for a wake up call.

  • Mona Risk said:

    I love the way you define a good romance Larry: It’s not about two people falling in love, but two people prevented from falling in love. You have summarized here the most important rule. Thank you fopra great post.

  • Jeannie Ruesch said:

    Larry, thank you so much for being here today! A terrific post, as always… and I love your explanation about how romance comes from a person’s life and experiences.

    And wow, now the thought of a surgeon saying, “Oh, I’ll just fix it later if I mess it up this first time around…” Yikes! Makes me glad I’m a plotter! LOL

  • Lorhainne Eckhart said:

    Thank you Larry for an informative blog. I am always seeking more information on sructure.
    I will definately check out storyfix.com
    Thanks for hosting this blog Jeannie.

    Lorhainne Eckhart
    The Captain’s Lady – A Passionate Tale of Love during the Iraqi War

  • Shanna Riley said:

    Excellent article, & a nice combination of Larry’s values within the romance genre. Thanks both to Jeannie & Larry for bringing us this invaluable piece.

  • Steven Cameron said:

    Jeannie, thank you for inviting Larry to post here. I have been following Larry on his site for a couple of months now and have enjoyed his posts.

    It is nice to find other sites by and for authors. I have to check out your site more.

  • Silver James said:

    I am so glad Larry was a guest today before I leave for two weeks! Thank you for finding and sharing him, Jeannie! And Larry? Wow. I’m copying and printing this to take with me on my trip so I can really get into it in the quiet moments on the cruise. (Yes, I will have them because the DH likes to sleep late. 😀 )

  • Nicola Marsh said:

    Great post, Jeannie.

    I’ve bookmarked Story.fix so can check it out, once I get current characters into shape and meet this Feb deadline!

  • PatriciaW said:

    Thanks for taking on romance, Larry. Another great post. Like Jeannie, I’m a daily reader of Storyfix, and I reference you fairly regularly on my blog. Here’s another post I can link to.

  • Luisa Perkins said:

    Larry is the BEST. I always learn from his posts. Thanks!

  • TuesdayD said:

    Your information was invaluable to me. As I read along with you I stopped to look up the principles you were talking about And applying what you said and the principle to the characters and story I’m developing. It gave so much more depth to the characters and the story once I understood what I was looking for. I’ve been reading books on one particular principle or another hoping to find what I could feel was missing in my development and I saw that it wasn’t one particular thing, but an overall lack of understanding of the main principles and how to implement them into the story. I’m so glad I read your post today. I’m going to get your book so I can get a more in depth view on the things I need to work on, and so I can have a permanent copy to refer to over and over again.

    Thanks again

  • Michael Welsh said:

    Loved this post Larry. Thank you for sharing it. Storyfix is a great resource!

    Love your site too Jeannie. Thanks for getting this guest post!


  • Fran Thomas said:

    Love, love, love StoryFix. Also love the comment that romance is the brain surgery of fiction. (Aunt Freda always said I should’ve been a doctor.) I’ve encountered many people who look down on romance novels. It feels good to be validated.

  • Linsey Lanier said:

    Terrific post. Definitely a keeper. I just discovered Larry Brooks today (by an email on the RWA Kiss of Death loop). I will go back and read his structure posts as well. What a wealth of knowledge.

    Thanks for the positive take on romance. I agree. It’s not easy to write. “Romance is the brain surgery of fiction.” Love it!


  • Susan J. Reinhardt said:

    I recently discovered Larry’s Storyfix.com. His meaty teaching gives me a delectable meal every time.

    I’d love to win the book if it’s not too late to enter.

    susanjreinhardt (at) gmail (dot) com

  • Gail said:

    Good stuff!!! I’m printing this out to keep in my file.
    I love your books.

  • Rachel Lynne said:

    Great Post Larry! I’m adding Storyfix to my website. Your comments on theme, “Theme – the very essence of romance – is the art of showing how that inner demon comes to bear, and is ultimately conquered, in the course of meeting and conquering the obstacles (the exterior conflict) to their ultimate need and goal.” have exposed what’s been nagging me about my current WIP! I know what I’ll be doing this weekend: back to the character interview to expose my heroine’s inner demons!

    Thanks for inviting Larry today, Jeannie. I’ll be back to check both sites often!

  • Linsey Lanier said:

    Terrific post. Definitely a keeper. I just discovered Larry Brooks today (by an email on the RWA Kiss of Death loop). I will go back and read his structure posts as well. What a wealth of knowledge.

    Thanks for the positive take on romance. I agree. It’s not as easy to write as it looks. “Romance is the brain surgery of fiction.” Love it!


  • Evelyn said:

    I’m amazed that Larry took such a refreshing view of literary romance. OMG! I, to be honest, always thought of it as belonging to the lower realm of fiction and thought that experts would just lump romances together with the Halequins.

    To me, all fiction contains at least a little romance! There’s always someone falling in love with someone, or something. I’m both amazed and relieved!

    Thanks Jeannie for including it here and thanks Larry for taking that stance and for leading so many of us here! :)

  • Dr. Kris said:

    I’ve been reading Larry’s posts every day since some time in October. I’ve learned more from these quick lessons than from all the extension classes, writer’s conferences, and on-line writing courses I’ve taken, put together. Rock on, Larry!

  • pam owldreamer said:

    Thank you. Too many people discount writing romance novels as writing pulp fiction, bodice rippers,and stringing one sex scene after another. Yes there is a formula(happy endings) (hero and heroine always end up together)Is that so bad? There is also,Steamy sex, sweet gentle lovemaking,conflicts and when well written,darn good plots and wonderful characters. Thanks again Larry for recognizing romance novels take a lot of work to get them right. I write romantic suspense and read and save all of Story Fix posts. Someday I will be published and the info in these posts will help me to be a better writer and to share my hard work with others. And get paid for doing so.Thanks again,Pam.

  • Janet said:

    Thank you Larry. So many romance novels today seem to have hardly any external plot. I’m pleased you think it’s important to have one.

  • trudy said:

    I’ve been following Larry on Storyfix and he really does a great job, in a very direct way, guiding me in my writing career in romance. More specific plot point planning has really helped me to get a handle on my story. Thanks, Larry!

  • Julie B said:

    What a great blog! I will definitely print this out to review again and again. And I loved the part about great narrative vs. great storytelling. Excellent!

  • morganna said:

    Thanks Larry, this really helped me end the discussion in my writer’s group with the seat of the pants writers versus the planners; which way was better. It will help me be a better writer.

  • Cate Masters said:

    Wonderful tips! Thanks so much for sharing. Would LOVE a copy of Story Structure Demystified.
    Hope you’ll come back soon, Larry!

  • Chris said:

    I’m saving this for once I’ve had more coffee. It has given me quite a lot to think about.

  • Danielle Meitiv said:

    Great post. I’m a fan of storyfix and a big believer is using story structure but I have been having trouble applying it and the six core competencies to developing a romance. This helps. Thanks

  • Pat Marinelli said:

    I stumbled on this late but what an interesting blog. Larry I will check out your website and books.

    Thanks for such a positive talk on romance novels. As a mystery/suspense romance writer I truely know you are right about how difficult it is to write a good romance.

    If I’m too late for a chance on the book, I understand. Thanks.

  • cindi said:

    I never fail to glean some insight from Larry’s posts. This time I learned more about this particular genre, and found a great new blog!

  • Cris Anson said:

    Wow! I’ve never heard the subject expressed quite as lucidly. Even after seven books, I’m still learning to hone my craft. Thank you for a blog which I’ll read again and again.

  • Mokibobolink said:

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’ve had a story idea pop up in my head and have been fighting the urge to write it. Why? Because it was romance and I too had always had my nose up in the air about romance, thinking it was below me as a “serious” writer.

    So I thank you for showing me what romance really is. I think I’ll go start my new story now. Thanks!

  • vikki said:

    Divine timing! I’ve halted writing, re-writing, re-re-writing my first novel because I finally realized I need to know how to construct and descunstruct a story. And then, poof, you arrive and share your knowledge. Thanks! I needed this post, your website and your book – a heavenly hat-trick!

  • Clancy Metzger said:

    I am a lucky gal today! Not only did I discover two great sites to follow (Larry and Jeannie)but I found a great bit of advice that is wonderfully applicable to my writing. Thanks to you both!

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