Ask the Editor: Why Do Books Get Bleak in the Third Quarter?

Dear Alex,
I’m working on my first romance novel after writing mainstream fiction for several years. I want it to have good structure and I understand there are “beats” that stories have to follow, including the “all is lost moment” or the “third act downturn.” But do my hero and heroine have to break up? It seems so contrived and every romance I read is the same. They meet, they fall in love, it’s good, then they fight and break up and then get back together. But what if they didn’t? What if my hero and heroine met and fell in love and that was the story?

–Shay

Hi Shay!

Changing genres is a big step. In many ways, when you switch genres, you’re a beginner all over again, because the expectations for each genre are different. I applaud you for studying the tropes of romance and figuring out which story beats are universal and which ones are specific to your new genre.

Yes, it’s possible to write about your hero and heroine falling in love and living happily ever after without ever breaking up, or even arguing. However, that wouldn’t be a story. Why? Because stories are about character transformation, and without that all-is-lost moment, your characters would never have any reason to change for the better.

Novels are emotion delivery systems. Readers expect a certain kind of emotional journey when they pick up a novel. They invest their time and they expect the payoff of character transformation. The hero and heroine’s lives have changed through the events of the story and they have gained wisdom and emotional strength along the way. Without going through some kind of trial, the story will feel flat, and readers won’t believe in the happy ending because the characters haven’t been tested, so how does the reader know they can prevail?

At the midpoint of your romance novel, the hero and heroine are happy together. They are intimate with each other on new levels and everything seems good. But seems is the operative word here, because the truth is, neither of them has changed one bit, and it’s only that change that will lead to lasting happiness. When problems come up in the relationship, they’ll fall back into their old ways of coping, because that’s all they know.

Between the midpoint scene and the breakup, your hero and heroine are like ducks in a pond. From the surface, it looks like they’re effortlessly gliding along, but under the surface, they’re paddling as fast as they can. They’re working hard to hide their flaws while pleasing their significant other, and they’re working their butts off to not change. Change is scary and nobody likes to do it, so both parties want to prolong the honeymoon period as long as possible.

But it’s not possible. Not forever. The obstacle that kept the couple from getting together is still present. Whatever wound or false belief the characters had at the beginning? They still have it. And until they overcome those things and truly change for the better, they can’t have lasting happiness.

You complain that “they fight and break up and then get back together” and that’s perhaps part of your confusion. The hero and heroine shouldn’t fight about something trivial. They shouldn’t even fight about the events of the plot. They should fight about who they are. The plot is merely the catalyst. If your baker heroine is fighting with your chef hero about kitchen space, that shouldn’t be what they are really fighting about. Perhaps your baker heroine has a family who always belittled her, and she sees the hero taking over the kitchen as proof that he doesn’t take her work seriously. Perhaps your hero grew up in foster care, never having a space of his own, and he sees the heroine hogging the kitchen as trying to shut him out of his rightful place. The fight can start about who gets to use the oven, but it should end with those other issues coming to light.

Don’t worry that you’re going to put off your readers or make them sad by breaking up the couple. Readers know that their happy-ever-after is guaranteed. It’s why so many of us love reading romance novels! The readers want to see the couple brought to their breaking point because they know that the couple still has some growing to do. The hero and heroine have to face their deepest fear—losing their love—in order to truly be whole. And that’s what makes for a satisfying story.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of No Hero Wants to Save the World, a book all about story stakes.

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