Quick, Quick, Slow: How to Pace Your Romance Novel Just Right
Pacing is one of those things I think only writers talk about. Before I delved into becoming a writer, I was a reader and didn’t really toss around words like “pacing.” To me, if something was wrong with a book’s “pacing,” it felt either too slow and boring or too fast and shallow for it to hold my interest. Chances are most of your readers are the same.
But even if someone doesn’t know what “pacing” means, they definitely know when the pacing feels “off.” So getting this part right is essential to developing a book readers will rave about.
When it comes to pacing a romance novel, there’s a tricky three-part act going on. There are the two main love interests (or possibly more if you’re writing a poly or ‘why choose’ style romance, but adjust to add your own flavor, of course), and then there is the relationship itself. Each of these elements has its own arc and, therefore, its own pace. The magic of a great romance happens when all of them work in tandem together.
Romance books need to have ups and downs, slow moments and fast moments, and they all need to marry together as love finds its way into the hearts of your characters. Unlike a thriller—where the story is go, go, go—a romance needs to allow for some breathing room. It needs softer moments as your readers get to know your characters.
With all that in mind, today we’re going to talk about:
- Structure and beats for a romance novel
- Character, conflict, and tension
- General tips for improving pacing
Romance Novel Structure and Beats
Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, your novel will have a structure of some kind. There are lots of different types of structure you can use to plot your novel, many of which you can explore in this link. Below, I’m going to break down a general structure used for a lot of romance novels.
Romance Novel Beats
We’ll do a quick breakdown of the romance novel beats here, but for a more in-depth look at using these beats, have a look here.
- Introduce H(ero)1: This is the introduction of your main character. Even in dual-POV books, there’s still usually one leading character, so give some thought to who that is. Often, it’s the one that sees the bigger growth arc in the story.
- Introduce H(ero)2: This is your love interest. Whether you’re writing a single or dual POV novel, this character will also have an arc, though it might not be quite as wide as your main character.
- Meet Cute: This is a romance term you’ve probably heard before. It’s the moment where your couple meets, often in a humorous or unusual way. If they already know one another then the meet cute is that moment when the relationship starts to shift. To ensure your book is engaging and well paced, make sure this meet cute stands out and is interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention.
- The No Way: For a romance to have good tension and therefore strong pacing, there needs to be a really good reason your love birds can’t or won’t be together. It might be external factors or it might be due to their own personal beliefs or demons, but whatever it is, something is keeping them apart. And it can’t be something that’s easily resolved with a rational conversation. That’s just annoying and doesn’t make for good pacing.
- The Midpoint/Raising the Stakes: This is when things start getting tense. Usually, something happens to bring your characters together, maybe kicking and screaming while it does. Whatever it is, the stakes are rising and the tension is increasing.
- The Really No Way: Remember when they couldn’t be together? That hasn’t resolved itself yet. Now that pesky whatever it is rears its ugly head yet again.
- Second Turning Point: To raise the tension and keep that pacing on point, we raise the stakes yet again. And this time, it’s big. Life altering. Relationship ruining. Forces personal growth or a change in attitude.
- Dark Night of the Soul/Crisis Point: This is a common plotting term as well and refers to the lowest of the low points for your sad little characters.
- Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN): The ending of your novel. When all issues are resolved. When hearts have been saved. When everyone kisses and rides into the sunset. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—your romance novel must have a happy ending or it’s not a romance novel. Full stop. If you don’t have one, that’s okay—then you’ve written something else, another genre of book that happens to have a subplot that includes a romantic relationship.
Conflict and Character
Now that you’ve seen the overall structure of a romance novel, let’s talk about two important components that no good romance can do without.
Conflict is the lifeblood of any story. Without some type of conflict, you don’t have a story to tell.
If life is all tickety boo and there are no challenges facing your characters, then why are you telling their story? It’s going to be a little boring just reading about characters who don’t have much going on.
Just don’t confuse “conflict” with action. You could stuff your pages full of car chases and knife fights, but that doesn’t mean there’s tension or conflict. Conflict is about something that’s personal to your characters. Something they need to overcome to achieve their heart’s desire. And it can’t be something easily overcome—they need to suffer or struggle a little (or a lot) to get there.
Conflict can come from external sources—office rivals who are competing for the same job promotion—or from external sources—your main character doesn’t believe in love after watching her parent’s own marriage fall apart. In most cases, you’ll likely have a little of both. To read more about conflict and how to use it in your story, click here.
To write a great romance book, you need fully developed characters. No one will care if these two characters find love and a happily ever after if they aren’t invested in the characters themselves. So how do you create well-rounded characters?
- Goals and motivations: Good characters want something and that something is intrinsic to their happiness. The problem is something is standing in their way. Strong characters are propelled through a need to achieve those goals. And as we mentioned above in the conflict section, those goals need to be difficult to achieve or your story will lack tension and suffer from slow pacing.
- Backstory: Strong characters all have some kind of backstory. You don’t have to write out their entire life history, but you should have a few past events or experiences that helped shape who they are today. Those traumas and hangs ups should be part of their goals and motivations. Either they’re part of what they’re striving for or they’re part of what’s getting in their way.
- Character arc: Compelling characters grow and change. While you can have negative arcs, the majority of romance novel characters focus on having a positive arc. That is, they overcome their personal biases or the long held beliefs that are standing in the way of their happiness. Think about how they move from maybe a grumpy loner who wants to be left alone to a more open and curious person who’s willing to let their guard down for the right person.
- Flaws: Perfect characters are boring. Perfect characters who can do no wrong don’t compel readers to root for them. So give your characters some flaws. Make them brash or a little too impulsive. Make them incapable of trust. Make them blind to the flaws of others. Do this part right and these flaws will also tie into the backstory you’ve created and the conflicts you’ve created for your characters. You see how that all comes full circle?
We could write an entire dissertation on what makes for great characters and, lucky for you, we actually have. If you want to dive deeper into creating believable characters with depth, check out a few of these resources:
General Tips for Improving Pacing
With all that said, here are a few more tips you can use to ensure the pacing of your romance novel is just right.
- Break down your story’s structure: If you’re a plotter, you can do this before you start writing, but look at each scene and decide if it’s a “high” moment, a “low” moment, or something in between. Also mark if it’s “fast”, “medium”, or “slow” (hint: you can label and color-code scenes in Dabble). In a romance novel, you want a balance of all of these. High and fast moments need to be broken up with slower and low moments to give your readers and your characters some room to breathe.
- Use sentence length to alter pacing: A lot of short, snappy sentences makes for faster pacing, versus longer ones which slow the pacing down. Consider what’s right for the scene and moment you’re writing and alter accordingly.
- Give weight to weighty moments: Similarly, expand on description, internal thoughts, and action during pivotal moments in the story. In a romance, the first kiss is arguably one of the most important and most anticipated parts of a book. Give it the time and attention it deserves. Nothing is worse than reading a slow burn romance only to have the first kiss rushed through, leaving the reader wondering, “Wait, that’s it?”
- Overwriting: On the flip side, be mindful of extraneous words or phrases that really aren’t serving any purpose. Nothing bogs down your pacing like too many words.
- Nothing is happening: Make sure every scene has a purpose. Even if it’s a slice of life moment simply showing your characters in an everyday setting, it should have a reason for being there. Maybe it’s revealing a character trait that will come into play later. Maybe it’s showing your love birds learning to trust each other. Sometimes you have to be ruthless with this and accept that a scene you love just isn’t serving a purpose. I know. We’ve all been there, and it hurts. Slice that baby out. Your story will be better for it.
- Too much backstory or character detail: I mentioned creating deep characters and giving them backstories above, which you should do, but be careful not to load your reader up on too many of these details. Feed them slowly, here and there, and only when they are directly related to your plot, the conflict, or your character's goals and motivations.
Making use of the above tips and structure should help you write a well-paced romance novel with just enough tension to keep your readers turning the pages.
To make things even easier, you can make use of Dabble’s Plot Grid to help break down your story and ensure that you’ve got just the right combination of high and low scenes, and fast and slow ones. If you’re a plotter, use it to help craft that ideal outline. If you’re a pantser, make use of it after you’ve done your first draft to help see where you might need to add, move, or take out a scene.
Try it yourself and see if it’s right for you. We’re offering a free 14-day trial of all of Dabble’s features so you can see how it will help you write your best book.
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