Romance Novel Beat Sheet: Your Guide to Hitting All the Right Notes
If you’re writing a romance novel, remember they play by their own set of rules. A romance novel not only has a plot arc, it also has the romance arc itself (which is usually more important than the plot), and the arcs of any and all characters involved directly in said romance.
Today we’re going to look at story beats to help craft your romance novel. Beats are specific points of significance that occur in stories that a) help keep the tension up and b) help drive the story forward. They can also be extremely useful in helping you map out your story before you dive into your first draft.
Plotters and Pantsers
If you’re a plotter, this probably sounds like music to your ears and you’re already drafting that five-figure word outline in your head. You aren’t my people, but I’m happy for you.
If you’re a pantser, you might be tempted to close this page, but wait a moment! Hear me out! As a self-proclaimed pantser myself, I’m here to tell you that, while you might not be interested in this prior to your first draft, what you can do is go ahead and write that wild manuscript then go back and use these beats when you’re done to ensure your story is meeting them. Some people call this reverse outlining, and it can be extremely effective.
So let’s get into it.
Romance Novel Beats and The Hating Game
We’re going to use The Hating Game by Sally Thorne for this one because it’s my all-time favorite romance novel (and happens to also be a movie, so I can very handily borrow some photos from it). It can be yours too if you haven’t read it yet. Just trust me.
This is where we meet your main character. Even if you’re writing a dual-POV novel, you’re going to have one character that has that “main character energy.” If you’re writing a traditional M/F (male/female) romance, this is often the female character. But it doesn’t have to be and obviously it’s different if you’re writing an M/M (male/male) or F/F (female/female) romance. If you’re writing a poly relationship that features three or more people, you’ll still likely have that one person around whom the romance circles.
Start by establishing this H1 character in their ‘normal.’ What does their everyday life look like? Of course, within that normal, there is going to be something missing from their lives. Something that is off. Something that drives your plot forward, whether it’s a lack of romance, a professional goal, or a general ennui.
In The Hating Game, we meet Lucy Hale, who works for a publishing company in New York. Recently, they’ve merged with another publisher whose approach to books is fundamentally different. The two companies clash, the two teams don’t get along, and basically her professional life is in the pits. Oh, and her only friend, who lost her job in the merger, blames Lucy for it, leaving this single woman spending her evenings alone in her apartment, video chatting with her parents and collecting Smurf miniatures to fill the void in her life.
Now we meet the love interest. Who is this person and what do they want? If you’re writing a single POV novel from the H1’s POV, this character’s development might not get as much attention, however don’t forget that this character needs an arc, too. If you’re writing dual POV, the love interest’s arc is often even more in-depth.
Picking up where we left off in The Hating Game, the merger with the other publisher brings Josh Templeman into Lucy’s life. They share an office. Their desks face each other. And they can’t stand each other. Josh is regarded as a cold, unfeeling bastard by much of the staff and he has trouble with relationships. His most recent relationship went down in flames and now he thinks he’s undateable. (Note that much of his internal struggle isn’t revealed until much later in the story. At the outset, all we see is a guy who doesn’t really seem to care what anyone thinks of him.)
The ‘meet cute’ is a common term you’ll hear in romance writing which refers to the moment that your love interests meet, often in an awkward or humorous circumstance. If you’re writing a story where they already know one another, then the meet cute is that moment when things in the relationship start to shift.
It can be a big moment, like they’re suddenly forced to work on a project together or they end up having to share a hotel room and there’s only one bed, or it can be more subtle when the parties in question start to wake up to their repressed or not-so-repressed feelings.
In The Hating Game, the meet cute is a more subtle transition for our two lovebirds. They already spend every day together, but the tone of the banter changes. Told from Lucy’s point of view, her thoughts acknowledge that she doesn’t find Josh bad looking, while their conversation starts devolving into talk of flirting and dating. We also discover she’s mildly obsessed with him, noting the exact color of shirt he wears every day of the week. She also starts having dreams about him of the less-than-PG variety. The tension is building (and oh, what good tension it is). Then an errant kiss in an elevator is the catalyst that changes everything for these two.
The No Way
For a romance arc to really hit, there has to be a very good reason these two people cannot be together (at least in their minds). This might be a difference of personalities, something physical like living on other sides of the world, or could even be your good, old-fashioned forbidden love.
In The Hating Game, we’ve got one of the most popular romance tropes at play: enemies to lovers. They can’t stand each other. They argue. They bicker. They even play little pranks on each other. She thinks he’s uptight and stuffy, and he thinks she’s flighty and doesn’t take her seriously. (Of course, we all know that deep down it’s because they’re actually meant to be, but they don’t know that yet.)
They’re going to fight this ‘thing’ they’re both feeling with everything they have. At least outwardly. Eventually, we find out that Josh has also been pining for Lucy all along and the ‘he loved her the whole time’ is another trope that just grabs you by the heart and stomps on it. Amirite?
The Turning Point
This typically closes out Act 1 or the Set Up. This is a moment that raises the stakes of the game, defining your character’s motivations with more clarity and propelling your narrative forward.
In The Hating Game, this comes in the form of a new job opening at the company where Josh and Lucy work. Both of them are qualified, and whoever gets the job will then be ranked above them at the publisher and become the other one’s boss. Oooooh. Of course, this becomes a fight to the death (or at least the corner office).
The Midpoint/Raising the Stakes
At this point, things are starting to heat up, both metaphorically and physically. During this point, something happens that brings your lovebirds together. Something that says: okay, so maybe this person is more than just my enemy/friend/whatever. There might also be a raising of the sexual tension.
Returning to our example, this point comes when Josh and Lucy end up on the same team during a staff paintball day, which is supposed to be a corporate bonding exercise between the two opposing workforces. Here we see Josh being extra protective of Lucy, especially when she starts to get sick and vomits all over him. Seriously, what's more romantic than that? Josh takes Lucy to her apartment and tends to her until she’s feeling better. Now, do people who hate each other do that kind of thing?
The Really No Way
Of course, no matter how much they seem destined for one another, they’re going to keep on fighting it. Or something is going to keep standing in their way. After all, nothing in this life worth having is easy, is it?
After Josh nurses Lucy back to health, she thinks their relationship is changing, and it’s getting harder to deny what she feels for him. But then she overhears him talking to their boss about how he plans to beat her out for the promotion they’re both competing for. She believes he’s just been playing her. What was she thinking? This could never work between them, so she pulls back.
The Second Turning Point
Once again, something happens to turn up the stakes even higher, making it seem like your lovebirds are just never going to get a break.
In our example, Lucy agrees to attend Josh’s brother’s wedding, putting them in close quarters (and yes, they have to share a hotel room where there’s only one bed).
The Dark Night of the Soul/The Crisis
You’ll hear this low point referred to in a lot of different ways. Basically, it’s the lowest point for your protagonist when everything seems lost and love is impossible.
During the wedding, Lucy discovers that his brother’s fiancée is Josh’s ex-girlfriend, the only long-term relationship he’s ever had until she left him for his brother. Ouch. Lucy is angry he kept this fact from her. Couple all this with the fact that the interviews for the promotion are just days away and Lucy realizes she either has to get the promotion or she’ll have to quit. She can’t work with Josh as her boss.
Final Resolution and Happy (or Happily) Ever After
This is it. They’ve overcome all obstacles and your happy lovers have finally figured it all out. Cue fireworks (and maybe some wedding bells). You might see the acronyms HEA or HFN bandied about and these stand for, happily ever after or happy for now.
After Josh apologizes for keeping the truth about his ex from her, they admit their feelings for one another and realize what they’ve known all along. To make matters even better, Josh has been looking for another job and has already handed in his resignation, meaning Lucy gets the promotion and they don’t have to worry about their professional lives interfering with their personal one. Kiss, kiss. Hallelujah!
Make no mistake, your romance novel MUST have a happy ending. There is no wiggle room here. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a romance novel. It’s some other genre of book that happens to have a romance subplot. You aren’t being clever or subverting anything by giving them a sad ending. Don’t do it. All you’re going to do is ensure yourself a bunch of one-star reviews from angry romance readers.
A word on polyamory romances
While many people associate romance books with two people, the world is a big and exciting place and there are legions of authors out there writing and reading romances that feature three, four, five, or more people who are involved in a relationship.
The method for plotting these is similar in that you’re still going to introduce your H1 and H2, but then also potentially your H3, H4 etc. They still need a meet cute somehow. They still need to have a ‘no way’ moment. They still experience turning points, the highs and lows, and the crisis mode. The added challenge comes in giving each of these lovers their own arcs.
To plot for this, you can create multiple beat sheets for each character and include their main points, noting where they converge with each other and where they diverge. Adding more people to the mix definitely adds a challenge, but it also gives you lots of opportunity to explore different dynamics between different characters and their personalities. If you’re interested in trying this, I always recommend reading numerous books that use these tropes to get a feel for how the writer handles them.
Romance Novel Beat Sheet
After all my rambling, here’s what you probably came here looking for. Use the template below to get started on plotting your romance novel. If you want some more tips on writing romance, you can take a look at this article, as well.
You can also download a PDF version of the sheet above.
Copy and Past Romance Beat Sheet for Dabble Notes
And while you’re at it, Dabble makes it super easy to keep track of all those amazing ideas through the use of their Plotting Tool. You can recreate your beat sheet right inside the program and then use it when you start writing your novel. It’ll make sticking to those beats extra easy, ensuring you’ve got a tension-filled romance that will leave your readers swooning. You can even just copy and paste what I've given you below.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is their love interest?
How do they meet or how does their relationship shift into a potentially romantic one?
The No Way
What's going to keep these lovebirds apart?
What's the point where there's no turning back from this?
Raising the Stakes
How are you going to make them sweat? What can you do to increase the tension?
Really No Way
How are they going to continue to fight this?
Turning Point II
Let's raise the stakes one more time.
Everything is lost. Your lovebirds just couldn't be sadder right now.
HEA or HFN
They've figured it out and everyone lives happily ever after (or for now)!
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