In 2015, I decided to stop being a bad writer. I was working as a UI/UX Designer at a soulless corporation and hating every minute of it. Desperate, I sought a way out, and this led me to focus on my first and truest passion: fiction writing.
The problem was, up until then, I’d failed to write anything longer than a ten-page short story. I’d always wanted to write a novel, but despite having learned about the three-act structure and classic plot points (introduction, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution) in school, I didn’t have a grip on how to build my own stories. With the short stories I’d written so far, I’d mainly worked on instinct, including scenes and events that felt “right.”
This didn’t work for a novel. I started and stalled several times.
The other problem was that the only types of writing I knew about were literary fiction and mainstream fiction, and my passion for these genres was not strong enough to keep me motivated while I got through the hard parts of learning story craft. Thankfully, when I researched publishing, I discovered ebooks and subsequently the romance genre.
Before this, when I’d thought of romance, I’d pictured classic Harlequin covers—the kind you find on paperbacks in the grocery store. But digital publishing has widened the genre into hundreds of subgenres, one of which is horror romance.
Horror romance begins with a classic romance structure.
When I set out to write romance, I thought it would be easier than a traditional literary story. Romance was fun! It dealt primarily in feelings, and I didn’t have to include very many characters—mainly just the two (hero and heroine, or, as is my preference, hero and hero or heroine and heroine). I soon learned, however, that romance is more complicated than a traditional literary story because it has two plots: the external plot and romance plot. With two plots comes, at minimum, two antagonists.
Every story has an external and internal plot. External plot is what happens outside of the main character’s head, and internal plot is what happens inside his head—usually as a result of what happens in the external plot. It took me a long time to get a handle on this concept, so let me state it another way.
The character’s backstory (what’s happened to the character before the story starts) affects his internal thoughts, beliefs, and motivations, which affect his choices, which affect the external plot’s events, which cause his reactions, which affect his choices, and so on until the external plot’s events culminate in a high point of tension (the climax).
A romance has all of this, but it also has one more complete plot—the romance part of the story, which has its own set of external and internal events. The part of this that really threw me for a loop was that the two main characters are each other’s antagonists.
Most people associate antagonists with evil. In a simple story, one main protagonist comes into conflict with one main antagonist. But in a romance story, two protagonists who are in conflict with each other come into conflict with at least one external antagonist.
An important note: One nonnegotiable convention of the romance genre is that it must have a happy ending, known within the genre as Happily Ever After, or HEA, and Happy For Now, or HFN.
These terms are for the resolution of the romance plot, wherein the protagonists MUST work out all of the conflict in their romantic relationship and make a commitment to stay with each other. In an HEA, this commitment is implied to be forever, while in an HFN, the commitment is implied to be in place for the time being. This can be very subjective, but as an example, an HEA couple might decide to buy a house together or get married, and an HFN couple might simply exchange I-love-yous and be on good terms at the end of the story.
A romance is never just a romance.
Unlike other commercial genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, a romance is always a combination of two genres. These genres match up to the external plot and romance plot that make up the story. The romance plot with its HEA or HFN makes it a romance, and whatever genre the external plot conforms to denotes its subgenre.
Here are some examples of popular romance subgenres:
- Romantic Suspense (Romance + Thriller)
- Contemporary Romance (Romance + Contemporary Fiction)
- Paranormal Romance (Romance + Fantasy, usually Urban Fantasy)
- Historical Romance (Romance + Historical Fiction)
- Sci-Fi Romance (Romance + Science Fiction)
There are many more subgenres of romance, with some tropes (plot conventions) becoming so popular that they get their own subgenres. (An example of this is Military Romance, which has its own category on Amazon.) But the subgenre I’ll be focusing on in the rest of my posts is horror romance (romance + horror).
I hope you enjoyed this overview of romance story structure, and I can’t wait to delve into the nuances of horror romance starting with my next post.