Linear Structure and the Relationship Plot

Mech Heart HiRes copy 2

Romantic relationships often (but not always) follow a linear path based on connections that grow stronger as the lovers find out more about each other, including how they behave under the pressures of the life or, in the case of story, under the pressures of the plot.

Below is a vastly simplified outline of the stages many people pass through as they fall in love (with a big thank you to Millie the Model comics):

Millie's Guide

Warning: Although those four stages would seem to fit neatly into a four act structure, the progress of the relationship won’t always follow the progress of the plot. For example, two people who were in a relationship once before and broke it off because the conditions were no longer met (fell out of infatuation), might meet again, older and wiser, find themselves falling back into the same infatuation, and this time be able to mature into commitment; in that case, the first act would start at rekindling the infatuation. Or your lovers may go through the first three stages in the first two acts, and then find that the stresses of the last two acts move them into mature love. Or they may move through all four stages in the first act and spend the rest of the novel battling zombies together to cement their commitment.

The real benefit of analyzing your love story using these stages is that you can check to make sure you’re showing the reader how they got to their Happily Ever After by showing her why they are attracted to each other, how knowing more about each other leads to them attaching, how learning even more about each other as they battle their way through their conflict leads to them falling in love, and how that immature love evolves into mature love.

Min and Cal go to dinner annoyed with each other, so their conversation is honest and they find they like each other.
They talk and it’s great. They meet each other’s friends and family and it’s (mostly) great.  They kiss and it’s great.  Basically, it’s great.
They fall for each other. Cal talks Min into serious dating, and they begin to cautiously explore a future together.
Commitment: After a fight in which they both violate each other’s conditions, they come back together with no conditions because they need each other because they love each other (mature love).

It takes time to get to mature love, anywhere from six months to three years. Most novels don’t last that long, so the key is to foreshadow unconditional love by testing the infatuation through the story conflict. The test can’t be a stupid mistaken assumption, it has to be real, and it has to evoke those deal-breaker conditions that will foreshadow a life-long relationship.

An important thing to remember in writing love is that the physical is only part of the equation; if your story concentrates on that and doesn’t show how and why the relationship grows emotionally and psychologically, you’re writing erotica, not romance.  (That’s good, too, it’s just not romance.)

For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents.

16 thoughts on “Linear Structure and the Relationship Plot

  1. I always have difficulty with the RWA requirement for romance. That is, there must be a happily ever after. The time span for some of my books has been a week or two, and while the reader likes the thought of a commitment at the end, I know it’s way too early. But I do it anyway. It seems easier to believe in romantic suspense where they work together against the big bad and rely on each other when in awful situations, near death, etc. In straight contemporary, I really have to work at it, so thank you, this comes at a good time as I’m at the 50% mark of a rough draft contemporary.

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      • Yes. The idea behind this blog is that all of these posts are the introductions to chapters or sections that have full essays discussing the ideas in depth, more diagrams, long examples drawn from books, movies, and TV, and exercises or worksheets, trying to hit all the different ways people absorb information.

        So, for example, this chapter would go into a lot more detail about structuring a romance. There’d be an essay on the physical progression of a romance. An essay on how to use the same idea to build friendships. An analysis of how the progression works in Moonstruck or Harry Met Sally or whatever. A step-by-step worksheet for analyzing the progression of the romance in the your novel.

        But first I need to write dozens of intros so I can get the shape of the book in my head. It’s gonna take awhile.


  2. Fun art–can you use it in your book too?

    Never heard of Millie before. Probably it says something about me that at first glance, I thought it was Archie & Betty from the Archie comics. Was thinking, so after all the years pass, Archie ends up with Betty and not Veronica after all.

    Which got me thinking about love triangles–also common in romances. Since your posts have been so good so far, I’m hoping you’ll tackle writing good love triangles, too. Know you’ll have some fab insights. Plus, can’t wait to see the art:)


      • No, that’s Millie and her boyfriend, Flicker (who was a originally a photographer named Clicker). I just went to check and found out that Millie’s part of the Marvel universe, actually fighting against Madame Masque with Sue Storm. I’m assuming she hit her with a mascara since her super power is her beauty. Well, it was something.

        And there was this:
        “She was one of Marvel’s working class female characters of the era, such as Tessie the Typist, Sherry the Showgirl and Nellie the Nurse.”

        Now I must find all of these. Millie lasted 27 years, which is damn good.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. So, it seems like the best spot for serious conflict is in between phases 3 & 4 (infatuation and commitment), particularly in a straight contemporary romance. This is where I tend to flounder and have to fight the urge to stick in overt external motivation to fast-forward the relationship. (“Oh, look, an explosion! Also, I love you.”) Deriving the conflict from the weaknesses of the relationship itself and making it surmountable, yet plausible, is the biggest challenge for me. Breaking down the relationship in my current MS to these four phases might help me identify why. Thanks for the great post!


    • You know, the conflict can go anywhere. It can start on the first meet when they realize they’re on opposite sides of an issue, but other attractors pull them together anyway.
      It always depends on the particular characters and the particular relationship.
      For Couple A, the fact that her parents disapprove of him is a huge obstacle.
      For Couple B, the fact that her parents disapprove of him makes her want him more.

      Stress is a known fast-forward for falling into infatuation; it’s the adrenalin surge. So you’re not wrong. You just need to tie it to character. Does she want to be rescued? Does she value a partner who will treat her as an equal partner and not stop to rescue her, assuming she can rescue herself? There are so many variables that you really just have to look at each individual character and relationship.

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  4. The step from infatuation to commitment, from conditional to unconditional is the most important, and I never thought of it before. I have to apply it to my developing romance. Maybe, it’ll finally work. You post is marvelously timely. Thanks.


  5. Jenny, is there room to give an example in the troubleshooting section? Then again, you’re probably going to expand on it in a later chapter. This to me is the most critical point and what takes me the longest to work out in a story–making it totally believable that they’d break up.


    • There really isn’t. The point of these is to nail the main concept. If I expand them too much more, the main idea gets lost in the extra stuff.
      But yes, I’ll need to expand on all of this.


    • But love and need go hand in hand. That is, people in love feel the need to be with each other. In immature love, the need is conditional: “I’m with you because of what you can give me.” In mature love, the need is unconditional: “I’m with you because I need to be with you regardless of what you give me.” So while love and need are definitely not the same things, one leads naturally to the other. The key to the future of that love is why the lover needs the other.


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