by Madelle Morgan
In this post I describe how I plot romance novels using the screenwriting three act structure, and list my favorite story structure experts.
In case you missed it, read Part 1 on how I develop each main character's internal and external goals, motivation, consequences, and conflict, the novel's theme, and more.
What is Plot?
Plot describes what happens in a story. A plot structure consists of a set of beats (film) or turning points (commercial fiction). These are key events in the story. A beat/turning point is included in a scene, but not every scene has a beat/TP. A scene is written to "hit the beats", keeping the story focused and moving forward.
Scenes are organized into acts. Readers and film viewers are familiar with the beginning/set up, middle and end approach that translates into three acts common to theater, film and fiction. However, depending on the length and type of work (plays, television dramas and situation comedies, film, literary or commercial fiction) a work can have as little as one act or as many as four (or more) acts.
A film screenplay usually is comprised of:
- A story - Main plot
- B story - Subplot
Observe the variety of plot structures in episodic television shows, such as Castle's A story + continuing B story about relationships or Nashville's seamlessly woven multiple plot lines.
Romance novels have two or more plot lines:
- A plot (think A for action)
- Romance plot, and
- (usually but not necessarily) Subplot or Subplots, depending on the length.
Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder, Michael Hague...
The craft books and videos by these iconic teachers of plot structure for commercial fiction and film are excellent resources in an author's search for a story structure that works best for the type and length of story she writes.
For example, a writer of action/adventure, romantic suspense, sci fi, or fantasy may gravitate to mythic structure which is founded in thousands of years of storytelling.
Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is adapted from Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. Read this outline of Chris Volger's key plot points in a screenplay and you'll recognize corresponding scenes in fan-favorite quest movie franchises such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Authors of contemporary romance and romantic comedy may prefer to adapt the late Blake Snyder or Michael Hague's structures, or other variations used by screenwriters. I also recommend James Scott Bell's Write Your Novel From the Middle.
I've studied the above masters' structures and developed a mash-up for my short contemporary romances.
Plot Beats for Caught on Camera
The A plot deals with the heroine's pursuit of her external goal to become a Hollywood camera operator.
The Romance has a separate, parallel plot line, with beats for first meet, first kiss, first touch, first romantic interlude, etc.
Below are the beats I used for Caught on Camera's A Plot . Remember from Part 1 that this is the heroine's story.
- Ordinary World: A brief scene that establishes who the heroine is, what she does, where she lives, and, most importantly, what her external goal is.
- Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure: In this scene something happens that shakes up the heroine's world.
- Decision/Crossing the Threshold: The heroine decides to go for it. Her life will never be the same.
- Fun & Games (obstacles create conflict)
- Turning Point (things go in an unexpected direction)
- Midpoint/Look in the Mirror Moment
- Worst Fear Happens
- Black Moment/All is Lost (goal seems unattainable)
- Dark Night of the Soul (what does she do now?)
- Decision/Shift into Essence (she becomes her authentic self)
- Resolution ...and she has a new goal, living in her New World.