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Tips and Strategies for Creating the Setting and Plot of Your Romance Novel
Plot and Setting in Romance Writing

In the world of fiction, plot is everything. The best hero in the world will flounder without a conflict to battle, and the sexiest heroine in the world will get bored if her hero doesn't notice her, no matter how many times she offers a flirty pout. In short, your characters need something to do.

The requirements of every romance novel dictate that the plot must contain a love interest, a conflict, a resolution, and an optimistic ending. But what you put in those categories is entirely up to you.


In this article, you will learn about romance plot development.

ü What are the components of a plot?

ü How does the romance genre differ from traditional stories?

ü How do I go about developing my plot?

ü What are the more common plot devices in romance?

The Traditional Plot

Every introduction to writing class in every high school and every college in the world provides the same basic structure for works of fiction. While some of the literary greats have been able to step outside the standard plot structure, romantic fiction never does. Readers, agents, and publishers alike have all come to expect the same five steps to great plot: the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. In the romance genre, these can be broken down into: boy meets girl, boy interacts with girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Exposition (Boy Meets Girl)

Officially speaking, this is the beginning of the story. It's where you explain what's going on, who the characters are, and what the setting is. It is the framework for everything that occurs.

However, good romance novels don't start with three chapters of explanation before the action starts. Most writers start somewhere where the tension is high and then backtrack a little to the exposition, where they explain about the characters' pasts. Others insert a prologue that gives a little exposition before the real excitement starts. This is known in the romance genre as the "back story."

Rising Action (Boy Interacts With Girl)

The rising action makes up the bulk of a romance novel. It contains all the tension that builds up as the hero and heroine explore their relationship, whether they do it with obvious affection or by constantly battling wits.

Above all else, the rising action puts all the pieces of the plot out there in the open for the reader to put together, much like getting ready to do a puzzle or setting up a chessboard. Most of the characters will be introduced and placed where they need to be to help the hero and heroine as they move through their journey to love.

Some writers like to place everything in a linear fashion in the rising action, while others build up a mystery to be solved later. It all depends on preference and writing style.

Climax (Boy Loses Girl)

In romance novels, love should never be easy. Misunderstandings, external obstacles, emotional obstacles, the hands of fate, or a villain always get in the way. Sometimes, several of these get in the way all at once.

The climax is where there is a shift in the relationship between the hero and heroine. It is the emotional peak of the story, the point where the reader shouldn't be able to put the book down. Often heart-wrenching, the climax hints that everything might not work out between the hero and heroine (even though everyone knows they get together in the end).

Falling Action (Boy Gets Girl)

The falling action is appropriately named: It's where all the pieces "fall" together. The hero and heroine overcome their differences and begin to see eye-to-eye. Love is no longer a four-letter word, and the villain might be only a step away from being caught and punished. If there needs to be a reconciliation, this is where it occurs.

Denouement (Happily Ever After)

The denouement, or resolution, is where all the loose ends are tied up into one neat package (or, depending on your plans, this is where you leave a few dangling ideas for the sequel or spin-off).

Many writers actually end their story during the falling action, and use an epilogue as their denouement. This allows the writer to move forward in time and hint at the happily ever after in the future, often by discussing children, anniversaries, or a happy scene involving the hero and heroine.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online class in Romance Writing?

Remember, even if you prefer the bittersweet endings, they rarely have a place in mainstream romance. One of the requirements is an optimistic ending. This means that if your characters simply can't get together in the end, you better offer some pretty good consolation prizes.

Getting Started Plotting

Though seeing the entire plot laid out as it is above can be helpful in getting started writing a romance novel, it's important to note that plotting is one of the most difficult parts of crafting a successful novel. If you've ever heard of writer's block, this is why. Developing a plot can be stressful, frustrating, complicated – and incredibly rewarding.

There are two primary ways to go about developing a plot: planning it all out in advance, or building it as you go. Good writers have been known to do both, and there is no single way that works for everyone.

Planning it all out in advance is a good way to hold yourself accountable and make sure you know where everything is headed. It works really well for first-time novelists, because it allows you to see the light at the end of the tunnel, keeping you on track until the very end.

In order to successfully plan your plot, use each of the five plot components from above to create an outline. It's best to use a spreadsheet or document that allows you to jot down notes as they come to you. Although you might start out with the basics (what you need to include in the exposition, what your primary conflict is going to be, how the resolution will be found), you'll probably find that you come up with great ideas for subplots or twists when you least expect them.

Plot Tip: Many writers actually start carrying a notebook wherever they go in order to jot down any plot details that come up during normal daily activities. Telling yourself that you'll remember it later doesn't always work. Get it down while the idea is fresh.

Even if you do plan the plot in advance, you don't have to have all the details figured out in the beginning; in fact, you may find that your characters tend to take on a life of their own, carrying you to places you didn't know you were headed. Having the general outline in place simply helps you to reign yourself back into the story when you find yourself going off on tangents that aren't necessarily related to the story as a whole.

Building as you go works well for writers who have a great hero or heroine, but no real idea what they will do to get together in the end. Most new writers are amazed at how self-directing characters can become. Oftentimes, it's best just to place a character in a challenging situation and let him or her work it all out. This usually leads to other challenges and other situations. Enough of these, and you've got a book.

The biggest problem with this type of writing is the lack of overall direction. A heroine who goes on an impromptu road trip to Iowa might be a pleasant surprise for you, but it's not going to help if the hero is still at home in Texas. As long as you remember that you need to be building a story and moving toward a climax, you should be all right. No one's first draft is perfect, and you can always go back and cut out or rewrite irrelevant portions later.

Romance Plot Devices

Romance novels, like soap operas, get a pretty bad reputation for reusing the same, stale plots over and over again. The virgin bride with the hardened rake. The billionaire and the feisty girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The tough cowboy and the sweet prairie girl. Like the ubiquitous Fabio appearing on almost all the romance novel covers in the 1980s and 90s, these plots get recycled, reused, and redefined.

In many cases, this is just fine. Readers know what they want from romance novels, and that often means they want the same kind of story told from a new perspective and in a new voice. Just be careful of using stereotyped characters and stereotyped plots together. At least one component of your story needs to be unique.

Some of the more common romance plots involve:

  • Abducted brides
  • Recovery from a bad relationship (adultery or abuse)
  • Arranged marriages
  • Blackmail, or trying to save a loved one
  • Falling in love with a friend's sibling
  • Love between competitors or enemies
  • Billionaires/millionaires looking for love
  • Falsifying an engagement or marriage for personal gain
  • Going undercover or using a false identity
  • A lord and the woman he is guardian to
  • Marriages of convenience
  • Secret pregnancies
  • Mistaken identities
  • Inter-species love (vampires/humans/werewolves/etc.)
  • Falling in love on the job (especially in crime fiction)
  • Reformed rakes

The Most Important Plot Requirement

No matter what else your plot contains, it needs to be a fluid, believable structure.

Plot "holes," or places where the details and character actions just don't seem to match up, are one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a romance writer. This can be as minor as heroine who seems to have access to unlimited funds without an explanation, or as major as a hero who somehow gets from Washington state to Washington, D.C. in less than an hour.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to spot these small errors as you write. In fact, by the time you're done with your first draft, you may find that some of your characters have changed names several times or appeared in a scene when they are known to be somewhere else. That's why the revision process is so important: It allows you to look at your plot from a distance, so you can find the problems you may have missed before.

Romance Writing: Setting

The setting of a novel is more than just the place your hero and heroine call home. It's the combination of all the details you provide that help give a sense of time, location, and mood. When done correctly, you can actually let your reader know the year and location without ever mentioning them. By weaving in historical (or contemporary) facts, location identifiers, and a realistic sense of dialogue, you can create an entire world that never existed before you put the words on paper.


In this section, you will learn what to do to develop a realistic setting.

ü It's fiction, so how much has to be facts, and how much can be made up?

ü Where are the best resources for research?

ü How do I create my own fictional world?

ü How can I effectively use setting identifiers?

Research: Every Writer's Responsibility

Many romance writers assume research only has a place in historicals. After all, if you're creating a futuristic world no one has ever been to before – or if you're using your own city as a setting – you can get away with just relying on what you already know. Right?


Although historical romances certainly need more research than the other genres, there will come a time and place when you'll need to look something up or verify a fact, no matter what you're writing. Never assume that you have an answer if you are not experienced in the subject. Even a casual reference to a war that ended a year earlier, or a book that may not have been in publication at the time of the novel can damage the sense of setting.

Research is what makes a novel realistic. It's what builds a sense of trust between the writer and the reader -- the sort of trust that turns readers into fans.

When to Research

You probably won't know for certain what you need to research until you get started writing. While reading up on Victorian England before you start writing a historical set in that time is probably a good idea, you might discover in chapter nine that you need to know how far Grosvenor Square is from the harbor. You might not know how important the placement of cutlery is until your hero and heroine get into a spat over it.

This is why most writers take a "research as they go" approach to writing fiction. While you can start out finding information and taking notes on issues you know you'll come across, it's more realistic to simply build in some time for research every day that you write. For example, if you'll be doing a vampire paranormal romance novel, you may need to know the folklore related to the effect of garlic on vampires before you get started, since it may play a big role in the shape your novel takes. However, if you're working with a literature professor who moves to London after World War II, knowing the Poet Laureate of England in 1955 might be the sort of thing you can look up quickly in an encyclopedia or online. These little "bites" of research can be a great way to take a break from a stale plot, or characters who might be driving you crazy.

One great tip is to keep a notebook by your computer for jotting down all the things you need to look up. Then, spend an afternoon doing a little fact finding at your local library, online, or by calling a friend who lives in the same city as your heroine. If you try to research every little thing as it comes up, you might find that you're spending more time delving into hundred-year-old court cases than you are writing.

What to Research

What to research can be a bit trickier than when to research. After all, you're writing fiction and creating a fictional world. Some things really can just be made up specifically for your story.

Only you can determine how much liberty to take with real life and real facts. However, it's important to build a sense of setting by sticking as much as possible to facts that relate to:

  • Historical accuracies: Don't ever get world leaders, wars, or major events wrong. If your book takes place in Afghanistan in 1724, learn what Afghanistan was like in 1724 – including whether or not it would be realistic to put an Englishwoman over there.
  • Dress: It doesn't matter if you're writing historicals or futuristic science fiction; make sure the clothes fit the times (and the weather).
  • Profession: If your heroine is a doctor, you want her to be good at her job. This means knowing the hours, the lingo, the education requirements, and a little something about medicine. This can be really important when the job is related to the plot – as is often the case with characters who work in modern police stations or early American brothels.
  • Possessions: Whether it's the car he drives, the brand of cigarettes she smokes, or the ritzy neighborhood they're going to call home, choosing real-life examples goes a long way in reinforcing your setting. This isn't a requirement, but it can provide a deeper, more realistic setting. If you are including a known item, get it right. Don't mention the hero's BMW if you're going to call it an American car.
  • Dialogue: People before 1950 didn't use terms like "okay" or "awesome." An uneducated hero from the streets of San Jose probably won't stick to perfect grammar. To be really convincing, your dialogue needs to match each character. And it needs to be consistent. Nothing is worse than a Scottish hero who drops his brogue from time to time.
  • Pop culture: Don't give your hero's kids (born in 2002) a love of New Kids on the Block or Pong. It's not realistic. Kids that age would like Hannah Montana and Nintendo DS. You also can't have your Regency-era heroine be a big fan of Emily Dickinson. She wouldn't have heard of her yet.

Using Setting Effectively

The best settings are ones that are obvious without being forced. Long passages of description (two pages devoted to the interior of your intergalactic bar; long, sinister descriptions of a hero's love of the late night San Francisco fog) will do the trick in providing your book with a setting, but few readers are going to stick around long enough to get around to the real meat of your book.

When you're developing setting, it's best to let it flow naturally. It's okay if your readers don't have all the answers until the third, fourth, or even 10th chapter. Good fiction unfolds a story piece by piece, rather than unloading it all up front.

Tips for building effective setting:

  • Intersperse descriptions of the setting with dialogue. That way you're not too heavy on either.
  • Let the characters set the setting through their conversations or their actions.
  • Put it right out there with a location and date at the beginning of the book or chapter.
  • Let your character's clothes or mode of transportation set the scene.
  • Use words that fit the mood. "Ominous, twisting pathways" tells something different than "Slightly scary windings of the road."

Setting is also one of those things that you can go back and add later. If you finish your first draft only to find that you haven't really clarified the year or city, you can make the changes and additions then.

Honoring vs. Plagiarizing

One thing that many romance writers rely on for historical accuracies and research is other romance novels. While this can be a great way to get a feeling for dialogue or for the types of clothing worn during the time, you should never base all your facts on someone else's fictional world.

In many cases, the book you're "honoring" might not be as accurate as you think, and it might be easy to peg you as a lazy researcher. You also might find that other writers don't appreciate your generous "borrowing" of their fabrications without permission.

Remember, reading other romance novels for inspiration is great; reading them for ideas is not.

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