Secrets of the Love Genre: How to Write a Great Romance

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Do you want to write a story in the top selling genre of all time? Want to innovate on a classic story that almost everyone can relate to? Want to break your reader’s heart or fill it with joy? Both? If so, let’s explore the Love Genre where attraction and love just might clash with indifference, repulsion, and even hate.

Love Genre: How to Write a Great Romance

In this post, we’ll review what you need to know to create and edit a Love story that will meet or exceed your audience’s expectations. We’ll do this by focusing on the building blocks of the genre.

Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s categorization of genres first? A refresher is here. They aren’t the same as categories found on Amazon or in your local bookstores and libraries.

What exactly is the Love Genre?

It’s not just a romance. The Love Genre encompasses a number of different story types and we’ll look at each one.

The Love story is an arch-plot (single protagonist) or mini-plot (character ensemble) external genre.

Shawn Coyne describes the genre as “centered on romance with the possibility of sexual intimacy.”

Editor Tip: This means the Love Genre does not include the bromance or familial love stories. The bromance is usually secondary to a Crime or Action story. The familial love stories are often found in Performance, Society, and the internal genres. But you can find bromance and familial love stories in any of the other genres, even secondary to a Love story.

According to Coyne, “Love stories give us prescriptive (positive) and cautionary (negative) tales to navigate love’s emotional minefield. They give us tools to try out to attract a mate and behaviors to avoid.”

What’s the Global Value at stake in a Love Genre?

The Global Value at stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s the primary arc you’ll keep your protagonist moving along throughout your story. There are no exceptions to this guideline. It’s the heart of what makes a story a story.

Love Genre Value Spectrum

The global values of the Love story slide between hate masquerading as love and intimacy. Your protagonist need not experience each of these values but should progress from one value to another in a logical sequence, ending somewhere along the spectrum other than where they began.

Unlike most other genres, conflict in a Love story must be expressed on three different levels:

External Conflict

External Conflict arises from social and/or environmental pressures. The protagonist is motivated by the expectations and limitations of a group of others. This can be family or other community members enforcing larger problems such as classism, racism, nationalism, religious prejudice, homophobia, etc. But external conflict can also be job related deadlines, team performance expectations, courtroom drama, and the like.

Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal Conflict is primarily between the lovers. The antagonist of a Love story can be one of the lovers, a rival, or a character who represents the external conflict.

Internal Conflict

Internal Conflict is a war within the protagonist. This often follows a Worldview trajectory and culminates in a shift in thinking which allows the protagonist to change in order to earn the love of another.

Editor Tip: Story Grid Editors recommend you choose an internal genre for each of your lovers. You can read more about the Status, Worldview, and Morality stories on this site.

As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Love story arises from the need for the obvious– love. The Love protagonist’s primary goal (want) might be to obtain a lover or avoid love all together. Their want could be related to something that seems entirely unrelated to love such as getting a promotion (Status), training for the big game (Performance), solving a mystery (Crime), etc. But their ultimate need in this story is gaining or maintaining romantic love.

What’s the Core Emotion in the Love Genre?

The core emotion is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.

In a Love story, the core emotion is Romance. Readers want to experience the excitement and mystery associated with love without the real-life risks involved.

What’s the Controlling Idea in the Love Genre?

The controlling idea of a story is the “lesson” your reader comes away with, the meaning they apply to your story. Also called a theme, it’s the single sentence summing up the argument your story attempts to prove through narrative.

It’s made up of the big value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change. Each of the main content genres has a generic pair of controlling ideas, one for the positive outcome and one for the negative. (For everything about controlling ideas, see Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway on this site.)

If your story is positive, your controlling idea might look something like this:

Love triumphs when lovers evolve beyond desire and overcome moral failings.


Love triumphs when lovers sacrifice their needs for one another.

If your story is negative, your controlling idea might look something like this:

Love fails when the lovers don’t overcome moral failings and evolve beyond desire.


Love fails when lovers don’t sacrifice for one another.

Editor Tip: Here, you see why an internal genre arc for at least your protagonist is important. Gaining the love of the other character is dependent on the internal genre value shift (sacrifice and emotional growth).

What are the Obligatory Scenes?

According to Coyne, Obligatory Scenes are “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out a scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.

Each Love Subgenre has its own obligatory scenes, but here is what they all seem to have in common:

The lovers must meet.

This one is obvious, right? In a romantic comedy this is the meet-cute scene. In a marriage story this will likely be off the page (spare us the flashback unless absolutely needed to move your story forward).

The inciting incident of the story is a shock (negative or positive) that upsets the homeostasis of the protagonist and disrupts their ordinary life. This could be meeting the new lover for the first time, discovering a spouse is cheating, or both lovers being called to a new adventure that will force them to adapt their relationship.

At least one of the lovers denies the responsibility to respond to love and/or the antagonistic force, creating conflict for the characters.

Editor Tip: Lajos Egri writes, in The Art of Dramatic Writing, that the other lover (the non-protagonist) acts as a kind of minor antagonist to the protagonist. Basically, this equates to the primary lover trying to deny the attraction or keep away from the more assertive lover.

The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver antagonistic force or character fails.

There is a confession of love by one or both lovers. Usually, one lover confesses love too soon and creates an obstacle in the relationship. This is often the turning point complication of the story or integrated into the climax.

The lovers experience a first kiss or intimate connection together. This could be the first time they hold hands or when a married couple finally makes progress toward emotional intimacy. This is the scene when the truth of their feelings first becomes known to the other, perhaps even to themselves.

The lovers break-up or are forced to separate. A story is only a story if there is conflict which forces change in one or both of the lovers. They must learn the hard way and survive a break-up, or fail.

The all-is-lost moment is usually the break-up or a scene that shortly follows the break up where the lovers are miserable without one another and certain they will not reunite. Though the all-is-lost could also be the scene where at least one lover finally realizes that they must end the relationship (common in Marriage stories).

Editor Tip: The duration of the break-up must serve your story. If they will be apart for a long time, make sure that time is spent well. If not, consider shortening the duration. Unless your story has an epic quality (Brokeback Mountain, Bridges of Madison County, Restraint, The Thornbirds), a close timeline works best.

The big climactic event of the Love story is the proof of love scene where one lover sacrifices for the other without any expectation of receiving something in return.

Editor Tip: Notice how the climactic event ties directly to the controlling idea? Once you know your climactic event in your story, it will point you directly to your genre. Already know your genre? Then it points you right to your controlling idea and climactic event.

The lovers reunite after the break-up or a forced separation. Unless you’re writing parody, the reunion carries residue from the break-up and requires conflict before all is well again.

The protagonist is rewarded with at least one level of satisfaction (external, internal or interpersonal) for their sacrifice and/or growth. They gain love or lose it.

Editor Tip: These obligatory scenes don’t have to be individual scenes. You can combine two or three into one scene. Example: The confession of love scene is often combined with the lovers break up scene.

What are the Conventions?

Here’s how Coyne explains Conventions: “They are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused…Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward.”  

Each Love subgenre has its own conventions, but here is what they all seem to have in common:

The story follows a cause and effect trajectory as the protagonist pursues their object of desire from beginning to end. This is every working story, not just in the Love Genre. It is a foundation of storytelling. Even if your story is a dream sequence, supernatural events, or has a fairy tale quality, this holds true.

Editor Tip: It’s important to remember that the protagonist in a love story (courtship, anyway) is usually not the pursuer, but is the object of desire of the other character.

There are secondary characters representing helpers and harmers. There must be characters for and against the relationship. Those in favor of the match help unite the lovers and those opposed to it will do everything to destroy it.

Editor Tip: Consider creating a shapeshifter character who seems to fill one role but is actually filling an opposite.

There must be a triangle of relationships that includes a rival. In courtship stories, the rival is a character who is involved, often romantically, with one of the lovers. The rival could be a personal belief that keeps one lover from accepting the other or prevents them from being available to love. The rival can also be an addiction to work, substances, gambling, sex, etc.

There must be an external need, something outside the romance that is driving the actions of the main characters. See other external genres for ideas. Maybe they have to work together, solve a crime, save a life, win a match, keep a secret, or discover a cure. Something other than love is at stake.

Editor Tip: Make sure you have a foil for your protagonist within the story. This is the character who embodies the ideals and attributes opposite of your character. As in a Status story, this character exists to show the reader the other path your protagonist could have taken. Or, they appear to embody attributes and ideals similar to your protagonist but, ultimately, make different decisions.

There must be forces opposing the lovers’ relationship, often outside the lovers’ control. Explore other genres for ideas. Is it Society? A War? Are they on opposing teams? Are they separated by land or time? Familial obligations? Can you represent these forces with “harmer” characters?

There are secrets. Your story may have only one kind of secret or include all three of the following types of secrets:

1) Secrets the couple keeps from society (they hide their relationship from friends and family).

2) Secrets the couple keeps from one another (a rival, past or present sins, shame).

3) Secrets one of the lovers keeps from themself (a character flaw that prevents intimacy such as narcissism, racism, or the belief that they are unloveable).

***There MIGHT be secrets society keeps from the couple (they discover they’re related, the sacrifice of one lover is concealed from the other lover by harmers, a lover will be killed).

The lovers develop rituals of intimacy such as shared traditions, private language, and inside jokes. This convention is not always present in Obsession Love stories where the action or clock is so fast paced that there just isn’t time or space for these to develop.

Love stories have a moral weight. They suggest those who cannot love have a moral failing. For one to live happily ever after, they must get over the moral failing by story’s end or suffer the consequences.

What are the subgenres of the Love Genre?

Obsession (Desire)

The psychological driver in this story is desire. One of the “lovers” has a shallow but intoxicating passion for the other that leads to clear danger for the “beloved.” These are cautionary tales. They don’t progress beyond the desire value and usually end in tragedy. Examples of this subgenre are The Great Gatsby, Damage, and Last Tango in Paris.

Courtship (Commitment)

The psychological driver in this story is commitment. This story encompasses the romantic rituals one goes through to find a lover. It typically ends in a commitment with the expectation of a “happily ever after” future for the lovers where intimacy assured. The Courtship story is prescriptive. Traditional romances fall in this subgenre. Examples of this subgenre are Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Notebook, and An Affair to Remember.

Marriage (Intimacy)

The Marriage story concerns a committed relationship that certainly had early stages of passion and is now at a crossroads. Something external provokes trust issues and challenges the lovers to recognize, accept, and love the authentic other person rather than the illusion the other displayed during the courtship phase. There is a paradoxical (win-but-lose, lose-but-win) ending. The Marriage Love story may be either prescriptive or cautionary. Examples of this subgenre are War of the Roses, Ordinary People, The Corrections, Private Life, and Blue Valentine.

Forbidden (Desire, Commitment, Intimacy)

In this story type, romantic desire leads both lovers towards emotional and physical intimacy, but official commitment is prevented by society. A happily ever after is impossible despite the lovers’ willingness to commit. Their love is glorious and painful, and they have a win-but-lose ending or a tragic one. Examples of this subgenre are Brokeback Mountain, Restraint, Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere.

Erotic (Desire, Commitment, Intimacy)

The erotic love story must be driven by desire but can encompass both commitment and intimacy. The story is about a character’s sexual journey and how it impacts them as individuals. If the sex scenes were removed from these stories, they wouldn’t work because sex is integral to the arc of the story. A happily ever after is possible but not required. Books focusing on both explicit sex and commitment are often called “erotica” or “romantica” or found in the “black label” lines of romance publishers. Examples of this subgenre are Blue is the Warmest Colour, Fifty Shades of Gray (as a series), and Nine and a Half Weeks.

Again, you can see why the Love Genre doesn’t operate alone. In order to meet the obligatory scenes and conventions of the Love story, at least one of the lovers needs a strong internal genre arc. And, often, the Love story is entwined with a second external genre that is driving most of the action. A couple of great resources for combining Love with other genres are The Units of Story: Subplots and Editors’ Roundtable on Jane Eyre.  

Editor Tip: The journey of a lover is one of change the hard way. Consider taking your protagonist through the stages of the Kubler-Ross change curve.

Kubler-Ross for Story

How Do You Structure a Love Genre story?

Now that we know that stringing together a bunch of kissing and sex won’t build a story, I offer some basic guidelines:

Beginning Hook

Here, you introduce the characters and setting of the story world. You set the plot in motion and create questions in the minds of the audience. You make them want to learn more.

Begin by introducing the protagonist doing something they consider normal (In a Courtship story, we see the single life of the protagonist or their unsatisfying relationship with someone else. In a marriage story, we see the status quo of their relationship.

Editor Tip: Their normal doesn’t have to be what you or I would consider normal. It’s relevant to the protagonist. The goal is to show their baseline, what they will change (or fail to change) from by the end and what it is that the inciting incident disrupts.

Demonstrate their flaw or fear to establish empathy in readers. Before the protagonist is making tough choices, we need to want them to love and have a life worth living.

Demonstrate the protagonist’s want. This can be internal or external. Make the want blatantly clear to encourage empathy. Remember, the want doesn’t have to relate to Love. The need is Love.

Introduce supporting characters as rich and interesting. Include most of the same Hero’s Journey archetypes as in any other external genre story.

Editor Tip: Give them distinctive names, appearances, emotions, and actions. Use description to evoke a sense of their broader culture or background. Don’t create meaningless sidekicks, flawless heroes, or solely evil antagonists. It’s imperative that every character have a clear and supporting role for your lovers and that they operate as believable in the story world.

Grab your audience’s attention with an inciting incident that launches the global story as soon as possible.

Make the stakes clear. What can the protagonist gain or lose? Are there consequences to not securing this particular lover? To not securing love at all?

At first, the protagonist reacts to the inciting incident (negative or positive) with inaction, either because they delay making a decision or because external forces prevent them.

Editor Tip: If the subgenre is Forbidden, the consequences of loving, rather than failing to find love, must be clear from early in the story.

Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s beginning hook will contain your inciting incident (call to adventure) and first progressive complication (refusal of the call). In the Kubler-Ross change curve, your character will experience shock and denial.

Middle Build

Create a scene where the protagonist is forced to act in order to gain Love/Intimacy or avoid it. Actively choosing one launches the middle build.  

The middle build belongs to the antagonist or antagonistic force that is continually putting obstacles in the way of the lovers. You will test the protagonist and their ability to love.

Your goal here is to build tension and increase the stakes for the protagonist. You might answer some questions here but you’ll want to raise even more. The protagonist is confronting increasingly complicated challenges. Demonstrate how they are learning (possibly changing) and setting new goals or failing to do so.

At the midpoint of the story, the protagonist shifts from avoiding the problem (by relying on old patterns of behavior and thinking) to actively attacking the problem (with a new way of viewing the challenge).

Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s middle build will contain the second major progressive complication of your global story (crossing the threshold), the third progressive complication (test, allies, enemies), the turning point complication (the ordeal), and the crisis (apotheosis). In the Kubler-Ross change curve, your character will experience frustration, experimentation with new ideas or behaviors, depression, and the need for decision making.

Editor Tip: You will slowly expose your protagonist to greater and greater Love obstacles due to the bad choices they make (and hate making) to create rising action. A central dilemma must be solved before love or intimacy can be gained.

Ending Payoff

In the ending payoff, you ramp down the tension and action with scenes that answer the primary story questions. How have the characters changed and learned or failed to do so? How will that success or failure impact the protagonist’s daily life and create a new normal?

Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s ending payoff will include your climax (the resurrection, in Hero’s Journey terminology) and the resolution of the global story. The protagonist confronts their fear or flaw, rises to the challenge, and sacrifices for the other lover in order to gain love/intimacy (prescriptive tale). Or they fail to so and lose their opportunity for love/intimacy (cautionary tale). In the Kubler-Ross change curve, your character will make act on the big decision and integrate the decision into their new way of thinking and behavior.

Final Thoughts on the Love Genre

We’ve read and watched the Love story a hundred times, so how can anything be new? In the Editors’ Roundtable Podcast on Harold and Maude, Leslie Watts discusses the challenge of innovating in such a popular genre. Leslie suggests deconstructing your story idea in order to plan and execute novelty.

Once you’ve identified the wants of the characters and who they are within their social constructs, you’ll want to identify the historical context and the resources available to the characters for obtaining their wants. Be clear about the nature of the antagonist or antagonistic force.

Examine these elements from different points of view and metaphor. How could you present the story core in new and fresh ways? Through style and tone? Through narrative device and structure? Will those changes improve and support your story idea or undermine it? How do your ideas compare with other stories outside of the Love Genre? Are there innovations in other genres you appreciated and could implement in your story? What do you know has been overdone in the Love story that you can definitely change in your story without leaving out a convention or obligatory scene?

Other resources that might help you write the Love story:

Love and an Immersive Story Grid Experience

How to Write a Great Love Story

More Than a Love Story

Editors’ Roundtable on Brokeback Mountain

Editors’ Roundtable on The Bridges of Madison County

The Fundamental Genre

Shawn’s annotated Pride and Prejudice, a Story grid analysis

Now you have the basic keys to the Love Genre and many of the tools you’ll need to write better Love stories. Put this all together by reading widely within the genre. Compare the masterworks of the genre. Imagine your story arc by using the values at stake in the Love Genre. Get your words on the page and then compare your work to those masterworks. Check your work with The Story Grid book and against the Love Genre secrets here. Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that story.

Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals.

Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:

I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.

*Special thanks to Anne Hawley, Certified Story Grid Editor, for editing this post, providing the Value Infographic, and for updating the Gas Gauge of Need Infographic.

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About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez is a developmental editor for award-winning and bestselling authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and narrative nonfiction writers. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family, ridiculous dogs, and a few too many urban chickens. You can see more at her website
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Doug says:

I think you missed on what is at stake.
My wife loves the Christmas Hallmark movies. There is an entire sub genre of romance happening at Christmas. I have seen way to many. To stay awake, I started taking them apart using Story Grid.
What is at stake is huge. It is not just love and companionship. It is the protagonist soul and spirit (at least it is in the better versions). Does she settle for the common life, and accept the “good on paper” guy, or does she take the risk for true happiness and growth.
The obligatory scenes are all tests for that truth. The build is in the love interest passing the tests, then failing (or appearing to fail) the final big test. The failure causes the ending split. The protagonist usually gets the truth in the final act which leads to the reconciliation.

Some other scenes to include, the meeting before the formal meeting. They meet, and sparks are there, then they are introduced and realize they are opponents in some way.
The missed kiss is super important. It almost always ends the second act. They go in for a kiss, then get interrupted by a sub plot. They have accepted the feelings for each other, but will the outside world allow them to be together? They have to fight the Resistance because it is right. It makes the ending kiss matter.
We identified a new one, particular to the Christmas genre. They do a craft together. Don’t really get this one, but it showed up in the movies this year, but not before. The genre is evolving I guess.

Everything is at risk. It is really heavy stuff. Not finding the match and accepting life as it has always been (most of act one establishes life as it would be), risks the hero’s call and artist journey.

savannahgilbo says:

Hi Doug! Your comment made me laugh and smile. I love that you pick apart the Hallmark movies using the Story Grid! What’s great about those Hallmark movies is they make it so easy to spot patterns and see how different stories use the same plot points, storytelling techniques, etc. in different ways. I watched quite a few of them during the holidays, and though I knew what was coming, it was still an enjoyable experience–partially because I’m a sucker for romance, but also because I was having fun analyzing the storytelling techniques used.

Anyway, just to add my two cents… the one thing I’ve noticed is that in a love story, the main protagonist (usually the heroine) changes *because of* having met the other person (the hero). And like you said, there’s usually a “good on paper” guy who represents the heroine’s comfort zone (or no need for change). And then, there’s the guy who pushes the heroine out of her comfort zone and causes her to blossom into the best version of herself. On the surface, it seems like she’s choosing between one guy and another, but in reality, she’s choosing what kind of person she wants to be.

A lot of the writers I work with balk at the idea of calling their story a romance because they don’t want to write a story in which the heroine *needs* the hero to survive or to be “great.” But, like you said, the “better versions” of romance stories are about so much more than that! And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy the romance genre so much!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Doug, All good points and valid in the context of Romances on the whole, Christmas may be category division in Romance the same as supernatural or dark romances. For Story Grid purposes, the obligatory scenes and conventions are what must be in a story for it to work. A Love Story with a missed kiss could still work. The missed kiss is more likely a trope, something we’ve come to expect that is verging on cliche. For the Christmas Love Story in Story viewed through Story Grid, the Christmas scene is the setting rather than the subgenre. The change and choice the protagonist must make is found in their internal genre, usually Morality for the Christmas movies. So, Story Grid doesn’t list all the possible settings and genre combos as subgenres for the Love story. But an internal genre is required for a Love Story to work. And many romance publishers, writers, and readers may refer to these categories as if they were subgenres.

Kristi Garrett says:

This post sums it all up, Rachelle! I especially liked your summary of key elements of the Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff, and the cross-referencing of the Hero’s Journey and Story Grid principles. Thanks again for doing such a great job on these Fundamentals!

Sherri Shackelford says:

The biggest frustration I see here is the same frustration with most plotting techniques – they fail to take into account that a ‘true’ romance novel has two equal protagonists.(Putting aside the general frustration of calling it a ‘love genre’ because someone might be embarrassed about writing a romance novel.) A romance novel is defined as: Having the love story as the central focus and a satisfying and optimistic ending. Each protagonist should have GMC in equal and opposite conflict. While one protagonist, often a heroine, may ‘own’ the story, the ‘hero’ has a 49% role to her 51%.

The idea of a love triangle doesn’t work – it’d have to be a love square — because *each* protagonist must have something in their path preventing them from loving the other person.

Stuffing a romance novel plot into the story grid provided here doesn’t work.You’d need at least two
grids because the two protagonists must each have an equal and opposite character arc. These arcs must operate completely independently of each other and yet work in perfect conflict. Sound impossible? It is.Not sure why romance writers get such a bad rap. Then throw in another genre–a thriller–for a romantic suspense – and now you have a third grid detailing the ‘must have’ scenes of a thriller.

There is no obligatory ‘break up’ scene in a romance novel or ‘love genre’. A well-written romance novel is plotted to convince the reader–from the very beginning–that there is absolutely NO WAY these two people can ever be together. EVER. The conflict is 90% internal, 10% external. The protagonists don’t break up because there is no way they can ever be together. There is, yes, a black moment, when any glimmer of hope that love may prevail is dashed. Then the author solves the impossible and gets them together.

The confession of love comes at the end for BOTH protagonists – solving the internal before the external is a sure-fire way to bore your reader. Sure, Jane Austen got away with it–but a couple hundred years can make a big difference in reader expectations. Especially when writing commercial fiction. People love Jane, yes, but using her to define the genre ignores 200 years of writing.

Last, Doug – you rock. You’re what heroes are made of. I know. I write them for a living.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Hello Sherri, I see you are frustrated. Maybe I can help you come to a better understanding of the Story Grid Love Genre? We don’t call the Love Genre the Romance Genre because the Love Genre accounts for many more stories than a Romance. Not to diminish the importance of the Romance. There are marriage stories, epic stories that span both courtship and marriage, and stories that do not end well for the lovers. In a romance, the story ends positive for the lovers and is limited to the Courtship subgenre. Why Romance writers might get the bad wrap you imply, I’m not sure why that would be the case either. It’s an incredibly difficult genre to innovate. If you were to grid a Romance, you could put the internal genres of both lovers on the grid. You’d have a line for Love and two lines for the lovers for 3 total lines. If you added a Thriller, you’d pick your top internal and top external genre to grid. Is it primarily a Thriller or a Love Story? You’ll have to answer that question in order to nail your story. Want to gird them both? Go ahead, why not? Put 4 lines on the grid. I’ve seen it done to masterful effect. I’ve also seen people gridding every plot line and staying stuck in the weeds. You’ve answered your own challenge to the Lovers Break up Scene. As you stated, it’s where there is no glimmer of hope that love will prevail. The confession of love can be from both protagonists in the end but there is one lover, the primary pursuer, who confesses too soon and either scares the other off or angers them. And you are absolutely right about a Romance needing equal protagonists. They have to be worthy of one another or it won’t be a success if they find a way to make love work. However, in a Obsession Love Story, one protagonist is generally not equal to the other and we’re glad love doesn’t prevail. But I don’t want to mislead anyone who might read these comments. One lover is primary to the story. They need not share equal time on the page. They could but it’s not a convention.

Sherri says:

Your lead in states <>The top selling genre of all time is ‘Romance’. “Love” is not a genre. “Romance” is a genre with a specific set of rules. A better title for the post might be: How to add a romantic subplot to a story. But the basic premise/title of this entire article is faulty.

For example, Amazon does not have a genre tagged ‘love’.

Genres such as Mystery, Literature, etc. often have romantic subplots. But just because a mystery has a romantic subplot, the book does not automatically qualify as being in a ‘love genre’.

‘The Notebook’ is not a romance. It’s literary fiction with a romantic subplot. ‘You Belong to Me’ is not a romance. It’s a thriller with an obsessive love subplot.

When someone uses the terms ‘love genre’ with ”best-selling genre of all time’, it’s a red flag that they either don’t understand genre in general, or they don’t understand the genre of romance.

I would absolutely agree that you have a nice article on how to write a romantic subplot. But it’s not an article on writing in a ‘genre’.

Rachelle Ramirez says:

The Story Grid method outlines genres for writers instead of readers and booksellers. The Story Grid helps writers tell stories that resonate with readers by meeting their expectations. The Story Grid has 12 content genres. The romance falls under the subgenre of the Love/Courtship. Literary is a style category rather than a content genre and Mystery is a subcategory of the Crime Genre in this method. I’m sure your thoughts reflect the teaching of another method that may be just as valuable to writers. The Story Grid is the best method I’ve found for myself.

Emanuella says:

My two-cents on single protagonist vs dual protagonists…I think it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too, especially if you are adding extra columns on your spreadsheet.

I noticed in the Editor Roundtables about “Brokeback Mountain” and “Bridges of Madison County,” both of those stories had two lovers who were fairly equal. But it was interesting that in both of those stories, it was primarily one character who faces a Crisis Question in each of the acts (Ennis and Francesca, respectively) in terms of what’s “on the screen.” Both Jack and Robert faced their own crisis-questions about their relationship off-screen, and then when they ask their lovers, “Are you as committed to me as I am to you?”–that acts as each Act’s Turning Point which forces the BBC/IG Crisis question for Ennis an Francesca. In these particular movies, both sets of lovers are all on their own Worldview journey (i.e. dual protagonists), but in Story Grid terms, one character is basically serving as the structural antagonist to the other (single-protagonist).

In the marriage-plot book I’m working on, each of my 5-C’s involves a new event or new information, and both characters have to figure out how they will react to each new development. But in my “Values” column, I’m not tracking the love value for “Protagonist 1” or “Protagonist 2,” but rather that 3rd-entity that is their relationship. Is their marriage moving closer-to, or further-from intimacy? I’m tracking the positive/negative value of the two characters’ connection.

However, I think it would also be appropriate for someone to set up multiple columns for a story where the dual-protagonists were each parked at a different spot on the Love-Value scale. (For example, where one person is like, “I want to have your babies!” and the other person is like, “Who are you, again?”)

Another note: A convention of romance-genre books that I really like is the flip-flopping POV, where you get alternating scenes from one character’s POV and then the others. I really love that. And I think it plays well with the Gwen Hayes’s “Romancing the Beat” idea that each character is lacking something, and they need each other (and the growth they undergo because of their relationship) to become “whole-hearted.”

Sherri says:

Fellow Writers :
If you want to write in the bestselling genre of all time, that’s Romance. Join RWA and learn the real rules.

Search Amazon for how readers define and search categories and sub categories. That will tell you how to define your genre.

Above all, check the backlist of people who are telling you how to write. If they have fewer than three books published, or if they’re not published in that genre.. Move on.


Hi Sherri. I feel like maybe you’ve taken away an inaccurate impression of how Story Grid defines and uses genre. You’re not the first romance author to express frustration either with a sense that we’re doing it wrong, or that we’re somehow misrepresenting the romance marketing category.

I wouldn’t argue with you that RWA has a set of rules for romance novels that differ from Story Grid’s obligatory scenes and conventions of a Love Story.

To my mind–as someone who has been known to write a love story or two–one of the primary differences seems to be that the Love Story as a writer’s story structure (not a bookseller’s or publisher’s marketing category) allows for a non-happily-ever-after ending. There are loads of examples of great Love stories with tragic or ambiguous endings. From Romeo and Juliet to Brokeback Mountain to If Beale Street Could Talk, such stories do NOT qualify as romance novels–that’s understood–but they are unquestionably about romantic love between two humans. (Maybe more than two…)

There’s another element that I think you’re overlooking in directing writers only to RWA’s guidelines: a love story can play an important secondary role in almost any other kind of story. The thriller or action-adventure with a romantic subplot wouldn’t meet RWA’s standards for a romance novel, but again, that subplot would still be about love, and that love subplot will help drive the main story forward.

Authors who want to create satisfying stories with a love element, but outside the romance novel marketing category, wouldn’t want or need RWA’s guidelines, but that doesn’t mean there are no conventions to follow in creating that love subplot. Story Grid offers that structural guidance even to non-romance writers.

I sincerely hope you don’t feel that somehow Story Grid is putting down or diminishing the importance of romance novels in the publishing industry, or their prominence among women readers in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe, if you were to look into the methodology, you’d find value in it, as many other writers have.

clubbeauxlu says:

“Above all, check the backlist of people who are telling you how to write. If they have fewer than three books published, or if they’re not published in that genre.. Move on.”

This is the difference between coaching and playing. They’re different skill sets. Bill Belichick was a nonentity as a football player but he’s the greatest football coach today. Magic Johnson was a transcendent basketball player but a dismal failure as a coach.

Writing and teaching writing are separate skills. Or maybe Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald should have rejected Maxwell Perkins because he hadn’t published three novels?

Ashley says:

Great article Rachelle! I appreciate your breakdown of the BH, MB, and EP especially, and your replies to some of these comments were also very helpful.

My question is about how to grid a story where the love story is interwoven with and directly affecting another plot line. How can I tell which is the global genre and which is the secondary one? One of my favorite books, and also the novel I’m working on, are both society revolution plots where the love story involves people on either side of the conflict. I’m having trouble separating the plot lines and figuring out which is the global plot.

Also, in a romance where both lovers have an internal arc, would I be plotting four lines as you mentioned before? Is that advisable, or would it be better to stick with two (society and romance), so as not to get “stuck in the weeds”?

Thanks again for a great article!

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Great questions. The first thing you want to do is decide which lover is your protagonist. The second thing to do is decide which story is your primary story. Is the story primarily about someone who participates in a revolution/rebellion and falls in love along the way (Society)? Or is it about someone who falls in love that happens during some sort of rebellion as the backdrop (Love). Generally, for a Love Story, we would track Love as the external genre and the change curve of the protagonist as the internal genre. As the writer of the story, I would track all four plots. I’d want to make sure I first nailed my primary genre and that the primary scenes, especially the climactic event of the story, spoke mostly to that genre. You need to meet all the conventions and obligatory scenes and hit the global values of the primary genre. For the secondary story, you don’t need to meet all the conventions of the genres but you could try to interweave them as much as possible, making sure they don’t take over the global story. For the tertiary and quaternary genres, you don’t need to worry as much. For a Love story that would be the internal genre of the protagonist’s love interest and the Society plot. If you want to walk through your story with me on a free consultation, I’d be happy to help. Most Story Grid Editors do free initial consultations.

Emanuella Martin says:

I have a book to recommend for story grid writers looking to add a “friendship-value” range as a secondary plot or subplot to their stories. For example, stories where a friendship moves either up-or-down in a level of intimacy.

The book is “Friendships Don’t Just Happen” by Shasta Nelson. The book is a non-fiction book directed towards female readers looking to gain more “friendtimacy” in their lives, but I think her classification of friends can be helpful to writers too. I’ll share them below:

Level 1: Contact friends – limited intimacy, limited consistency. (For example, friends you might semi-annually at a professional conference. You know their names, you hang out and talk, but you don’t necessarily remember their spouse’s or kids’ names.)

Level 2: Common friends – an increase in either consistency or intimacy. (For example, a friend you see weekly at a class, or who you see every day when you both pick up the kids at school. You see them regularly, but you aren’t especially intimate.)

Level 3: Confirmed friends – high intimacy, low consistency. (For example, someone you share a common history with, like an old college roommate. You can not see or talk to this person for years, but when you do “it’s like it was only yesterday.”)

Level 4: Community friends – increased intimacy and consistency. (These are the people you invite over to your house for birthday parties and anniversaries and game night, and such.)

Level 5: Committed friends – highest intimacy, high consistency. (These are your BFFs. You make time to see them weekly or monthly. You know everything about each other’s lives. You are “committed” to be there for each other through thick and thin. Story examples of this type of friendship are the foursome in ‘Sex in the City’ or Roddy Doyle’s ‘Bullfighting,’ where the “lads” meet every Thursday night at the pub for drinks and go on vacation together.)

Hope this is helpful!

Emanuella Martin says:

Does anyone have any resources they could point to for the love-value range for family love?

I have some Society > Domestic family stories on my back burner. It seems like Society > Domestic stories often involve power-struggles and issues of wellbeing and acceptance within a family, but isn’t there a filial love-value range that could also act as a secondary genre to help understand character motivation?

I think there is.

The amount of love–or type of love–a parent feels for their child is often a key internal-driver for the story. I think getting some clarity on the family love-value-range would help me parse out how my the parents and children feel about each other in my stories. (In my opinion, sibling relationships usually seem to fall more in the “friend” or “nemesis” relationship-dynamics in stories. Although sometimes siblings take on “parent/child” roles for each other.)

It’s easy for me to come up with story examples that fall at the extremes:

– Negation of the negation, hate-masquerading as love stories: Tara Westover’s “Educated” and Judith Guest’s “Ordinary People” (gaslighting); “The Act” (about Munchhousen by Proxy); Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini”; Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (where a child REALLY hates their parent, but there is definitely a fair amount of mutual dislike here); or any story involving incest, such as Paula Vogel’s play “How I Learned to Drive.”

– Hate: blatant child-abuse stories like David Pelzer’s “A Child Called It” (which I haven’t read because it sounds too horrible, but I’m assuming it falls in this category).

– Repulsion or Indifference: stories of neglect, absenteeism, estrangement, or where children or parents were “disowned” for some reason.

– Ignorance (Neutral): “Didn’t know I had a child” stories, like “The Kids are All Right” where two children seek out their sperm-donor father.

(And this is where I get fuzzy. It seems like there ought to be a whole rich-range of parent-child-love emotions in between “Ignorance” and “The Ultimate Sacrifice”. I’d love some help defining some guide-posts in this positive-love value range, especially between parents and children.)

– Self-transcendence: Any story where a parent dies to save their children, i.e., the ultimate self-sacrifice.

I’d love to hear people’s ideas! Thanks!

Emanuella Martin says:

Maybe the equivalent of an “Obsession story” could be like those super-competitive parents who force their kids to perform or be high-achieving because it makes the parents look good to their social circle? (“Joy Luck Club.”) Maybe these relationships are similar to obsession-stories because the parent’s love is conditional on their child’s behavior. Their child exists as more of a “concept” to them, instead of as a complex individual.

Any thoughts?

Rachelle Ramirez says:

Some great memoirs that fall in this range are The Glass Castle, Running With Scissors, Wolf at the Table, and The Chronology of Water. Some great fiction examples are My Sister’s Keeper (Domestic Society), Bastard Out of Carolina, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Maturation and Domestic Society). In a Domestic Society Story, the internal genre is usually Worldview which addresses the protagonists’ views on their relationships. Their beliefs about what their relationships mean to them can be what changes but that is an internal genre instead of the Love Genre which is external. You’re on the right track here and you are asking the right questions. It’s just a matter of how you want to track it. What characters can control is their own experience and not that of other family members. So, for Story Grid purposes, we don’t track familial love. I think a really good exception to this would be a story like The Kiss. The Story Grid tracks the Love Genre as it has to do with romantic relationship with the possibility of sex. Could you flip the Love Genre and use most of the conventions and obligatory scenes for a bro-mance or for a family story? Yes. But if you track your internal genres for your primary characters, tracking the love genre won’t really be necessary. Try it and see if it plunges you into the weeds or helps you see the story from another angle and gets you out of a hole. If you’re not stuck, just keep writing.

Gerald James Avila says:

This is a great article, Rachelle!
Everybody loves a book that can give them butterflies in their stomachs. Romantic novels give an emotionally satisfying narrative to readers. Thank you.


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