For my February post, I want to talk about romance. Not all readers want or need romance in their books (and I’ve certainly enjoyed books without any), but most of the time, I want my stories to have some swoon in them. This is as true of the books I write as the books I read.
But as I’m working through book 3 of my trilogy, I’ve stumbled across a particular problem: how do you write a romance arc across a series?
There are lots of great posts and books about writing romance (I particularly like Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat), but most of them focus on a romantic arc within a single story. In Hayes’ formulation, that arc looks like this:
- Set up (getting to know the characters, the wound or flaw that keeps them from love, and seeing them meet)
- Falling in love (all the fun, wonderful banter that draws us to Romantic Comedies no matter how often we get disappointed in real life)
- Retreating from love (both parties find their doubts and their wound getting in the way of their relationship)
- Fighting for love (after a wake-up call, the two realize what they’ve lost and patch things up).
When done well, the arc can induce that particularly delicious pain of heartbreak and reconciliation.
But it doesn’t work as well for a series, unless you mean to introduce new love interests along the way. Repeating the same arc in each book begins to feel manufactured (how many times can a couple believably break up and reconcile?)
I’ll be honest here: I’m not an expert on this. What I know is mostly hard won from trying to figure this out in my own series (and still don’t know if I’ve succeeded).
Here’s what I’ve discovered: when planning romance across a series, you have to think individually but also serially. Let me explain.
The first book is often a stand-alone, which means the romance also needs to stand alone, and will probably look a lot like your conventional romantic arc: meeting (or seeing the possibility in each other), torn apart by conflict, finding their way back to one another.
But in terms of the series as a whole, you need to step back and see how that same arc fits across the series. I’m going to talk specifically about a trilogy, because that’s what I’m working with.
For instance, although book one often ends with the central couple reconciling, in terms of the overall scope of the series, they’re just at the end of falling in love—they’ve hit the high point before all hell breaks loose.
Book two sees their relationship tested in ways they have not yet begun to imagine, bringing both of their character wounds to surface and fester. Just as the second book in a trilogy fits the midpoint of a narrative arc, ending with the dark night of the soul, so the second stage of their romantic arc will often end with a low point in their relationship too—whether engineered by misunderstanding or external factors. Just as the characters cannot see a way forward in the external plot, so the lovers should struggling to see how their relationship can prosper.
But then what of the third book? In the conventional romantic narrative, the dark night of the soul is followed by an epiphany and a grand gesture that leads to a happily ever after. Although purely happy relationships are what we aspire to in real life, they often make for dull fiction.
Here are some possibilities for continuing the romantic tension into the third book:
- Introduce external challenges to the relationship that keep the characters apart though they want to be together. This might include a quest or journey that requires the characters to separate.
- Introduce external characters who challenge the characters’ beliefs that they belong together. Sometimes this can be accomplished through a former partner who presents an alternative, but it doesn’t have to be a love triangle. It might be a friend who pulls the character back toward their former, pre-romance self. It might be a potential (non-romantic) partner that offers other options for the character’s future.
- Work in the character epiphany in stages. In a single volume romance, the epiphany often comes in a single scene where the character realizes they are better off with their partner than alone. But with a multiple volume series, there might be multiple moments where the characters realize they are better together. Show those.
- Find other wounds to prod. Though the characters may have resolved (or be in the process of resolving) the major doubts that kept them apart, that does not mean there aren’t other wounds in their history that prevent a perfect happily ever after. Any long-term couple knows that new challenges crop up throughout a relationship. One of my favorite romances, Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson books, follows a couple across multiple books. Though it takes the couple a few books to actually get together (and that sexual tension is delightful), things are not smooth sailing once they are committed. Several of the books take up the challenge of Mercy’s independence and her spouse’s desire to protect her. These challenges don’t have to drive the couple apart, but they can drive them to prove their commitment to each other by evolving.
- It’s also possible that there doesn’t need to be any major tension–sometimes it’s enough for the romantic pair to present a unified team to external forces, and demonstrate (to themselves and the reader) why they are so good together.
What other ways have you seen a romantic relationship tested after the couple is together? What book series have some of your favorite romantic arcs?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available. The sequel, LOST CROW CONSPIRACY, comes out *next* month!