20 Key Scenes for Writers of Romance Novels

Last week we began a discussion on romance novel structure. While just about any story of any genre can work off the base of the ten key foundational scenes, from there, a whole lot of variety can take place.

My aim in this series is to throw ideas and examples at you, so you can see how to work both within and outside of this framework. Your premise and plot are going to be the big factor when it comes to determining what kinds of scenes are needed to layer over those initial ten.

It’s not just a matter of coming up with plot ideas and stuffing them into the framework, as if they were so much cotton batting going into a sofa. Every scene in a novel is hugely important and must serve a very specific purpose. I say this a lot, and I don’t think a whole lot of writers believe this. Their manuscripts are filled with nothing scenes about characters going nowhere and doing insignificant things (like talking about the weather over dinner).

Folks, that’s not why readers read books! They don’t want ordinary, mundane, boring. Yes, “on the nose” writing accurately portrays real life: believable conversations and activities real people engage in. But seriously, much of real life is (thankfully) boring and mundane. I say “thankfully” because we don’t (or shouldn’t) want the kind of drama in our lives each day that great writers subject great characters too.

That doesn’t mean every page has to show a ginormous disaster or global threat (though it may be your thriller does just that and very appropriately). What this does mean is that a great writer will have intention. Every word said, every encounter, every gesture and action has specific purpose.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while and studying my writing craft books in The Writer’s Toolbox series, you know a good part of my focus is on solid scene structure, with every scene building to a key moment, which I call the “high moment.” Just like a novel, a scene should have beginning, a middle, a climax, and an ending (which might be hanging), but that key moment is critical.

I’m wandering off into this topic to make this point: This 10-20-30 Scene Builder concept is fluid and adjustable, yes. But that doesn’t mean you just come up with thirty random scenes and you’re set. You need those key scenes in place, and in the right place, and then you need the next ten big scenes positioned just right.

Remember the analogy of the jar of rocks. Put the items into the jar in order: the big rocks first, then the pebbles, then the sand, then the water. It’s way too hard to stuff those big rocks in once you’ve filled the jar with sand. Make your life easier and don’t waste your precious time.

So . . .  we looked at those twelve key romance scenes last week that Michael Hauge suggests are needed in every romance story, whether a novel or a film or a play.

Layering In Romance Scenes

Let’s see how those scenes might work in my 10-20-30 Scene Builder structure by laying them in over the first ten key scenes. Again, keep in mind there are many variations you might come up with. We’re going to look at a few so you can get inspired.

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As I did a few weeks ago layering in the next ten for a subplot structure, I’m going to continue the numbering in bold so you can see where these next ten might lay in over the first ten. Hang in there. This will make sense as we go further.

Take a deep breath and don’t get overwhelmed. Pretend this is all fun (because it is!).

NOTE: The 12 key romance scenes are R1, R2, R3, etc.

Also, keep in mind in many romance novels, POVs alternate, so you may have a scene or two in the hero’s POV, and then shift to the heroine’s. In other words, each of these key scenes could be two halves—a whole scene but one that has a POV shift midway. This is very common with romance novels.

#1 (also R1) – Setup. Introduce protagonist (HEROINE) in her world. Establish her core need. Set the stage, begin building the world.

#11 – R1 – introduction of HERO. This is the match to the first essential scene. It may not be the second scene in your novel. You may have two or three scenes with your heroine first. Remember, we’re looking a key scenes to lay in as structure—not every single scene.

#2 – Turning Point #1 (10%): inciting incident. This incident moves the heroine into position for the meet (a move to another location, an event, etc.).

#12 – R2 – The Meet. This may come later. Some say the lovers have to meet in the first scene. I’m not big on that. I want some time to get to know them both before they’re thrown together. I want to see their need.

#3 – Pinch Point #1 (33% roughly): Give a glimpse of the opposition’s power, need, and goal as well as the stakes. This is the full setup of your subplot, against which your lovers face conflict, opposition, and obstacles.

#13 – R4 – Wise Friend Counsels:  Again, this can be, and often is, scenes with both the hero and heroine. They can each have a mentor/ally/wise friend character that gives them advice regarding their love life and/or pushing them to consider the potential love interest.

#4 – Twist #1: Something new happens: a new ally, a friend becomes a foe. New info reveals a serious complication to reaching the goal. Protagonist must adjust to change with this setback. With a romance novel, this goal is to reach that HEA, so this leads into . . .

#14 – R5 – Acknowledge Interest:  A key scene that throws the lovers together so they start getting to really know each other. I often have the twists be disasters (hailstorms, tornados, floods, locust, blizzards, etc.) that have the hero save the heroine (my rule is the hero must save the heroine three times in my novel, the third time the biggie at the climax, so those three “save scenes” are in this ten-scene layer).

#5 – The midpoint (50%): No turning back. Important event that propels the story forward and solidifies the protagonist’s determination to reach her goal. Usually one of the lovers realizes and decides the other is for them, and they will now pursue without letup, despite current obstacles. And at the same time, the other lover may see something that makes him/her decide the relationship is not gonna happen.

#15 – R6 – The First Quarrel: Things start coming to a head and creating high tension with the lovers.

#6 – Pinch Point #2 (62% roughly): The opposition comes full force. Time to buckle down and fight through it. Again, this is further development of the subplot. The nemesis or opposition is going to make it nearly impossible for the couple to get together: nature, mean parents, jealous ex, angry ex business partner.

#16 – R7 – The Dance of Attraction:  The two are again thrown together, and now they are perilously close to falling madly in love. But . . . there are still obstacles (subplot unresolved) and emotional resistance due to fear and doubt and past wounds.

#7 – Twist 2: An unexpected surprise giving (false?) hope. The goal now looks within reach. A mentor gives encouragement, a secret weapon, an important clue. Events occur to make this romance look possible, giving hope. Which causes . . .

#17 – R8 – The Black Moment: Then something happens to kill the possibility of a true romance. A misdirection, lie, reversal, misunderstanding. This is a great place to throw that monkey wrench in. A parent announces at a party that the heroine is going to marry choice B, and the hero finds out and thinks all is lost (what I did in Colorado Promise).

#8 – Turning Point #4 (75%): Major setback. All is lost and hopeless. Time for final push.

Think about the scene in Ever After, when Prince Henry is wrongly told by his mother the queen (who was lied to by the evil stepmother) that Danielle left France to go marry some other guy. Danielle, for her part, learns that her gig is up and is locked in the pantry, unable to go to the ball. Dark, dark moment of lost hope. BUT the final push is when Da Vinci opens the door and gives her “wings to fly” into the arms of her lover.

#18 – R9 ­– The Lovers Reunite: Somehow they find a way to get together despite the huge obstacles. It may be brief, but this is the scene where they admit/realize they both are fated to love each other and profess that love. This is a fun scene because they still can’t unite fully.

#19 – R10 – Complications Push Them Apart: There is one last big obstacle in their way. Which sends them reeling into the high action and tension of . .  .

#9 –(also #20 – R11 – Together at Last) Turning Point #5 (76-99%): The climax in which the goal is either reached or not; the two MDQs are answered.

#10 – The aftermath (90-99%): The wrap-up at the end. Denouement, resolution, tie it all in a pretty knot.

#20 – R12 – The HEA. A final, parting shot of the happy result of the wrap-up.  This could be included in the last scene (above) as the two plot elements merge together, or they might be separate scenes within the final chapter(s).

Notice, R1 is essentially scene #1, R11 is scene #9, and R12 is scene #20. So you have basically the twenty key scenes here, give or take one or two depending on how you want to lay this out.

But note that once you have all this sketched in, you are way ahead of the game! The key, as I mentioned last week, is that subplot.

In my Westerns, I have bad guys going after gold, parents standing in the way of the lovers aching to unite, and even a grizzly bear acting as the opposition that brings them together, tears them apart, and pulls them together to fight for their lives.

Wow, I know this is a lot to take in. But I hope you see how I built off those initial ten scenes and laid in the requisite romance scenes so that the romance story engine is in place. Now—you can get to work on the next ten to add in all the added excitement, stakes, and obstacles.

YES, I made a chart that you can download and work with. Here’s the PDF. It gives you these twenty basic scenes and the 12 Key Romance scenes Michael Hauge recommends.

Next week I’ll use this chart to show you the key scenes of two of my romance novels. No, I didn’t have this chart before now. But I’m presently plotting my new Western and I am using this structure, so I’ll share with you how this process is working (though by the time this post runs, my hope is that I’ll have most of the novel written!).

Thoughts on all this? Can you see how this might be very helpful to you as you play with your romance scene ideas? What do you feel is most helpful about this process?

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31 Responses to “20 Key Scenes for Writers of Romance Novels”

  1. Dan Phalen August 22, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Today’s post is particularly timely for me, as I struggle with the 76-chapter rewrite of an epic Romance. Having an outline of essential plot points from your previous posts on Structure, integrated with the 12 Key Scenes in the Lover’s Journey, has helped me discover what I’ve actually done right (yay!) and where this monster of a first draft needs a trim and reorg. Since Romance is not my usual genre, this particular project has captured my heart, and I needed exactly what’s given here to press forward.

    • John Harmer March 26, 2018 at 5:44 pm #

      I agree totally. My story involves a hard bitten detective investigating a major crime. He meets his opposite/pseudo
      nemesis who is uninvolved key spectator.

      Best part is that I can continue to use the structure for other books in the series where theromance an be between suport characters

  2. Thomas Knip August 23, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

    Thanks for this article and the ones before which help me a lot to grasp some basic concepts about writing Romance.
    What I am asking myseld is where do erotic scenes fit in. How should they be handled in relation to the basic love interst and story development. Do you favor one scene or several? If so, where (read “How soon?”) should they be set?

    • cslakin August 24, 2016 at 6:38 am #

      Well, Thomas, sorry. I don’t edit, read, or critique erotica. So I wouldn’t have a clue how to answer you. Maybe some of my readers do, but I won’t foray into that genre for ethical reasons.

      • Jessa May 21, 2017 at 10:23 pm #

        I think you mean “moral,” not ethical. Erotica is not an ethical concern (Unless it involves coercion, human trafficking, etc).

    • Dan Phalen August 24, 2016 at 10:36 am #

      Not sure if by erotic you mean a scene of heightened ardor, intense passion, or truly erotic physical detail. In any case I think location of a “final consummation” depends on the story arc and character arc(s). In my reading experience (no erotica for me either), the earlier a “steamy” scene occurs, the more it tends toward the erotic because not enough story has developed to support that level of passion.

      Later, as perhaps when the lovers reunite (#18-R9) is where all the tension of separation and angst can come together in an explosive scene. An alternative might be #9-R11 Together at Last, for the same reasons.

      Hope that helps.

      • cslakin August 24, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

        With a romance, in general, you usually don’t get the lovers together until the HEA. With something more erotic or physically involved, I suppose, I’ve seen characters get physically involved/have sex, but then things go sour and tear them apart. It’s the final emotional and situational connection that occurs at the end. As I said, I don’t read or edit novels that “go there,” so I really can’t speak authoritatively on that.

      • Thomas Knip August 24, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

        Dan, that sure does help.

        I wasn’t referring to erotica. They have a totally different approach. I did mean romance novels with erotic scenes, and, yep, the problem is, the earlier you place them the more you risk them being “too early” for the story arc, both the romantic arc and the plot arc.

  3. Liahona March 2, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    I love this chart! But, I’m confused by the numbers. It’s all out of order (#1, #11, #2, #12, etc.) I’m sure there is a reason for this but it’s so confusing.

    Can you tell me what these out of order numbers mean and how to utilize them?

    • cslakin March 2, 2018 at 10:37 am #

      Hi, as I explain, the scenes are in order of placement in the novel. The numbering is done this way to show the first ten key scenes (1-10) and then the second layer dropped in (scenes 11-20). For better and more extensive explanation, get Layer Your Novel. There are novel breakdowns in there as well to show you how this works.

      • Liahona March 2, 2018 at 7:51 pm #

        Ah! Thank you for your help.

  4. Olga February 12, 2019 at 1:44 am #

    Great information, thank you! Is there a post about the next layer (30 key scenes)? I can’t find it.

    • cslakin February 18, 2019 at 12:39 pm #

      My book Layer Your Novel doesn’t provide a third layer because at that point you are filling in the spaces between your twenty scenes, and they are going to be very individually specific to your story and genre.

  5. B May 10, 2019 at 9:48 am #

    Thank you so much for this! I just have a clarification question – I completely understand the R1,R2 etc system, but just to make sure between #1 and #11, there would be ten scenes between. Sorry, its probably a silly question but I just wanted to make sure I’m on the right check 🙂

    • cslakin May 11, 2019 at 6:43 am #

      If you look at the 20-scene romance chart, you can see how this all lays out. Some of the romance key scenes duplicate some of the ten key scenes. If you mean there are ten romance scenes inserted between #1 and #10, yes, that’s essentially correct. So study the chart and you can see this. You have the first layer of ten scenes (1-10), then 11-20 is layered over (scenes inserted between) those first ten scenes. Same with the action-reaction and subplot 20-scene charts. Hope that makes sense!

  6. JJ June 4, 2019 at 3:53 pm #

    I am writing a dystopian novel set in the future. It is not a romance novel in the least, but I do have 2 main characters fall in love during the course of the book. In a nutshell, they get married (which is a rebellious act in itself) and then it is key that I establish that they consummated the marriage. It is important because the story ends with the woman giving birth to their baby. I believe in describing every scene in detail to really give you a sense of the atmosphere. I do that with all of my scenes. I kind of have a rule that if I have a scene, I should write it well. So, having said all that, how should I have them consummate the marriage? How are those scenes done in a romance novel? How are those scenes done tastefully?

    • cslakin June 4, 2019 at 4:09 pm #

      It really depends on the subgenre. I write sweet romance, so all my characters do is have one (maybe two) kisses. You’d have to determine which subgenre your book fits into and see how that is handled in best sellers in that subgenre. And it’s fine to have a romance component in a novel without it being a romance. Sounds as if it is a strong part of the plot and adds conflict, so that’s good. Ultimately, though, there should be a clear goal your protagonist is trying to reach and the relationship is there to complicate matters on the path to the goal.

      • JJ July 7, 2019 at 3:53 pm #

        Here is my “love scene”. (Out of context, but I’m sure you are gifted enough to tell it is a dystopian sci-fi set in the future. Tables have been turned on both men and women–with the same hurtful consequences as we have now.). Thanks for your help.

        Upon entering her bedroom, Simon could not take his eyes off of her. As she talked, his gaze rested on her lower lip as if lip reading. She noticed this. They embraced. For the first time in both their lives, they were making love. She had had sex before, surely. It was expected of women to sow their wild oats. He, too, had many sexual encounters. That was considered a reward for winning a fight, and many women paid dearly to be with a gladiator. He had had many women, but he never had emotion, only emoted. Sex is so much, much more than sex. Many might say that to extricate feelings from sex is a liberating thing, but in reality, it is disengenuous, and disconnecting love from sex has hurt human beings. Simon and Preeta restored the sexual experience as a simultaneous physical, emotional and spiritual activity that forms deep emotional bonds between two lovers. As the mattress sang its creaky song, the two fell apart, shaking, spent. They had consummated their marriage. It was a rebellious act.

  7. Sandy July 19, 2019 at 3:56 pm #

    Do you have suggested %s for the scenes that have no %s listed in the First 20 Scenes for Romance Novels document? For example, turning point 1 hits at the 10% mark and pinch point 1 at 33% (roughly). In between is “The Meet.” I assume the inciting event (turning point 1) is fairly short and the Meet is longer. But suggested %s for each scene would be helpful. Thanks!

    • cslakin July 21, 2019 at 8:38 am #

      Every story is going to be different, and I wouldn’t get too caught up in the precise percentages. Sometimes the inciting incident falls in the first scene (common to mysteries, with the discovery of a body. If you look at Michael Hauge’s six-stage plot structure chart, you’ll see how he divies up the various turning points and shows a longer second act for a romance structure than a different type of story. But, again, don’t get too picky about this. Many romances have the meet at the end of the first scene. While I don’t think that often allows for enough setup, it can work if it’s brief and doesn’t actually begin the “confrontation” between the two romance characters.

  8. Sandy July 19, 2019 at 6:39 pm #

    Hi. I noticed that you have a Turning Point 1, 4 and 5. But there’s no Turning Point 2 and 3. Do Twists 1 and 2 replace the missing turning points? Thanks.

    • cslakin July 21, 2019 at 8:35 am #

      Hi, in my ten key scenes, I don’t consider the fixed goal (25% mark) a key scene. It could take a few scenes to fix the goal, so while you do want to ensure your character’s goal is set around that spot in the novel, I’m not using it in the chart. The midpoint (turning point 3) is definitely one of the key scenes in the charts.

  9. Patty December 24, 2019 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi, thank you for all the information you posted. I am new to this, so some terms are still being learned. Can you clarify what R1, R2 and R3 stand for?

    • cslakin December 24, 2019 at 12:42 pm #

      Hi, it’s my own system, which is explained in more depth in my book Layer Your Novel. But basically I am layering in the ten key romance scenes (numbered 1-10) into the first ten key scenes (which are for any genre). What you see is that a couple of the scenes do overlap, but the idea is to get those key milestones of romance story structure in the right places while not sacrificing the foundational scenes for the novel.

  10. Alice Carroll February 28, 2020 at 2:18 pm #

    It’s great to know that the romance genre somewhat formulaic to the point that there are so many clichés that can be identified in them but the fact that there are so many moving cogs that each can be unique enough. My personal favorite trope in romance is the first quarrel because that’s when the characters’ passion for each other shines. I hope I can find a romance novel that adds in elements of suspense to keep the readers on their toes.

  11. Alice Carroll May 1, 2020 at 2:29 pm #

    I agree with what you mentioned about how the reader should get to know more about the two main character before the story gets to their first meeting. Something I’ve always loved about romance novels is that they seem formulaic and laden with tropes but good writers tend to reinventing the formula in order to create something so exciting out of something predictable. I have lost my touch in collecting romance novels ever since I got married but I think it’s about time that I get back to discovering new ones.

  12. Mikayla November 5, 2020 at 6:53 am #

    Hey, just a suggestion…

    Try having a Heroine save the Hero a few times.
    Or have both of them save each other in different situations.
    The “damsel in distress” trope, while it can be done well, it also can become incredibly boring and repetitive. Why is the Heroine always in danger? Why is the Hero always the strong one?

    While following a format is fine, don’t let false societal mindsets prevent you from writing great characters, as well as a great novel. Don’t be afraid to change things up!

  13. Monique Boyd December 14, 2020 at 1:26 pm #

    This is very helpful, and I would like to say thanks a lot for sharing your tips and advice. I like to accept my anticipation books wed the solid characters from my sentiment composing past, with the twisty, smart plots of my secret composing present.

    Thanks
    Monique

  14. Attilio February 8, 2021 at 3:14 pm #

    I appreciate the tips and advice. I write to invigorate myself. I write to be the characters that I am definitely not. I write to investigate all the things I’m anxious about.
    Regards
    Attilio

  15. Valerie Miller July 10, 2021 at 4:35 am #

    Hello, I loved this article and have used it as a basis in my first book of a romance series I am writing. I also have your book Layer You Novel, but could not find the answer there. Is there a reason why R3 The rebuff is not inlcuded?

    • cslakin July 14, 2021 at 9:41 pm #

      Thanks for pointing that out. I will need to figure out why that’s missing and rework. Clearly the R3 goes between R2 and R4. It’s also possible it can come before, after, or be part of the Pinch Point #1.

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