Romancing the Bone . . . or the Classic Love Story Subplot Formula
Everyone yearns to love and to be loved. Such is human nature replete in all of us and therefore, so important to story for instigating reader interest, relatable upon the widest emotional scale.
The Love Story is so often the subplot of novels that most experienced readers expect it for the tasty side dish accompanying the delicious novel meal. But what is the Love Story and how do you implement it? In simplest terms (and insert your own preferred gender pronouns, though for this example we use the ol’ standby) the Love Story in its most basic form equates to the following subplot formula:
Act 1: boy meets girl
Act 2A: boy gets girl
Midpoint: boy and girl have sex (or ‘first kiss’ for the kiddies)
Act 2B: boy loses girl
Act 3: boy gets girl back
Now let us reflect upon the classic essential minimum Basic 7 plot points all great stories possess for ease of reference:
1. Inciting Incident
2. Plot Turn 1
3. Pinch Point
5. Punch Point
6. Plot Turn 2
Next we add that tasty opening Hook all readers enjoy to yank them into your story begging for more, as well we apply them to their appropriate Acts:
Act 1: Hook, Inciting Incident, Plot Turn 1
Act 2A: Pinch Point, Midpoint
Act 2B: Punch Point, Plot Turn 2
Act 3: Resolution
Then we apply a little more detail to flesh out the specific Love Story subplot while expanding upon the Basic 7 into the Lovely 9 thusly:
Act 1: Hook, Inciting Incident, Plot Turn 1
Act 2A: Pinch Point
Act 2 Breaker: Midpoint*
Act 2B Punch Point, Plot Turn 2
Act 3: Climax, Resolution
*NOTE: we’ve appointed the Midpoint its own category because of how important it is to the developing relationship of the Love Story as well its impact upon the characters involved. We’ve also added Climax before the Resolution, separating it also because of its importance.
So how to extrapolate upon the Love Story to fit your novel as its intriguing subplot? Like so:
Hook: introduce the Protagonist incomplete without love.
Inciting Incident: introduce Love Interest to Protagonist while establishing clear conflict between them.
Plot Turn 1: Protagonist and Love Interest are forced to work together toward a common goal.
Pinch Point: hidden mutual attraction evolves into obvious sexual tension as they discover things in common while working together.
Breaker: they surrender to their surmounting sexual tensions and have sex, irrevocably binding them while raising the stakes not only of their relationship but also its influence upon the main story goal foreboding the shift of priorities.
Punch Point: but their relationship jeopardizes achieving the main story goal so that the Protagonist breaks it off.
Plot Turn 2: until the despairing Protagonist realizes he can’t live without her and their relationship takes precedence over achieving the main story goal.
Climax: so he risks all to win back the Love Interest in a daring display and declaration of their flourishing love which the Love Interest reciprocates (often at the cost of some personal sacrifice to the Protagonist as proof of his undying love).
Resolution: until they’re together again, and their repaired relationship is stronger after enduring the adversity of their tested love.
**ALSO NOTE: this is not the only Love Interest subplot formula, obviously and because humans are complicated creatures of complex emotions, just the most simple and common. Often, such as with plenty of superhero movies, the Punch Point is instead the Protagonist realizing the Love Interest’s life is in increasing danger if they remain together so he breaks their relationship off for the sake of sparing the Love Interest’s life. But the Antagonist proves crafty and figures out this Protagonist weakness of heart then kidnaps the Love Interest with the intent of luring the Protagonist in for a final battle, using the Love Interest as bait (such is the classic, repeating tale of older comic books). So the Plot Turn 2 of this version then becomes the Protagonist learning of the Love Interest’s kidnapping. The Climax becomes the rescue alongside the Antagonist’s defeat. The Resolution is obvious: Protagonist and Love Interest together again and stronger for it all.
I’ll use the bare bones of my MASTER PLOT FORMULA as example of this typical superhero Love Story subplot:
Old World Stasis: introduce incomplete-without-love Protagonist.
New World Flux: complete-opposites Protagonist and Love Interest are forced to work together.
Things Come Together: their mutual attractions flourish into sexual tensions while they discover things in common.
False Victory: they surrender to sex.
Things Fall Apart: fearing for Love Interest’s endangered life, Protagonist ends their relationship.
False Defeat: Antagonist kidnaps Love Interest, baiting the trap to kill the Protagonist.
False Solution: Protagonist risks all rescuing Love Interest.
True Resolution: Protagonist validates his love by proving the importance of their relationship at the cost of some personal sacrifice to himself, and the Love Interest reciprocates their affections.
***ALSO-ALSO NOTE: but they don’t have to hate each other right off the bat, either. The Protagonist can pine after the Love Interest from afar . . . until one day they get the opportunity to work alongside them . . . then later their relationship interferes with the main story goal so the Love Interest breaks their relationship off but ends up floundering without the Protagonist while the despairing Protagonist only wants her back . . . then they end up reuniting after some risk-alls and declarations of love and blah blah blah, you get the sappy point.
There exists a million and one ways to tweak the Classic Love Story Subplot Formula. You’re a writer — be creative! And we’re not finished yet, so suck in that pouty lower lip, because here’s two more ways aplenty to employ the Love Story be it subplot or as the main focus:
Billy Mernit (considered the leading expert on romantic comedies; a.k.a. the guru of rom-com; MFA, screenwriter and novelist; WGA member and story analyst for Universal Pictures) defines his seven essential basic romantic comedy beats in his book ‘Writing the Romantic Comedy’ as follows:
1. The Chemical Equation: Setup
A scene or sequence identifying the exterior and/or interior conflict (i.e. unfulfilled desire), the “what’s wrong with this picture” implied in the protagonist’s (and/or the antagonist’s) current status quo.
2. Cute Meet: The Catalyst
The inciting incident that brings man and woman (or man and man or woman and woman) together and into conflict; an inventive but credible contrivance, often amusing, which in some way sets the tone for the action to come.
3. A Sexy Complication: Turning Point
Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 1, a new development that raises story stakes and clearly defines the protagonist’s goal; most successful when it sets man and woman at cross-purposes and/or their inner emotions at odds with the goal.
4. The Hook: Midpoint
A situation that irrevocably binds the protagonist with the antagonist (often while tweaking sexual tensions) and has further implications for the outcome of the relationship.
5. Swivel: Second Turning Point
Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 2, stakes reach their highest point as the romantic relationship’s importance jeopardizes the protagonist’s chance to succeed at his (or her) stated goad–or vice versa–and his (or her) goal shifts.
6. The Dark Moment: Crisis Climax
Wherein the consequences of the Swivel decision yield disaster; generally, the humiliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever.
7. Joyful Defeat: Resolution
A reconciliation that reaffirms the primal importance of the relationship; usually a happy ending that implies marriage or a serious commitment, often at the cost of some personal sacrifice to the protagonist.
When Harry Met Sally pioneered this simple yet effective format in 1989, and it worked so well that it became its own genre. One could argue that no rom-com since proven able to top the iconic hilarity of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm, capped perfectly with, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
This rom-com template has remained essentially the same since 1989 because it’s the proven tried-and-true recipe for a successful rom-com as follows:
1. Start with two people who could potentially be attracted to each other.
2. Put them in a scenario where they are likely to hate each other at first.
3. Provide them time to slowly grow on each other through burgeoning conflict as well shared interests.
4. Sprinkle in some quirky best friends, coworkers and family members who either push them closer together or pull them apart.
5. Include sharp writing and commentary on modern dating/relationships.
6. Add a wedge in their blossoming romance that forces them to rethink their interest in the other person.
7. Finally, bring on the big romantic gesture that ensures they will live happily ever after, at least until the end credits role or the last page turns.
And there you have it, multiple worthy versions of the Classic Love Story Subplot Formula ready for you to apply your creative writerly genius then inject them into your story either as the subplot or the main plot itself.