I read this book for craft purposes, in part because it’s referenced frequently by other authors, but it is also an interesting and informative read from a reader standpoint, too.
As we have discussed before, a hallmark of romance is having two (or more) protagonists, not just one, as illustrated by their separate growth arcs within the story combined with their romantic growth arc together. Hayes breaks this down into specific beats that show the development of these growth arcs over the course of a romance narrative, and if you read as much romance as I do, they will be extremely recognizable, even if you didn’t ever think about them before.
If you only look at the descriptions of these beats (e.g. “Phase Three: Retreating from Love” includes “Inkling of Doubt,” “Deepening Doubt,” “Retreat! Retreat!” etc.), the formula appears very…formulaic. But Hayes elaborates in each section to discuss what is happening and why, what this beat means for the relationship and therefore for the believability, tension, and pacing of the story. This is all stuff I theoretically knew or understood, but having it detailed in writing definitely helped to clarify why some storylines fall flat while others sing. If one thing isn’t done or done enough or done in the right place, then when it’s time for the story to rely on that foundational background, it won’t hold up. When authors pay attention to these details, they create enough narrative tension and consistency that the reader can believe in the climatic moment and subsequent HEA. Understanding how the quantity and quality of push-pull in a storyline creates drama (even if it’s a comedy) makes for better writing, and Hayes definitely uses the limited space of this book to specify why each of these beats matters and keeps focus on the romantic throughline.
In the intro of this book, Hayes explains that the beats here are best suited to novellas or category-length books; a long-form novel will need additional sub-plots to keep the story moving and interesting. This is true—when a novel of more than 50-60k words focuses solely on the romantic relationship of the protagonists, it becomes redundant or boring or both. However, even in a long-form novel that is successfully a romance, you will find these beats (to varying degrees). Based on my personal reading experience, I would also argue that following these beats too closely or obviously might get an author halfway there (at least I’m not bored?), but won’t necessarily knock the story out of the park (it feels like every other contemporary romance between two twenty-somethings). Or maybe I just read too many books and get annoyed by lack of subtlety or creativity. (I have noticed that, when I dipped my toes in the Mystery/Thriller pool, I was delighted by books that other mystery readers poo-poohed as being unoriginal, so maybe sometimes being well-versed in a genre is a little curse.) How much you buy into these beats and identifying books that successfully (arguably) don’t use the beats would make for an interesting discussion.
I feel I should also note that this is a short book. It’s not a creative writing course. It’s not an outlining manual. It’s not even a “how to write a novel” book, because Hayes is very clear that there are plenty such books of quality already written. It’s very succinctly indicating approximately what needs to be happening approximately where in a romance story to make it a successful romance story.
For additional thoughts on romance writing, check out Ingrid’s Hearts & Crafts series. She’s really good at breaking down books and understanding character psychology.
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