Tried and True Romance Plots

By Glen C. Strathy

classic romance plots

Romance fiction uses a number of common plots to solve one of the biggest problems in the genre: how to get two people to fall in love in a way that's anything but straightforward. Of course, when you use one of these standard romance plots in your writing, you should look for a way to put a new twist on it, so the story seems fresh. Fortunately, each of these plots can be told in an infinite number of ways, with different characters, settings, and events. If you write your story well, most readers won't even notice you are using an archetypal plot.

So with that in mind, here are some of the most common plots found in both historical and contemporary romances.

First... Four Romance Plots Involving Forced Intimacy

Some of the most fun romance stories involve two people who, under normal circumstances, would never consider forming a romantic relationship. Perhaps they have known each other for a long time, but never had romantic feelings for each other. Or perhaps they move in such different social circles that they would never meet. Nonetheless, they would be perfect for each other... if only they had the opportunity to get to know each other.

Your challenge, as a writer, is to find a way to get these two people to interact so that sparks can fly.

One tool for doing this is to construct a romance plot based on "forced intimacy." You create a situation in which the two people find themselves accidentally or unwillingly put into an intimate situation together for an extended period, and as a result they start having new feelings for each other.

Forced intimacy comes in a few different forms. For example...

1. The Marriage of Convenience

In this romance plot, one person agrees to enter a strictly platonic relationship with the other as a kind of business deal. For example...

  • A rich playboy will not receive his huge inheritance unless he marries by a certain date. So he finds a woman he doesn't know who is willing to marry him in exchange for a sum of money and a quick annulment.
  • Someone needs a green card or US citizenship, so they coerce an American into marrying them temporarily.
  • During a time of war, someone wants to avoid military conscription, which they can do if they are married, so they make a deal with someone. 

Legal marriage is not always required for this romance plot to work. Sometimes one person just needs to find someone willing to pretend to be their spouse, fiancee, boyfriend, or girlfriend for a short period of time in order to...

  • Please a dying relative.
  • Avoid admitting they are single at a family wedding or class reunion.
  • Catch a crook or spy (for example, if one or both of them are undercover cops or agents).
  • Win an election.
  • Get a promotion by impressing the boss at a company get-together.
  • Etc.

Of course, once the fake relationship begins, they have to make it convincing to others. They have to spend a lot of time together interacting. And perhaps they discover there is only one bed...

2. Making an Honest Woman

This romance plot begins with someone (usually a woman) accidentally being caught in a compromising position with a man. The couple is completely innocent of any wrongdoing or sexual intimacy -- they may not even know each other -- but that's not how it looks to other people. So, the man feels compelled to help save the woman's reputation with some kind of pretense. Perhaps he must pretend to be her brother, doctor, lifeguard, or even priest. He might have to pretend to be her committed boyfriend, fiancee, husband, or gay friend. In some versions (and in some historical settings) he might actually have to marry her.

And, of course, in order to keep up the charade, the couple must spend a lot of time together in situations where they must interact and cooperate -- which leads to them developing feelings for each other.

3. Trapped

In this romance plot, accident or intrigue causes two strangers to be trapped in a situation that is uncomfortably intimate, forcing them to interact and cooperate... and eventually leading to them falling in love. Variations on this include...

  • Being accidentally stranded together on a dessert island, trapped in a cabin by a snowstorm, stuck when their train breaks down, etc. It helps if they are trapped in a fairly comfortable setting, so that the experience is not too unpleasant. A romantic setting is best, and one that is a little cramped.
  • Two people find themselves booked into the same hotel room, despite being strangers, when there are no other accommodations available.
  • One person is hiding from an enemy and the only hiding spot they can find is the other person's bedroom, carriage, train car, cabin, etc. Meanwhile the owner of the space may also be in hiding, for different reasons.
  • Two strangers volunteer to be subjects in a psychological experiment in which they have to live together for a short time.
  • Work forces two people together. Perhaps they are reporters covering a political campaign and have to share a bus, or co-workers sent to a conference together.
  • A contest in which random couples are forced to work together and compete with other couples for a prize.

4. One-Sided Intimacy

This romance plot was once a staple of Hollywood films. In it, one person (typically a woman) is caught in a compromising position by a man. He may find out something about her that she doesn't want revealed, because would be embarrassing or damaging to her in other ways. Or he might inadvertently see her in a state of undress (This might be a serious problem in certain settings, for instance if it would threaten her upcoming arranged marriage.)

Maybe they were strangers before this incident, or maybe they knew and hated each other.

At any rate, he now has power over her, and they keep running into each other (perhaps they have mutual friends). She has to be nice to him because she's worried he will reveal what he discovered. He might enjoy this a little at first, but because he is a good person he starts to feel guilty for the distress he is causing her. As the two of them interact and get to know each other, the man shifts from being a potential threat to becoming the woman's protector. Eventually, they fall in love.

Of course, a fun variation on this is if she manages to also get something on him, so that they both are obliged to be nice to each other to avoid "mutual assured destruction."

Other Romance Plots

5. Forbidden Love

In the "forbidden love" romance plot, love grows between two people who, according to the rules of their society, should not marry. Perhaps they are of different social classes, or their existing relationship would forbid them becoming romantic partners. Nonetheless, their love is so strong they will eventually decide to marry despite the obstacles. Some examples of this include...

  • An ordinary woman captures the heart of a Prince, Duke, Earl, etc. 
  • A billionaire falls for a working class girl.
  • A celibate priest falls for one of his parishioners.
  • A rich widower falls for his children's governess or his housekeeper.
  • A wealthy widow falls in love with her groundskeeper.
  • Two people from rival or warring factions fall in love (e.g., West Side Story, The Pajama Game).

One thing to consider is that society's rules change over time, and what constitutes "forbidden love" will be different depending on the historical period. For instance, a romance set in 19th century USA between an African-American and a white person would be a forbidden love story, as would a romance between a Catholic and a Protestant in Ireland in the early 20th century. In a contemporary setting, this would not be the case.

In all cases, you have to make sure your forbidden love story does not cross the line between what today's readers will find fun and thrilling and what they will consider morally unacceptable. For example, most readers today will not have an issue with a story in which a multi-millionaire man falls in love with a lower-class woman. In fact, most readers, would probably enjoy that fantasy. But there was a time when such relationships would have been widely condemned. Similarly, today's readers would be less open to a story in which a 20-year-old woman falls in love with an 80-year-old man, a romance involving adultery, or anything that suggests an abuse of power.

Make sure your forbidden love is the kind your readers think should not be forbidden, rather than the opposite.

The Shop Around the Corner: When you don't know the real identity of the person you've romanced in messages.

6. Separated Lovers Reunite

This romance plot begins some time after two lovers have already experienced a "black moment," perhaps even years after. They were in a relationship, broke up, and stayed broken up. They may be bitter about what happened.

A "lovers reunite" story is about how the couple gets back together.

Of course, just because the couple had a black moment in the past doesn't mean the story of their reunion won't have its own black moment where it seems they might not be able to reconcile -- right before they do.

7. Reforming the Rake

"Reforming the rake" is a romance plot in which a promiscuous man changes his ways as the result of falling in love with a woman who is smarter and harder to get than his previous conquests.

These are fun stories, because the reader gets to imagine herself in the role of a woman who is strong, smart, and desirable enough to win the heart of a man who many other women desire, but because she is so superior to this man's previous girlfriends, he will change his ways for her.

8. The Makeover (or Cinderella, Pygmalion)

This romance plot is a variation of the "Rags to Riches" story, in which a plain looking woman has a makeover which gives her the looks and confidence she needs to win the heart of a man she finds desirable, but who has always seemed unattainable.

The black moment (or relationship crisis) may be the moment when the makeover fails or the man discovers who she really is... but naturally, in the last act, he will realize he doesn't care because he has already fallen for her.

9. Beauty and the Beast

This romance plot shows how the love of a good woman is able to help a damaged man recover from whatever trauma or tragedy caused him to retreat from the world or give up on the idea of relationships. In the end, he is able to rejoin the world at her side.

10. Amnesia

The "amnesia" romance plot is a little overused, but there are always ways to put a new spin on a plot and make it seem fresh.

In this type of story, a man who has lost his memory is nursed back to health by a woman he falls in love with. Sometimes the "nurse" had a crush on the patient before they met; sometimes she develops a crush as she nurses him.

At any rate, the black moment typically occurs when the patient remembers who he is -- which will be someone who cannot or would not consider a relationship with the nurse. Maybe he already has a girlfriend or fiancee he forgot about. Maybe he comes from a completely different social class and is therefore out of her league.

Of course, as he rejoins his old life, he will realize his relationship with the nurse is far more important to him and will seek to win her back.

11. Mistaken Identity

A relationship begins when one person is mistaken for being someone else. Before they can set the record straight, they find themselves falling in love with the person who mistook them and afraid to come clean. Of course, the black moment is when the truth finally comes out. The fourth act then shows how the liar is forgiven because of true love.

12. Misfits

This romance plot attempts to get away from the stereotypes of the genre. It features a woman who refuses to follow social conventions for women in the time and place the story is set. As a result, she is considered ineligible for marriage by all the men in her circles.

However, the story is about how she meets a man who doesn't care about social conventions either and falls in love with her because she is so different from other women in ways he finds refreshing and attractive.

This story provides a fantasy wish fulfillment for readers who also feel like misfits.

(If you are interested in writing romance novels, you might also check out How to Write a Romance.)

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