Bread and Roses: Developing romance and the Third Act Test
I was heating up the oven this morning to put on a sourdough loaf (yes, yes, I know, but I’d run out of yeast by April) when I got embroiled in the current Twitter conversation about the ‘black moment’ in romance. This term, which could be retired any time, refers to the very common practice of having a serious (break-up level) obstacle in the third act of the book, which has to be overcome before the happy ending.
A lot of romance-writing advice comes down to ‘beats’—you need X and Y to happen in Act 1, you need to adhere to this particular rising and falling plot shape, and there has to be a calamity in Act 3. Why? Because that happens in romances, that’s why. This all too often leads to a manufactured crisis, where the author sticks in a newly created problem in order to have something happen in the third act. Often this is a Big Misunderstanding that, as readers frequently note, could be solved by basic communication—classically “he sees her with another man who is actually her brother and dumps her without asking who that guy was”.
This upsets readers, rightly, because it feels manipulative and unnecessary to be put through an obviously manufactured conflict after 200 pages of watching the MCs learn to get along. (If it could be removed without affecting the actual progress of the romance, it’s manufactured.) The shoehorned-in third-act conflict is the thing I see readers complain about most, next to instalove. (We’ll come back to this.) But we still see it an awful lot, and I think that’s because writers are hanging on to a deep-down conviction that it’s a necessary part of the romance structure.
I don’t think that’s a helpful way to look at things, and I’d like to offer my alternative Bread Theory of romance development, with apologies to the gluten-intolerant.
Act 1: The Ingredients
The first act is the getting-going stage. You need your ingredients in a bowl, whether that’s just water, flour, and starter, or all sorts of elaborate stuff. And you need to mix it up thoroughly, so that the ingredients can start to work on each other and it begins to look like a thing in itself, not a mass of separate ingredients. This means your MCs interacting with each other, the key secondaries, the background, the external plot. This might be quick or slow, simple or complex. The only rule here, and it is I think a rule, is that you do need to get your ingredients lined up. A third-act conflict is a completely different beast if it’s been seeded in character and situation from early on, as opposed to springing out of nowhere.
Act 2: The Development
This is what gives life to bread, and also romance. It’s when the dough develops its gluten structures, which is to say internal strength and shape and connections that can be stretched without breaking.
You can develop gluten by working it: kneading the dough, pummelling it, stretching, thumping, pulling, letting it rise and knocking it back, and otherwise putting it under the kind of stress that makes the internal strength develop. Or you can use time. Sourdough bread develops by quietly, organically growing at a natural pace. It operates on a completely different schedule to yeasted bread, one that can’t be rushed.
Either of these works for romance, or any combination thereof. You can put your characters under hard pressure (whether that’s good, e.g. frantic desire, or bad, e.g. an enemies-to-lovers setup), or handle things far more slowly and gently, or add no stress at all and show us the relationship developing over time.
What doesn’t work well is factory bread, where you tip in a ton of instant yeast and pig’s-toenails type catalysts in order to get it up as quickly as possible. That’s a recipe for flavourless pap with no nutritional value, and it’s what readers mean when they talk of ‘instalove’ as opposed to a well-done ‘love at first sight’.
Act 3: The Proof
In bread terms, ‘proving’ means the final stage, where the dough is allowed to rise into its final shape before baking. ‘Proof’ here is used in the sense of ‘test’ (as in the phrase ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’).
If you don’t prove your dough enough the final product will be dense or misshapen. If you’ve messed up in stage 2, your bread may not rise at all. And if you mishandle your proving dough, it’ll collapse.
The third act is the proof stage of a romance. The MCs should have got to a point where their relationship is a living, working thing; Act 3 tests them to see if it has developed the internal strength and structure to stand up and emerge triumphant.
This does not have to mean a third-act manufactured conflict/trauma, and indeed it shouldn’t. Of course the proof stage can be a big conflict that leads to a break-up, and that can be terrific if it arises organically from the characters and plot—but it doesn’t have to be that way. The proof might be our MCs working together to fight something, or to build something. It might be a dramatic declaration or a small gesture that demonstrates that a big change has taken place. Maybe it’s an external stressor that opens up internal stuff, like when you slash the top of your loaf and watch it stretch out as if by magic. Maybe it’s a matter of putting the MCs in a difficult situation and watching them sail through it, in contrast to how things went earlier. Maybe showing that growth doesn’t require any sort of antagonist, internal or external. It depends on your book.
A third act with absolutely no conflict or drama can feel a bit flaccid, hence the temptation to jam something in. But drama doesn’t have to be negative. It can be realisations, gestures, problem-solving, triumphs, and they can be as big or small as the scale of your book.
Proofing is a delicate stage. It undermines everything that’s gone before if by 85% of the way through the jealous hero still has his head up his arse, or the lovers are prepared to dump each other because of a trivial argument. (If, in fact, the relationship wasn’t properly developed before you set it to proof.) That knocks the air out of your creation, and might well ruin it for good if there isn’t space for the relationship to rise again.
Whereas if you introduce, develop, and proof your MCs’ relationship on a structure and schedule that works for your characters and your book, you’ll get a living, working, delicious result.
Slippery Creatures (The Will Darling Adventures 1) is out now. Book 2, The Sugared Game, releases 26 August. Preorder available now!