How to Make a Forbidden Romance Work
Remember how I mentioned last time that I love questions because they make for easy blog posts? I’m lucky enough to have another great question for today. *smile*
Today’s “Ask Jami” came from a comment on my Romance Beat Sheet post. Nick Verso wanted to know how a story’s structure would change if the romance is forbidden:
“My question is about the Midpoint in the Romance Beat Sheet particularly involving “the visible sign of commitment” the characters make to each other, which is normally a very public event. … That moment is very clear in almost any rom-com (the racing scene in Pretty Woman, any meeting the parents scene in a bad boy/rich girl romance a la Nicholas Sparks or Titanic). I can see how valuable a moment it is – it’s the moment they test that relationship by showing it to the world and seeing how the world reacts and the world either says aye or nay (normally somebody will say nay or the film will wrap up pretty quickly).
Do you think this beat exists OR what form do you think it takes in the forbidden love subgenre? I’m thinking Brokeback Mountain or any film where the lovers are keeping their love a secret so they can’t put it the “show the world” test. … I don’t want to skip over what might be a very crucial and satisfying beat for audiences. What are your thoughts?”
See why I love my commenters? That’s a great question!
What’s the Purpose of the Midpoint Scene?
In any story of any genre, the Midpoint is the story beat/turning point that falls around the 50% mark. (If you’re new to the idea of story structure, check out my post with a basic explanation of story beats, as well as my post about how to use beat sheets, or join me in my upcoming workshops.)
As we’ve discussed before, the Midpoint is one of the beats we can use to prevent a “sagging middle.” The middle of our story is where we’re going to see progress, but also failed attempts to overcome the story obstacles.
Specifically, the Midpoint creates a “shift in context.” This shift could come from raising the stakes, changing the protagonist’s goals and choices, etc. But my favorite technique is to use the Midpoint to remind the reader of the goals, stakes, and obstacles before the chaos of the last quarter of the book.
James Scott Bell explains the Midpoint best by calling it “a look in the mirror.” The character might:
- wonder what it will mean for them if they do or don’t succeed,
- question how they’re changing or what they’ve become,
- consider how they’ll have to change to succeed,
- stop and recognize the odds against them, or
- figure out their chances of success.
With this reflection and insight, the character will now make choices with their eyes wide open. And that’s the key for understanding the Midpoint in romance stories.
What’s the Purpose of the Midpoint in a Romance?
If we look at my Romance Beat Sheet, we see that the Midpoint consists of two elements:
- External Relationship Arc: What visible sign of commitment do the characters make to each other?
- Internal Relationship Arc: How are the characters still in their Identity (and thus doomed to fail)?
As Michael Hauge teaches, at the Midpoint, the character must do something to show they’re committed to the story goal. In a romance, this might be the hero and heroine’s first kiss, first sex scene, or first declaration of love. Some visible action has to reveal their desire (goal) to the world.
It’s those last couple of words, “to the world,” that might trip us up in a forbidden romance story. Does the Midpoint—this visible action to reveal their desire/goal—really have to happen in public?
The Midpoint: How Visible Does “Visible” Have to Be?
If I reflect on my stories, it’s obvious I’m of the opinion that this Midpoint beat can take different forms depending on the nature of the story and of the relationship. In my various in-process stories, the Midpoint consists of:
- a first kiss scene,
- a proposal scene,
- a break-up scene, and
- a I-wish-we-could-be-together-but-here’s-why-we-can’t scene.
Of those, only one has any witnesses, so these scenes are not a public “outing” of the relationship. And the last two seem like the opposite of commitment. (Not surprisingly, I write romances that are “forbidden” on some level: incompatible cultures, ancient enemies, opposite goals, etc.)
So what gives? What does the Midpoint accomplish as a story beat in romances?
Think of the Midpoint, especially in forbidden romances, as an “Advanced Level Commitment Point.” *smile*
How to Make the Midpoint Matter in a Romance
Whether the story includes witnesses for the Midpoint doesn’t matter. The reader can be the witness. The point is to create a visible (or “tangible,” if that makes it easier to understand) commitment to the relationship.
Remember what we said about Midpoints in general? At the Midpoint, the characters now make choices with their eyes wide open.
So in a romance, at the End of the Beginning/First Plot Point beat (at the 25% mark), the characters might commit to spend time together or grudgingly reveal their desire for each other, but they don’t yet know all the odds stacked against them. In contrast, at the Midpoint, they have a better understanding of the obstacles—and decide to commit to the relationship anyway.
However, in forbidden romances, that “commitment” might look different from what we expect. Very different.
For example, in some of my stories, one character decides that although they can’t be with the other, they’re going to give them something even better—something believed more valuable than a potential relationship. That’s commitment, regardless of whether it looks like a break-up on the surface, because the subtext shows they care about the other person enough to make sacrifices.
In any kind of romance, we might be able to think of the Midpoint beat as a moment when one or both characters reflect on the obstacles of the relationship and make a commitment—at least in some way. That’s the visible (or tangible) sign of commitment for the beat, whether or not there are any story witnesses and whether or not outsiders would understand the commitment.
Of course, the characters are still in denial (in their Identity), so the commitment (no matter the type of romance) won’t meet the story goal or make the reader happy. Forbidden romance or not, the reader’s going to want more. *grin*
That gap between what the reader knows the characters desire (even if they’re in denial) and the commitment made at the Midpoint propels the story into the second half. Now we’re not just rooting for the characters to get together, we’re rooting for them to find a loophole so they can stay together.
Keep turning the pages, reader. Keep turning the pages. *smile*
If you’ve read romances where the relationship was forbidden, how did the story change direction at the halfway point? If you write forbidden romances, how have you handled the Midpoint? Does this help explain how we can match the style of the Midpoint to the story and the relationship? Do you have other tips for how to make forbidden romances work? Do you have other questions about how to handle aspects of forbidden romance stories?
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I’m extremely fond of Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines series. (YA forbidden relationship that actually, well, has some extreme consequences. And I connect really well with the FMC and MMC, more so than I did with the narrator of Vampire Academy. Kinda amusing part of it is the FMC and MMC are college age, but the FMC’s undercover as a high school student…and the MMC is her “brother”.)
Going off my memory, midpoint’s generally been when Sydney’s had some conversation or epiphany about what she should/n’t be doing. (Like, “AH! MAGIC! Vampires are EVIL! […then why was the devil-may-care party-boy vampire the only one who noticed I was freaking out, if he’s so irresponsible as everyone says he is???]” Which leads her into, at the end of book 1, being willing to admit he’s a nice guy…for a vampire.)
Granted, in that series, part of the problem is the FMC’s prejudice against the MMC himself.
Interesting! So in that case, the Midpoint definitely qualifies as reaching insights to allow the character to make more informed choices. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that example and for the comment!
Wow, yet another gem of writing advice to treasure!
I agree on how important the middle point is. I have always felt that way about it, even though only reading your article now made me realize why, and how. In a way, the middle point may well be the point where we either hook the reader so much that he reads on or where we lose him because too little has happened, there is no hint at / potential for conflict or the romance element is lacking completely.
Thank you for this wonderfully enlightening post, Jami. Forbidden or not, romance at the literal heart of the story is (also) what counts.
Thank you! And I’d never thought of the Midpoint this way before Nick’s question–so this is yet another reason why I appreciate everyone sharing their thoughts and questions. It helps me understand it better too! 🙂
You’re right that the Midpoint–with it’s reorienting of the readers to the goals, stakes, and obstacles–might be how we convince readers that we’re building to a story end and not just throwing in random events. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Oh, I just remembered the WiP(…s) of mine with forbidden romances! I knew I had some. (Oh, and technically, one of my novels has a forbidden romance, but the story isn’t genre romance—it’s kind of an anti-romance, where the actual romance is between the FMC and a guy she doesn’t sleep with—so that doesn’t count.) One WiP’s too early in development to know how I’ll handle the midpoint, but in that one, the FMC and MMC already have a (secret) kid, (being raised as the MMC’s brother), and to reveal their relationship is to end up assassinated (and if, by some miracle, they survived all that, there would be other problems, like ostracism for them both). But the FMC’s just done something that’s likely to get her assassinated anyway, so… The other WiP is something I started years ago, but I’ve never quite figured out how to structure it. The original structure attempt was “wrong” according to the “rules”, but I’ve been thinking that my instincts were probably right, because my attempts to make the structure more rule-abiding have ended up…problematic. It could still be a solid story, but it “feels” wrong. (Part of the problem is it’s one of those stories that could far more easily a theme I don’t want rather than the one[s] I do want.) In that other WiP, the forbidden relationship is, er… Well, there are a few. MMC’s first girlfriend (centuries dead), FMC’s parents (effectually missing), and then the MMC and FMC (because the… — Read More »
Ooo, interesting! Yes, that last one definitely fits the structure we’re discussing here. As someone mentioned in a comment about this post on Facebook, the Midpoint might be a commitment to the person rather than a commitment to the relationship per se. I thought that was a great way to see the possibilities of how the Midpoint beat doesn’t have to be thought of a narrow or limiting. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
“the character will now make choices with their eyes wide open.”
I’m way behind with reading this post, Jami, but very glad I did. The quote I pasted here opened MY eyes–never thought of the midpoint in that way before. Thank you, and thanks so much for the beat sheets, too. Have a great day!
I understand! The more I learn about the Midpoint, the more it’s one of my favorite beats. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
wow. this is really cool to read about. my midpoint is the first i love you’s between two teens in a forbidden romance. It’s so interesting reading about all of this! Thank you! 🙂 stay pretty
Sounds perfect! Good luck with your story, and thanks for the comment. 🙂
I’ve been ghost-reading your blog for a while and never posted a comment before, but tonight I feel compelled to. I’ve been struggling with my WIP (forbidden romance, nonetheless) mainly because I’m at the 75% mark and already have ~102,000 words (:-/) so I’m going back to my guidelines (mainly your blog as well as Janice Hardy’s) to revise before revision and figure out where I went wrong, otherwise I’m likely to have a quarter-of-a-million-words book! I’ve done ALL kinds of beat-sheets, including your Romance one, but couldn’t figure out what my Midpoint was for the life of me. Coming across this post, I saw it, and funny enough, it’s exactly at my ~50,000 word count! Now I need to trim here and there, but the essential part is I can rework my beat-sheet and get back on track. Thanks for your awesome posts! Not trying to steal a previous poster’s words, but you’ve literally opened my eyes too! 🙂
Yay! That definitely sounds do-able. I’m so glad this helped you. 😀 Thanks for letting me know, and good luck with your revisions!
This is a great article Jami, as ever. I am struggling with a forbidden romance. It goes from dislike at first sight, through gradual understanding, then friendship. At around the 25% mark the protagonist suddenly realises he’s attracted but decides he can ignore it, nothing he hasn’t managed before (and there is no sign the object is interested/available/permitted). At the mid-point (also the external plot midpoint) the protagonist realises he’s in much worse trouble than he thought – he’s fallen in love (subtextually obvious to the reader beforehand). In the follow-up scene he takes stock (following all your advice above), reflects on the potential damage to career, family etc, and decides to move forward with what *he* thinks is open eyes. i.e. he’s going to push the other character away whilst still providing crucial friendship, and anyway that doesn’t matter because there’s no hope because there’s no (overt) sign the object is interested. At about the 55-60% mark a tentative romantic relationship begins, but because of the unresolved issues and external plot, breaks apart at around 75%. Does that sound okay, or does is it sound problematic? I was kind of reassured by your answers to some other questions above, but I am still not sure. And I have another question, if you possibly have time: I have a romance arc plus character arcs and a couple of external plot arcs (all more or less intertwined). They start off staggered, so subsequent plot points don’t always happen at the same… — Read More »
Yes, that all sounds like it will work! 🙂
The percentages on a beat sheet always refer to the overall story–from page 1 (even if a prologue) to “The End.” However, it’s normal that we have multiple arcs–plot, character/emotional, romance, etc.–so which one “counts”? 🙂
I always keep the reader in mind. Which one will feel most like the Black Moment or whatever to the reader? This post about juggling multiple POVs might help explain what I mean, but if you have more questions about it, just let me know. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
Ah great! Thanks for the answers and reassurance. I will use my instinct and consider the readers for the plot points, that’s a really good suggestion.
Yay! Good luck! 😀
[…] How to Make a Forbidden Romance Work I love a bit of forbidden romance – this is an interesting read for anyone looking to write one! […]