The Two Kinds of Lesfic Plots

And the Writers and Readers Who Prefer Each

Lesfic – or, as it’s becoming more commonly and more inclusively called, WLW (women who love women) romance – has two basic plots. Like all romance, the goal is for the characters to get together at the end of the book. This can be accomplished by having them immediately attracted, getting together by the midpoint, and then breaking up in order to get together for real at the end. Or they can only end up as a couple at the end of the book. Let’s review some recent releases to see which plot pathway they follow and how each might find its payoff with readers.

We’re Together, Now We’re Not, Now It’s Back On

846-07760710 © ClassicStock / Masterfile Model Release: Yes Property Release: No 1930s TWO WOMEN DRINKING SODAS EATING ICE CREAM AT SODA SHOP COUNTER

In the first plot pathway, the two love interests are usually instantly attracted to each other. This has been true in many of the books I’ve read recently, with one character usually narrating their visual appreciation for the other character. She’s hot, and it’s an immediate physical attraction.

But, this being romance, they can’t land at their happily ever after right away, or there wouldn’t be a story left to read. Usually, the writer has them get together – likely through a sexual encounter – but some outside force causes their relationship to fall apart at about three-quarters of the way through the book.

Melissa Brayden’s Entangled, for instance, has the lead couple Joey and Becca really happy with some hot sex before a series of related professional disasters cause Joey to walk away from their relationship. During panels at reader conventions and author chats, Melissa often talks about how she loves finding the moment when she can pull the rug out from under a relationship, just as readers are starting to feel satisfied with it. It’s a move that makes the reader need to turn the page. As readers, we go from happily flipping pages to see the hot sex or loving domestic scenes play out to frantically flipping pages with our hearts in our stomachs to see if the couple will be able to get back on track because we know they belong together.

Georgia Beers’ Flavor of the Month follows a similar pattern. There’s an intense sex scene between Charlie and Emma, who are just starting to understand and connect with each other, before everything falls to pieces.

Two women staring angrily at each other, Hollywood, California, circa 1930. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

But it’s romance, so of course the pieces are able to be glued back together, and the couple succeeds.

In my forthcoming book, The Queen Has a Cold, Remy and Sam are instantly drawn to each other, but there are so many things standing in the way of their relationship: a monarchy, a social class divide, a prospective fiancee, and palace intrigue that threatens the reign of Remy’s mother, Queen Clotilde. Just as Remy and Sam make an advance in their relationship, the forces against them ratchet up to a point where there’s just no way they can ever really be together. Since it’s a romance, I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you they get their happy ending, but I won’t tell you how. You have to buy the book to find that out.

This plot pathway keeps readers hooked if they’re already rooting for the couple. It also allows the writer to include a scorching sex scene earlier in the book, which can be another hook for a reader and often a way to demonstrate the characters belong together. Their sexual chemistry and innate understanding of each other’s bodies are often a physical parallel to their emotional connection. If the book features a second explicit sex scene after the characters’ reconciliation, it serves as a kind of homecoming.

We’re not a Couple….Yet

The second plot pathway doesn’t have the characters get together until the end of the book. Sometimes readers call this a “slow burn” because it takes so much time and fuel to get the relationship going. The advantage to this pathway is that the characters get a long time to know each other before they connect sexually or romantically – and, by extension, so do the readers. Sometimes this is through the enemies-to-lovers trope, in which the characters don’t initially like each other, but sometimes it’s just because the characters are slow to build their feelings.

By the final few chapters of these books, we are desperate for those characters to wake up and see the light of day – that they belong together. Or, if they already know but there are forces outside them keeping them apart, we become desperate for them to hurry up and defeat these forces.

This is the plot of most of those Hallmark movies in which one character already has a fiance or an accidental husband from when she was a teenager or a boyfriend who is more committed to work than to her. It works on Hallmark because there’s no need for kissing or sex, since the couple isn’t a couple until the final few scenes.

I’ve just finished reading Clare Lydon’s Before You Say I Do, in which a bride-to-be falls in love with a professional bridesmaid who has been hired to help the wedding run smoothly. Because Abby, the future bride, has never identified as lesbian or bisexual, it takes her a long time to recognize that her feelings for Jordan are sexual and romantic. They still have their moment of having the tower fall apart, since Abby is about five minutes away from marrying a man, but the bulk of the book is Abby’s self-discovery and awakening.

Jae’s The Roommate Arrangement is another example. Steph and Rae are opposites forced to fake being in a relationship for the sake of an apartment, and there’s not much conflict between them except that they’re blind to see how great they’d be together until the end.

My first book, The Holiday Detour, follows this path, too. Dana and Charlie are so fixated on their ridiculous misadventure to get to the Chicago suburbs to their families that they don’t realize until the following morning that they have developed feelings for each other.

While the first plot pathway gives us a chance to see smoking sexual dynamics earlier in the book, this plot pathway gives us a chance to see how friendship can blossom. And it’s fun to know something before the characters do. It might take them ten chapters to figure out they belong together, but we can tell from page one. Author KD Williamson says the slow burn can leave the reader breathless because (like sex) there is something very satisfying about a romance taking its time to reach its boiling point, as opposed to happening hard and fast.

Neither plot pathway is better than the other; they’re just two possibilities for romance to develop. Each offers readers a way of feeling those intense sensations of passion, heartache, and anticipation that make romance so exciting.

The Holiday Detour is available everywhere now, and The Queen Has a Cold is available for preorder through Bold Strokes Books. It will be released in April 2021.

New book preview: one scene, two ways

This week instead of analyzing some aspect of romance as I usually do, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at my current royal romance work-in-progress. The narrative is “broken” (as they say in the screenwriting biz), meaning all the beats have been plotted, and now I’m just putting the story into prose. But sometimes, even when a narrative is fully outlined in advance, the characters can take me in unexpected directions.

As I was writing a scene in which our two eventual lovers are on a private jet heading to the royal one’s micro-country, the characters started getting a lot more passionate than I had anticipated. (Honestly, for a second, I began writing erotica instead of the sweet romance I have dedicated myself to!) They flew out of Boston, where they were both regular old graduate students. In our fictional country, Remy, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them/their pronouns, is heir to the throne and bound by traditions like marrying to protect the royal line. The other, Sam, is an unknown American commoner. Time on the airplane is precious; one the plane lands, they know their lives will change. But they haven’t yet admitted their feelings for each other. They’re still figuring out what their antagonistic meeting says about their friendship or any possible romance.

Now here’s the question of the scene: as they begin to grow more passionate, should it be Sam who admits she’s in love or Remy? Currently, Remy’s made the first move, putting them in the position of vulnerability and giving Sam the power to reject or accept their advances. But if Sam tells Remy her feelings, she leaves herself exposed because, really, their feelings are immaterial to the reality that Remy is expected to marry someone else. (Don’t worry, gentle reader. This is a romance novel, and it’ll get sorted out, and they will end up together. We know that. But they don’t!)

Let’s look at the scene as I first wrote it:

After an eternity, Remy pulled away from her mouth and put their foreheads together. They were still holding hands. “I want you so badly,” they whispered, their breath hot on Sam’s face. “I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.”

Sam didn’t know how to respond. It was the declaration she had been waiting for. Confirmation that she hadn’t imagined all the tension between them and that Remy wasn’t just using her and didn’t just see her as a source of unconditional support. As a lower class plaything. And although their first meeting had been a mess, their dinner together had been a dream. Breakfast together – was it only yesterday? – had felt so intimate, like they were old friends and lovers catching up on secrets they wouldn’t share with anyone else.

“I want you too.” Her words came out in a breath, and she clutched tighter to Remy.

“You can have me,” they said, but their voice was tinged with sadness. “Whenever you want, you can have me.”

Sam pulled back enough to get a good look at them and gave her own wistful smile back.

“But I can’t,” she admitted. “Because you have to marry Genevieve.”

She shook her head. Was it better to know that Remy shared her feelings? Had something changed between them now? Or was knowing worse because she couldn’t have them, and this just another one of the disappointments she’d experienced since she’d met them? No, not another disappointment. The worst one imaginable.

“Oh, Remy,” she said, feeling tears spill over. “You have just ruined me. Every time I think I can trust you, there’s always one really big hitch.”

Although Remy puts Sam in the position of power by pledging that she can be the one who decides when they will kiss, have sex, date, whatever “have me” means, Sam realizes their words may be emotionally true, but they aren’t going to be a physical reality. Sam might get to sleep with Remy on the flight if she wants to, but she’s never going to “have” Remy. Someone else will. Although she’s hurt at the end of the scene, she at least has the power to not sleep with Remy, to not allow herself to be hurt, because she knows Remy’s going to marry someone else in the long run.

Now let’s look at the second version of this scene:

After an eternity, Remy pulled away from her mouth and put their foreheads together. They were still holding hands. “I want you so badly,” they whispered, their breath hot on Sam’s face. “I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.”

Sam didn’t know how to respond. It was the declaration she had been waiting for. Confirmation that she hadn’t imagined all the tension between them and that Remy wasn’t just using her and didn’t just see her as unconditional support for their gender. As a lower class plaything. And although their first meeting was a mess, their dinner together had been a dream. Breakfast together – was it only yesterday? – had felt so intimate, like they were old friends and lovers catching up on secrets they wouldn’t share with anyone else.

She wanted to their kiss to carry them away. To tumble to the couch together before the plane landed and everything changed. She wanted to see and touch their body. To show them it was beautiful, however it was made. She wanted to let them watch her come undone in the most private way. And she wanted to be responsible for making them come undone, to see, finally, behind their shields.

“You can have me.” Her words came out in a breath, and she clutched tighter to Remy. “Whenever you want, you can have me.”

“But I can’t,” Remy admitted. “Because I have to marry Genevieve.”

Sam jerked away from them. Since they’d met, she’d kept her cool and protected herself from their nonchalance. Had something changed between them now that she’d admitted she desired Remy too? Or was it worse because now she’d made herself vulnerable and felt the sting of rejection? Was she this just another one of the disappointments she’d experienced since she’d met them? No, not another disappointment. The worst one imaginable.

“Oh, Remy,” she said, feeling tears spill over. “You have just ruined me. Every time I think I can trust you, there’s always one really big hitch.”

As in the previous scene, Remy tries to give Sam power by admitting their desire for her and letting Sam decide if she wants to admit hers back. In this version, she does. She pledges herself to Remy, and it’s Remy who shatters her hope with the reality that they can’t really be together. This version has more emotional sting, but it also has the uncomfortable reiteration of their power dynamic: Remy/royal/wealthy/powerful vs. Sam/commoner/poor/vulnerable.

Which version will make it into the final manuscript, and how will they get out of the mess of Remy’s forced marriage to Genevieve? You’ll have to wait and see!

To series or not to series?

I recently tweeted a semi-complaint, semi-joke that while brainstorming my next novel with my wife at dinner one night, she essentially rewrote the entire plot and then explained to me how it should be a series, rather than a standalone novel. My wife is a very talented musician who understands the Instagram generation in ways I never will, but she has never called herself a writer. So I took this advice as helpful – it was! – and also kind of laughed at how zealous she had been.

But, two days later, I’m still thinking about her idea.

I write standalone novels, which makes me a little unusual in today’s publishing world. I see and hear characters and write out their story to its end, which in romance means a declaration of love and reasonable assurance they will remain happy together. Usually, the next two characters who need to find each other to find happiness pop into my head halfway through drafting of the previous story, and once revisions on that previous story are complete, I let the new characters tell me what’s up. I don’t usually think about how the old characters are doing, except to revisit their story every now and then and smile (since, after all, I wrote it, and at least I like it if no one else does).

Writers, do you ever re-read your own work and just bask in how great it is?

But writing a series doesn’t have to mean writing sequels. This is helpful for me to keep in mind for romance, where the happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) is the conclusion of the story. What comes after that? The only plausible way to create a sequel is to force the characters into some conflict that drives them apart. Like the marriage plot, in which two characters fall in love and end up engaged or married at the end, the remarriage plot sees characters already in love broken up, and the goal of the plot is to bring them back together. It can work when done well, but it can also involve silly, contrived conflict that threatens the original story for the characters in the first place.

Some remarriage plots are just plain torturous, but The Parent Trap is an example of this plot done delightfully.

(Sidenote: I have also read sequels in which writers didn’t understand conflict drives plot, and the story became 200 pages of happy people doing happy things. This might sound cute, but it’s actually a very boring waste of time. I’m looking at you, that novel with the wedding in Nantucket.)

Let’s say Jessie and Tom are the heroes of a classic romance. Now living their “happily ever after” in the sequel, something must happen to drive the story. Maybe the catalyst is that Jessie discovers she’s pregnant, and Tom doesn’t want the baby. Or maybe Jessie’s ex-girlfriend comes back to town, and now Jessie doesn’t know if she wants to stay with Tom. Either of these will work to separate Tom and Jessie so that they can declare their love again and be reunited by the book’s conclusion, but these plots also mean we learn Jessie and Tom aren’t the great people we were rooting for in book one. In the first example, Tom turns out to be a jerk who is willing to dump a partner and child. In the second, Jessie’s declaration of love for Tom was obviously contingent: she loves him so long as there’s not someone else she loves better. In neither case will the reader feel good when the two are reunited because it’s now clear they could easily be separated again in the future.

My wife’s suggestion at dinner, though, was to think about extending the book to the side couples who populate its scenes. What is the story of each of them? How did they each meet, become attracted, face barriers that kept them apart, and finally surmount those obstacles? What was their adventure before they became the background to another couple’s? These are interesting stories worth telling. Although I have not played in the same world more than once, she had a good idea. Since the book (books?) isn’t sold yet, I can’t give you the full details on the plot, but suffice it to say, it’s a cute story that would lend itself really well to this kind of series.

Sit tight, readers. This one may take me a while to write, but it might be worth it.

When Romance Doesn’t Work

The fundamental building block for all romance (novels, movies, comics) is fantasy. Characters must be flawed but sexy, imperfectly desirable. From their meet-cute to the tensions that keep this obviously destined couple apart to their final declaration of love, we go along with the fantasy of believing that romance exists, that some people just belong together, and that love will always find a way.

Surely they can make this work!

Romance hinges upon fantasy, it’s true. But good romance also feels plausible. It’s fantasy but not fantastic. The reader (or viewer) has to believe the characters are real and that, as wild as the circumstances may be, they will overcome their obstacles to be together. (Let’s put aside our cynicism about what may happen with their relationship two months down the road. Not thinking about what comes after “happily ever after” is also part of the fantasy.)

What happens when characters seem out of this world? What happens when the circumstances that keep them apart seem so big that overcoming them seems impossible? Or what about when the circumstances are too minor? Let’s break down each of these questions to see how good romance is plotted.

Unbelievable Characters

A character with a flaw is always more intriguing, but this may be a line too far…

I’ve blogged about this phenomenon before. It’s an easy trap for a writer – especially a romance writer – to fall into. But when a writer is too in love with their own character, it’s hard to write them in a way that makes them imperfectly desirable. Perfection is not sexy. “Flawless” is a desirable trait for a photo shoot with Beyonce, but not for a romance story.

In my current novel, which I’ve also blogged about, things are progressing slowly because I’m struggling to find the balance between lovably awful and awfully lovable. The character is a wealthy narcissist, but if they only flaunted their wealth, it would be gross to the other 99% of us in the real world. If they are too self-absorbed, they’ll never see the beautiful person that their love interest is. Striking a balance is important.

But this can also tip too far in the other direction. I’ve read many romance novels in which male love interests are written to be petulant, emotionally stunted, aggressive, just plain awful, and unfortunately the writer never shows another side. We’re just expected to believe that the women who fall for these men are fine with this. I could digress here and say a lot about the way society conditions girls to participate in cis hetero relationships, but I’ll save the sociology lecture. Suffice it to say, good romance writing can’t make a hero or heroine too perfect or too awful.

Insurmountable Obstacles

A similar difficulty in romance writing is making the obstacles that keep the characters apart balanced. It should be tough for them to get together. That’s part of the pleasurable agony of romance. But we should also recognize from page one (or scene one) that they are going to get together in the end. Good romance doesn’t leave readers or viewers to wonder if the couple will get together.

Remember You’ve Got Mail or its precursor The Shop Around the Corner? In the 1990s version, a local bookshop owner loses her livelihood and entire life to a chain bookstore (which, hopefully, faced its karma ten years later when it was put out of business by Amazon). With her store and life ruined, Kathleen (Meg Ryan) is now free to write children’s books, which it turns out is what she always wanted to do. She is also free to love her business rival Joe (Tom Hanks).

Let’s break this down for a second. He drives her shop out of business. The shop her mother started. The shop that keeps all the neighborhood children entertained. The shop that she has devoted her life to. And she says, “Oh, well, at least I’ve got you?”

Yeah, the only reason this got a pass was Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Putting someone out of business is a common theme in Hallmark movies. In novels, I’ve seen dark romances in which a hero actually commits a crime against their love interest, kills someone close to their love interest, or worse. There is an entire body of romance scholarship on narratives in which the hero abducts and/or rapes the heroine. This material is tricky, and I couldn’t adequately talk about in this short essay. So I’ll just say this: a good romance narrative shouldn’t ask the reader or viewer to believe one character is sacrificing their emotional, mental, financial well-being for the relationship. The circumstances that stand between the love interests should be challenging but not so life-changing as to never be fully surmounted.

Barriers That Aren’t Barriers

In lesser quality romance, writers and screenwriters seem to struggle creating barriers between the characters. This can be as frustrating as barriers that are too significant. We know from the first page or scene that the characters are going to end up together. That’s the pact producers, writers, editors, directors, audiences, and readers make with each other in romance. But at least give us two hours of wondering how.

One of my favorite romance tropes is royal romance. In these stories, one of the love interests is royalty, usually from a made-up European country, while the other is a commoner, usually a middle- or working-class American. Talk about barriers! Not only do we have an economic disparity, but there’s also giant cultural and political differences, fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. Does success and wealth come from hard work (the American value) or from pedigree (the monarchical value)?* Is marriage a coming together of two people in love (American) or two people whose families are politically and economically aligned (monarchical)?*

*Of course, these values aren’t solely American, nor are they the reality of American society — or a lot more of us would be rich for all the hustling we do.

Most of the time these stories resolve this tension this way: the kings, queens, and prime ministers who insist the royal character must marry royalty eventually realize true love is more important than bloodline. Does this make sense for a real life monarchy? Kind of, kind of not. (This is why Duchess Meghan has captivated the American media.)

But does this make sense for romance? Oh yell yes! Different citizenship, political systems, and economic classes are tough barriers to overcome. How enjoyable to see them surmounted through a radical change in political philosophy.

Imagine if Lizzy Bennet were wealthy, and the only thing standing between her and Mr. Darcy was their unwillingness to admit their love for each other. A good writer could perhaps make this compelling, but more than likely, we’d think it was a boring story because it would seem as if the characters were just being silly or emotionally unaware. This is why romance sequels are usually less than satisfying. Once the couple has gotten together and the barriers have been overcome, it’s hard to wedge the couple back apart without convincing us that this new wedge is a dumb contrivance or that the couple never should have gotten together in the first place.

Recap: Three Essential Qualities of Good Romance

  1. Believable characters who are not perfect but still very likeable
  2. Obstacles that don’t leave us wondering if the couple will ever get together
  3. Obstacles that do leave us wondering how the couple will get together

What are your biggest pet peeves about romance narratives, and how do you think writers could fix them?