There’s been a bit of chatter on Twitter among romance readers and writers about what’s known as the third act break-up in romances and I thought I’d weigh in with some thoughts, as both a reader and a writer.
It’s an unwritten rule that romances are structured with obstacles at the beginning, the emotional development building up to a climax where the couple have to face the strong forces keeping them apart and then a denouement, where everything works out for the happy ever after. It’s so common, I’ve rarely read a romance where there is no crisis.
The advice usually doled out to aspiring writers is to make the moment of crisis a result of the obstacles (usually internal) that stop your characters from falling in love immediately, so you can often feel what’s coming and that is a way to keep the tension up in a book where everyone knows the ending.
But some readers have expressed dismay at the necessity of a third-act break-up which, they think, undermines the development of the romance that came before i.e. they can’t have been so in love if they let THAT break them up.
I can see both sides of this debate and, as with many aspects of writing romances, so much of it is about HOW you write it, so, I think, if a writer is aware of these challenges, that will go a long way towards solving them.
Firstly, it’s important to plan the reason for the break-up and build it in earlier so that it feels necessary and natural, something they have to face and move past before they can embrace their love. If it’s an added obstacle late in the game, or a mistake by one of the characters, the reader can feel cheated.
Secondly, it’s important to balance the obstacle with the belief that the characters can overcome that obstacle. Even when the characters are miserable, you need to keep that strand of belief alive. The reader knows there will be an HEA in there somewhere, but it can feel pretty bleak if the obstacle feels completely insurmountable. It’s this aspect that I think some readers complain about: why do authors have to put them through the wringer with these break-ups?
The question that’s been asked on Twitter and elsewhere remains: can you have a romance entirely without the third-act break-up? Ultimately? I’m sure you can. It would be an interesting challenge to fiddle with the romance canon. But it would have to be done with some other kind of emotional climax, otherwise you’d risk leaving the readers strangely unsatisfied. After all, if you’ve sent your characters through the drama of a break-up and they’ve still found their HEA, at least the reader has a good chance of believing that their love is real.
I’ve never tried writing one without a break-up, but I have been thinking about it a lot. These two Venice books of mine are both very… gentle in this regard. I purposefully kept the second book a long way away from acrimony. The break-up has to come it’s clear why, but they don’t blame each other and they both treasure the relationship, in whatever form it has to take. It’s a smooth continuation of the way they’ve grown and changed since meeting each other and they quickly realise what they’d be prepared to change to fix the problem.
For A Match Made in Venice, I got some feedback from one of my usual critique partners that pointed out what’s interesting about the crisis: usually, these moments occur because of misunderstandings (ooh-ergh), but this one occurred because the characters were completely honest with each other (but were still wrong). And it leads to my favourite ‘light-bulb’ moment I’ve ever written.
In Italy Ever After, I didn’t want a big crisis, so it develops incrementally and there’s no specific break-up (because the characters never really got together officially). My Christmas Number One has a classic crisis moment, brought on because of the character’s fears and assumptions and their inability to admit how much the relationship means to them. But the scene afterwards is bizarrely my favourite part of the whole book, when Cara is miserable, but somehow it’s funny…
Another book I was thinking about a lot in this context was A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore. It’s quite angsty and covers some serious topics, so you can taste the crisis coming and you just know it’s going to kill you when it comes. I found it quite difficult to read on for a few chapters, just worrying how much the characters were going to suffer. But that’s the power of her characters, really, and I think she balanced it very well in the end with hope that they would be strong enough to get through it. It’s a gorgeous book and Tristan is one of my favourite romance heroes ever.
Do you have a favourite book for the crisis? Do like to read angsty or light?