Understanding Romance Arcs: The Second Half of Act II

Have you ever heard of Gwen Hayes’s book on romance story structure, Romancing the Beat? Since I’m a big fan of Three Act Structure, I found the book to be an excellent resource when it comes to crafting relationships in my own writing.

However, up until now one aspect never quite clicked for me: “Phase 3: Retreating from Love.”

Phase 3: Retreating from Love

This phase of the story takes place in the second half of ACT II (that is, spanning the 50% point to the 75% point of your book). In terms of Three Act Structure, this is the part of the book where your protagonist starts acting in enlightened ways and begins making headway against the antagonist.

From the perspective of a romantic relationship, Hayes describes this period as one of deepening doubt between the protagonist and the love interest. This deepening doubt culminates in a moment where both characters essentially “break up” because their worst fears have just been realized. They both retreat from love, choosing instead to cling to their lies about themselves, their love interest, and the world.

Deepening intimacy — and deepening doubts

What I’ve always found tricky about this part of romance plot structure is that the midpoint is considered a high point. It’s a false high, mind you, but nonetheless a position where both characters are in love and seem to have everything they want, right there.

So how can that intimacy continue, and even appear to be growing, while at the same time each character’s doubts are also growing?

Phase 3 in action

I recently started brainstorming a new fantasy project which will have a strong romantic subplot, so I’ve been mulling this over for a while. Oh, and studying other novels with excellent romantic subplots.

Finally, I think I’ve come to an understanding of how “Phase 3” works — or, at least, what this “Phase 3” will look like for two of my characters in this book.

To provide some context, the protagonist (MC) is magically hiding his true identity and monstrous nature from his human love interest (FMC). However, at the midpoint MC decides to begin enlisting FMC’s help so he can make better progress on his story goal.

As they work together, he can’t help but begin showing her little pieces of who he really is. This feeds his insecurities. He knows FMC is observant, and he’s leaving her a trail of breadcrumbs that will eventually lead her to discovering his non-human nature.

So while it looks like the two of them are growing closer (as it turns out, they make a great team!), MC is also growing more and more afraid. He’s beginning to regret trusting FMC this much, even though he’s closer than ever to achieving his story goal. He starts withdrawing from FMC (which, from FMC’s perspective, is adding fire to her own deepening doubts concerning abandonment).

MC is scared of FMC’s inevitable rejection and hate should she ever learn the truth about him. His greatest fear is that rejection; he’s endured this sort of pain in the past already, and he doesn’t plan to endure it again.

But when FMC discovers what he is at the 75% mark and is terrified of him, his worst nightmare is realized — and he completely retreats, shutting away his heart so he won’t be hurt again. He literally flees without explaining anything to FMC or otherwise trying to make things right.

This is the “Break Up” beat, closely followed by the “Dark Night” beat in Gwen Hayes’s romance plot structure. In essence, MC’s fear and reluctance to open himself up and be honest with FMC has led to this point.

What’s next?

Of course, the 75% point of the book leaves readers on a pretty dire note.

That’s where ACT III (or Phase 4 in Gwen Hayes’s book) comes to the rescue — this is a chance for the characters to fight for their love. In my story’s case, if they fight hard enough, both characters can overcome their fears. And, once again, love can conquer all. :relaxed:

Photo by David Selbert from Pexels

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