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  • Writer's pictureTina Radcliffe

Deconstructing a Romance Novel

Updated: Jan 11

What does deconstructing even mean, you might ask.

It's simply an analysis. A breaking down of the parts.

Why would we want to deconstruct a romance novel?

Actually, there are many good reasons to analyze a romance novel.

1. To examine how an author utilizes the structural story elements.

2. To discover a "formula" for writing for a particular genre (sub-genre) or publisher.

3. To find out how an author is able to put words together to elicit a certain emotion and response.

4. To interpret the author's underlying message or theme.

As I was teetering on the brink of my first sale to Love Inspired, I deconstructed for the first time. I was already subscribed to the book club and received four books a month, which I devoured. The lesson there is to read widely in the genre you want to sell.

You will note a few authors who are most similar to your own style. These are the authors you will want to deconstruct. At that time, for me, it was Margaret Daley, and Carol Steward. They wrote excellent books and were fan favorites as well.

When I wrote my first "secret baby" book, Oklahoma Reunion, I read every single secret baby book I could get my hands on. In the end, I decided to have my hero act exactly opposite to the heroes in the books I read. But I needed that deconstruction to discover how I would approach a topic I was completely unfamiliar with. BTW, I deconstructed Susan Mallery and Linda Goodnight books.

Tools needed for basic deconstruction:

Keep it Simple. You will need two copies of the book you are deconstructing. One for your library (print or ebook) and one in print to deconstruct.

Use colored pens or markers that do not bleed through the page. I also use colored tabs and a legal pad for notes. Generally, pink is used for the heroine, blue is for the hero. You can create your own coding system for everything else.

These are the books I will be mentioning today. They are not all CBA books. I am not recommending you read them, simply using them as tools to explain deconstruction. There are many fine (700) books on my Kindle I could deconstruct, but it's easier with print.

Let's discuss in detail, the reasons to deconstruct or analyze a novel in the order of the four above points mentioned.

Reason 1. To examine how an author utilizes the structural story elements. Those pieces may include:



Six Stage Plot Structure


Internal Conflict

External Conflict



Scene Structure-Goal/Conflict/Disaster


I recommend you focus on chapters 1-3 to start and give each of these most important chapters a deep scrutiny. Simply go through and mark the elements you see without over-thinking.

Let's start with Safe in the Fireman's Arms, because chapter one is up on Amazon.

Here's how I would deconstruct each page, looking for as many elements as I can.

Think of deconstruction as a self-teaching tool. Deeply examine those structural elements that critique partners, Beta readers, editors and contest judges have pointed out as problematic in your own writing.

  • Romantic arc issues?

Let's review attraction. It's not easy to show attraction without being overt or cheesy and cliched, especially when you're trying to show not tell and fit the parameters of inspirational romance. I find that using the steps of intimacy and the romantic arc helps develop romance realistically: The Romantic Arc 2.0 provides examples. Take note of how other authors do this as you deconstruct. Still having problems? Pick up a copy of Julie Lessman's ROMANCE-ology 101: Writing Romantic Tension for the Inspirational and Sweet Markets.

  • Having problems with Six Stage Plot Structure?

Find authors who utilize this and deconstruct, looking only for the Plot Stages and Turning Points in the novel. Michael Hauge has nicely deconstructed Kristan Higgins' The Next Best Thing in this video. If you are a Higgins fan you will want to listen and physically write on the pages of the novel. Once you understand Six Stage Plot Structure you can do this easily with most romance novels, including YOUR OWN.

  • Character problems?

Did you first establish empathy by using two of these five traits for your protagonist/s? From Michael Hauge's The Hero's Two Journeys. Examine the book you are deconstructing for these traits.

1. Make the character the victim of an undeserved misfortune.

2. Put the character in jeopardy.

3. Make the character liked by others.

4. Make the character funny.

5. Make the character powerful.

Mary Kay Andrews heroine in Save the Date is the perfect example!

Cara Kryzik is a struggling florist. She's normal, she's sweet, she's funny. On the eve of the wedding that will make or break her career, her flower coolers go kaput, killing the inventory of flowers, then her father calls in her loan, and her dog is stolen by the hero.

Note the synchronicity of the opening and ending of chapter one.

Opening line hook: Something was off. Cara Kryzik was no psychic, but the minute her bare feet hit the floor that morning, she sensed it.

End of chapter hook: At least, she thought wryly, she now knew what was off. Everything. Everything was off. "I'm screwed, she whispered.

  • The problems of scene structure may include episodic writing, no plot movement, backstory dump, excessive introspective that slows pacing, and lack of end of chapter hook.

Scenes are created using this formula based on Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer: Scene functions to create emotion, move the story forward and create interest. Think of them as units of conflict.

The Structure of Scenes:

Goal-Character wants something

Conflict -2 characters with incompatible goals

Disaster-a hook, unexpected development, (can be an internal)

In his DVD, Creating Powerful Movie Scenes, Michael Hauge calls this Momentum of the Scene. "At the end of the scene, the hero must be somewhere different than he was at the beginning."

Classified Christmas Mission by Lynette Eason provides crystal clear examples of quick pacing, weaving in of backstory elements and the Goal/Conflict and Disaster of Scene Structure. In fact, all her scenes end with a disaster hook. This is really impressive and reminiscent of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books. It's a true page-turner stylistically.

I'll only share one example at the end of chapter one:

Amber lifted her head, and he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

In many of our inspirational romances, unless we are writing suspense, we have low tension, so the disaster can simply be an internal that demonstrates an unexpected development or trouble brewing. It hooks us to turn the page.

Safe in the Fireman's Arms end of scene one:

Reason 2. To discover a "formula" for writing a particular genre (sub-genre) or publisher.

Per RWA:

  • Series or "category" romances: books issued under a common imprint/series name that are usually numbered sequentially and released at regular intervals, usually monthly, with the same number of releases each time.

  • Single-title romances: longer romances released individually and not as part of a numbered series. Single-title romances may be released in hard cover, trade paperback, or mass-market paperback sizes.

In the old days (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) every publisher put out guidelines with word count and what they wanted to see. They handed them out at conferences like confetti, and they were readily available online. Those days are gone except for category romance. If you can even find word count, you're doing good. You must read the books they publish to discover what the basic parameters are for their releases (yes, this is a formula, though a loose one.) Then you have to write a really good book. Period.

For category romance, not only do you have to write a really good book, but you must fit the specific guidelines of the particular line if you want to sell. Harlequin is the only category publisher anymore.

Guidelines are available on the eHarlequin website. Google the editors to read interviews. Also, the editorial staff is available on social media to answer questions. Recently I asked a question on Editor Emily Rodmell's Facebook, and she immediately responded.

Tina Russo Radcliffe October 20 at 12:08pm
Question for the editor. LIS. Only United States or are international locals allowed-or maybe they are allowed briefly. Leave the country and come back? Asking for a friend. lololol
Emily Rodmell, Editor: Settings? U.S. preference. Wouldn't rule out an international setting but it's a harder sell.

As you are deconstructing you will want to look at the following (at very least), although some of these items can be author stylistic.

  • Presence of subplots

  • Number of characters in first three chapters

  • POV. Heroine only? Hero and Heroine. First person, third person?

  • Do any secondary characters get POV scenes?

  • The number of scenes per chapter.

  • How long is the book?

  • Compare the length of scenes. Of chapters.

  • How many scenes are the hero and heroine apart in the course of the book?

  • When are the hero and heroine introduced?

  • How long before the internal and external GMC are introduced?

Reason 3. To find out how an author is able to put words together to elicit a certain emotion and response.

What to look for? Signals. A signal will mark when an emotion begins and ends.

What are signals?

  • Facial expression

  • Musculoskeletal response

  • Autonomic response

  • The impulse to make a noise

Get your marker ready and deconstruct how authors write emotions and emotional response.

The warm, timeless smell of Bunny's Hungarian Bakery wraps around me like a security blanket, sugar and yeast and steam, and I inhale deeply.-Kristan Higgins, The Next Best Thing.

Higgins in the master of emotion. Can you feel the oozing of emotional response? If not, seek medical attention immediately.

Another example. Remember: emotion on every page.

Reason 4. To interpret the author's underlying message or theme.

Author Jenny Cruise says this about theme:

"Theme is the central, underlying idea in a work of art. In the best novels, theme is not obvious, but it’s always present embedded in different aspects of the novel. Some of the aspects to consider when deciding on theme are:

• setting

• the central plot question

• the protagonist’s internal conflict

• the protagonist’s character growth

• the beginning and ending

• and the title."

I am certain it was also Crusie who said that writers tend to write the same theme over and over again.

This is what I truly find fascinating about deconstruction!! You don't have to pay for therapy. Simply deconstruct your novels and figure out what your issues are.

And indeed, in The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers go so far as to say that repeated theme is a signature and a branding.

The theme of Kristan Higgins' books is discussed in an interview. “…the theme of losing a great love and being afraid to risk such heartbreak again permeates many of Kristan’s books.” You can read the entire interview here.

Mary Kay Andrews (Hissy Fit, Save the Date, Savannah Blues, The Fixer Upper) writes an underdog heroine theme. Typically, Andrews heroines' situations go from awkward to bad, to awful, to worse.

Claire Cook (Must Love Dogs, Seven Year Switch, Life's a Beach) has a running theme of starting over or reinventing oneself.

Can you identify the theme of many of your favorite authors?

There is much to be gleaned from deconstructing novels. Get started!


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