The structure of romance stories traditionally looks something like this:
Happily Ever After
The terms Meet Cute and Black Moment may not mean anything to fanfic readers, but they’re almost always present in well-written fics. The meet cute is when two protagonists meet for the first time or first see each other as possible romantic partners (this second option happens most often in the case of friends-to-lovers stories, though enemies-to-lovers stories have their fair share, too). The black moment is that one awful moment where everything seems lost. You know the one. The secret lovers get caught, a miscommunication ends in a huge fight, someone appears to be dead, or there’s mention of A Talk.
This structure has emerged as standard for romance over hundreds of years of storytelling and millions of stories and writers for very good reason: it makes people care about the story and feel something for the characters.
The initial scenes of a romance set up the goal, the payoff the characters are hoping for. They’ve met someone they find attractive, and they want to get to know them better. This immediately gives the reader something to care about, and assuming it’s done well, puts them in the character’s corner. As the relationship develops and the “I love you’s” roll out, the reader gets more and more sucked in. When the black moment hits, they’re right there wishing and hoping for the happy ending.
That’s investment—the hazelnut creme-filled chocolate bar of effective fiction. It’s exactly what you want. (And if you don’t want it, I’ll have it).
Investment in characters is what makes fanfic so fun and easy to read, after all. The readers already care about your characters when they click the link to the story. But here’s what the really unforgettable shipfic is doing: taking romance conventions and applying them to familiar characters and situations.
If fannishness is about feels, the intersection of fanfic (with characters and settings we already love) and romance (a genre designed to elicit immediate investment in characters) is the perfect storm of maximum emotional impact—it’s what makes good stories.
So, you want to write a good story? Study the formula romance writers have been using for centuries. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do that:
The Meet Cute moment is arguably the most important one of the entire story—it establishes not just who the characters are, but what’s important to them. In this case, that’s getting the opportunity to get to know another person better. That’s a goal almost everyone can empathize with, so it sets up an instant connection to the reader. This is even more fun to read in fanfic, because we already care about the characters. To maximize the impact of this stage of a story, make it clear there’s a connection between the characters, and it will matter to them if they don’t get to explore that connection further.
The relationship development phase is your chance to have fun and should generally be the bulk of the story. This is where all the cute, relationship building things happen, and this is where the stakes are made clear—what the two (or more!) characters have is new and wonderful but fragile, so they have everything to lose.
More or less anything goes here, from an unending string of sex scenes to shy hand-holding, awkward dates to unlikely situations that throw two characters together. It doesn’t matter so much what happens as how it happens—and that depends on what you want to show. From slow burn to insta-love, the key is to make it feel real for the characters—and by extension, the audience. Let the relationship develop organically, and it’ll come out a lot better (even if that means doubling or tripling your word count to do it).
The black moment is the other extremely important phase, though it needn’t be as dramatic as it sounds, and it needn’t be long—though there’s no reason it can’t be, either. I’ve personally written black moments that lasted a few paragraphs and ones that lasted for chapters, and both have been fine because they were a good fit for the story. This is also not strictly necessary—you can have a romantic story that never really hits a speed bump, but if you want to take the sure-fire unforgettable story route, you need one of these, and you need to make it good.
The point of the black moment is to put all the stakes on the table and then pull the tablecloth out from under them—the actual black moment is the second between tugging on the tablecloth and either hearing or not hearing the sound of shattering glass, but setting out the good crystal dramatically is often just as important. Some black moments throw the reader off a cliff, some crank them up to the top of a rollercoaster and leave them there, waiting for the fall. The important thing is that, for just a little while, it seems like the characters are going to lose (or have lost) everything they’ve been working for throughout the story.
The resolution is where you let the audience breathe again, and it’s there to provide the setup for happily ever after—or at least the happy for now. This is where you get out the wordy superglue to fix whatever you broke in the previous phase, and while it will often be forgotten, it’s where the bulk of the emotional satisfaction comes from. Make it count, because a bad or rushed resolution can make an otherwise wonderful story fall flat.
The happily ever after is the defining feature of a romance. It’s what sets romance apart from all other genres, and it’s what makes it a fun, pleasant space to read and write in. The comfort of the “and they lived happily ever after, to the end of their days” (or at least, “and they were happy, for the foreseeable future”) is unmatched by anything. It need only be a single line long (though it can be much longer), and it need not tie up all the loose ends. All it needs to do is assure the reader that the people involved will go on to have happy lives with each other.
That’s it. That’s the whole cheat sheet to high-impact, better fanfic. The details, as always, are up to you, but the structure gives you a framework for pacing, plot direction and order of events that’s used by every romance publishing house and every author, for the simple reason that people respond to it.
Try it. Tweak it. Play with it to make it suit you. I promise that once you understand how structure feeds into the way a story makes you feel, all of your writing will be better for it.