Breaking Up with Third Act Breakups
I am a drama queen.
Not really, and definitely not in my everyday life—I am actually quite non-confrontational (to a fault) and a habitual people pleaser. (Gross, I know. I’m a work in progress, okay?) But when it comes to my books, I’m drama all the way, baby.
I have a tendency to pen a lot of yelling and slamming doors, and I come from a fanfic background where I set goals based on how much I could make readers cry. And one of the best ways for an author to gulp down the sweet tears of readers? By breaking up a couple you made them fall in love with.
Third act breakups are nothing new in Romance. They’re so common, their presence is almost as set in stone as the HEA rule.
“Though shall have a meet cute, banter, physical tension,
and a breakup before the final page.”
Or so we thought.
A RIPPLE IN THE READERVERSE
You may have noticed an angst shift in Romancelandia where writers are skipping this climactic catch-all, and readers are happy to let them fall by the wayside. So why the ban on breakups? Well, from what I can gather, it’s because shit’s bad enough in the real world and we just can’t take it in books right now.
Between contentious presidential elections, wars on human rights, actual war, climate change, and that whole pesky pandemic thing, readers aren’t looking for more pain to add to their tired hearts. Writers don’t have the energy to sob through drafts and revisions of angst either. Some people never wanted to write them or read them because that’s not their jam (seems weird but okay), and even as a high drama angsty writer, I’m swerving the breakup more often than not these days.
The call to quit them completely has become louder (from my viewpoint) on social media – some readers and authors happy to never see one again, and others in stark defense of this common plot point.
Personally, I’m all for challenging the rules and finding new routes to get to the same endgame. But I also believe that before you break down walls, you should know why they were erected in the first place.
(hehe, I said erected)
WHY DO WE EVEN HAVE THESE?
Like seriously, who decided we needed a third act breakup?
Well, from a plot and pacing and beat standpoint, it kinda just makes sense?
Let's take a quick gander at a very loose interpretation of a 4 Act pacing structure:
ACT I – The Love Interests Meet and Plot Inciting Incident Gets Us Going
ACT II - Falling in Sweet Love (up to middle)
ACT III – Plot Running Amok and Ruining the Romance up to the Bleak Moment
ACT IV – Fixing Your Shit and HEA
That third act breakup just fits sooooo perfectly at the end of ACT III, hitting that sweet spot of OH NO EVERYTHING IS RUINED!!! SADNESS, HEARTACHE!
(Katie laughs evilly and sips more tears.)
It also gives authors the ultimate reward of putting the two characters back together, resulting in those ooey gooey swoony feelings that are the REAL reason we read and write romance. Because it’s all about those THEY BELONG TOGETHER FOREVERRRRR feels, right?
But aside from plot beat pacing law, and mean authors making readers cry, what’s the breakup really supposed to accomplish here? Is there a deeper reason other than “Because someone said so?”
WHAT PURPOSE DO THEY SERVE?
In my highly personal opinion, the whole reason we have characters break up is not just because we want them to get back together, but because the breakup itself is one of the strongest ways of testing the relationship. And these relationships need to be tested.
After thousands of words of us yelling THIS IS YOUR PERSON, we need those goofball characters to encounter a crossroads where they will have to loudly declare their intentions - to themselves, to each other, to the world. Even better to have them do it in the face of the worst possible (plot) thing to happen to them, because we need love to conquer all. And thank goodness for Romance, because we know – WE KNOW – that no matter what, love will prevail in the end.
But the characters don’t know that.
This is their chance to find out for themselves that they can’t live without each other. It’s also their first big hurdle in what should be a long-lasting relationship. Because how are we supposed to expect them to stay together for eternity and deal with the challenges of everyday life if they can’t get through *this*?
So we test them.
We push them to their breaking point.
We put them on a cliff and say “FOREVER OR NEVER.” And because we’re really mean, we usually make them jump off into the gaping canyon of Never, and then have them catch a tree branch at the last second – albeit one they can climb back up before they actually fall to their lonely heartbroken death.
(I told y’all I was a dramatic writer, sorry not sorry!)
The point is, this is when they have to choose that this is their person, for better or worse, despite the flaws and the challenges, and that their love is worth fighting for. So we break them up to make them realize what they stand to lose.
Stakes are important, we can agree on that at least, right?
But is there a way to have those stakes, make them choose, and possibly not go through the whole split-up-and-get-back-together process?
DO YOU NEED TO BREAK THEM UP?
You certainly can, and I have hopefully outlined above why it’s been such a hallmark of the Romance genre for so long. It works well, and it gets the job done. But the truth is, it’s not actually a requirement of the genre. Not all relationships have to break up at some point to be worthy of going the distance. In fact, it may be healthier if they don’t.
Characters – hopefully – should be able to communicate their problems and work through them. I’m told that it’s possible to have them sit down and calmly, rationally work through their shit and come out the other side. (I’m still testing this theory. I like writing arguments, okay?)
Furthermore, if these characters were your real-life friends, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable rooting for them to stay together and buy a condo and maybe pop out some babies if they can show their ability to maturely face their problems head-on without resorting to breaking up?
FINDING WAYS AROUND IT
To make this very clear, as a hardcore plotter and beat-sheet evangelist, I am not out here advocating for no bleak moment.
I’m not saying to kill the climax.
Without tension, we have no reason to keep going in a story, nor would we have any way to tempt readers to continue turning pages. Straight up, if your epilogue starts at 70%, I’m gonna be poopy about it.
We still need to test these characters, give them problems to solve, and a way to overcome their plot adversity until it’s truly time for them to rest and skip off into the sunset. I’m just saying that there may be other ways of approaching the bleak moment in the third act rather than a breakup.
So what are they?
That depends on you, the writer, and your characters. I’ve tried many approaches.
I’ve pushed them close to a breakup, like totally convinced them it was over without actually saying the words, and then had them talk it out instead. Sometimes those talks happen with yelling and tears (hehe), and sometimes it’s with whispers and hugs and gentle understanding. (I can be nice sometimes.)
I’ve also tried moving the breakup to a different couple – instead of it being between the main love interests, I had it between one love interest and their family member, with the second love interest’s job being to provide comfort and support through the dark moment. (Basically, I broke up a different pairing inside the book, and showed the lovers conquering their challenges as a united team. Jury is still out on whether I pulled this off.)
You could have the breakup be between a character and their main goal, whether that’s a job or a contest or a promotion or whatever. Or maybe they have to be physically separated and suffer the woes of being apart, but they deal with the distance without actually breaking up and find a way back to each other.
The point is, you can still break the characters down, make them confront their fears and issues, whip up some delicious page-turning tension, and have them come out on the other side.
RECOMMENDATIONS & EXAMPLES
Ditching the breakup is a technique that writers have been playing with for a good long while, and something I constantly mess with myself in my own writing. If you’re unsure about it, or wondering whether a third act breakup is something you have to suffer through in your own stories, please, feel free to abandon it. Write what you want, how you want. And if you’re at all nervous over whether there’s a market for stories with no breakup, let me tell you: THERE IS.
I recently placed an open call on Twitter for examples of books with no breakup / soft third acts, and it exploded into many, many examples across the genre of how to do it well.
Here’s the tweet that overflowed with recs, along with some of the notable ones that caught my eyes:
Midnight by Beverly Jenkins
Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle
Score Her Heart / Against the Boards by Danica Flynn
The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan
Smitten by Lauren Rowe
The Cheat Sheet by Sarah Adams
A Reluctant Attraction by Rosanna Leo
Cold Hearted by Heather Guerre
Baby Got Pack by Xavier Neal
The Sweetest Connection by Denise Williams
Tanked by Mia Hopkins
Fast Acting / The Wedding Bait by Adele Buck
All Played Out by Cara Cormack
Prime Mating Agency by Regine Abel
Heated Rivalry / The Long Game by Rachel Reid
Rafe / A Walk in the Park by Rebekah Weatherspoon
GO FORTH, AND BE BRAVE
As always, happy reading! (and writing!)