I’ve been battling a cold this week, so I am just going to go ahead an post the next lesson on structure and will announce September’s winner on Monday. Trust me, you don’t want me tallying with a NyQuil hangover. Anyway, for the past couple weeks, we have been discussing story structure. I like to run this series around NaNoWriMo to get you guys prepared. There is no sense in knocking out 50,000 words, if, at the end, we have an un-fixable mess. This series is designed to help make sure at least the bones of your story are sound.
Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs.
I bring the best teaching in the industry right to your computer in an easy-to-digest form to make you a great storyteller. Whether we are traditionally published, indie published or self-published, we must connect with readers and tell a great story. Structure is the “delivery system” for our story, so it’s wise to make it as solid as possible.
Welcome to Part IV of my Structure Series—Testing the Idea
I assume that most of you reading this aspire to be great novelists. Novels are only one form of writing and, truth be told, they aren’t for everyone. Stringing together 60-100,000 words and keeping conflict on every page while delivering a story that makes sense on an intuitive level to the reader is no easy task. That said, all novels begin with an idea. But how do we know if our idea has what it takes to make a great novel?
Many new writers start out with nothing more than a mental snippet, a flash of a scene or a nugget of an idea, and then they take off writing in hopes that seed will germinate into a cohesive novel. Yeah…um, no. Not all ideas are strong enough to sustain 60,000 or more words. Think of your core idea as the ground where you will eventually build your structure. Novels, being very large structures, require firm ground. So how do you know if the idea you have is strong enough?
Good question. Today we will discuss the fundamental elements of great novels. If your core idea can somehow be framed over these parts, you are likely on a good path.
James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure (which I highly recommend you buy & read, by the way) employs what he calls the LOCK system. Jim, being the SUPER AWESOME person he is, has granted me permission to talk about some of his methods today.
When you get the first glimmer of the story you long to tell, the idea that is going to keep you going for months of researching, writing, revisions and eventually submissions, it is wise to test its integrity. The LOCK system is one method we will discuss today.
Lead Objective Conflict Knockout… or, LOCK
First, we must have a sympathetic and compelling character. It is critical to have a protagonist that the reader will be able to relate to. Our characters must have admirable strengths and relatable weaknesses. Many new writers stray to extremes with protagonists, and offer up characters that are either too perfect or too flawed.
Perfect people are boring and unlikable and they lack any room to grow. Perfect characters are no different. New writers are often insecure and our protagonists are us…well, the perfect version of us anyway. Our heroines are tall and thin and speak ten languages and have genius IQs and rescue kittens in their free time…and no one likes them. Seriously.
Think about it for a moment. Why do so many people demonize women like Angelina Jolie or Martha Stewart? Because most of us feel very insecure around women like these. They show us where we are lacking, and so we don’t like them. Most of us cannot wrap our minds around what it is like to be too beautiful or have zillions of dollars or the free time to carve pumpkins into sculptures while making our own curtains from recycled prom dresses. These individuals fascinate us with their “perfection,” yet we secretly wait for them to trip up so we can revel in their failure–I knew it! She isn’t perfect!
That’s why STAR Magazine can sell hundreds of thousands of tabloids with the promise of showing us that Angelina Jolie has cellulite. We want to tear her down and make her human. Not the best way to start out with your protagonist. If we make her too perfect, readers will revel in her destruction.
We need readers to rally to her team, to like her and want to cheer for her to the end. How do we do this? Give her flaws, and humanize her. Additionally, if our characters are fully actualized in the beginning, there will be no character arc so our story will be one-dimensional and flat.
Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump are two great examples of great, flawed characters. We can all relate to not being the prettiest or the smartest and so these characters are easy to love and root for. What if you are writing a thriller or a suspense, something that generally has a cast of uber-perfect people? Give them flaws. Perfect characters are passé. Don’t believe me? Watch the new James Bond movies, and contrast Daniel Craig with Roger Moore.
Now, to look at the other side of the spectrum. Often to avoid the cliched “too perfect” character, an author will stray too far to the other end of extremes. The brooding dark protagonist is tough to pull off. In life, we avoid these unpleasant people, so why would we want to dedicate our free time to caring about them? Oh, but the author will often defend, “But he is redeemed in the end.” Yeah, but you’re expecting readers to spend ten hours (average time to read a novel) with someone they don’t like. Tall order.
To quote mega-agent, Donald Maas (The Fire in the Fiction):
Wounded heroes and heroines are easy to overdo. Too much baggage and angst isn’t exactly a party invitation for one’s readers. What’s the best balance? And which comes first, the strength or the humility? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that one is quickly followed by the other.
In my opinion, this was the single largest problem with the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was a little-kid-killer, ergo never redeemable…EVER. He needed to die badly and slowly. Lucas should never have allowed his protagonist to cross that line. Heroes NEVER kill defenseless little kids. It was (my POV) an unforgivable action on the part of the “hero” that cratered the epic.
Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shape-shifters….”
Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*
Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL. Yes, even literary pieces.
Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes very easily could have been just a collection of some old lady’s stories that helps our present-day protagonist (Evelyn Couch) bide the time while she waits for her husband to finish the visit with his mother, but that is far from the case.
Evelyn is having trouble in her marriage, and no one seems to take her seriously. While in a nursing home visiting relatives, she meets Ninny Threadgoode, an outgoing old woman, who tells her the story of Idgie Threadgoode, a young woman in 1920’s Alabama. Through Idgie’s inspiring life, Evelyn learns to be more assertive and builds a lasting friendship of her own with Ninny (per IMDB).
Learning to be assertive is an active goal. Building is an active verb. Gaining the self-confidence to make your own friends shows a change has occurred, a metamorphosis.
Oh, but Kristen, that’s a movie. Novels are different.
Um…not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here is an example in the world of literary fiction to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective—The Joy Luck Club.
The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible.
We will discuss this in more detail later, but keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even you literary folk ;).
Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, on Monday we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end. Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive.
Riddick, for most of the story, is reacting to the Lord Marshal’s agenda. Riddick’s goal is to defeat the BBT, but there are all kinds of disasters and setbacks along the way. Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.
There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.
Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?
Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.
Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.
Applicant: I like rape.
This sequence gets quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.
I am not making this up.
And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.
So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.
Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Luke had to face Darth. By employing the Jedi skills learned over the course of the story, he was able to triumph. Same in literary works. Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their sh—enanigans.
This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law to stuff it. She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.
So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:
Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable and likable?
Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60-100,000 words?
Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?
Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?
This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library. In the upcoming lessons, I will be using this book for reference, among others to help you guys become master story-tellers.
What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your ideas? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.
Those of you who loved James Scott Bell’s LOCK system can check out his site for more fabulous learning material, workshops and seminars. I’ve been blessed enough to watch Jim teach in person, and if you can believe it, HE IS EVEN BETTER IN PERSON. It will be the best money you ever spend…aside from my blogging class, of course :D.
QUICK ANNOUNCEMENT!!!—Starting a Successful Blog
Time is running out to sign up! Class starts MONDAY. A lot of blogs fail simply because writers take off with no instruction, and, because of this, they are left to learn by painful trial and error. If you believe you would like to blog, but you’re uncertain, I’m doing something new. To accommodate those who are still on the fence, I’m now running a Basic level for my upcoming blogging class that starts next week (and it is only $50 for TWO MONTHS).
In the Basic class, you get to be part of the WANA1012 team and receive all the forum lessons (none of the live webinars are included). This is a really great place to learn if blogging is right for you (Blogging Training Wheels).
If you’re ready to skip the training wheels and get started blogging, then get your spot NOW. My classes have a history of selling out. I offer a Blogging Bronze, Silver, Gold, and even Diamond, for those who are ready to go all the way.
This is a TWO MONTH class—one month for lessons and one for launch—that you can do in your own time, at your own speed and from home. And since you will be part of a WANA team, you won’t have to do this blogging thing alone, so your odds of success are MUCH higher. For those who want to do NaNoWriMo, we can extend the two months if we have to. That’s one of the benefits of being the owner of the interface .
So whether you start your own blog or just get out there and read a few, getting in the mix and forging relationships is more critical than ever. Have I missed anything? For you bloggers out there, what makes you feel warm and fuzzy? What can writers do to get your attention that isn’t illegal in all Southern states?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less). Will announce September’s winner on Monday.
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of October I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
I’m tossing around ideas for a protagonist-vs.-herself story right now, and coming up with a suitable, concrete, stand-in antagonist is the challenge I’m facing right now. Your post has given me some ideas – thanks!
Got it. Rape scene = awkward if only written to build tension. A little surprise nugget of advice I was considering in a story that I now know won’t work the way I want. *New writer here. Thank you for that.
Thanks so much for sharing LOCK. This is a bit of advice to remember. I feel like I’m learning new kung fu moves (and those to avoid) so I can become a skilled ninja of the novel.
Great post as always. A follow-op question/ point. When you said “testing” in the title, I misinterpreted the connotation thinking you might have some ideas on a sort of “user-testing” of ideas and characters. The points in your blog are great in terms of producing a strong novel. But it’s hard sometimes for the writer to figure out what readers like and what will have a lukewarm reception to. Sometimes pieces of writing I think are mediocre get great reception and pieces close to my heart are received with moderate enthusiasm. This means I probably toss out ideas that may have been successful if explored thinking they’re not good enough and follow through ones that I like but may not be liked by readers!
I know this is gonna sound aweful… Is it ok to have an allusion to a rape scene if it’s a logical next step to the antagonists breaking-down mental state (ie he’s phsycho and geting worse as the book progresses as the Lead tries to pull away from him)? Lol I know that was kindof long-winded… Sorry. As for the objective: I think it’s strong, but have no clue if anyone else will see it that way. I’ve read in ur blogs before that you can’t treat you’re characters as your babies; you have to harm them. So I’m following that bit of advice.
Thank you so much for these writing lessons 🙂 on your blog. They’ve been extremely helpful… 😀
I’m going to respectfully disagree with your statement, “There is no sense in knocking out 50,000 words, if, at the end, we have an un-fixable mess.” I love NaNoWriMo, but lets face it, the works thawe write are usually pretty bad, since we don’t take the time to reflect on the story the way we normally would. Sure there might be a seed of a good story, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get there – tear it down to the foundation work!
Even when our NaNoWriMos are complete garbage, though, there is still value, especially for newbie writers. Before my first NaNoWriMo, I didn’t know I could write that many words that quickly. IT gave me the courage to write things that might not fit in the finished novel. If you can write 1700 words a day, throwing out a couple pages – or even several – doesn’t matter as much. It’s also a great opportunity to try different writing styles, different characters, different genres. The learning experience shouldn’t be overlooked just because what’s left at the end of the month isn’t a “good” novel.
I agree, but the giant mess we have at the end of the month, with a little planning, can be something we can mold into a real book. No one will finish Nano and have a masterpiece, but with some basics we are learning to write correctly while adhering to some basic structure rules. It’s like learning to swing a golf club correctly. You likely won’t hit the ball the first 50 or a hundred times, and you surely won’t be Tiger Woods, BUT you also will be practicing CORRECTLY so you develop good form and great habits.
We don’t have to have an outline or plot every last detail, but a few key points will make a WORLD of difference.
Another winning lesson; even with a hangover, you know how to cut right to the chase, young lady!
Crafting a successful pitch from a 100,000 word novel is no easy task, but you help guide writers to port like a beacon of hope on a storm-swept sea…
Thanks again, Kristen.
Thanks for a great part 4, Kristen! I actually went out and bought “Plot & Structure” and “Scene & Structure” after I read part 2 of this series and both are invaluable resources. The LOCK system rocks and has definitely put me on the path to writing my first (successful, I hope) novel. Both books have helped me weed out the unnecessary things that I thought should go into my novel, while challenging me to add the things that really needed to go there. Thanks again for the great recommendations and awesome blog posts that help make me (and others) stronger writers.
I”m doing NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. Not so much to come out with a novel. But to show myself I can write that much in a month. Will the end result need a lot of work? Of Course! I’m a complete newbie,but I believe I have the beginnings of a good book. Also, I am a complete pantser, I have so much trouble planning ahead and keeping with the plan. I seemto do much better going with the flow so to speak. I have put my dream of writing on the back burner for so long, I refuse to do it anymore. I will write, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s not. But, I won’t know till I try. It just gets scary to me when I hear we should Plan, plan, plan. It’s really REALLY hard for me to do this! I don’t know where to start! I love reading your posts, but they scare me to death. Silly I know. Sorry.
Learned a lot from the reading. Great job!!!
October is certainly a good time to run this! I’m planning my NaNo novel at the moment. I’ve got the plot (literally, I even know how it’s going to end, and that never happens). I just don’t yet have my protagonist. I’m slightly worried about this, but I’m hoping the vague picture I have will soon be fleshed out and I’ll be able to keep to your advice, because I’ve got nothing to cling possessively onto.
if that comment made any sense, which I’m not convinced it did…
Thank you! I’m definitely going to use the LOCK method from now on, and I’m going to use it to revamp my manuscript (even though my subconscious begs on bended knee for me not to). My biggest problem in my manuscript is I think it’s too wordy, too much telling, and too passive. Hopefully I can fix it. Great post!
Kristen, Where were you when I first started writing? 🙂 This post, like your others, has so much meat to it! Great advice, wonderful insights. Keep ’em coming.
Thank you for this. It helps a lot. I have a story idea for nanowrimo but after reading this I need to revisit C. I have LOK. I kind of knew I was missing something but not sure what so this gives me a definite focus. I gotta go brainstorm now.
Plot & Structure was the first writing book I read. Waaaaay over my head at the time. I need to go back and read it again. Thanks for this series.
I am loving this series. I find it extremely helpful, and this post is full of good examples to illustrate your points. Thank you, thank you.
Thank you for an excellent series. It has been incredibly useful.
My story is about a character put in an impossible situation and while her goal is to get out of the situation, the REAL goal is to accept it. However, she won’t let herself do this. Her friend constantly challenges her to get closer to this acceptance, and thus becomes an antagonist, since he’s fighting her subconscious wish for slumping into a brain-dead life where she won’t have to care for the world.
So I guess this friend is what you would call a “proxy for her inner demon”?
I love James Scott Bell’s book. The LOCK method is a good check list. I had forgotten about the K. Thanks, Kristen, for the reminder.
The, “I have great characters and a new great scenes, but no STORY,” has been my hangup for years, now. Do I get a cookie for at least realizing it? 😉 I am now buckling down and figuring some of this stuff out, and I hope to end up with an engaging final product. Thank you for these posts, which have helped me a lot in realizing where I have issues and sorting them out.
If this is unclear, blame the baby bouncing in my lap trying to figure out how to grab my phone while I peck at the on-screen keyboard. 🙂
I have no idea what “a new great scenes” is. Are? Anyway, blame that one on the baby. Autocorrect may or may not have had something to do with it, as well.
Ohh. “new” should be “few.”
thanks Kristen. Great stuff. I will pick up that book too.
Can’t wait for NaNoWriMo!
This helped SO much–THANK YOU. I’ve spent the last day or two applying this to my WIP and I think I’ve flushed out the problems I’ve been having with it and come up with a plan to fix it and make the whole thing work better in the process. =D Next I’m going to apply it to my NaNo plan and start really hammering on that for the next few weeks so I don’t waste all my time researching when I’m meant to be writing, like I tend to.
I really have to get that book. This series has been so very helpful. I am working on my second novel and I find that a good portion of what I have right now will be scrapped, or re-written. Ah well! I look at it as a learning curve, but anything I find that helps speed that up is welcome. 🙂
Once again I have to thank you Kristen for your priceless series. It is incredibly helpful and I’m so thankful that I was able to find it. I’ve heard from so many of my favorite authors that this stuff took them years to learn and I am grateful for any help in speeding up the process.
It’s funny (ironic?) you mentioned rape scenes. I have one in my current WIP and since the first time the rapist and the situation appeared, I’ve struggled to make the story work. He / the situation wasn’t in my first vision of the book (which actually started life as a script for a television series I was hoping to sell) and I’m not quite sure why he popped up at all. He has a place in the television show for strict end of season shock value but in the book? I’m thinking not so much. After reading your post though, I’ve finally figured out how to put that whole chunk of story to the side for the sake of the book. I’ll write him back into the television series after the book is published :-).
This is great stuff! I’ve read Plot & Structure and probably gonna read it again. 😉 And obviously keeping your posts for quick reference. Thanks!
I think this is my favorite post in your structure series!
Will be bookmarking this with the others I refer to frequently!
Thank you for your wisdom, and hope you’re cold gets better.
Have a great evening,
Getting down into simple terms what my main character’s MAIN GOAL is, is the hardest part for me. That back of the book blurb is torture. How do I sum all of it up? How do I decide what is most important?
I’m reading through Plot & Structure AGAIN! It’s an amazing resource for plotting. Thanks for the great series.
Hi Kristen–I’ve just read through this series of articles you have shared on novel structure. Very nicely done. That said, I find a number of inconsistencies that I’m scratching my head over. For example, you have several rules for a BBT such as when the BBT must be introduced, that the BBT can’t be the love interest, and that the BBT is defeated at the end. You then talk about the BBT having emissaries such as Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers but that they are not the BBT. Yet in this article above that I’m responding to you outline the final battle against entities that aren’t the BBT according to your prior articles. In this article you say that Luke fights Darth Vader (but Darth Vader isn’t the BBT even though the scene continues to have Vader fight the Lord to rescue Luke). In your other example, you say that “Evelyn Couch had to stand up to her husband and her monster-in-law” but by definition of societal understanding of marriage, Evelyn’s husband is her love interest.
Would you kindly clarify the rules you provides vs the example you provided because it is a confounding– unless, of course, your intent is to demononstate that all rules are meant to be broken.
Thanks so much,
When doing a series, there will be one CORE BBT. The BBT is the reason for the story problem. In Star Wars, that is the Emperor. If the Emperor has not existed, the world would never have changed, the Jedi would all still be alive and there never would have been a Darth or a Death Star or a Republic. He can’t be defeated in the beginning or there is no series. Therefore, in each episode, one of his main minions will take his place, all leading up to the final installation. Remember that Star Wars is NOT Luke’s story, it is a redemption story about Anakin Skywalker. This is why Anakin (aka Darth) destroys the Emperor at the end, not Luke. Luke merely acts as an extension of who Anakin could have been had he chosen light over dark. Luke is vital for Anakin/Darth’s final choice to make the right decision and take out the Emperor.
In ROMANCES the BBT cannot be the love interest. Fried Green Tomatoes is not a romance. Romance has strict rules. Guy and girl meet. Situations and character immaturity keep them apart, but eventually, despite this, the couple comes together to fight the BBT. In Romancing the Stone, Jack is definitely an antagonist. He doesn’t want to help Joan Wilder and then when he finally does, he wants to go after the jewel when she just wants to hand ver the map to get back her sister. Eventually, the pair come together to get the jewel and take out the crooked inspector and his cronies.
There are examples where rules are broken, but we have to understand the rules before we break them. If you want to write romance, I recommend sticking to the rules. Romance readers have clear expectations and deviation from this can mean the book gets categorized in a different genre (I.e. Women’s Fiction).
One example would be You’ve Got Mail. The protagonist is the indie bookstore owner and Fox is the mega store owner who is driving her out of business. Had they not had the e-mail relationship, this wouldn’t have worked in that Fox essentially has a split personality. In person, he is bankrupting her. On-line? He is giving advice for her to take out her adversary. My opinion is this only worked because of Tom Hanks and I would not recommend this in a book. But, this is one clear example of how the romance rules were successfully broken.