How Much Romance is Too Much?

               I write mysteries. Sometimes they are more cozy than hard-boiled, but as is true with all mysteries, they tend to focus on the darker elements of the human personality. They focus on people who lie to each other, who steal from each other, and who harm each other.

               But there is another side to humanity, a side which is much more pleasant to focus on. This is the loving aspect of human beings, in particular, that part of living when one discovers that one special person you want to spend your life with. So important is this aspect of human behavior that it rivals the macabre and sinister in demanding the attention of both men and women.  Okay, perhaps more women, but men are almost as fascinated in finding true love as women…they just don’t always show it as freely as women do.

               In my Hot Dog Detective series, I did not emphasize the romance component of my hero’s life. Mark MacFarland was in love with his partner, Cynthia Pierson, probably for as long has he had been working with her. But for much of his early relationship with her, he suppressed any conscious acknowledgement of his feelings because he was married and did, indeed, love his wife. After his wife’s death, however, his feelings of love for Detective Pierson were clouded with feelings of guilt. It took him several years, and more than twenty books to finally admit to himself how he felt about Ms. Pierson.

               In my Crystal Cove series, however, I wanted to emphasize the power of romance to a much greater degree. My problem was that my main character, Sally O’Brian, is still “married” to her dead husband. After all, he’s a ghost now, and it just wouldn’t be right for Sally to engage in any kind of romantic entanglements. Besides, as much as I want people of any age to fall hopelessly in love, I am just not terribly excited by two gray-haired geezers getting it on.

               So I decided to put a younger couple into each of my Crystal Cove stories, and made sure that they would fall in love with each other. My couples have to meet specific criteria, however, to be part of a Crystal Cove story.

               First, they have to be involved in the mystery that Sally O’Brian is trying to solve. They can be suspects, obstacles in solving the crime, or assistants in solving the crime.

               Second, they have to be older Millenials or very young Gen-Xers. I am not interested in writing about teenage love affairs. I don’t want my romantic hero or heroine to be discovering for the first time the joys of a physical relationship. I am trying to appeal to an older audience with my cozy mysteries, and I expect most of my readers to already know the joy of sex. I want my stories to focus on the joy of relationships instead.

               Third, while I have nothing against non-binary relationships, I try to have all my romance characters represent a normal heterosexual duality in their love interest. Maybe in the future I’ll write a story about a lesbian detective. (I know just who to base the character on!)

               The focus of my Crystal Cove stories, is, after all, on a mystery, so the question I had to solve was “Just how much romance should I include in the story?”

                If you know anything about me, you know that I have a tool to help me answer that question.

               The tool I have is a modified Blake-Snyder Save the Cat outline adapted to romance stories that fit a ten-chapter outline. Yep, a lot of constraints. I just love constraints.

The model I use consists of ten steps. Each step has two scenes, one from the guy’s point of view and one from the gal’s point of view. The steps are:


  1. The Cute Meet – the initial encounter. The couple meet each other for the first time, usually under circumstances that make the encounter memorable. It can be a warm and friendly encounter, or it can be one fraught with conflict. Whatever the circumstances, it should be sure to place each character indelibly in the other’s character’s mind.
  2. Denial/rejection. This is the debate state of the Blake-Snyder outline, the section where debate occurs. Should the hero and heroine become an item? Probably not!
  3. Forced to work together. In this stage, the romance portion of the story intersects the mystery portion. The loving/feuding couple are forced to help each other or help Sally solve the mystery.
  4. Three trials. This is the “fun and games” section of the Save the Cat outline. I try to have several instances where the couple interact in a way that brings them together or that permits them to see aspects of the other individual that makes them endearing.
  5. Midpoint crisis. This is the section where the bad guys move in, all is lost, and the progress the couple has made in getting along start to fall apart. The key is that it falls apart because of external influences, not to their own predilections.
  6. Pulling together. This is the black moment of the story and the relationship. The couple either will split up and never get together or they will start the process of pulling together. It may be an external circumstance that prompts them to pull together or it may be their only inclination or attraction. Either way, it is both a low point in the emotional arc and a point of optimism that the relationship might get better.
  7. Relationship at a high point. This is the section where the mystery story and the romance story combine. The reader should feel that things will work out. The couple should be happy, even though they might be unaware that their journey is not yet over.
  8. The Break-up. This is the low point for the romance portion of the story. The high expectations in the previous scene are countered by circumstances that test the strength of the relationship. It would be nice if every loving couple could sail through these crises with no difficulty, but that wouldn’t reflect the experience most of us have had in our lives. Nor should it be reflected in a good romance story, since it is how the couple overcomes these crises that determines just how strong the romance really is. At this point, all the reader can do it shout angrily at the offending couple and hope for the best.
  9. Big Gesture. This is the scene when one of the couple, or both members of the relationship, make a big gesture of how far they are willing to go to make the relationship succeed. It coincides with the black moment in the story, when the villain in the mystery portion of the story is about to succeed. Sacrifice may be required. If nothing else, the most offending member of the romantic couple must acknowledge his or her role in causing the strain in the relationship and find some way to counter that. It’s the point in the story when heroes emerge.
  10. In the final scene of the story, the couple declares their love and commitment for each other. In my cozy mysteries, this declaration is associated with the successful conclusion of solving the mystery. It is a clear indication that the romantic couple will “live happily ever after.”

               In my Crystal Cove cozy mysteries, the romance scene account for two scenes out of seven scenes, which is about 25 to 30 percent of the story. Since all of the romance subplots are attached to the main mystery plot, the romance “emphasis” is diluted by the focus on the mystery. In my opinion, this is just the right amount of romance to soften the edges of a mystery story while not detracting from the characteristics of a mystery novel that I want to create.

               But it is ultimately up to the reader to determine how much romance is appropriate for a cozy mystery. So I would like to ask you, as my readers, to let me know: how much romance is just the right amount for a cozy mystery? Send your opinions to me at Thank you!

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