Posted On October 29, 2012 by Print This Post

Jamie Michele’s Emotional Journey: 12 Steps to a Heart-Wrenching Romance

I love the romance writing community. So many great people and sooner or later you finally get to meet the person behind the email address and the Facebook page.  I’ve “known” Jamie for a couple of years but finally met her when we were on a panel together at the Baltimore Book Festival on being a writing mother. I was so excited to get her to come and talk to us bout her writing process.

Frustrated with existing plot-structure visual aids, I decided to find a new way to conceptualize not only the passage of time but also the emotional roller coaster of a romance novel. After sifting through the seventeen steps of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, I graphed the ones that seemed most essential.

I call it the Emotional Journey.

It’s very simple: a story starts on the left and ends on the right. The squiggly line represents the plot. Whether that plot line is moving up or down is a consequence of emotional charge (whether positive or negative).

The main characters (in romance the hero and heroine, but hereafter “MCs”) are shown in their ordinary worlds, which might seem dysfunctional and barren to the readers’ eyes, but are nonetheless familiar and safe for these characters.

The MCs arrive at a fork in the road of their Ordinary World. One path is well-lit and leads away change and the possibility of love. The other path could lead to love, but it’s dark, full of confrontation, and will force them to face their deepest fears.

Nobody wants to face their deepest fears, so the MCs will refuse the Call to Adventure. Or, if the MCs are eager to dive in, another character might remind them of the risks and high chance of failure. Backstory can be revealed here to show why the characters fear the Call, and to establish the internal conflict that will keep the MCs from loving each other at the outset of the journey.

Sometimes a mentor-like person will guide the MCs onto the frightening path. If not, “…what formerly was meaningful may become strangely emptied of value….Thereafter, even though the hero returns for a while to his familiar occupations, they may be found unfruitful. A series of signs of increasing force then will become visible, until…the summons can no longer be denied” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Novato, California: New World Library, 2008, Third Edition, p 46).

Crossing from the Ordinary World into the Special World is often marked by some significant event or action (a “setpiece”) that makes turning back impossible.

The MCs now confront a Special World very different from the Ordinary one they left, and they’re facing it with a person they’re not sure they can trust. But the hero and heroine are forced to rely on each other to overcome the Special World’s many trials, tests, and ordeals. They do not win every battle, and their strength of character and commitment to continue the journey will be tested. This stage teaches them the skills they will need to surmount the greater ordeals to come. Ultimately, the Road of Trials establishes the the groundwork for a relationship founded on trust and respect, for only when the hero and heroine work together do they succeed. They leave the Road of Trials successful allies, yet they have not yet admitted that they need to change anything about themselves in order to survive the Journey.

Uneasy allies, the MCs encounter an Ordeal that is so big and scary that they revert to old habits that threaten their fragile partnership. At first, the Ordeal is a disaster; the old habits fail them miserably. They accept the necessity of real change and are forced to abandon their old ways to try something truly new: trusting each other. Though doing this is arguably as scary as the Ordeal itself, forcing them to risk rejection and humiliation at each other’s hands, there is no other way to move forward. Their acts of vulnerability succeed. Although they do not overcome their fears, they do face them, and in doing so surmount the Ordeal.

They celebrate, not realizing that they have only won a temporary victory. They believe that they can stay in the Special World with their love, and that everything will be perfect. If they haven’t already consummated their love, they do now. They believe themselves and their lover worthy of trust, and the happily-ever-after seems assured. But the readers know that the MCs haven’t really dealt with the issues and fears that keep them apart, and recognize this stage as the calm before the storm.

The MCs are metaphorically or literally hit by a bus. A new secondary conflict arises that tests their partnership. They’re shocked to realize that they lack the skills to defeat this problem. They have been over-confident; they have taken the Reward too soon and now scramble to surmount this hurdle. They succeed, but just barely. They no longer trust each other, and lick their wounds, uncertain of how to proceed through the dark path.

Just as the MCs are at their weakest and most vulnerable, the final challenge appears. The villain makes his boldest move; a betrayal is revealed. Whatever is it that these two people most fear rises up and dares them to proceed, and only by relying on each other and giving up their infantile, selfish desires can they emerge victorious. Often, a thing they desired in the Ordinary World proves to be incompatible with this new love, and they must make a choice between two things that they want very dearly. Choosing love feels like choosing death because this stage represents a final challenge to the the ego’s selfish desires and infantile fears. Only by choosing death of the ego can the MCs be reborn, but they resist, and their love—maybe their lives—appear doomed. All is lost. Love has failed. The villain—whether a true villain or a metaphorical one taking the form of betrayal, fear, or selfishness—appears destined to triumph.

The MCs each choose love over ego, the other over the self, and step into the fearful dread of the now-known black moment. In doing so, they are reborn as a better person, now capable of giving and receiving love.

The MCs return home to build a new Ordinary Life. The conflicts raised at the beginning of the story are resolved; their fears are gone. Their happily-ever-after is assured, and comes with a full declaration of love and commitment from both main characters. Or it may be the simple knowledge that this couple can now move forward, secure both in their love for each other and in their own strength of character.


Okay, I’m blown away.  What are your questions for Jamie?

Cari Quinn will be with us on Wednesday to discuss the Rhythm of Language.


AN AFFAIR OF VENGEANCE: Released November 6, 2012!

Undercover CIA officer Evangeline Quill stalks Oliver McCrea for one reason: the handsome scoundrel can lead her to the untouchable shipping magnate who ordered her parents’ assassination. She doesn’t want to see the pain in his golden eyes. Compassion for an outlaw, however chivalrous he may be, won’t help her exact revenge on her nemesis.

But Evangeline is the first good thing that battle-weary McCrea has touched in five long years, and even though he knows he should evade her pursuit, he can’t bring himself to turn away from her. She reminds him of the man he used to be, a man he isn’t sure he can ever be again, not with the ugliness of the underworld slowly disintegrating his humanity.

The closer they get, the hotter their forbidden desire becomes, but they’ll need more than passion to escape a deadly trap set by the criminal mastermind who manipulates both their lives.


Award-winning romance writer and former zookeeper Jamie Michele has wrestled a giant python, hand-captured a rogue vulture, and brushed the teeth of an alligator, but when she decided to write a novel, she did the unexpected: she didn’t write about animals. Instead, she indulged her long fascination with international espionage, merging it with her deep knowledge of the trials of love to produce AN AFFAIR OF VENGEANCE (Montlake Romance, November 6, 2012), winner of a prestigious Golden Heart from the Romance Writers of America. Now trapped in a very boring suburb in Maryland, Jamie writes sexy, page-turning romances while managing her own little zoo, which consists of three cats and two exceedingly handsome great apes.

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35 Responses to “Jamie Michele’s Emotional Journey: 12 Steps to a Heart-Wrenching Romance”

  1. Hi, Jamie –

    Are you able to write in all these ups and downs in the first draft? Or do you find that you go back during revisions to make sure your arc (squiggle) works out this way? Just curious, does each peak and valley represent a particular scene where the MCs are on top of the world or bottom out?

    Thanks for being at RU!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 29, 2012, 6:24 am
    • Hi Kelsey,

      Because Campbell’s theory is fairly intuitive for me, I usually sketch out something that more or less corresponds to this Emotional Journey. But I do a detailed synopsis before I begin writing (these days, at least). Making these kinds of adjustments after the draft is written is very hard for me. I struggle to re-imagine a tale after it’s been told (even if I told it really badly the first time!).

      I’ve found that when something isn’t quite right, it’s because I’ve skipped something, and often it’s that “false reward” stage. It’s a step I don’t often read about, but it’s nearly always present in a really good romance.

      Posted by Jamie Michele | October 29, 2012, 6:43 am
  2. Robin, thank you for hosting me today! I was so glad to finally meet you face-to-face, too.

    I’m looking forward to hearing other writers’ thoughts on this topic. Love Campbell? Think he was a crackpot? Hate his treatment of women? Let’s discuss!

    Posted by Jamie Michele | October 29, 2012, 6:34 am
  3. Morning Jamie!

    I am SO printing this out. I love Campbell’s journey. I struggle with it, sometimes missing a step or two, but when watching movies I definitely look for the steps.

    The one step, crossing the threshold… can you explain the “setpiece” a bit more?

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 29, 2012, 8:42 am
    • Sure! “Setpiece” is a term I first began to understand while taking a day-long workshop with Alexandra Sokoloff (

      I like Wikipedia’s entry on the topic:
      “In film production, a setpiece is a scene or sequence of scenes whose execution requires serious logistical planning and considerable expenditure of money. The term setpiece is often used more broadly to describe any important dramatic or comedic highpoint in a film or story, particularly those that provide some kind of dramatic payoff, resolution, or transition.”

      A fantastic example of a Crossing the Threshold setpiece can be found in the Harry Potter series. Every time the heroes have to get to Platform 9-3/4, it’s a Crossing the Threshold setpiece. For me, what’s important about Crossing the Threshold is that it marks the clear boundary between the heroine’s Ordinary World and the new Special World into which she’s embarking.

      There should be the sense that this new “world” (or unfamiliar circumstance) will present her with new challenges, and there should be new rules she has to learn how to follow. It should be a very different world from her usual life, and there should be the sense that once she’s committed to the Special World — once she’s Crossed the Threshold — there’s no going back. The only way out is forward. Marking this moment with a memorable scene helps the reader understand what’s at stake.

      If readers suspect that there’s an easy way out of the Special World, it’s harder to keep their interest.

      Posted by Jamie Michele | October 29, 2012, 10:21 am
  4. Great article, Jamie. Congratulations.

    Posted by Laura | October 29, 2012, 8:43 am
  5. Jamie – Is there a point where you always stumble? a place that is hard to get it right?

    Thanks for being with us in the middle of Hurrricane Sandy!


    Posted by Robin Covington | October 29, 2012, 9:12 am
  6. Oh, this post makes my heart go pitter-patter! I use this same method for plotting my books (I use a scene chart in the development stage) but I tend focus more on the external plot first (I write romantic suspense) and then work on the emotional arc. This is a terrific way to conceptualize the emotional arc when I’m working on the external plot layers.

    I’m curious though if for every book the emotional ups and downs occur at the same place or do you find it varies by book?

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 29, 2012, 9:20 am
    • Hi Adrienne,

      I write romsus, too, and it’s too easy for me to get wrapped up in the suspense plot and lose track of the romantic/emotional arc. That’s exactly why I went through the exercise of reading Campbell and sorting out a visual reference that I could refer to periodically and ensure I stayed on track and delivered the emotional journey that readers want.

      The order of the ups and downs doesn’t seem to change, but the distances between them might. Like, one novel might require a lengthy bit of time between the Call to Adventure and Crossing the Threshold. (The first Harry Potter book, again, is a good example of this. Think of how long it took for Harry to start getting those letters from the owls, and then how much longer it took before he actually crossed the literal threshold of Hogwarts!)

      But for me, the charge of each stage doesn’t seem to alter. Like, Crossing the Threshold is usually a positive step (although I can imagine a situation in which it could be negative).

      And if you were writing something other than romance, then I think there’s an even better chance that the charges of each event (whether a positive or negative emotional event) might flip. I’m thinking of something like a horror novel, in particular.

      Posted by Jamie Michele | October 29, 2012, 10:59 am
  7. Hi Jamie,

    Thanks for mapping out the journey. Very easy to follow.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 29, 2012, 10:01 am
  8. Fabulous summary, Jamie! As someone who leans toward the plotter side of the plotter-pantster spectrum, seeing this sets my heart going pitter-pat. I’m always looking for new ways to analyze plot, and I love this chart. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Anne Marie Becker | October 29, 2012, 11:24 am
  9. Outstanding! I have my own way of plotting the four act structure and I’ll be borrowing a few of these terms to help me through. What you said, though, missing the “false reward” is my weakness, too. The “everything is bliss” in Act III does not come easily!
    Thanks for a great post.

    Posted by Blythe Gifford | October 29, 2012, 11:40 am
  10. Thanks, Jamie – I’ve come across similar scene breakdowns, but not exactly. These are really helpful – I just bookmarked your post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 29, 2012, 11:59 am
  11. This is great! Exactly what I’ve been looking for. Most plot discussions focus on the external journey. When I map out a plot this way, I lose sight of the emotional one. This is just what I need! Love it, thank you for sharing!

    Posted by Suzanne | October 29, 2012, 12:15 pm
  12. This is really good! Thank you for taking the time to draft it, chart it and share it! Very helpful. It fills in the glaring gaps left by other analyses, at least in terms of romance.

    Posted by Edith | October 29, 2012, 6:40 pm
  13. How convenient that you posted this in time for NaNoWriMo. I was discussing with a friend how I have no idea how to plot or outline a book. I just sit down with an idea and write however it comes to me whatever happens next. Maybe this will help me somehow. Thanks for sharing the information and you would do great with it in a workshop. Hope you’re safe and sound.

    Posted by Kathy Crouch | October 29, 2012, 11:40 pm
  14. Thank you for sharing this, Jamie! This visual representation makes a lot more sense to me somehow than than the traditional ‘mountain-like arc’, though I get what that signifies too.

    Quick question – in this representation, do the MCs meet at the beginning, or when DO they meet?

    Again, thanks so much for this. I was thrilled to see this and read your post, as I’ve struggled with implementing both lines of conflict in my stories – the external, action-based one and the romantic journey at the same time, and I think this will be so helpful. (And I chuckled about the two exceedingly handsome apes that are in your menagerie!) psst…I have one too. LOL

    Posted by Susan Saxx | October 31, 2012, 3:00 pm
  15. AMAZING!!! What a great breakdown of the emotional journey! I’m printing out your graph 🙂

    Posted by Eliza Knight | November 1, 2012, 11:57 am
  16. I admit, I felt the beginning of a fine eye roll when I saw the 12 plot points. I’ve been plotted to death. But to see new names on the points, to think of the ‘reward’ as a ‘false reward’, to count the steps leading through the turning points as the ‘road of trials’, and tags like ‘apparent ordeal’, ‘temporary truce’, ‘rude awakening’ and ‘final sacrifice’ make me think of each point in fresh new ways. Thanks for the enlightenment, Jamie.

    Posted by Sherry Isaac | November 2, 2012, 8:42 am
  17. This is fantastic! And it makes so much sense. Thanks so much!

    Posted by ChristinaLi | November 12, 2012, 9:34 pm


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