In Defense of the Third Act Breakup in Romance Novels

Image from personal library of books for a defense of the third act breakup in romance novels.

It’s worth noting that I don’t particularly love the third act breakup in romance novels. Yet, I’m adult enough to understand its importance and that it’s imperative for character development when it’s done right. Still, the problem in a specific pattern of outright hatred is that internalized misogyny comes into play with the women facing an absurd amount of backlash men are spared from.

As much as romance is escapism that leads to a guaranteed happy ending, it doesn’t mean it’s “brain mush,” “unrealistic,” or “whatever nonsense” others want to throw in our direction. Yes, it’s gratifying at times to read about characters who have their shit together and can communicate in a healthy matter, but that idea is still very much a rarity in the real world too. As much as it’s easy to say, “Just talk about,” chances are, you or someone you know is bottling something up right at this very second. (It’s me. Hi, I’m the problem. It’s me.) In a nutshell, it’s easier said than done, and as readers, I strongly feel we need to give characters more grace to be messy shells of themselves more often.

What Equates to a Well-Executed Third Act Breakup 

Strictly from a storytelling standpoint, we have to consider the narrative and introspection that comes before this moment. Who is the character? How do they deal with their demons? Do they run? Do they rush headfirst? A well-written third act breakup shouldn’t be the slightest bit shocking when the author gives us enough to understand the character’s layers.

For instance, as I’ve vocalized time and time again, there are problems with the childhood best friends to lovers trope. Part of the problem is that, in most occasions, the characters don’t question the stakes of what they’re signing onto. It’s seemingly too perfect, full of telling more than showing. While people who aren’t fond of the trope tend to express their concerns about the longevity and miscommunication in friends-to-lovers, it bares asking—what happens if the person doesn’t reciprocate the same feelings? What happens if it all goes wrong? Yes, this is a novel where thoughts are openly laid bare, and there are a lot more obvious signs than in the real world, but have you never questioned the good things in front of you, allowing your anxiety to take full control of the seemingly coherent thoughts and pulling you under to run and hide? No? Congratulations, you’ve figured out the secret to life. “Go to therapy,” they’ll scream. If a therapist is helping you solve your problems immediately, can I have their number, please? Because last I checked, no one’s timetable looks the same. Ever, in any situation.

Thereby, when we meet a character who’s vocal about their fears, the author is already planting seeds for an inevitable third act breakup that will allow this character to have tangible proof that they won’t have their heart broken again. Character A (often the female) breaking up with the seemingly perfect Character B (often the male) for two seconds on the page isn’t even remotely close to the harrowing breakup they experienced that’s led them to a place where they can’t trust anyone, especially love. Such third act breakups, driven by intense fears or anxiety, make perfect sense and don’t, in any way, make the characters monsters for giving in to the crippling thoughts holding them steady.

There are instances, of course, where the third act breakups come so far off from the left field that readers can be left scratching their heads, wondering why two grown adults can’t just talk to each other. Yet again, even then, it begs to question whether the author does it intentionally to cause conflict, allowing the novel to feel a little more jagged and raw. Even this occasion doesn’t merit the virtual outcry some people throw around, acting as if characters and, subsequently, people must be perfect all the damn time. 

We Need to Give Women Grace and Stop Coddling Men

In many instances, the second there’s a male character who’s anxious, kind, and a little broken, readers tend to coddle them. In truth, I get it. Sweet baby angel anxious squeeze bunny characters are my absolute favorites. (I wrote one too.) But that’s no excuse to act as though it means the female character should automatically believe that they’ll be different. How many nice guys have broken hearts in the real world? Tons—an infinite amount. These men will often be so beloved (rightfully so) that the moment the woman does something wrong, she becomes the spawn of Satan. The most annoying character to walk this earth. It’s vile, and it’s uncalled for, particularly when these critiques come from women who should know better.

It’s especially jarring to see these reactions when the writers make it clear that the women have a difficult time trusting—when their fears govern their decisions. And when the arguments above resurface again, it’s imperative to ask why we hold our book characters to such high standards when human beings are inherently flawed. The charm of reading romance novels means that every person deserves love and forgiveness, even when they fumble. We need to ask ourselves why we’re so quick to judge one character, often the woman, when the man is given grace in a heartbeat.

Further, it is a truth universally acknowledged that no two people will deal with something in the same way. They might. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s not as common, and, most importantly, it shouldn’t be something we expect. No matter how alike two people are, they won’t grieve someone they know in the same way. It might take me ten years to get over something that hurt me—to be truly free, or it might take me three months. Maybe, it’ll even take me five days. We never know because there’s no rule book perfectly aligned with genetic dispositions and everything that makes up an individual that’ll equate to a universal truth.

We love characters who can communicate properly, but you know what? The ones barred by pain who need a little more time deserve love too. And no, you don’t have to love a book or even read one that features the third act breakup if it’s not a plot device that works for you. But perhaps, as human beings, the best thing we can do in a really shitty world, during a shitty time when everyone’s a little broke inside, is put in a little more effort to try and understand why. We can try to understand that just because we think something sounds silly or easy to manage, it might be rocket science to another person. It might be their biggest cross, their worst enemy, the thorn that continues to hinder them. And these types of characters are a part of what makes romance so beautifully rewarding because it means that our darknesses are worth appreciating too. It reminds me of the Reddit thread where a person posted about being deeply overwhelmed by the idea of ordering a sandwich at Subway, and someone helped them out with judgment. It wasn’t hard to do, and it isn’t hard to be a little more understanding of the flawed characters trying their hardest to overcome their battles. 


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