Sticking the Grovel

A blue outlined book with a blue question mark hovering over it.

Let’s talk about writing craft today, mostly because it’s on my mind thanks to a book by a new-to-me author I read this weekend. I’m not going to name the book, but I want to talk about writing romance in general, and romances with grovels in particular.

First a little groundwork. Genre romance often follows a series of story beats: the couple meets, sparks fly, and while they want to be together, generally something is holding them back. They try anyway or are forced into it somehow, and real affection starts to grow.

Then, right when you think everything is going to be okay: BLAMMO, the bleak moment (this is also called the black moment, but I prefer Alyssa Cole’s “bleak moment” nomenclature). Not every romance has one, but a lot of them do. It’s when all of the things that were originally keeping the couple apart come back around and smack them.

Handled well, the bleak moment has the ability to truly wrench the reader’s heart. That is one of the benefits of romance: no matter how dark the bleak moment may seem, you know they’re going to get together in the end, so you can really feel that sadness and anguish.

After the devastation of the bleak moment, the couple gets together again, stronger than before, and gets their happily ever after. If the bleak moment was caused by one of the main characters, then usually that character will have an epiphany where they realize they were in the wrong and apologize profusely while working like hell to win back their love. This is known as the grovel.

Once again, not all romance books have grovels, but in those that do, they need them to rebuild the trust between the main characters. The bigger—or more damaging—the bleak moment, the bigger the grovel needs to be, because we, as readers, want to believe the main characters love each other and are willing to crawl through fire to prove it. We want to see it, to see the changes love can work on someone.

And this is where things can go really sideways.

Because if the grovel doesn’t work, the whole book falls apart.

If I’ve made it through the bleak moment and the grovel and I still think one of the characters should be punted into the sun, then the romance is dead, and I’m mad, because I’ve spent hours rooting for these characters only to be disappointed.

In the book this weekend, the male main character (MMC), who up until that point had been very likable, did something I considered borderline unforgivable that left the female main character (FMC) devastated and sobbing in the street, which meant the grovel was going to need to be huge and heartfelt.

Instead, the FMC forgave him before he even apologized.

Ugh. UGH!

I skimmed the last ten percent of the book to see if it could be redeemed, but no. The MMC did eventually fix the thing he broke, but it had no impact because that was literally the bare minimum from which the rest of the grovel should’ve been built instead of the sum total of his effort.

So, how do you stick the grovel?

First, read a lot of romance. You should be doing that anyway, if you’re writing romance, and it’ll help you figure out what works and what doesn’t. The Fated Mates podcast did a whole episode on groveling, so if you need some recs, start there.

Then look at the stakes. If it’s a small misunderstanding, an apology and promise to do better is good enough, if you then show the character doing better. But if it’s a huge, heartbreaking moment that drags the reader through an emotional upheaval, then your grovel and resolution needs to be just as big and emotional.

And it needs to be believable. Romance readers are already rooting for the couple. We’re primed to believe they should be together, no matter the odds. But we also want to see that “oh, shit” epiphany and feel how far the MMC (usually) is willing to go to prove his love is true. We want to see him learn and change and grow. To be worthy of love and trust.

We don’t want him to be let off the hook, even—or maybe especially—if “he had good reasons.” Of course he had good reasons; it’s a romance! “Good reasons” come with the territory.

The character doing the groveling should rise from the ashes of the bleak moment with the absolute knowledge that they were wrong and they need to make amends lest they lose the one thing they value—the other MC. Then they should make those amends, to whatever degree necessary. And it should hurt. Not so much in a punitive way, but in a “this is new and scary and what if they don’t forgive me” way.

Baring your soul isn’t easy, change isn’t easy, and groveling shouldn’t be, either.

And while I’d like to tell you that it’s actually very easy to write, I’d be lying. It takes a great deal of skill to write a believable grovel that carries the reader from devastation to cautious hope to joy. But when done well, it appears effortless, like that was the only possible outcome, and of course it all worked out.

Because romance writers are a little bit magic. :)

10 thoughts on “Sticking the Grovel”

  1. I am with you. I hate it when I wonder why she’s still with him when reading a romance. The grovel is pretty important. Even if the bad thing that happened is because someone is broken, not for a ‘good reason’ but just broken, there should be some attempt at self repair or self improvement. This whole thing made me think of Jerry McGuire. I always thought the female character in that book was way too weak and way too forgiving. While that is often reality, our romances don’t have to reflect that kind of reality. I think we all root for the bad ass heroine who would rather be alone and broken hearted than to forgive the unforgiveable. Even if we might not be quite that brave in real life.

  2. The ones that infuriate me are when he starts out treating her like dirt, or is distant, cold, dismissive, etc. . . . so she is instantly and irresistibly attracted to him. Why?

  3. Completely agree. Many, many moons ago, I read an ongoing series that was really well written, engaging, funny, action oriented, with great characters… and then the MMC, who’d been surly but fun to this point suddenly BLAMMO’d the MFC. A completely unforgivable, unfounded, and illogical accusation based on truly flimsy reasoning and lack of proof… and which occurred near the end of the book. We’re talking, like, 90% of the way in. I was appalled and yet naively hopeful that, yes, there would be mega Mega MEGA groveling and amends made. Nope. Instead, it was the MFC groveling and trying to prove herself to that OAF, who eventually, you guessed it, made the barest apology and no amends. AND SHE FORGAVE HIM. And then the book pretty much ends with her going back to him. Let’s just say I quit reading the series after that. A major, major, major letdown, to say the least.

  4. Another bad one is when he does a decent amount of groveling but not to her. Usually it is his best friend, maybe a relative of his or hers, or a wise side character. But somehow that seems to absolve him of groveling or even apologizing to her.

    Which also makes me realize that I don’t remember this ever happening in the opposite direction.

  5. ugh I have as well abandoned a romance book a few chapters from the end when the MMC did not grovel and was forgiven anyway. I hated him, I hated her for being written as not loving herself enough to feel she deserved/needed the apology, I hated the book.

  6. Agree the grovel needs to work. And it doesn’t need to be some huge, over-the-top, public thing. It can be something quiet and private. But the grovel does need to match the stakes,

    There can be joint grovelling if both (or more) characters screwed up. The reader needs to know when a similar or different problem occurs in the furture the MCs will work together and have an effective communication system in place so as not to repeat the bleak moment.

    Few things ruin a book faster than when a necessary grovel doesn’t happen or when the wrong character apologizes and grovels. The grovel needs to be something on page as well, not a flash forward to the epilogue and all is forgiven with barely a mention of “oh s/he appologized and we’re fine now.” /rant

  7. Oh yeah. Some writers do NOT stick the landing on the grovel. The grovel should be in proportion to the offense, or as a previous poster put it — match the stakes and doesn’t have to be over the top. The Grand Gesture gets misused A LOT. A Grand Gesture should demonstrate an understanding of what’s important to the offended party and a good faith effort to repair what has been broken. It shouldn’t be easy. No, you can’t fix this by just sending a room full of roses. That doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of what you did to hurt the other person. Oh you did a public apology for an introvert??? Seriously??

    Just glad to know I’m not the only one gets irritated by bad (or nonexistent) groveling.

  8. I really enjoy when they cut out the grovel all together and have the third act tension arise from something other than a break up. On again off again dithering really bothers me. I have hard time getting into second chance romances for that reason too. Like it has already broken down before so how can I buy into a HEA? I especially hate the “the characters just won’t have a normal adult conversation” trope that might lead to a grovel. Good communication is part of healthy relationship.
    Whenever I see the unearned forgiveness grovel combo, I really feel bad for the writer’s personal life if they think that is romantic.

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