I’m putting these thoughts here for the good of anyone who finds them useful, and because, when I searched the web, I couldn’t find any articles answering the question I had in my mind. You may ask — what right do I have to tell people how to write romance? My answer is, since romance is one of the common experiences of mankind, as much right as anyone else.
The core of a romance is that the reader has to want the couple to be together, but either one or both of the couple doesn’t see it, or circumstances/fate keep them apart. In a lot of romances they first won’t see it, and then circumstances keep them apart.
This doesn’t just apply to Mills and Boon type romances, which have their own particular rules and conventions, but for unconventional romances and also for incidental romance in otherwise non-romantic fiction. A long romance runs through the pages of the Lord of the Rings — or, rather, past them — and the reader only picks it up in passing, or if they read the appendices on Aragorn and Arwen. A failed romance can be described in two lines of a song lyric, such as Alanis Morissette‘s,
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
in the inaptly named song ‘Ironic‘, or briefly summarised in a newspaper report of a court case. The romance element may be marginal even in a story which declares itself as a romance. For example, the actual romance part of the multi-genre-subverting The Princess Bride is just a few lines in the first few pages (or the first minutes, if thinking of the film), and is the premise for an outrageously silly adventure story.
The archetype for English romantic writing is Romeo and Juliet. There was romance before Shakespeare, and Romeo and Juliet is neither his best romantic play, nor, arguably, the best romance ever written. Nonetheless, the star-cross’d lovers have somehow lodged in humankind’s collective brain at the expense of the (in my view) much more interesting Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing, Elizabeth and Darcy, Sigurð and Brÿnhilde, Gawain and Ragnell, Floris and Blanchefleur, Jacob and Rachel, Layla and Qays (Majnun), or Orpheus and Eurydice.
I say archetype, but what I really mean is counter-type, because, with the exception of young adult writing, Romeo and Juliet is rarely reproduced as a plot exemplar, simply because the author can expect every reader to be aware of it. Rather, Romeo and Juliet is at the back of the reader or viewer’s mind whenever they encounter romance. Romeo and Juliet is what could go wrong, and is therefore the sting which we are desperately trying to avoid and which prevents all romances from being facile ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, they marry, they live happily ever after’. So, for example, while watching Sheridan’s The Rivals, we are acutely aware that any scheme or plan designed by one or both of a couple is at risk of making everything far worse. Likewise, if we watch Ghost, it makes complete sense that some love should go beyond the grave.
To return to my notion of the core of a romance, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is initially in love with someone else entirely. This comes as a shock to many people who see the play for the first time, since we know that Romeo has to be with Juliet. Subsequently, when they both realise that they are in love with each other, circumstances keep them from living out their married lives together. The final scene could be aptly summed up by Horatio’s conclusion on Hamlet, of “purposes mistook. Fall‘n on th’ inventors‘ heads”.
To reduce this down to near triteness, Romeo and Juliet is an example of “Destiny meant them to be together, but Fate kept them apart”, which is in itself merely an expansion of ‘star cross’d lovers’ — one aspect of their stars leading them together, the other preventing them from so being.
As a writer, then, how do you unpack “the reader has to want the couple to be together, but either one or both of the couple doesn’t see it, and/or circumstances/fate keep them apart”.
Some classic ways this happens are
1) wanting them to be together — for most romance readers, if character A and character B are of the opposite sex (unless writing LGBT romance), attractive to the reader and of approximately equal, marriageable, age, then the readers will already be wanting or expecting them to get together in the end. If you’re writing outside a romantic genre, you may have to flag this up a little more. On the other hand, if you think that this is just a little too obvious, then introducing an alternative love interest, as Shakespeare does, should be enough to keep the reader guessing.
a) the couple doesn’t see it — either because
i) character A doesn’t like character B (or vice versa) — often because of perceived arrogance on B’s part (Han Solo, Mr Darcy)
ii) character A or B is interested in someone else (Romeo at the start of Romeo and Juliet)
iii) character A and or B has forsworn love, perhaps after a previous disappointment (Beatrice and Benedick, but virtually any reader who has ever been in love will have at some point thought ‘I will never love again’)
iv) character A or B is in love with the other but doesn’t see it — for example because they are consumed with some other passion such as a quest (Orsino in Twelfth Night, for the double reason that Viola is dressed as a man, and because he is vainly pursuing Olivia, also Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd).
b)circumstances or fate keep them apart
i) Characters A and B are from rival gangs/families/religious groups/races/nations (Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Floris and Blanchefleur)
ii) Character A or B is from a despised group, or has some despised characteristic (the substance of Floris & Blanchefleur and also of Layla and Majnun, Sir Gawain and the Dame Ragnall)
iii) Whenever character A or B is in the mood to get the relationship going, something happens in the plot to interrupt them (a staple of Hollywood romances — this kind of thing works very easily in films because what appears on the screen is instantly credible)
iv) Character C is actively trying to keep them apart, possibly because C wants A or B, or out of mischief, or a mistaken sense of their best interests (Floris and Blanchefleur, Sigurð and Brÿnhilde,
v) Law, promise, custom or morality keep them apart (Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, Catherine and Heathcliff)
The plot resolves when:
a) (possibly as a result of all they’ve been through) A and B realise they love each other
b) they overcome whatever circumstances have been keeping them from getting together
For a downbeat romance, once these two have been ticked off, you, the author, can still have them not together, but the story is still complete because they’ve overcome the two classic romantic problems. Lancelot and Guinevere are not finally together, partly because they realise the enormity of what they have done, even though Arthur is now dead and the one genuine obstacle to their romance has been removed. Orpheus and Eurydice end apart because, even though Orpheus has overcome death to win her back, he can’t overcome his own anxiety which makes him look back. Interestingly, in the Middle English retelling, Sir Orfeo, Orfeo is able to retrieve Heorodis, but they have one final test in having to recover rulership of Winchester.
Shakespeare wrote only three avowedly tragic romances — Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida 1, and Anthony and Cleopatra. Anthony and Cleopatra, though, fits better as one of the Roman plays than as a romance, particularly as Cleopatra’s eventual suicide is not out of love for Anthony, but to avoid the shame of being dragged through Syria to Rome. For the most part, his romances are comedies, where the couple come together at the end. 19th century romance is largely of the upbeat kind, with Wuthering Heights as the supernaturally chilling great exception. In the twentieth century modernist writers eschewed most of the forms of plot anyway, so literary fiction rarely took the form of a romance, and what romance there was was often left unfinished or described largely in terms of physical love-making (pace enthusiasts for DH Lawrence). At the same time, there was an enormous upswing in the happy-ending formula romances, which, with other genre fiction, took over from the 19th century penny-dreadfuls. I am not aware that anyone has ever charted the vast swathes of Edwardian romances. 2. In the 21st century, especially among young adult writers, there has been an enormous upswing of interest in alternative premises for the standard romance plot. Boy meets girl was already giving way to boy meets boy or girl meets girl in the 20th century, but we now have literally eternal triangles between humans, vampires and werewolves, and every other conceivable combination of natural meets supernatural.
The underlying format of plot, however, remains the same.
It is likely to do so for a long time to come.
- though whether this is a tragedy or not is disputed ↩
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions, perhaps, but the M6 tollroad is quite literally paved with Edwardian novels, largely romances, supplied from the bookshops of Hay on Wye, because the cellulose forms an ideal substrate for one particular layer ↩