It’s time to talk about the romance genre, and I want to start by dropping a bit of a bomb on you (a big bomb if you’re really into romance novels):
Romance Novels are just like High Fantasy novels.
Not only are romance and high fantasy two of the oldest sub-genres known to mankind, but they are both defined by tropes, done to death, starving for something new, and they both are just stories with red or blue coats of paint.
I don’t mean to trash either the fantasy or romance sub-genres with these observations, but what you need to understand is that, without that coat of paint, the two are identical. What matters is what’s underneath, and what’s underneath, is structure.
Where in high fantasy you would meet your brave adventurers, in a romance, you would be introduced to your star-crossed lovers’ various quirks and flaws. Where in a high fantasy your adventurers might be introduced to a MacGuffin or intrigue, in a romance your two lovers would notice each other for the first time, even if they’ve known each other for years. Where in High Fantasy, an unforeseen betrayal and setback might make the adventure look hopeless, in a romance a—well, an unforeseen betrayal and setback—might make any chance at reconciliation seem hopeless, just with fewer pointy sticks, probably.
Your romance must have structure. You can’t ignore structure and slap wild ideas into your story because they “sound dramatic.” Structure is touted in the fiction and attention industries for a reason. Smart people have been dissecting what makes for a good story for thousands of years, and structure is the mad product of that obsession. Joseph Gordon Levitt put it pretty succinctly in his writing and directing debut, Don Jon.
“The pretty woman, the pretty man, the first kiss, the break up, the make up, they drive off into the sunset.”– Joseph Gordon Levitt, Don Jon
Not only is this line the payoff to a pretty apt comparison between pornography and romance movies and a comment on how they can both give us an unrealistic expectations of relationships, but it nails the romance movie formula on the head. You can watch a romance movie—maybe even your favorite—and find these moments.
Does this make Hollywood romance stories formulaic? Sure does. But you know what else? It works, and it can easily be replaced with this:
“The naïve hero, the grizzled veteran, the first trial, the setback, the reversal, and they defeat the dark lord.”– The Administrator, after wishing he was an actor
There’s nothing evil or lazy about following in the footsteps of those who came before you, and that’s what structure is. It’s a blueprint and a tool for those who need it. And believe me, most need it. You might look at, for instance, Michael Hague’s “5 Key Turning Points” (wink wink) and compare it to a Tarantino movie and tell yourself that, “It must not be that important because Tarantino doesn’t follow this crap,” but Quentin Tarantino is an experienced, established, and talented writer. Right now, it’s far more likely that you have the talent, but not so much of Tarantino’s other qualities. A structure will help you formulate winning stories and get you one step closer to the experience and name recognition.
So, for romantic stories, don’t get too distracted by the flowery veneer. Though you may have fantastic ideas for scenes and plot points that sound very romantic, do like Stephen King says, and don’t get too attached to those darlings. You need a good protagonist with a good flaw that you can demonstrate to your audience in the set-up of the story and make us care for them. Only after that can you put them through the wringer in a way that will resonate.
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