The Romance Formula

My analysis of Anastasia made me think about my romance “formula,” especially since I’m currently revising a book with a romantic arc, so I’ve been analyzing that story.

By formula, I mean boiling it down to the very basics. To have a romantic story, you need to have a reason for the characters to get together. There has to be some kind of attraction or interest somewhere along the way or there’s not much of a romance. And you need to have something keeping them apart, at least temporarily, or else there’s not much of a story. If the characters just meet, like each other, and get together, that’s great for real life but not a good story. What kind of attraction and conflict you have depends on the kind of story you’re telling.

The conflict can come in a variety of ways:
Internal to the characters — one or both characters have some kind of internal issue that keeps them from being up for any relationship, and they have to get past this in order to get together with anyone, no matter how attracted or interested they are. This is where you get the “I’ve been hurt before and don’t want to risk my heart again” story, as in the guy in Leap Year, or the “chasing the wrong person because of a wonky idea of what love really is” story, as in Stardust, where Tristan (in the movie) is obsessed with the local mean girl, which keeps him from being able to see that Yvaine may be the right person for him. Or it’s the person who’s focused on the wrong goal, such as Flynn/Eugene in Tangled, who has to figure out that his life of crime isn’t going to make him happy if he’s alone. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast has to get his act together and find his inner humanity before he can love and be loved.

Between the characters — there’s something that puts the characters at odds with each other. They may belong to different factions so they see each other as enemies or they may have a personality clash. This one is a big reason why I don’t generally get my love stories from romance novels, since this is a big focus of the romance genre. When I was trying to write romances, I kept hearing “if he’s a firefighter, make her an arsonist” from editors. They wanted CONFLICT. My issue with that is that if the conflict is so big, why would they even bother? If I meet someone I hate, I move on and find someone I don’t hate. This sometimes requires contrivance to keep them in proximity long enough for them to fall in love.

It can work, though. This is what Pride and Prejudice is all about. They have a big personality clash because they make incorrect assumptions about each other. I think the trick to making this kind of thing work is making the conflict something they can move past by growing and changing or getting to know each other better. If it’s just a basic personality clash, it’s harder to believe in the relationship working out in the long run. Why be with someone who just annoys you and sees the world in a totally different way than you do? I find it hard to believe that a firefighter would ever be happy with an arsonist. Even if she realized the error of her ways and changed, would he be able to get past the fact that her actions had put his colleagues in danger by creating fires they had to fight? He’d want her to face justice. For the same reasons, I have a hard time with enemies-to-lovers stories, unless it’s someone who’s been brought up in an enemy culture without knowing better, and once they learn the truth or get to know someone from the other side they choose to change sides — like the princess in Willow.

The outside world/circumstances against the characters — even if they don’t have internal issues they have to get over and even if they don’t have conflicts with each other, there’s something in their circumstances keeping the characters from being able to be together. This would be your Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story type of situation, where they’re from opposing factions but don’t really have any issues with each other. It’s just all the people in their lives who are tearing them apart. Or there’s something like The Terminator, where they don’t really clash, but they can’t be happy together while a killer robot from the future is relentlessly pursuing them. I used this in my Rebels series, where the rules of society mean they can’t be together — so for them to be together, they have to change society. On the lighter side, this is the conflict in While You Were Sleeping. They get along great and seem to be made for each other. The thing keeping them apart is the fact that everyone thinks she’s engaged to his brother. Remove that obstacle, and they’re fine. This is the kind of conflict we often see when there’s a love story in some other kind of story, where they gradually fall in love along the way as they do other stuff, and it’s the other stuff keeping them from just being together. Once the quest is done and they’re out of danger, then they can explore a relationship.

It’s pretty common for there to be a combination of these in a story. They may start at odds with each other, then overcome their differences as they go through stuff, but then they still have external stuff keeping them apart and personal issues they need to deal with. The interpersonal conflict can be caused by the personal issues. Think Tangled — her issue is that she’s being gaslit in an abusive relationship with her captor who’s pretending to be her mother and she needs to find her independence. His issue is that he’s compensating for being a poor orphan by stealing to get enough money to be comfortable and being loyal only to himself. He dislikes her because she’s forcing him to escort her to the celebration, so he’s trying to make things as unpleasant as possible so she’ll give up, which puts them at odds. They get over the interpersonal conflict as they get to know each other and find themselves dealing with the external issue of the guards and his former allies coming after them. Then they both have to get past their personal issues to prevail against her “mother.”

The other side of the equation is the attraction, and I think that’s where a lot of stories fall flat because the writers are so busy building up the conflict that they forget about why they might want to be together other than that they’re both attractive. The stronger the conflict, the deeper the attraction needs to be because they need to have a reason to push past the conflict, and too many romances don’t deal with that well or focus on the physical attraction — the “I hate him, but my traitorous body can’t resist him” thing.

That’s where I think Anastasia didn’t work. There was all that bickering, then he saw her in a nice dress and it was love. Why did he come to love her enough that he was willing to give up everything so she could be happy? We never saw any reason why she loved him, other than her later learning that he didn’t take the reward. That’s nice, but it’s not something to base a relationship on. This was why I liked While You Were Sleeping, on the other hand. We got some nice conversations in which we saw that they had shared values and interests, and they encouraged each other to pursue their dreams.

In the thing I’m working on, I know what brings them together, but I’m not sure I’ve shown it through their actions, so I’m trying to come up with scenes that illustrate their growing bond.

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