Thursday, July 7, 2011

Verisimilitude: Romance - The Journey to Together

Reading thuRsday

At the end of When Harry Met Sally..., the titular couple appear in the pseudo-documentary that punctuates transition points in the movie with various couples telling how they came together:
Sally: The third time we met, we became friends.
Harry: We were friends for a long time.
Sally: And then we weren't.
Harry: And then we fell in love.
That, in a nutshell is the arc of a classic romance.

Lynn Kurland, speaking at LTUE 2009, described the three phases of a classic romance this way:
  1. Boy meets girl (meeting) - this is as important as setting up the quest; here the reader decides whether it's worth the time to follow the story. The meeting leaves the reader wondering, "How in the world are they ever going to overcome this and get together?"
  2. Stuff happens (courtship)
  3. Boy gets girl and they go off to their happily-ever-after (pay-off). 
In terms of overall structure, if the story doesn't end with a happily-ever-after, it's not a classic romance.* As romantic as portions of Romeo and Juliet may be, the story is a tragedy. In a sense, a romance is analogous to a hero's journey because they both end with the goal attained.

Lynn's comment that the meeting in a romance is "as important as setting up the quest [in an adventure]" piqued my interest in the parallels and differences between the two kinds of stories.

First, they both are fundamentally about journeys that cross the space separating a problem and its resolution. But where a quest is about crossing a physical space, a romance is about crossing social and emotional space. Also, at a fairly abstract level, both kinds of journeys involve separation (the hero from the village they're trying to save, the couple from each other) and eventual reunion, but a quest has a single trajectory where a romance has two.

Second, both kinds of stories must have several try/fail cycles. Just as a hero who saves the village with a fifteen-minute trip to the convenience story isn't much of a hero, a couple who meet and head right to the wedding chapel don't provide much romance. I'm not saying such things don't happen in the real world, but as narratives they're not even worth a short story.

Try/fail cycles demonstrate that the stakes are far greater than the protagonists (and the reader) imagined. The hero's first attempt to right the wrong usually results in them getting knocked down, perhaps almost killed. Similarly, the couple's first meeting should show as many or more reasons why they'll never get together as why they might. The failure, however, is never complete and shows that the hoped-for outcome is still possible.

But there's more going on in the try/fail cycles of a romance than, "Could it work? No. Could it work? No. Could it work? Yes." The key difference is that a romance follows the trajectories of two people who must not only find each other, they must find in the other someone they respect and who completes them. In both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, our heroines had to reject the first chance for marriage because the resulting union would have been dangerously imbalanced.

The couple's journey together is the substance of the second phase ("Stuff happens") in a classic romance. There are, of course, more dimensions to an actual romance, but if you can at least show through try/fail cycles how the two people develop a balance partnership, without ever losing respect for each other, until they reach the point where they can see how they complete each other, your romance will have a high degree of verisimilitude.

* Yes, I know the English Romantics explored the entire spectrum of emotion and sensuality, including some pretty dark and tragic themes. But here we're discussing what readers currently expect from romance.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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