Elements of Romance EQ: What makes something heart-wrenching?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Romance specifically caters to the emotion of love. As love is a secondary emotion made of joy and trust, both are essential to romances. Romance follow a very clear plot structure: two characters meet and eventually fall in love because they enjoy each other, their trust in one another is challenged, and their love either overcomes the obstacle (a comic romance) or is shattered by the obstacle (a tragic romance). While few texts are pure romances from a plot standpoint, romances are the most common subplot in all film and literature, with a love story appearing in almost every comedy, horror, western, fantasy, science fiction, war, quest, and slice of life story. Romances range from sweet and innocent (WALL-E) to sad and touching (Roman Holiday) to passionate and sexy (50 Shades of Grey), but all have the same set of tropes.

Two Opposites

The two romantic leads must come from different worlds or have opposing attitudes. In Roman Holiday, Joe is a poor American reporter while Ann is a princess in disguise. In West Side Story, Tony is the grandson of Italian immigrants, while Maria recently immigrated from Puerto Rico. Sometimes the opposites are only perceived by the characters: since she narrates the story, Elizabeth Bennett seems fiercely loyal and big-hearted while William Darcy seems cold and stuck-up, but as the story goes on, we see that Darcy is just as kind and loyal as Elizabeth while Elizabeth can be just as cruel and judgmental as Darcy. Sometimes circumstance makes them opposites: Romeo and Juliet are both young rich kids, but since their families have a longstanding feud, Montague becomes the opposite of Capulet.

Forced Proximety

So if these characters are opposites, how to they even fall in love? The plot forces the two characters into proximity by accident, circumstance, or with them pursuing the same goals. Elizabeth has to be around Darcy because her sister Jane dates Darcy's best friend. In It Happened One Night, Ellie has to share a bus seat and later a hotel with Peter. Romeo meets Juliet at a masquerade where they dance. Princess Fiona must accompany Shrek so they can both reach Duloc, where Fiona will get her prince and Shrek will regain his swamp. This time together must be forced at first so, at a time when the element forcing the two together is gone, the characters choose to be together.

Anticipation (Will they/won't they?)

The two opposite characters in close proximity will end up together--after all, it is a romance-- but they have to get to know each other first. A bulk of many romances rely on anticipation, or the suspense the audience feels not knowing when and how the two lovers will get together. Some novels even make this the climax: Pride and Prejudice ends with Elizabeth and Darcy coming together and admitting their feelings. With television especially, a "will they/won't they?" romantic subplot can keep an audience in anticipation for years (Booth and Brennan in Bones, Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, Ross and Rachel in Friends, etc). There is a clear moment in every romance where the anticipation is broken: the kiss. Usually, this is the first passionate kiss between the two leads (they will), but is sometimes between a lead and a different person (they won't).

Hidden Beauty

Love is based on three types of attraction: physical, mental, and emotional. While the two lovers are opposites and may initially be attracted to the other person, each will eventually see all these beauties that were hidden in the other person. In She's All That, Zack originally tries to date Laney to win a bet, but he falls in love after Laney's mental beauty is revealed in her conversations with Zack, her emotional beauty is revealed in her art, and her physical beauty is brought out by Mac's makeover. At the same time, Laney starts to see Zack's mental beauty when she discovers all his college offers and his emotional beauty when he stands up for her brother (Zack was always physically beautiful). Furthermore, lovers don't fall in love with characters that lack any of the beauties: while Zack initially wants to win the physically beautiful Taylor back, she has no mental or emotional beauty, so we as audience know that Zack will spurn her for Laney.

Being Untrue

Zack has a problem though: he started dating Laney to win a bet, and if she finds out, she will leave him. Part of the romantic plot is to test the love the two people have by having one keep a secret from or actively lie to the other person. For example, Eros refuses to tell Psyche his true identity, and Fiona doesn't tell Shrek she turns into an ogre every night. Sometimes both characters lie: Ann doesn't tell Joe she's a princess, and Joe doesn't tell Ann he's a reporter.

Some love stories start with an established couple very much in love but one lover is untrue in his or her affections: a new lover comes in forced proximity with this lead character, and the lead must decide to stay with his old love or pursue the new love. This is called a love triangle. With some love triangles, the audience is meant to root for the new lover: in Bringing Up Baby, we want David to break off his engagement with the stiff and boring Alice and be with the fun and zany Susan. With other triangles, the audience is meant to root for the existing relationship: in Adam's Rib, we want Amanda to reject the advances from Kip and patch things up with Adam. The audience is intended to root for the character with the most hidden beauty; if the lead ends up with this character (whether old or new), it is a comic ending, while if they choose the wrong lover, it's a tragic ending. Sometimes, both lovers are equal in beauties (Edward and Jacob in Twilight or Peeta and Gale in The Hunger Games) and the plot becomes the anticipation of which will be chosen.

Sometimes, the lovers are true to each other but lie to the outside world. Juliet tells her parents that she wishes to watch Romeo die in agony after the two are secretly married. The fact that their marriage is a secret directly leads to their tragic end. In The Proposal, Margaret fakes an engagement to Andrew to keep her from being deported. These two eventually fall for each other, but when this lie is exposed, Margaret is given 24 hours to leave the country. In Blue is the Warmest Color, Adele tells her homophobic parents that Emma is her tutor when they are secretly lovers. In this example, Emma's faith in Adele is tested not because Adele lies to her, but because Adele cannot be open about their love.

Reveal and Breakup

In all romances, the truth comes out. As love is a mix of joy and trust, this moment tests whether or not the couple can last in the face of the dishonesty that occurred. In order to figure out if they are still in love, the characters split up. This is sometimes as simple as a character taking a long walk alone to think. This could be a full-on break up: moving out, breaking windows, or divorce. This could even be death: the deceit that Juliet is dead causes Romeo's suicide, literally killing his love with Juliet.

Characters usually have an epiphany in this moment about how to win back their love, typically brought on by another character. In Adam's Rib, Amanda and Adam reconcile when they tax accountant goes over how much of a life they built together. In Chasing Amy, Silent Bob's speech about Amy convinces Holden that he shouldn't care about Alyssa's past. In Shrek, Donkey literally tells Shrek that he's a fool for letting Fiona get away.

Enduring Love

In comic romances, the love between the two characters triumphs over the mistrust that divided them. Often, romances end in a wedding. Often, the character who kept the secret does something to prove his or her love and earn back the trust that was lost. For Darcy, this means sacrificing a good deal of money to force Wickham to do right by Elizabeth's sister Lydia.For Zack, this means both rejecting Taylor at Prom, taking his sister Mac as a date, and waiting for Laney at her house after the dance with flowers. For David in Love Actually, this is being open about his love for Natalie despite the media attention. For Benjamin in The Graduate, this means literally taking Elaine from her wedding and fighting off her relatives. With couples that are already together that had been tested with a love triangle, there is a sign that the love is unshakable: at the end of Adam's Rib, Adam and Amanda joke that soon they will both be running for DA, with Adam as the Republican candidate and Amanda as the Democratic candidate.

Unrequited Love

Yet not all romances are happily ever after, and some enduring love goes unrequited. Unrequited love happens when one person is in love, but the other is not. While Holden will always love Alyssa and dedicates his next comic to her, she's moved on to a new lover. Same with Adele and Emma after Adele cheats on Emma with a coworker. Sometimes love is unrequited by circumstance: while Joe and Ann clearly love each other, she is royalty and can thus never make a life with Joe. Sometimes love in unrequited by death: in A Walk to Remember, Jamie dies, leaving Landon to be alone loving her for the rest of his life.

Unrequited love is even found in romances that don't end tragically. While Zack and Laney get together in She's All That, Taylor's desire for Zack and Dean's desire for Laney go unrequited. There is also a middle ground between happily ever after and heartbreak: happy for now. In Love Actually, Karen forgives Harry for his affair with Mia, but there is clearly still mistrust and distance in their relationship at the end. In Annie Hall, Annie and Alvy are friends and have new lovers, but Alvy still wishes he was with Annie. In The Graduate, Benjamin and Elaine escape the wedding, but then sit silently on the bus, as they have no idea what to do next. All of these pseudo-happy ends depend on unrequited desires that still dwell within the characters that, should the story continue, may result in another break up.

Romantic Subgenres
  • ROMANTIC COMEDY: Most film romances are romantic comedies (rom-coms), as these lead to happy endings. Chief among these is the screwball comedy, where a serious male character has is life wrecked by an outgoing goofy woman, who at the end he declares his love for. Screwball comedies include His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Adam's Rib, The Philadelphia Story, and I Love Lucy. The modern version of the female screwball is the manic pixie dream girl, as who is quirky and goofy to hide her depression had loneliness, as seen in Garden State, Scott Pilgrim, Elizabethtown, Annie Hall, Almost Famous, 500 Days of Summer, and Breakfast at Tiffany's.
  • HISTORICAL ROMANCE: These romances are set in different era and can cross with the western and war genres. Some contemporary romances even become historical romances over time: Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights were contemporary when they were written, but now that they are both over 150 years old, they have become historical.
  • ROMANTIC THRILLER: Romantic thrillers cross crime with romance. Often, a woman is the attempted victim of a crime and teams with a detective to solve the crime, falling for him in the process. Noir and spy stories use the romantic thriller in a different way: the male detective is the lead character and, when trying to solve the crime or defeat the criminal, is seduced by a femme fatale who is neither good or bad (and is sometimes the criminal).
  • PARANORMAL ROMANCE: These inject romances with fantastic elements, such as ghosts, angels, demons, aliens, robots, psychics, witches, curses, and time travel. Paranormal romance is the fastest growing genre of romance, with recent hits like Ghost, The Time Traveler's Wife, and Her.
  • EROTIC ROMANCE: These are romances that mix the love story with frank and detailed descriptions of sexual activities. Erotica, also called smut, is frequently banned and not considered literary, though erotic novels like Peyton Place and 50 Shades of Grey have broken into pop culture.

Works Cited

Adam's Rib. Directed by George Cukor, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. MGM, 1949.

Annie Hall. Directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists, 1977.

Austin, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (1813). Project Gutenberg, 17 October 2016.

Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adele). Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, starring Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. Quat'sous, 2013.

Bringing Up Baby. Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. RKO, 1938.

Chasing Amy. Directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams. Miramax, 1997.

"Eros and Psyche" (c. 400 BCE). Greeka.com, accessed 21 December 2016.

The Graduate. Directed by Mike Nichols, starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. United Artists, 1967.

It Happened One Night. Directed by Frank Capra, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Colombia, 1935.

Love Actually. Directed by Richard Curtis, starring Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. Universal, 2003.

The Proposal. Directed by Anne Fletcher, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Touchstone, 2009.

Roman Holiday. Directed by William Wyler, starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Paramount, 1953.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1623), edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstein. Folger Shakespeare Library, 2013.

She's All That. Directed by Robert Iscove, starring Freddie Prince Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook. Miramax, 1999.

Shrek. Directed by Vicky Jenson and Andrew Adamson, starring Michael Myers and Eddie Murphy. Dreamworks, 2001.

A Walk to Remember. Directed by Adam Shankman, starring Mandy Moore. Warner, 2002.

West Side Story. Directed by Robert Wise, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Twentieth Century Fox, 1961.

Created By
Brandon Coon


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