“How can this be?” you may ask. And I would say in reply, “I don’t know!” :) But, in romance, it’s imperative to be able to see the difference between a “romance” and a “love story.” While many love stories don’t have Happliy-ever-after (HEA) endings (think of the movie Sweet November), for the sake of argument, because I think this is where most authors get confused, we’re going to compare the love story which does have a satisfying, and not tragic ending, to a romance which always must have a HEA ending with the hero and heroine ending up together.
As we look at these, let’s keep in mind two things: Romance focuses on the “honeymoon” stage of the relationship. While there can be sub-plots, the main focus is on the developing love the hero feels for the heroine, and vice versa. The hero and heroine are apart only for brief bursts (Although, it’s OK for them to have been apart for a long time in actuality, as in "he didn’t see her again for six months." In a romance, we don’t focus on those six months and see him away from her for each day of those months) A Love story can have a broader focus—possibly several points of view, and can show the hero and heroine apart for long periods of time.
OK, story idea #1: John was about to propose to his girlfriend when he found out she’d been cheating on him with his best friend. Hurt, angry and disillusioned, he decides never to trust another woman. Then, along comes Sally. She’s cute, funny, and caring—and she makes John want to love again.
Sally’s attracted to John, but she can see he’s been hurt by another woman, and doesn’t want to fall into the I-can-fix-him trap she’s always fallen into in the past. Several times, she’s become romantically involved with someone who was “broken” only to have them leave her once they were “fixed”—and invariable, it’s to go back to the same woman who broke them to begin with. She can’t go through that again.
Regardless of John’s and Sally’s conviction not to become involved, they fall for each other. Then one day, John’s ex-girlfriend shows up. She’s remorseful, asks for forgiveness, and John forgives her. From a distance, Sally witnesses what appears to be a “touching reunion” and becomes upset. She goes to one of John’s friends who assures her that John would never go back to his ex. But, while Sally is having this conversation, John sees her with his friend, and paints her with the same brush as his ex.
They split up, but later all is resolved—and they live HEA.
THIS IS A ROMANCE…because the formula is in place. Let’s take a look. Boy Meets Girl (BMG). John and Sally meet and are attracted to one another. Boy Loses Girl (BLG). John and Sally each believe they have discovered the other to be just what they were afraid of, and they back away. Boy Gets Girl Back (BGGB). Two months later, Sally sees John’s Ex-girlfriend’s wedding announcement in the newspaper. She’s not marrying John, and Sally realizes she was wrong. At the same time, John’s friend has finally been able to convince John that Sally was not cheating, and so they come together, make their apologies and live HEA. A romance MUST use the BMG, BLG, BGGB formula.
OK, story idea #2: John and Sally have been married for twenty-five years. Their youngest child has just graduated from college, and John and Sally have a new lease on life and marriage. Alas, though, they discover they no longer have anything in common. The last twenty-five years has drained any romantic feelings they had for one another as they focused on building assets and raising children. Now, at each other’s throats all the time, they decide they must get a divorce. There’s a lot of arguing, John moves out, and they start divorce negotiations.
John and Sally’s three children are devastated. They plead with John and Sally to reconsider. During this time, Sally—afraid she couldn’t make it on her own after not working outside the home for the last quarter-century—rediscovers herself, finds a career she enjoys, and begins to love life…but her children keep nagging her to reconsider John.
John misses Sally, but he can never go back to her because she doesn’t appreciate all the hard work he put into giving her a nice and comfortable home for all those years. He becomes bitter and won’t have anything to do with her—especially when he sees how she’s flourishing without him…but his children keep nagging him to reconsider Sally.
Eventually, John and Sally do remember the good times they had, and through a series of scenes we see their love as it developed from the beginning. His bitterness melts, and they realize they still love each other, but are now on different paths, and so decide to have just an amiable relationship/friendship. They still divorce, but they become more like a family living in separate houses rather than a broken family that can’t be together.
THIS IS NOT A ROMANCE…because the formula does not exist. One may argue that the BGG is implied. Obviously, if John and Sally are married, then Boy got Girl at some point in the backstory—that’s a perfectly acceptable and logical argument. Obviously, BLG is there—if John is moving out, then boy is losing girl. BUT: in this scenario, even though the ending is satisfying and basically happy (no one dies, they are able to resolve their differences enough to be friends) we don’t have the BGGB part of the formula because John does not get Sally back at the end.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s change the ending and say that John and Sally do get back together at the end. Then, the formula would be there, and this would be a romance, right?
Technically, yes, the formula would be there. But, would the journey have focused on the discovery of one for the other? Not exactly. In this scenario, the scope of the plot isn’t focused enough on John and Sally discovering their love for one another. The scope is too wide and focuses more on the slice of life vignette that gets them from point A to point B. This is a love story, not a romance.
Now, could we turn this plot into a romance? Absolutely! Let’s say that, rather than focusing on Sally finding herself and the children imploring them to get back together, the story focuses more on John and Sally rediscovering their love. Let’s say the story begins the same—John and Sally having problems and contemplating divorce. But, after John moves out, the story focuses on the rediscovery of the love they hold for each other. They spend time together—dating, basically—although it’s all on the pretext of negotiating the divorce, they find they really do still love each other. John “woos” Sally, and this wooing is the focus of the scenes (rather than the focus being on the struggles and strife involved in the divorce, as in the previous scenario). And, of course, at the end of the book, there is no divorce. John moves back in, and they live HEA.
THIS IS A ROMANCE…because the formula is still in tact. BGG (in the backstory, because we begin with them married). BLG—John moves out and we discover the conflict of love lost, bitterness, hopelessness for the future—and then, BGGB. They rediscover their love for each other while on a series of dates and get-togethers, and in the end, they are back together for the HEA. The plot is focused on the discovery of love between a man and a woman, and doesn’t focus on the broader issues.I realize that these plot examples are very simple, but I hope that they give you a little insight into the difference between romance stories and love stories. Both can be great books, but one is not the other. It's important to know the difference, because romance readers have certain expectations, and as an author, if you don't deliver that, the reader is going to be upset, and possibly never read another one of your books again.
For more on what a romance is and should be, visit the TWRP greenhouse. There are lots of great articles in there. For “So You Want to Write a Romance” visit here.