|Beginning Writers: So you want to write a romance....|
|The Formula Revealed
By: Nicola Martinez
In my article, Three C’s to Better Romance Writing, I made the passing comment that a romance is only a romance if the formula is present. (the three C’s to keep in mind when creating great romantic novels—for those of you who are wondering—are CONCENTRATE ON CONFLICT, CREATE COMPELLING CHARACTERS, and CARESS YOUR READER’S IMAGINATION) Many have asked me since, “How can a story be fresh and exciting and formulaic at the same time?” It does seem a little oxymoronic, but not only can it be done, it must be done.
No one wants to repeatedly read the same story, so our plots must be fresh and exciting, and no one wants to read a romance where the romance isn’t included. So, while we are weaving those compelling characters that are kept apart by a realistic conflict which caresses readers’ imaginations, we must always keep in mind the basic romance formula: Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl back. If that formula isn’t in all our novels, then our novels aren’t romances. To evaluate how this formula can be used repeatedly, and still remain fresh and necessary, let’s look at different movies from the last decade:
Twister (1996) Jo Harding and Bill Harding
We’ll start here because I can hear many saying, “wait a minute, this movie isn’t a romance.” But, ah, it is. The romance is surrounded by chaos and destruction, but the main storyline is the relationship of Jo Harding and Bill Harding.
Jo and Bill Harding are in the process of a divorce. Bill approaches Jo (new fiancée en-tow) because she has yet to sign the final divorce papers. In this tale, Boy has already lost Girl in the back story, but because Boy has lost Girl, we must conclude that Boy had Girl to lose! Thus, the movie begins at the “Boy gets girl back” stage of the plot.
Throughout the movie, we discover the conflict that broke up the marriage—caused Boy to lose Girl. Jo is obsessed with developing an early-warning system to help save people from a destructive tornado. This obsession is spurred by a childhood trauma in which her family was trapped by a severe tornado, which makes the obsession—and therefore, the conflict—realistic. This drive consumed her so much that her marriage suffered. Of course, by the end of the film, Boy has Girl back.
In this romance, both the hero and heroine still love each other. Even though Bill has moved on, there is a spot in his heart that belongs to Jo. This is evident from the beginning of the story. We also know immediately, that Jo still loves Bill because she didn’t sign the divorce papers. The conflicts that keep them apart are both internal and external: Internally, they both know they couldn’t make it work the “first time” (hence the divorce) so what makes them think giving it another shot would work, since the same issues that tore them apart are still unresolved? Externally, Bill has moved on, and is planning a second marriage. By the time “boy gets girl back,” Jo has come to terms with her obsession (emotionally, and physically, by finding success in her invention), and Bill’s fiancée has left of her own free will. And so, we have our happily ever-after ending.
Fools Rush In (1997) Alex Whitman and Isabel Fuentes Whitman
Alex Whitman and Isabel Fuentes meet by chance, hit it off, have a one night fling, and then don’t see each other again for a few months, when Isabel shows up at Alex’s house to tell him that she’s pregnant. Here we already have Boy gets Girl and Boy loses Girl. It’s not long before Alex decides to marry Isabel, so in the first third of the movie the -- romance formula has come full circle—to a degree.
The formula can neither be used that easily, nor that quickly, else we have a shallow and uninteresting plot, and that is why this movie is a perfect example of how you can layer the formula. Alex and Isabel by are married now, but their lives do not come together easily. They want completely different things out of life. Isabel cherishes family; Alex couldn’t care less about that. Isabel wants to stay in Las Vegas; Alex wants to move out of state. Here we have our developing conflict, until finally, it all comes to a head and Isabel leaves Alex, telling him that the baby has miscarried; therefore there is no reason for them to be married. (Boy loses Girl. . .again).
But, Alex loves Isabel by this point in the film, and thus, travels to Mexico, where Isabel has gone to seek solace. However, he just misses Isabel, who has traveled back to the U.S. for their baby to be born (Isabel had lied about the miscarriage because, guess, what, she loves Alex and doesn’t want to keep him from his life-dreams). They meet at the Hoover Dam, Isabel goes into labour on the Arizona-Nevada border, they profess their love for each other, so now they are not just married for convenience’s sake, and they all live happily ever after (Boy gets Girl Back).
Two Weeks Notice (2002) George Wade and Lucy Kelson
George Wade, millionaire playboy and architect extraordinaire, is pitted against Lucy Kelson, activist and Ivy-league educated lawyer. Any time the conflict revolves around absolute opposites, both in economic status and morality we have the ingredients for a great story.
This movie is a great example of how Boy doesn’t always get Girl in an overt way.George and Lucy never date. She is hired as his legal counsel, and not once do they go out with each other in any casual way. It’s all business. However, as time progresses, George becomes dependent on Lucy. Their lives become so interwoven, that one cannot function without the other. We see great scenes that illustrate this to us, even though George and Lucy don’t openly acknowledge this need they have for one another. In one scene, for example, George and Lucy are eating lunch, and without a word, George takes food from Lucy’s plate because she doesn’t like that type of food, and Lucy does the same with George’s lunch. Even before the characters have realized they love each other (Boy gets Girl), we know they do.
Alas and alack, however, George has promised something to Lucy—that he would save an historical building—and when he reneges on his promise, Boy loses Girl completely. Even though Lucy secretly loves George by now, she cannot stay with him if he’s going to lie to her.
Of course, when George loses Lucy, he finally realizes he truly cannot live without her. He makes good on his promise. Vows never to hurt her again and Boy gets Girl back.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann
What this movie is doing on the list, many are asking, since it isn’t a romance. Well, I decided that any movie that starred both Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp, had to be included! Seriously, this one is included as an example of how the romance formula is always present, even when the romance is the secondary plot.
Will Turner meets Elizabeth Swann when they are both pre-teens. She immediately likes him (because she thinks he’s a pirate, and she’s enamoured with pirates). We see this meeting in the beginning of the movie, and then we have a fast-forward to when they are both young adults. In their first meeting after this fast-forward, we are enlightened to the fact that both Will and Elizabeth have secretly liked each other for years. (Boy gets Girl). However, they are kept apart by their economic stations, and neither Will nor Elizabeth can profess their love. (This conflict is what keeps them apart, but it is also Boy losing Girl to a degree).
Before too long, Elizabeth must agree to marry Norrington (Boy loses Girl), but by the end of the movie, Will has saved the day, saved the pirate (Captain Jack Sparrow) and has professed his love to Elizabeth, who returns the affection (Boy gets Girl back).
So we see that even in a story where there are other plots and subplots in abundance, the romance that is interjected, still follows the romance formula.
Just Like Heaven (2005) Elizabeth Masterson and David Abbott
This movie has a unique plot. In order for Boy to get Girl back, he must help bring her back to life—she’s a ghost, or so he thinks. David Abbott gets a great deal on an apartment sub-let. What he doesn’t know immediately is why: Elizabeth Masterson, former resident, is lying in a coma on the verge of death. Her spirit, however, has decided not to leave her apartment. In fact, it is David who must convince Elizabeth that she is dead, and therefore, should leave him to his apartment. Sound like great conflict? It is.
David decides to help Elizabeth “cross over,” and in the process, they fall in love (Boy gets Girl). Of course, in this storyline, just as in Two Weeks Notice, they don’t date, either. But, we know they are falling in love because Elizabeth becomes jealous of other women. We know David starts to fall for Elizabeth, because he becomes desperate to help her “cross over,” and even more desperate to help her come out of the coma, once he discovers she is not really dead.
As the plot progresses, we find out that the reason for this spiritual anomaly is Elizabeth is on the verge of death. David tried everything he can think of to help save her, and he does. Sadly, there is a dreadful side-effect: The woken Elizabeth doesn’t have a clue whom he is! (Boy loses Girl.)
This wouldn’t be a romance if it ended there, however. David, who has now moved out of Elizabeth’s apartment, has left her a gift: a garden on the roof. This gift spurs her to remember him (Boy gets Girl back), and they live happily ever after.
Failure to Launch (2006) Tripp and Paula
In this movie, we know from the beginning just exactly how Boy is going to lose Girl. Tripp still lives at home with his parents, has no intention of ever moving out, and his parents want to give him the boot. Enter Paula, a relationship therapist who guarantees that she can have Tripp out of his parents’ house (by the end of the film). The way in which Paula intends to do this is to date Tripp—without him knowing, of course, that she has an ulterior motive.
Anytime we have the hero or heroine assuming a false identity in order to force the other’s hand, we know immediately that the break-up is going to happen when the truth comes to light. This makes for great suspense. Just exactly when is the discovery going to be made? How is the secret going to be kept? It’s the making of great conflict.
In this example, we have two layers of Boy gets Girl: the initial layer, which is superficial and easy; the one where Paula begins to date Tripp. And the other—the one in the middle of the film when she actually falls for him.
Then comes the discovery of Paula’s true reason for dating Tripp—which, of course, comes after she loves him and doesn’t want him to find out—and Boy loses Girl. By the time we get to the end of the film, Tripp realizes he needs more than just life with his parents; he needs Paula, and Paula has realized that she doesn’t want to spend her life “tricking” people; she wants Tripp. And guess what? They all live happily ever after.
So, as we can see from our film analysis, the Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl back formula can be used in many ways: It can be layered, as in Fools Rush In. It can be woven around and action adventure, as in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. It can be used in a way where part of the formula is found only in the back-story, as in Twister. But, the formula, in all three of its parts, must be present.
We also need to understand that Girl gets Boy, Girl loses Boy, Girl gets Boy back is also the formula, and that both variations might be utilized in the same novel. You see, we can get creative with a known formula, and as I said in the beginning, we must in order to keep our stories from being stale.
In those plots where the hero and the heroine are married, the Boy loses Girl section of our formula is sometimes only emotional. This is fine, as long as that severance seems complete. If the heroine has emotionally distanced herself from the hero so much that the hero believes there is no way he can salvage the marriage, then an emotional separation is plausible, and the Boy must work through the conflict in order to get his Girl back.
It is also imperative that the Boy losing Girl doesn’t happen until after that crucial “point of no return”. If Boy loses Girl before he loves her, then the break-up will be both unemotional and unbelievable. We want our readers crying for our hero, not thinking he’s irrational or insane. This is why we must weave our conflicts well. Just as in Failure to Launch, Paula has fallen completely for Tripp, before Tripp finds out she was a hired date. If he had found out before Paula loved him, then Paula would have had nothing invested, nothing to lose. As it is, she loses everything by Tripp’s discovery, because by that time in the storyline, she is no longer just a hired girlfriend; she’s there because she wants to be.
So, when analyzing our plots, we must look for the absence of any part of the formula. If we can’t find one of the three slices of the pie in our story, then our story is not a classic romance. If the formula exists, well, we can congratulate ourselves because, we’ve written a romance.
Here’s an exercise that will help strengthen the ability to formulate a great romance plot:
Analyze the following movies. Try to decipher the main conflict. Once the conflict is obvious, figure out why it is such a strong conflict. Why does it work in keeping the hero and heroine apart? Next, discover the point at which Boy gets Girl, and after she is gotten, note the point of no return—that point in the story where Boy losing Girl will be devastating to Boy. Then see the point where Boy loses Girl (it will always come after the point of no return.) Finally, note the conflict resolution which facilitates Boy getting Girl back:
You’ve Got Mail (1998): Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly
Never Been Kissed (1999) Josie Geller and Sam Coulson
The Wedding Planner (2001) Mary Fiore and Steve Edison
13 Going on 30 (2004) Jenna Rink and Matt Flamhaff
Nicola Marinez is an award-winning author who has been writing and studying romance for decades. She was founder and publisher of the women’s fiction magazine, Bridges, before selling it in 2001; she is co-author of The Lightning-fast Lexicon of Period Lingo.