Friday, August 24, 2012


Quick, think of a love story. What comes to mind? Romeo and Juliet, maybe? CASABLANCA? Or how about Aragorn and Arwen? THE PRINCESS BRIDE? Cases can even be made for the amorous adventures of James T. Kirk and Han Solo/Princess Leia.

All of these are wonderful love stories, told in radically different ways. All of them are very romantic, making us sigh with heartfelt pleasure. They all boast brave heroes, lovely heroines, snappy dialogue, kissing in all the right places (and sometimes the wrong places) and even a story to go along with the romance. And yet, some of these stories are romances, and some of them are not.

In light of the recent controversy over membership and contest rule clarifications at the Romance Writers of America (see my and Laurie’s posts from last week), I thought it might be worth pointing out that a story may be all about the love, but still not qualify as a romance. That is because romance has rules, just as physics or biology or grammar have rules. Break those rules at your peril.

Generally the rules are these: a romance must have a hero, a heroine, a romantic arc and an ending which can be described as happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN). Old Hollywood described the romantic arc as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back”. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s close enough. Note that in this formula the hero and heroine are equal, the romantic arc is complete and the ending is happy. If any of those things is missing, you DO NOT HAVE A ROMANCE.

So right away we have to disqualify one of the greatest love stories of all time: Romeo and Juliet. Yes, we have equality of hero and heroine; Shakespeare gives them both plenty of lines. But unless we believe the lovers are together and happy in heaven, the romantic arc is incomplete and the HEA is a no-go. This is a tragedy, not a romance.

The same is true for CASABLANCA. Rick chooses service to a higher ideal over love and lets Ilsa go. Boy loses girl permanently and there is no HEA. Though no one dies, this is another tragedy, not a romance.

Then there is the king of duty-over-love, Star Trek’s James T. Kirk. Episode after episode, we see him fall in love with a worthy female, only to have him give her up for his life aboard the Enterprise. The most dramatic (and romantic) of these stories is the Hugo Award-winning “City on the Edge of Forever”, scripted by well-known SF writer Harlan Ellison. Kirk, going back in time to rectify the change in the timeline caused by his Chief Medical Officer, finds he must allow the death of the woman he has come to love. In typical Kirk fashion, he does his duty, yielding another broken-hearted tragedy. (It’s interesting to note that in Ellison’s original ending, Kirk froze at the last moment and Spock had to step in to allow Edith Keeler’s death. William Shatner himself protested that it wouldn’t be in Kirk’s character to shirk his duty and allow the deaths of millions.)

All of these romantic tragedies week after week is the reason Trek fan fiction is full of true science fiction romance. The readers craved—and the writers were all too willing to provide—heroines who were the equals of their heroes and endings that were, if not HEA, at least were HFN. Fans could only take so many tragedies, though God knows Nicholas Sparks makes good money at it. (Let me say that again: Nicholas Sparks does not write romances; he writes romantic tragedies.)

So, okay, if all these excellent stories are NOT romances, what are?

One of my favorite non-traditional examples is the story of Aragorn and Arwen from the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Most readers will have missed their tale, since the details of it are found in an appendix and the main narrative describes little of what passes between them. But in creating his wonderful cinematic vision of LOTR, Peter Jackson gave his writing partners, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, free rein to tease out the threads of the Aragorn/Arwen love story and weave them into a coherent subplot for the films.

What emerged was a powerful story of love long denied, of longing and sacrifice, the black moment, the determination of both hero and heroine to work their way back to each other and the shining happily ever after. Even though significant moments of the romantic arc happen off-screen and have to be “told” (the lovers' first meeting and falling in love, for example), the writers and the actors sell the story completely, making us believe that Aragorn would think of this woman for years as he wandered the Far North alone and that Arwen would turn back from her journey west to stay with him.

Does that mean that LORD OF THE RINGS, the movie, is a romance? Not necessarily, because it is much too large thematically, and Aragorn and Arwen are only two characters in a huge ensemble piece. But their subplot—their story—is very much a romance by all the rules we’ve described.

Then there is THE PRINCESS BRIDE, not your everyday, ordinary, run-of-the mill, fairy tale, the film trailer promises. Rob Reiner's film is hilarious, but it is also a romance in the authentic tradition. Westley, our hero, loves Buttercup, our heroine, with TWOO WUV and promises to always come for her wherever she may be. Circumstances intervene, however, and Westley is shanghaied by pirates while Buttercup is betrothed to the vile Prince Humperdinck and then kidnapped. The film is a riot of comic adventure while the hero (now the Dread Pirate Roberts) makes his fortune and rescues his princess. Before it is all over, the romantic arc is satisfied, the boy has lost the girl, but he gets her back, all is well and they live happily ever after. Oh, and there is kissing involved. THE PRINCESS BRIDE only goes to show that the conventions can be mocked and followed to the letter at the same time, giving everyone a good show.

Now, about Han and Leia—I must defer to others with more STAR WARS expertise. Laurie, want to take up the challenge? Do they meet the criteria? Or are they just a romantic hero and heroine in search of an arc?

Cheers, Donna


  1. I think on that basis, Star Wars isn't a romance. The Empire Strikes Back isn't either, since Leia and Han don't get the HEA. I'm not sure even ROTJ qualifies although that's probably the closest of the three. On those rules, Avatar is definitely a romance, although it wasn't marketed as that here in the UK.

  2. Avatar wasn't marketed as a romance here, either. It was marketed as "look what we can do with our shiny new toys, and btw, see blue pocahontas save her people and defeat the evil techno humans."

    Star Wars (the Han/Leia arc, not the three abominations) is not a romance, although it has a romantic subplot. It took me years of struggling with it, but I finally realized I don't write romance. I write romantic subplots and romantic elements, but my stories are not romances. There is a very subtle but recognizable stylistic difference in romance writing versus other fiction. I'm still looking for words to describe it.

  3. Avatar definitely qualifies as a romance--one of those stories where the science fiction (external)plot and the romance plot are equal. Hero/heroine/romantic arc/HEA are all there, though we see things from the hero's POV. It wasn't marketed as SFR because that would have had male SF fans running screaming from the theater. However, it succeeded precisely BECAUSE it appealed to both men and women with both SF and ROMANCE.

  4. No argument on Avatar. I've been holding it up as my shiny example of what SFR truly is (though I don't write alien SFR, but that's another topic) when people ask what I write.

    Star Wars I'd classify as Series SF/Romantic Elements. There is a romance though it's not central. There is an arc...conflict, spark, more conflict, black moment (Han encased in Carbonite immediately after somewhat of an admission of love--Han style) and eventually an HEA after the threat to the main characters has been neutralized and any hint of a love triangle with Luke completely extinguished. (Luke...I am your sister.)

    The romantic arc takes place over the three middle installments (or maybe the three ending installments...which were filmed first...because there will be no ending installments.)

    The first three installments (which were filmed last) are series SF/romantic tragedy. Again...romantic arc between main characters that ends in utter catastrophe...though with a faint glimmer of hope for the future that's born with Luke and Leia.

    And just to add to the list of SFRs or SF/REs that aren't considered romances:

    The Abyss
    Jurassic Park (until sequel, where it falls to next list)

    And a few not-romances-that-could-have-been (aka romantic tragedies):

    Close Encounters
    The Time Traveler's Wife

    TV SF series by their very nature usually doom the romance (i.e. Firefly) but the sadly unfinished *sob!* Defying Gravity series at least had an HEA pseudo-wrap to a long and tortured storyline between astronauts Maddux "Tragic American Hero" Donner and Zoe Barnes which culminated in an appropriately titled episode called The Kiss.

  5. A Knight's Tale and Megamind are probably two of my favourite romances (yes, I know Megamind is more of a kids film, but it IS romantic in the traditional sense, even if it doesn't look like it at the start).


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