Five Romance Storylines: Angst to Slice of Life

Northanger Abbey as Burlesque
I group romances into two broad categories: world-based and character-driven. Originally, I further characterized these categories as having three different plot structures.

After exploring television, movie, shojo, yaoi, and paperback romances as well as nineteenth century romantic literature, I present five romance storylines:

1. Angst . . . 

. . . pretty much says it all. Are we together? Will the person I love fall in love with someone else? Will we break up? Did I do something wrong? Can I admit my feelings? Does the other person feel the same way? Will I? Won't I? Will I? Oh, dread! Oh, terror! Oh, my beating heart!

I can't list many examples for this category because I get so tired of the incessant self-reproach-ment that I give up about a chapter into the novel. Pamela by Samuel Richardson is possibly the only Angsty romance that I like.

Angst is the main reason I never finished Twilight.

2. Burlesque (or Soap Opera)

The Burlesque dwells less on internal problems and more on external ones: STUFF keeps happening. If it doesn't take itself too seriously, this storyline can be a hoot-and-a-half (occasionally, it becomes funny because it takes itself seriously). Jane Austen successfully spoofs the extreme version of this storyline in Northanger Abbey.

A sweeter, gentler version of this storyline likewise depends on the unexpected occurrence of unlikely events but in a way that doesn't send one into a Tess of the d'Ubervilles frenzy (When will all this stuff STOP happening!?). Many of Georgette Heyer's very amusing novels, such as Sprig Muslin, utilize this approach as does Sanami Matoh's cheerful Until the Moon and @ the Full Moon.

In reference to the latter, most manga volumes--especially in the middle of a series--end up in the Burlesque/Soap Opera category, simply due to the exigencies of the form (manga series over four volumes have to supply lots of possible twists and turns). The manga series Gravitation utilizes the Burlesque/Soap Opera approach to the nth degree and is consequently as annoying as one would expect (of course, the setting is the music industry).

With its tongue firmly in its cheek, the sweet spoof-tribute Princess Bride is the most friendly and hilarious take on this approach.

3. Serious Drama

The difference between Serious Drama and Soap Opera is the plot-line. Serious Drama is less about stuff happening to people and more about a situation in which a relationship suffers or thrives.

Although Romeo & Juliet is often presented as Soap Opera, it is really more Serious Drama, being more about the social situation than the romance (really!). Serious Drama is almost always about something other than the romance. Consequently, Robin McKinley's Deerskin, Elizabeth Marie Pope's Perilous Gard, and Austen's Mansfield Park--despite the inclusion of relevant romantic relationships--are less Relationship Central (next category) and more Serious Drama. 

4.  Relationship Central

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the majority of Jane Austen's novels, a manga series like Mars . . . focus almost exclusively on building the relationship. The Relationship Central story differs from the next category (Us Two Against the World and/or at Work, which usually presents the relationship as a given). Relationship Central, on the other hand, takes readers/viewers back to the relationship's beginnings: the past is as important as the present.

Persuasion, for example, builds Anne and Captain Wentworth's relationship through Anne's eyes as she remembers the past, meets her beloved's sister and sister's husband, and watches Captain Wentworth interact with others. The novel isn't what I call world-romance since all events in the novel work towards a single end (in world-romance, Anne would spend far more time shoe shopping and dating other people). Yet Anne and Captain Wentworth's interactions are limited. In Romance Central, the romantic partners are not necessarily working through things together (although they will talk and dance and eat together), but, rather, working through things separately in order to be together.

Many paperback romances fall into this category.

Most mystery romances fall into the next.

5. Us Two Against the World (and/or at Work)

My personal casting for Harriet and Wimsey: Daphne & Niles!
One of my favorites, this romantic storyline sets the couple's relationship within a context of (1) fighting a conspiracy (X-Files); (2) fighting crime (Castle, Bones, Wimsey & Vane, Fake, Scarecrow & Mrs. King); (3) fighting censorship (Library Wars); (4) fighting social pressure (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand).; (4) fighting a war (Queen of Attolia, Maiden Rose) or, (5) in the case of Tangled, fighting a curse plus some henchmen.

I discuss the work aspect of this storyline in my post "Give the Romantic Character a Job: Manga Does It Right".

The downside of this storyline is that it can easily dissolve into Burlesque. The upside is that the reader learns more about the main characters by watching them work together and responding to external problems. As a bonus, the romantic characters will often also experience personal growth.

The Slice of Life or series of Vignettes is a variation of the Us Two storyline. Like the Soap Opera, the Slice of Life has no definitive narrative arc. Unlike the Soap Opera, the Slice of Life is not frenetic or fast-paced. Rather, it has a sweet, lazy feel--enjoyable for its very lack of emotional demands. Many food-based romances use the Slice of Life/Vignette approach as does the joyous movie Bread & Tulips.

Generally speaking, many romances use more than one storyline. Howl's Moving Castle, for example, utilizes all of them; Miyazaki in particular excels at creating a sense of nostalgia through a Slice of Life. 

1 comment:

FreeLiverFree said...

It might seemed strange but the manga Black Lagoon could be considered a Us Two Against the World romance. Except most people would consider a really, really dark, borderline nihilistic crime/action story. Which it is.

It's also debatable even whether the two main characters Rock, the Japanese Salaryman and Revy the psychotic violent pirate/gunslinger are even in love. But they go through a transition from kidnapper/kidnappee to co-workers who one might murder the other to being almost inseparable as they go about committing crimes (including some really horrible ones.)
Thing is it is a really dark and violent show so I'm not sure it counts. The romance is implied (though in my opinion very heavily), but it is never really stated. It's really subtle and some will argue if it is really there at all.