Feeling the Romance and Keeping it Real

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There’s a standard formula for romantic stories. Boy meets girl. They fall in love but pretend they don’t even notice each other. Finally, they declare their love and live happily ever after. This may sound a little corny, but most romantic stories are much deeper. Still they rely on the standard formula. There’s a reason why the standard formula is used so much. Because it works.

The Baxter

The Baxter is one of the romantic movies I watched recently. It follows the standard formula.

Elliot Wendall Sherman (Michael Showalter) is a “baxter,” a man who will never get married, because women always leave him for their one true love. This pattern repeats itself with one Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks), who leaves him at the altar. This is no spoiler, since we find out how the relationship ends at the very beginning of the movie. But this story is not about that romance. It’s about the romance between Elliot and another woman Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams).

Note that we have a lack of sympathy for Caroline, because we know that she’s going to leave Elliot and break his heart. Also, while they develop their relationship, we the audience get the rough treatment, the overview. So we feel no loved lost for their relationship.

On the other hand, every moment between Cecil and Elliot, we see into their souls, and we sympathize with them and root for them. But the situation is that Elliot is engaged to Caroline, and Cecil has a boyfriend. Standard stuff, but that means they can’t pursue a romance, prime fodder for an effective romantic conflict.

And it is an effective romantic conflict. The Baxter made a number of debatable story choices, and you can read about them at Amazon.com or IMDb. These choices mean you may or may not find it mediocre. But for all these choices, it is an effective romance. I definitely found it fun to watch, and I would watch it again.

The Baxter

A romantic comedy for anyone who’s ever been dumped.

In the style of a Howard Hawks comedy, Baxter follows the twists and turns of a young man’s life during the two weeks before his wedding.

Note, I’m talking about “romantic stories,” not just stories in the Romance genre. This includes even romantic story threads.

The Romantic Story Arc

What makes a good a romantic story? Firstly, it builds up sympathy for the characters. Though plot twists can contribute to a romantic story, romance itself is about people, and so romantic story threads are character-based. Often, one of the characters must overcome some personal obstacle in order to resolve the romantic conflict. The story builds up sympathy for the characters, and make them feel for each other. And it makes us feel deep inside the same longing that the characters have for each other.

The characters rarely tell us how they feel, but their feelings are evident for all to see. Generally, they should not say, “I love you.” In fact it’s better if they can’t say, “I love you.” Because that can be the source of the romantic conflict. Once we feel the longing, the story draws out the seperation between the charcters, making it less and less likely they’ll see their longings fulfilled. When they finally do come together, we can turn on the water-works.

This is the same story-arc pattern seen in every genre. For example, in an action story, the villian does something that makes the audience cry for blood, but the hero is powerless to satisfy. You have to keep the villian alive, because he’s the source of the conflict that drives the story forward. And he must grow in his evil power, or else the story will stagnate, or end. Only after the conflict reaches the crisis stage is the hero able finally to prevail. Likewise in a romantic story, pose a romantic conflict, then build it, build it, then: Bang! Our hearts turn to Jello.

Romance as a Human Need

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of needs, published in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. His theory is that humans have more basic and higher needs. After the more basic ones are met, they can seek to meet the higher needs.

These are usually represented as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs: the need to breathe, to eat, to sleep. After our physiological needs are met, we turn to our need for safety. This includes the need to be safe from violence, to be provided for and in good health.

Now, Maslow put sex in the first category, physiological needs, as the need to procreate. But some of the best romantic stories have no sex whatsoever. In fact, over the past week, I’ve watch three good romantic movies, none of which had any sex between the two main romantic characters. Romance is not sex. It is intimacy.

Intimacy is part of the Maslow’s third layer of needs: the need to be loved and to love others. This includes the need to have friends and family, to be accepted and to accept others, the need to be needed. Deny a character one of these needs, and you have a great romantic conflict in the making.

A Simple Romantic Storyline

Here’s a simple romantic storyline, incorporating the above ideas. I used parts of Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic to stimulate some of these ideas.

CHARACTER has a need to love a woman and to be loved. And he feels this with a particular woman. But he’s not available emotionally. He wants to keep the relationship platonic, because he wants to avoid the pain of rejection. But he must suffer rejection before he gets to acceptance.

His pattern of platonic relationships instead of romantic goes back to his adolescence. On the one hand, he spent time with his sister and her friends. On the other hand, his first love broke his heart by rejecting him. So he established a pattern in his thinking: platonic good, romantic bad.

CHARACTER meets a woman with whom he develops intimacy. To her, this is romantic, and she tries to start a romance with him. But he rebuffs her, and she decides she just can’t do this anymore.

Meanwhile, his sister, whom he also dearly loves, experiences some tragic event involving a hospital. He realizes he needs the woman in his life and takes the first steps at repairing the relationship.

This would have to be fleshed out much more to become an actual story. But you can see how it’s starting to come together.

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