The Formula of a Romance Story

The writers of Rick and Morty have a formula for their show that works pretty well in the context of the show, precisely because of the nature of the characters they’re trying to lampoon. The formula is:

  1. The character is in a place of comfort.
  2. They want something.
  3. In trying to get it, they end up in unfamiliar circumstances
  4. They adapt to the new circumstances
  5. They get what they want
  6. They pay a price for it
  7. They return to their place of comfort
  8. Having been changed.

This is a slightly different formula from Seinfeld, in which:

  1. The character in a place of material comfort, but
  2. Is inconvenienced in a minor way.
  3. They seek to change their circumstances with the most extreme reaction possible.
  4. They don’t get what they want.
  5. They don’t learn from the mistakes they made.

The comedy here comes from different places: in Rick and Morty, it comes from the unfamiliar circumstances and the way the characters do or don’t deal with it. It’s the inappropriateness of the character to the unfamiliar circumstance than’s funny. In Seinfeld, the comedy comes from the overreaction of the characters to what are generally considered minor inconveniences. It is their constant hubris, the way it ends up making the situation worse, and their constant failure to learn better that makes Seinfeld funny.

The thing that makes comedy comedy is that the character generally starts from a place of comfort but then does something that places them in a place where comedy can happen; they make themselves uncomfortable, and it’s funny to watch them try to fix that.

As a romance writer, I think it’s important that characters come from some place else. I find The Wheel of Emotions to be incredibly useful in choosing a motive for a character at the beginning of their journey, especially the less positive side of the chart. The opening of a romance book establishes a set point of negative feelings: the character is disgusted (she’s about to be married to a terrible man), afraid (he’s been kidnapped!), withdrawn (she’s been jilted), violated, fragile, grief-stricken, or even overwhelmed.

These feelings have been going on for a while in the characters, and they’ve come to a fore when the story opens. But those feelings aren’t what they want, and they’re not true to the person they believe themselves to be. A great romance story involves the two co-protagonists at first emphasizing their opening negative feelings, and then through circumstances revealing the alternative selves hidden underneath the pain, the selves that are perfect for the other person. The romance formula looks like this:

  1. The characters are in a place of deep emotional discomfort. They are both trying to hide or run from that pain. This is called the mask.
  2. An external circumstance forces them together. That may even be the source of their discomfort.
  3. Their initial reaction to being together makes the discomfort worse.
  4. The circumstance becomes a crisis that forces them to work together.
  5. As they reluctantly work together to repair the crisis, they start to like each other. They start to see the person underneath the other’s mask, the essence.
  6. A revelation creates a new, deeper emotional discomfort to arise, driving them apart.
  7. But only by working together can they defeat the external crisis.
  8. Their true, essential selves are revealed just before the final crisis, and it gives them the power to overcome the crisis.
  9. They are revealed to be good for one another, and “happily ever after” is achieved.

“A place of deep emotional discomfort” can be anything. In the last few romantic fantasy novels I read, that place was: a woman whose lover left her for a man, a widower who still loved his late wife but was forced to marry a younger woman, a woman sent on a quest whose love was no longer replying to her mails, a prince who wanted to protect his companion from the threat of dealing with a coup, and a woman who felt herself unlovable because she didn’t live up to her mother’s sensual reputation.

This is the essential romantic formula. There’s only a small amount more to it– the external crisis which forces the two characters together must also, in some way, threaten their sense of identity, make them choose between two values they treasure– one long term, one more immediate. It’s the immediate one they must give up, because it’s the long-term one that is their essence, that makes them suitable to the other.

Stories can sometimes get away with side-stepping this. One I read recently was Nicola Cameron’s Lady of Thorns, which I think is a pretty damned awesome book, but the long-term value of “being a noblewoman” turns out to be moot, as a character reminds her late in the book that, in a previous adventure (and book, Palace of Scoundrels), the king had given her permission to marry a commoner without risking her entailment. I had read that book, and I’d forgotten it, and so had the main character, but it’s a touch of deus-ex-machina. But it was fine; the romance was so deftly written I kinda went, “Aww, that’s cheating,” grinned at it, and read to the end anyway.

But if you master this formula, you kinda have a starting point for any romantic story you care to write.

Earlier: We treat our future selves as strangers to protect our free will.

Later: How Well-Structured Are My Novels?