Jeanne: Romance vs. Love Story

Matrix Analysis of Romance vs. Love Story

When I got The Demon Always Wins, the the first book in my Touched by a Demon series back from my editor, Karen Harris, she said my story didn’t know whether it was a romance or a love story.

I was mystified. A romance is a love story and vice versa, right?


Karen explained that romances always have happy endings, while love stories don’t.

As part of the general background she provided on how she analyzes story, she also explained that the issues keeping the couple apart in a romance might be internal to the characters, or their external circumstances. The same polarity exists in love stories.

Eight Lady Jilly and I spent the next couple of weeks puzzling over this and sending each other dozens of emails with examples, and where we thought those examples fell along the two continuums.

Then, of course, given my background in working alongside computer geeks and statisticians, it occurred to me that this conundrum really lends itself to a matrix analysis. If you make the vertical axis internal vs. external circumstances and the happy/unhappy ending the horizontal axis, you come up with a matrix like you see above.

Once I had the matrix set up, I plotted in a few well-known stories along the axes.

On the Happy Endings end of the scale, I plotted romances. At the top, where the issues keeping the lovers apart are primarily internal, I put a couple of books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (It Had to be You and Nobody’s Baby But Mine) and Jenny Crusie (Bet Me).

As you move down the chart, external circumstances start to play a larger role. In Twilight, I treat Edward’s vampirism as an external circumstance–it was forced onto him from an outside agency. However, his controlling behavior and insistence that Bella can’t become a vampire, too, is an internal, character-based issue, and that plays a large role in why they can’t be together.

Most romantic suspense novels–think early Suzanne Brockman–fall into that bottom left quadrant–whatever creates the suspense serves to keep the couple apart, but generally, so do their own character flaws. At the very bottom of that axis, I put Princess Bride–Wesley and Buttercup would be perfectly happy to be together but circumstances force them apart.

Since happy endings are binary–they either are or they aren’t, there’s nothing in the middle of the diagram.

Over on the right, though, we have all the stories with unhappy endings. The issues keeping Rhett and Scarlet apart are internal (except when she’s married, and that never lasts long).

In Wuthering Heights, class-ism keeps Heathcliff and Cathy apart, but so does their wildness.

Still further down the axis, we find Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack are held apart by the danger of being openly homosexual in a profoundly homophobic world, but also by Ennis’ commitment to his family.

At the bottom of the axis lies Romeo and Juliet,  another pair of teenagers kept apart by the world.

Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? If you write romance/love stories, where does you work fall on this matrix?

5 thoughts on “Jeanne: Romance vs. Love Story

  1. It’s been a while since we talked about this (love your matrix, btw), so it was fun to revisit. I do agree with RWA’s definition, that a romance must have a happy ending. There are powerful stories about true love that don’t end well, so those must be something else. Casablanca is about a great and forever kind of love that requires sacrifice and lasting separation. Love Story seems to me a pretty good handle of this kind of story.

    I’m less clear on the internal/external conflict distinction. From memory, my interpretation of Karen’s analysis was that romances are principally about internal conflict, because the story is about the couple overcoming deeply personal reasons why they should not get together, while love stories are more about the h/h being kept apart by external obstacles (Princess Bride).

    I can say for sure that I most enjoy reading and writing stories with a happy ending (romances!) with both internal and external conflict. Bonus points when the external conflict amplifies the internal. Any and all recommendations gratefully received 🙂

  2. I’m thinking there could be some stuff in the vertical middle if the book had a bittersweet ending. You wouldn’t find that in pure romance, but you might in women’s fiction, like some of the stuff Kristan Higgins has been writing lately.

  3. I’m with your editor. There is definitely a difference between romance and love stories. Nicholas Sparks — I listened to a great interview with him — insists his stories are love stories, not romances, because there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending in some of them. I would say the same for “Bridges of Madison County” and “Titanic” (not a book, but you get my point). There’s definitely some serious love going on in the stories, but the couple has no HEA with each other.

    • I was really interested in the internal vs. external conflict. She seemed to feel that internal conflict was generally more significant in romance, while external conflict was primary in love stories. Still cogitating on that.

  4. I disagree with the placement of internal and external conflict in romance and love stories. Either can have external, internal, or both. The difference comes down to the genre specifics: In a romance the two protagonists must meet within the first few pages and there must be a happy ending. Not always true for love stories.

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s