The 5 Archetypal Romance Plots

Are you wondering where your romantic relationship may lead? As a tribute to Valentine’s Day, IGNITE’s Literature Editor and Writers detail the five archetypal plots of the romance genre, drawing examples from literature and film:


1. The Tragic Romance Plot

Things must come between them

The tragic romance plot is a common and long-standing literary trope, drawn from the ancient tradition of Greek tragedy. Couples in romantic tragedy endure several hardships that ultimately prevents them from being together in the end. But while Greek tragedies (e.g. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex) were typically caused by the main protagonist’s ‘tragic flaw’ (a character flaw or error in judgment that leads to a tragic outcome), the love-struck protagonists are usually also kept apart by external forces and circumstances: feuding families (William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet); class boundaries (Devdas); a fatal accident (Titanic); societal homophobia (Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain); cancer (John Green’s The Fault in our Stars).

This list is certainly not exhaustive; other examples of fictional tragic romances and historical romantic tragedies abound.


 Spoiler alert: He (Augustus Waters) dies at the end


2. The Wish-Fulfillment Romance Plot

 Happy endings are common in Hollywood, Bollywood, Hallyuwood, and in South American telenovelas 

The wish fulfillment romance plot offers a sweet and happy and fulfilling ending: a tradition that dates back to all the fairy tales that began with “Once Upon A Time” and ended with “They all lived happily ever after”. While there were many fairy tales that ended tragically (e.g. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid),  Walt Disney Studios has always insisted on happy endings in its film adaptations (the source texts of Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas all have tragic endings). There may be obstacles to the main protagonists’ burgeoning love, e.g. a wicked stepmother (Cinderella), parental objections to the relationship (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…).

But true love prevails, and the lovebirds will be happily united in matrimony at the end of tale.

Readers and viewers may be aware that these stories are not completely realistic, but enjoy the escapism into a magical world full of love, passion, possibility and joy nonetheless. They get to see their favorite characters live out the dreams and fantasies (i.e. true love + enough wealth to not worry about finances) that may not be possible in their own everyday lives. This is why the wish fulfillment romance plot is a staple in many novels, films and TV series. BBC’s Finlo Rohrer has noted that film audiences flocked to escapist happy-ending films during the 1930s – when the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment, poverty and uncertainty about the future.


3. The Gothic Romance Plot

The genre of Gothic fiction finds its beginnings in the late 18th century, with literary scholars citing Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance (1790) as predecessors to the many Gothic novels that achieved immense popularity in the 19th century. Gothic fiction blends elements of medieval romances with realism, and typically involves supernatural elements, horror, gloomy atmospheres, claustrophobic settings, inexplicable events, melodramatic emotions, mysteries and suspense.

Gothic fiction – e.g. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) and R. L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – does not necessarily involve romantic subplots, but Gothic romances often feature the archetypal Byronic hero, whose nomenclature was inspired by the Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byronic heroes are often flawed, moody, vengeful, unethical, solitary and mad – but they are also presented as powerful and seductive figures that pose an erotic threat to female protagonists. Famous literary examples include Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1910) and Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre).

Modern equivalents have been notably popular in recent years, with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight trilogy (2008-2012) being a prime example. The supernatural aspects have been further emphasized, with Edward Cullen being over a century old and in possession of vampiric powers. Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies (2013) uses a similar theme, with the central plot being a ‘zombie romance’ between a male zombie and a female human. E. L. James’ Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey) can also be described as a Byronic hero, since he exercises immense magnetism, power and control over the naïve and gullible Anastasia Steele.


 4. The Immortal Romance Plot

Always and forever – in health and amnesia (Image source: cumbiaque.tumblr)


The idea of a ‘love that never dies’ has captivated the masses over the ages. From Shakespeare’s sonnets to contemporary fiction, immortal love has been a widely celebrated subject matter in literature and film. The theme of immortal romance achieves universal resonance because it embodies the ‘till death do us part’ adage, fulfilling the yearning of us mere mortals for an epic romance that survives the test of time and overcomes the numerous challenges and hurdles that stand in the way of ‘true love’.

In portrayals of the immortal romance genre, the fated lovers encircle each other in passionate, all-consuming affection, only to have their romance inevitably threatened by trials and tribulations that disrupt their pursuit of eternal happiness. While the wish-fulfillment plot often ends with the happy marriage of the protagonists, the immortal romance plot typically spans a much wider time frame. The lovers must navigate love’s different challenges across the decades, taking readers and audiences on a roller-coaster ride of emotions as they rejoice in the protagonists’ triumphs, root for them in turbulent times and sympathize with their sorrows and disappointment.

The highs and lows of the immortal romance make it all the more memorable and worthwhile at the end.

The immortal romance plot may end in sadness and poignancy, but it is not tragic. Noah and Allie from Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook (1996) ultimately die together, and Jane Wilde Hawking eventually divorces Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014) – but the audience is nevertheless moved and touched by the momentousness and grandeur of their love stories.


5. The Postmodern Romance Plot

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The linear plots in the previous categories must be familiar by now: boy meets girl; they fall in love; obstacles ensue; love triumphs or flounders. Postmodern romantic plots are difficult to characterize since they are, by definition, the antithesis of the ‘generic love story’. Postmodern plots often employ non-linear narratives and unreliable narrators to challenge, question, interrogate and parody modern notions of love and romance.

In Woody Allen’s  Annie Hall (1977), for example, Allen’s character spends the whole film neurotically obsessing over why his romance with Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall character (in an urban, intellectual New York setting) failed. Likewise, Blue Valentine (2010) and 500 Days of Summer (2009) are more interested in the failure of romance and the psychological effects of love’s inevitable disappointments on the protagonists.

Love is not the formidable fortress that transcends space and time in the immortal romance narrative, but is instead fragile, ephemeral, unpredictable and out of the lovers’ control.

Besides questioning the very nature of love, postmodern romance plots often toy with the futuristic possibilities afforded by science fiction devices. In Spike Jone’s Her (2013), Joaquin Phoenix’s character (Theodore Twombly) – a lonely man who writes love letters for clients who are unable to write personal letters for themselves – embarks on a love affair with an Operating System (Scarlett Johansson). In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play an estranged couple who employ the high-tech services of Lacuna Inc. to erase all memories of their failed relationship. Since the postmodern romance is a relatively recent literary and cinematic development, readers and movie audiences can expect further developments and innovations in the years to come.



By Dinesh Jayabalan, Yvonne Tan, Choo Suet Fun and Geethanjali C. Mahendran


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"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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