As I’ve been chewing my way through regencies lately (I’m just starting to read romances and have lately gone nuts over them), I’ve been trying to scope out their structure on a basic level: where’s the midpoint? When do the characters go into the strange world? When do they go into the final conflict?
I’ve gotten used to looking at this kind of thing in other books; it’s become a matter of habit. As I’m flipping pages, I watch for the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks and the milestones that I’ve come to expect from them…I’m not usually disappointed. “Aha, a huge reversal…and my ereader says it’s at 50% for this book. Quelle surprise!”
But I’m struggling with breaking down these regencies.
What I need to do is take one of them that I like and do an outline of what actually happens, and on what page–and I will. But I worry that I don’t know what’s typical yet, and I might outline something that isn’t typical and end up with a skewed view of things. So I just keep cramming them down, keeping an eye out for something that seems typical, or picking up a sense of what’s typical, or at least finding The Perfect Romance. But I barely know what constitutes my The Perfect Romance, so that’s difficult, too.
Case in point, I still find it pretty shocking when the characters get married before the end of the book. Especially if they’re already in love. I almost always flip to the end to see whether the ending is at the end, or if there are a bajillion sample chapters of the next book at the end or something.
I’ve come across the early-marriage thing several times. The first part of the book shows the characters out in society, lusting after each other, stealing kisses, getting laid. Then, two-thirds of the way through the book, they get married, and they head off to so-and-so’s estates, at which point they go through this whole process of feeling like they made a mistake and didn’t know each other, oh crap.
What I would expect, given the pacing on any other genre, would be: they don’t get into society until the 25% mark, they get married and suspect a mistake at 50%, then they go to the estate at 75%. Into the strange world at 25%, out of it and into the final sequence at 75%. You see it in book after book…outside the romance genre. A major reversal at 50%, yes, yes.
But no. Strange world starts at 0, reversal at 67%, at which point strange world stops–or starts, if you count the setting at the beginning of the book as the normal world.
And yet the books don’t feel like they’re paced funny. The beginning doesn’t drag on and on and on. Imagine Star Wars if they started with the phrase, “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” didn’t have Alderaan blow up until two-thirds of the movie was done, and tried to get everything else packed into the last 40 minutes…losing 20 minutes of the last half. The section from “not the droids” to “a billion voices cried out” would take 80 minutes instead of 30 and feel like molasses. The rest would feel rushed. They’d have to cut out most of them running around on the Death Star, probably. The trash compactor sequence and all that.
Yet in a romance, it works.
An idea I’ve been playing with lately is “the four stages of a romantic relationship.” It’s gone through a couple of different phases, but it’s currently at:
- Focusing on getting a relationship.
- Focusing on getting the other person to understand you.
- Focusing on understanding the other person.
- Focusing on delighting the other person.
I’m sure there are plenty of people who have had failed or meh relationships, where you bottom out in an early stage, you give up on ever really getting along with the other person, but eh, whatever.
In the first stage, it’s all about making the other person do what you want: go out on a date, have sex, whatever. In the second stage, you want the other person to look into your heart and tell you that you’re worth something, that you’re the best thing ever, that you opinion is right (or at least not crazy), etc. The third stage is about finding out why the other person is doing something, why they’re doing things that annoy you, where they came from as kids, etc. The fourth stage is about accepting the other person, accepting yourself, and having fun. You goal is to elicit a smile–that Heinlein definition of love as someone else’s happiness as essential to your own.
In regencies, the love story is almost always two people who meet each other for the first time, or two people who knew each other before, but it’s been so long that it might as well be the first time. There’s a seduction. Then there’s a phase where the characters try to convince each other that they shouldn’t be together for some reason, that it’s all an aberration, I’m not as hot for you as you think I am kind of thing; being in love with the other person will hamper them somehow. Then they start digging into each others’ pasts, the things that made the other person the way they are, and the closer they get to the truth, the more the other person defends themself. Finally the characters honestly try to get the obstacles to their relationship out of the way, either to get married or to change a miserable marriage into a happy one.
I’ll have to do more reading to make sure the actual and hypothetical structures line up, but at least it’s another line of thought to try: that the structure of the story has very little to do with the external events of the story, and everything to do with the internal journey. Which, when I look at it a little more objectively, sounds exactly like what a romance should be.