Comparative Romance: Macomber, Meyer and Shakespeare

You can't interact with other authors on Facebook very long before you start hobnobbing with people who write romance or some subgenre of it. And you can't dig into the current crop of popular novels without reading stuff that amounts to love stories.

Lots of stories have romantic subplots, but we all know that's different. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Buzz Lightyear and Helen Parr like a good snog and maybe even a relationship now and then, but they don't come out of the box with their eyes misted over. Their focus is other stuff. They're saving the world or some interesting corner of it. Love happens on the way.

In romance and its subgenres, cuddles are the reason, season follow season. Other stuff happens around the misty eyes, sometimes because of it.

A recent post in Authors' Think Tank got me riffing on how romance narratives work as structures. I'm talking milestones, which are one of my middle names. To illustrate my points on the topic, I pointed folks to the Milestone Archive, where I've posted a few of the milestone charts I've developed in my quest to understand narrative structure in general. I chose three representative pieces: one pure romance, one romance fusion, and one literary romance. Having done that, I thought it would be useful to bring the three together into one chart and look at how they compare and contrast.

The three lucky pieces are Caroline's Child by Debbie Macomber (a pretty dang successful romance author according to Wikipedia), Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (who needs no introduction to anyone who knows what a book is and didn't die ten years ago), and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (who hasn't needed an introduction since the sixteenth century). I haven't read more than ten pages of the Macomber, but those were precisely calculated milestone pages and Macomber writes her genre well, so I'm confident I got the gold on that one. I have read and milestoned the entire Twilight Saga and there isn't much of Shakespeare I haven't scuffed with my eye at some point since high school--I've even milestoned half a dozen of the plays.

The Macomber is pure romance. It's boy meets, chases and gets girl in the real world, and all the other stuff plays off the romance. The Meyer is paranormal romance. It's the Macomber with vampires and werewolves, who only matter because of the romance. The Shakespeare is literary romance. The romance is central, but serves a greater purpose: resolving a community crisis. We spend a lot of time with the couple (together or apart) and they spend a lot of time talking about their feelings for each other, but as the very beginning and very end (and a few points in the middle) point out, it's really about the larger group changing state.

I've done a lot of work on the nuts and bolts of narrative, but what matters for this treatment is the milestones, which I shall now briefly explain for those who aren't sure what the heck milestones are in a story.

Most instances of storytelling chop up nicely into eight sequences framed and divided by points at which key elements of the story are conveyed. There are three types of frame and division points: Calibration Points, Threat Points and Turning Points. The Calibration Points (Hook and Conclusion) tell us how things start and end. They calibrate us for the events between them. The Threat Points (Pinch Points 1 and 2) give us a sense of danger, usually through a view of the antagonistic force in action or on approach, but sometimes through a view of what will be lost if the protagonist fails to prevail. Generally, threat points increase tension by raising our sense of either danger or stakes. The Turning Points (Plot Turn 1, Midpoint and Plot Turn 2) move the narrative into and out of its four stages (setup, proaction, reaction and resolution). They are called turning points because the events they contain determine the direction of the events that follow. A Turning Point usually involves a culmination of events in the stage about to end, a crisis brought on by the culmination, a dilemma brought on by the crisis, and a decision complicated by the dilemma. Because we typically like stories in which people try to control their own destinies, Turning Points can also be called Decision Points, but I'll stick with the the more journey-like term.

Here's the comparative milestone chart for the three stories in question. Click the title of each piece for a chart with all the calculations.

Milestone Caroline's Child (Harlequin Romance) Twilight (Romance Fusion) Romeo and Juliet (Literary Romance)
Hook At the post office, Grady Weston is flustered by Caroline Daniels, whom he wants to tell he finds her attractive. Bella is about to die for love. She has experienced a dream so far beyond her expectations that it is unreasonable to grieve at its ending. (248a) Two families are in a feud and two of their children fall in love.
Inciting Incident At dinner, Grady's brother Richard wins over Maggie and appears to be winning over Caroline. Grady excuses himself. (56) Edward stops a van from crushing Bella. (64) Bella confronts Edward about his speed and strength. (250a) Romeo has been rejected by Rosaline. Benvolio swears to teach Romeo to forget Rosaline. (250b) Paris asks Capulet for Juliet's hand. Capulet invites Paris to a party at his house.
Plot Turn 1 Wade approves of Grady's date: Caroline. (124) Jacob tells Bella about the wolves and vampires. (254a) Crashing the Capulet party with Benvolio, Romeo is smitten by Juliet's beauty. Tybalt recognizes Romeo and calls for his rapier. Capulet tells him to leave Romeo alone. (254b) Tybalt swears to make Romeo pay. Romeo and Juliet meet. Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet. (255a) Juliet learns that Romeo is a Montague.
Pinch 1 Grady invites Caroline and Maggie to look at a colt. Maggie can name it. Savannah will wring Grady's neck for inviting company without consulting her first. (186) Bella learns that the Quileutes (team Jacob) and Cullens (team Edward) have an uneasy truce. (187) Bella gets a hint that her budding romance with Edward must end. (258a) Romeo asks Friar Laurence to secretly marry him and Juliet. Friar Laurence expresses doubt about Romeo's constancy but hope that the marriage will end the feud. (258b) Tybalt has challenged Romeo. Mercutio tells Benvolio that Tybalt is a formidable duelist against whom Romeo doesn't stand a chance.
Midpoint Grady offers to be Caroline's prince. They kiss for a long time. (248) Bella senses a pivotal day and is terrified of turning away from Edward. (262a) Tybalt challenges Romeo. Romeo declines. Mercutio challenges Tybalt. Tybalt accepts. Romeo intervenes. Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo's arm. Mercutio curses both houses. (262b) Romeo regrets not fighting Tybalt. Mercutio dies. Romeo challenges Tybalt. Tybalt accepts. Romeo kills Tybalt. (263a) The Prince banishes Romeo from Verona and sentences him to execution if he remains.
Pinch 2 Richard treats Maggie unkindly. (310) Edward tells Bella that sex with him could be fatal for her and that he must be in constant control for fear of breaking her with an innocent touch. (265a) Romeo tells Friar Laurence that banishment from Verona, where Juliet lives, is torture, not mercy. (265b) The Nurse tells Romeo how Juliet grieves for both him and Tybalt. Romeo prepares to kill himself for grieving Juliet.
Plot Turn 2 Caroline looks forward to picnicking with Grady. (371) Alice senses another coven in the vicinity. (372) The foreign coven changes path to approach the Cullens (and Bella). (373) The approaching coven may be thirsty. (269a) Juliet goes to confess to Friar Laurence. Paris asks Friar Laurence to marry him and Juliet on Thursday next. (269b) Juliet threatens to kill herself if Friar Laurence cannot give her a way to be with Romeo. Friar Laurence tells her he has a way which resembles death.
Deciding Incident Caroline tells Grady that Maggie's father is Richard. (434) Alice senses something wrong with the plan to rescue Bella's mother from James. (435) Bella and crew head for the airport. (273a) Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead. Romeo decides to return to Verona. (273b) Romeo buys poison.
Conclusion Grady tells Caroline that she and Maggie are both easy to love. Bella and Edward dance. Although disappointed that Edward refuses to make her a vampire, Bella allows that just being together is enough for now. (277b) Montague and Capulet make peace. They vow to raise statues to each other's children.

 Let's examine the narratives point by point.

Milestone Caroline's Child (Harlequin Romance) Twilight (Romance Fusion) Romeo and Juliet (Literary Romance)
Hook At the post office, Grady Weston is flustered by Caroline Daniels, whom he wants to tell he finds her attractive. Bella is about to die for love. She has experienced a dream so far beyond her expectations that it is unreasonable to grieve at its ending. (248a) Two families are in a feud and two of their children fall in love.

There are some differences.

Macomber launches with uncertainty about the boy's success in getting the girl, but (in retrospect) makes it clear from the outset that it's Grady who's looking for love and that it's Caroline he hopes to find it with. It's possible that the scene with Caroline serves only to establish Grady's hunger for romance, but the cover copy names Caroline as heroine, so we know she's in the story to the last sigh. Maybe Grady is there to establish something about Caroline. Or maybe the whole song is about these two lonely people.

Meyer likes a bit of dramatic mystery (and misdirection). We know from the cover copy that Bella gets a boyfriend, so we assume the love she's about to die for is his. And the dream just has to involve the guy, right? so we know we're headed for romance--and it could be deadly.

Shakespeare thinks romance needs context, so his narrative begins with news about the feud the immenent lovers are embroiled in. Of course, at this early moment, we may believe the feud is there to heighten the tension of the romance rather than to give the romance cosmic significance.

All three pieces begin with the notion of a couple: one that may form, one that may go out with a bang, and one that is inolved in a social conflict. Hence, all three pieces are romance but in slightly different genres.

Milestone Caroline's Child (Harlequin Romance) Twilight (Romance Fusion) Romeo and Juliet (Literary Romance)
Inciting Incident At dinner, Grady's brother Richard wins over Maggie and appears to be winning over Caroline. Grady excuses himself. (56) Edward stops a van from crushing Bella. (64) Bella confronts Edward about his speed and strength. (250a) Romeo has been rejected by Rosaline. Benvolio swears to teach Romeo to forget Rosaline. (250b) Paris asks Capulet for Juliet's hand. Capulet invites Paris to a party at his house.

The purpose of the Inciting Incident is to put the narrative in a state of imminence. Something big is about to happen, whether the characters know it or not. Macomber shows us that we can safely invest in Grady's pursuit of Caroline, but that Grady's brother Richard is going to make the journey tough.

Meyer brings Bella and Edward together in a rescue scenario that puts Bella on the trail of Edward's nature.  This is our first clear indication that Edward is superhuman, that Edward is tantalizingly aware of Bella, that Bella is going to chase the boy down, and that their relationship is going to be deliciously complicated.

Shakespeare lays it on thick. On one page of script we learn that Romeo is a hopeless romantic on the rebound from rejection, Benvolio is determined to find him a new object of adoration, Paris is after Juliet, and Juliet is about to have her social debut. Naturally, Benvolio will use Juliet's coming out party to serve his humanitarian ends. Boy and girl are going to meet.

Pairing my knowledge of social interaction and emotional conflict with Macomber's Inciting Incident, I gather that at this juncture, Grady is still hesitant to pursue Caroline in earnest. The boy and the girl know each other, but have yet to lock eyes and lick lips. Given that the narrative chronicles the pair's coming together, it makes sense that there would still be a stretch of road to go in that department. What's needed is an obstacle to progress. Enter Richard. Meyer wastes no time putting Bella and Edward in the same room (and at the same table, so to speak), but it isn't until fifty-six pages in that the flint hits the steel. Now we just know the spark is going to fall into a pool of cold but flammable gasoline. Meanwhile, Shakespeare assures us that the lovers will meet in the next four pages. Meeting (and some of its consequences) is what the first Turning Point will be all about.

Milestone Caroline's Child (Harlequin Romance) Twilight (Romance Fusion) Romeo and Juliet (Literary Romance)
Plot Turn 1 Wade approves of Grady's date: Caroline. (124) Jacob tells Bella about the wolves and vampires. (254a) Crashing the Capulet party with Benvolio, Romeo is smitten by Juliet's beauty. Tybalt recognizes Romeo and calls for his rapier. Capulet tells him to leave Romeo alone. (254b) Tybalt swears to make Romeo pay. Romeo and Juliet meet. Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet. (255a) Juliet learns that Romeo is a Montague.

At Plot Turn 1, we expect to see the narrative take a direction.

Sure enough, Macomber gives us Grady and Caroline on a date. The boy finally got his guts up. It's the beginnings of togetherness. It's all downhill and nearly off the rails from here.

Because Meyer's story is about love complicated by the supernatural, we get to spend her first Turning Point with Jacob--learning local legends and putting the final piece to the puzzle that is Edward. Bella's got the hots for a Cold One. And that might not be good, but it's good, you know? Now the girl knows what she's getting into and can tell the boy so and it can be all about dealing with that for the next two stages.

Meawhile, Shakespeare spreads it thick again with Benvolio coming through on the party, Tybalt poking his nose in, Romeo meeting Juliet, and the lovers realizing they're doomed.

The question in the Think Tank was about when the lovers should meet. According to Macomber, before the narrative even begins. According to Meyer, very shortly after we meet the first-person POV. According to Shakespeare, not until we're dying with anticipation--and the wood has been laid at the stake. The advantage to Macomber's approach is that the lovers don't have to meet: They just have to get on a date. The advantage to Meyer's approach is that one can stalk the other and unravel a mystery. The advantage to Shakespeare's approach is that the meeting can be more dramatic and the aftermath can be more fully anticipated and make more sense. Of course, Grady and Caroline have longer to fall in love, Bella and Edward have longer to circle each other, and Romeo and Juliet have longer to get in the state of mind for a kiss at first sight.

How early the lovers meet depends on the rest of the story--and what you mean by "meet". Technically, Caroline doesn't meet Grady as a suitor until he asks her on a date (Plot Turn 1), Bella doesn't meet Edward as a guy who might like her until he saves her from the van (Inciting Incident) and as a vampire until she talks to Jacob (Plot Turn 1). Juliet doesn't meet Romeo until Benvolio inadvertantly introduces them at Juliet's party (Plot Turn 1). The audience, however, meets (as in learns about) the lovers no later than the Inciting Incident, whose job is to instill the imminence of the romance--or of its challenges.

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