Every September members of the Saskatchewan Romance Writers hold a weekend retreat in the country. Unlike the spring retreat where attendees spend the weekend writing, the focus in the fall is educational. The event was held this past weekend.
Learning activities include watching a movie on Friday evening, usually a romantic comedy or a fantasy, then discussing in detail such matters as plot, character development, and this year, the story arc. On Saturday there was a critiquing session of excerpts submitted by members from their works in progress. Each one dealt in some way with a first kiss or embrace between the hero and heroine. This is a useful exercise both for the authors of the excerpts and for those who offer critiques of the work presented. A special session of exploration and discussion was held this year on the romance story arc. The final activity of the weekend continued a plotting project that was begun last year. We are developing a plot and characters for ... wait for this ... a paranormal romance. What fun we had expanding the story parameters, and delving further into the point of view of our characters, Selina and Brent!
A block of time was also set aside on Saturday for members to practice and receive feedback on the pitch they will be making at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference next month. What better group to pitch to than supportive SRW members!
The romance story arc, the lens for looking at romance stories, was the common thread that ran through all the deliberations described above. According to J. Timothy King, in his article, Feeling the Romance and Keeping it Real, “there’s a standard formula for romantic stories. Boy meets girl. They fall in love but pretend they don’t even notice each other. Finally, they declare their love and live happily ever after. This may sound a little corny, but most romantic stories are much deeper. Still they rely on the standard formula. There’s a reason why the standard formula is used so much. Because it works.”
If this formula sounds simplistic, you’re right. It is much more satisfying to note that, rather than the “pretending” mentioned by King, there will be serious obstacles and conflicts that must be resolved before the “boy and girl” can finally declare their love for each other. The process of working through these issues creates an arc which can be diagrammed as a rising curve, almost a semi-circle, through a series of plot points. The arc follows the story from its beginning, then through a stage of conflict, a further escalation of action that impedes and/or enhances the development of the relationship, to the climax or highest level of conflict, ending with a leveling off, until any remaining problems are solved.
The movie we watched was Serendipity, a charming 2001 romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. The arc of the story begins with a “meet-cute” in Bloomingdale’s in New York where Sara (Beckinsale) and Jonathan (Cusack) simultaneously reach for a pair of black cashmere gloves, the last one on display, that they both wish to buy. Then they join forces to fend off a third customer who attempts to snatch the gloves away from both of them. This leads to a few hours of conversation over a hot drink in a little restaurant called “Serendipity,” skating on the rink in Central Park, and a desperate attempt by Jonathan to find out the identity of the attractive young woman.
The tension that drives the rest of the plot results from Sara’s insistence that fate will determine if they are meant to be together. For her, it is a sign that perhaps this is not intended to be when the small slip of paper on which she has written her name and phone number is whipped out of his hands by the slipstream of a passing truck. She gets him to write the same information about himself on a five-dollar bill, but promptly uses it at a sidewalk kiosk. She has a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera with her, and she tells him that when she gets home, she will write her name and number in it,take it to a used-book shop the next day, and he’ll have to look for it to find her again.
Credibility could definitely be an issue with this theme, but it is validated for the viewer when Sara suggests that they each take one of the gloves, get on separate elevators in the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel, and punch in a number. If they get off at the same floor, they will know it is meant to be. We watch while they both choose the button for the 23rd floor. What Sara cannot know is that chaos develops on Jonathan’s elevator when a man gets on a few floors later with a small boy who devilishly starts pushing buttons at random, eventually causing the system to jam. Sara gives up waiting on the 23rd floor and leaves just before the other elevator arrives.
From that point on, a series of near-meets and misses keeps the arc rising, with each gain balanced off with a setback, until very near the end of the movie. The viewer wants to suspend disbelief, and is a willing participant. The blurb on the DVD case states: “... they cannot give up the dream that – despite time, distance and the obstacles that conspire to keep them apart – they will one day meet again.” But I will leave the details of the final resolution for you to discover on your own. I recommend that you see this movie.
Have you seen Serendipity? How do you use the idea of a story arc in your fiction writing? Do you have other ways to describe the romance story arc?