The Romance Masterplot
Our very definition as human beings is very much bound up with the stories we tell about our own lives and the world in which we live. Life is in many respects narrativized in series and bunches of intersecting stories – never complete until our death, of course, but nonetheless oriented toward the significant chapterization of our existence.
In medieval romance, for instance, romantic love was often seen as a destructive force and was regularly positioned as adulterous: think, for instance, of the deleterious effect that the love of Lancelot and Guinevere has in medieval Arthurian romances
To put this another way: storytelling is fundamental to the human experience. In particular, it is fundamental to how humans experience time. Paul Ricoeur (1990, p. 3), in his seminal work on time and narrative, argues that, ‘[t]ime becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal existence’. H Porter Abbott (2008, p. 3) uses the phrase ‘narrative time’ rather than Ricoeur’s ‘human time’, and juxtaposes it with ‘clock time’. The latter is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, while the former is measured in events–that is, the fundamental building blocks of narratives.
As David Shumway (2003, p. 14) notes, ‘the name romance means, in addition to a kind of love, a kind of story’ (emphasis in original). The romance masterplot contains many events by which people, to use Brooks’ term, chapterize their lives. People regularly emplot themselves–or, as can be seen in this article, seek to emplot themselves–in the romance narrative by triggering this cycle of events through meeting a potential partner, thus attempting to position themselves as a romantic protagonist: as Catherine Belsey (1994, p. ix) notes, ‘to be in love is to be the protagonist of a story’. If they are unsuccessful, and need to start the cycle again, there is often a specifically temporal anxiety which accompanies this: that is, the notion that they are running out of time, and that they will ultimately end up (importantly, ‘end up’ is a narrative term) single and alone, a state which exists in contrast with the romance plot’s happy ending. As one participant (30 years of age, female, edarling heterosexual, living in Sydney) indicated, ‘Sometimes I feel like my life hasn’t started yet … like if I landed the right job, or the right guy, then things would move into gear’. We see this temporal anxiety in full force here: without an instigating narrative incident (often, as here, a romantic one), one is waiting for the story of one’s life to begin rather than living it.
The constituent events of the romance plot have not necessarily remained stable over time or across cultures. In the West, while we can trace this plot back to the comedies of Ancient Greece, which end with union and usually ), romance plots have not always ended happily. However, when companionate marriage emerged as a cultural ideal in the West in the eighteenth century, romantic love became reimagined as constructive, becoming the building block of the domestic unit and thus the nation-state (McAlister, 2020, p. 18). Romance plots with happy endings began to proliferate in popular literature–through, for example, the sentimental ;and the romance plot as we know it now began to emerge. Contemporary popular culture is now saturated with the romance plot. This includes dedicated romantic genres, such as the popular romance novel, the filmic romantic comedy, and the love song, but romance plots also appear as sub- (or even central) plots in almost all other genres and media.