Isn’t it Romantic? Making Sense of the Romance Genres


If you’ve got a great idea for a movie centered on a romance the first thing you need to do is understand the structural differences that define each romance genre. Here are the three primary romance genres and some thoughts on how to approach them:

Romantic Films

Let’s start with the broadest of the romance genres, romantic films. These are movies which have a romance as the primary plot. They can end happily or sadly. The best recent examples of this kind of film are the films based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels. The plots generally center around a crisis, an illness, an accident, an abusive spouse. Love is the thing that leads to the complications in the plot.

Channing Tatum reads a letter Nicholas Sparks’ in Dear John. Photo courtesy of Screen Gems.

One of the greatest romance films of all times—some would say the greatest—is Casablanca. It has a very simple structure. Rick and Ilsa appear in six scenes together: They meet again, Rick has a flashback, Ilsa comes to see him and he rejects her, they meet in the market and she rejects him, she comes to see him again and they reconnect, Rick puts her on the plane with her husband. All the other scenes in the movie support this main romantic plot. What makes the film great is the fact that Rick and Ilsa (at various times) both choose duty over love.

Romantic Comedy

The main difference between romantic comedies and the other types of romantic films is not the word comedy. The word comedy original conveyed that a story would end happily, and when it comes to romantic comedies it isn’t always necessary that they be very funny though they do have to end happily. Typically, though, romantic comedies do bring the jokes.

Renee Zellweger as the perpetually not-good-enough Bridget Jones and Colin Firth as Mark Darcy. Photo Courtesy of Miramax Pictures.

The big thing structural difference between romantic comedies and romantic films or romance films that end happily is that in a romantic comedy the heroine (or hero) must learn something about herself, once she’s done that she is then able to find love. Love is primarily a reward in these films. For example, in Bridget Jones Diary (which is based on Pride and Prejudice) Bridget doesn’t believe she’s ‘acceptable’ as she is and devotes a lot of her attention on ways she should change to become ‘acceptable’. When Mark Darcy tells her that he likes her ‘just as she is’ she recognizes the truth in that begins to accept herself. She’s now ready for love.

Romance Films

These films are close relatives to romance novels. Love conquers all. Whatever the character’s problem is it needs to be solved by love. This has not always been a strong genre on film but cable channels like Hallmark are taking a real interest and creating a film market by adapting romance novels like the series Chesapeake Shores. So, if you’re a big fan of romance novels keep a close eye on this market and considered jumping in.

If you’re new to this subgenre the structural things you need to know are: there absolutely must be a happy ending, there can be light humor, there can be tragedy but in the end love is the solution.

But Don’t Most Movies Include Romance?

Any discussion of romance in films inevitably raises the question, ‘Don’t most stories include romance?’ The answer is yes, but— Most films have romantic subplots but that doesn’t put them into a romance genre. A subplot is only a handful of scenes, usually at least three, and supports but does not dominate the film. If it borrows too much from any of the genres above it can easily take over the story so it’s good to be sparing when creating subplots.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner keep the romance on a slow burn in Arrival. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

An example of one way to use a romantic subplot is the film Arrival. (spoiler alert) Parts of the film are told out of order but eventually, we figure out that scenes which seem like flashbacks are actually flashforwards. Linguist Louise (Amy Adams) is having visions of what will happen in the future, she will marry fellow scientist Ian (Jeremy Renner) and have a child. Their romance, which is barely in the film, is used as a way to further illuminate the plot as it is both the result of the aliens’ visit and also doomed by the alien visit.

So, what films are you watching for Valentine’s Day?



Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

7 Replies to "Isn't it Romantic? Making Sense of the Romance Genres"

  • comment-avatar
    Robbert February 13, 2018 (1:45 am)

    THE NOTE BOOK by Nicholas Sparks another great example.

  • comment-avatar
    Hal Morgan February 13, 2018 (9:26 am)

    Powerful emotionally -moving love stories : ‘ 1942 Osessione’ , directed by L. Visconti . Another to see is the mid-1960’s ” I walk the Line’ starring Gregory Peck & Tuesday Weld , and lastly of course 1970 ‘Love Story’ with Ryan Oneal & Ali Mcgraw . All of these films did an outstanding job of tugging at the viewer’s heart strings, to the point of actually being a little painful to watch ? But, still an amazing 2 hrs one can never forget !

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton February 13, 2018 (5:41 pm)

      Good examples of romantic films. Thanks for the comment.

  • comment-avatar
    Carsten Kukla February 15, 2018 (3:00 am)

    Thanks for these thoughts. And while thinking about your’s I stumbled over another one, which might add to your ideas: I keep believing that a concept that applies to all kinds of romances is the concept of fate: There will always be someone, just right for you. And there are various ways to be “awarded” with this lover: you go the “Jane Austen”-way and know him already but haven’t realised his (as, in Austen’s case, it is always a heroine; of course this can apply to any sex/gender) potential for being your “Fate-Mate”. Or you meet (sometimes in an abstract way) The “One” but lose him/her instantly. Then you go on a quest to win him/her back (“Serendipity” or “Sleepless in Seattle” work like that, I believe) or you are a happy couple, become estranged an split up and have to realise, that you have lost the only one for you and fight to win him/her back in true “Midsummer Night’s Dream” style (Many classics go that way: “The Philadelphia Story”, “The Awful Truth”, “His Girl Friday”) There may be quite a few other variations on the concept of fate, concerning romance, but these three are the first that come to my mind.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton February 17, 2018 (5:33 am)

      Thanks for the comment. One of the interesting things about Jane Austen is that she’s credited with creating the romantic comedy… and the romance novel. How you view her is a kind of litmus test for whether you like romcoms or romances.

      The kind of film you’re talking about I would put under the Romantic Comedy genre. However, you’ve done a great job of isolating a sub-genre of romcoms. And a really great one too.

  • comment-avatar
    Paul February 18, 2018 (5:20 pm)

    Something that strike me about the Romance genre is that it is both universal and specific. Universal in that it is based on a few constants. We need a couple to bring together. Then add love and romance and blend with heartbreak and sorrow. Specific, because those basic elements can be put into and personalized into different sub-genres, environments, character types, personal and social issues and other categories.

    Another element is that Romance is about feeling and emotion while other genres are more inclined towards reason and logic, left brain vs. right brain if you will. You either get swept away by the emotion in “Titanic” or you focus on story mechanics and dismiss it. To successfully create a Romantic/Romance story I believe you have be unapologeticaly, unashamedly, unabashedly in that mood, that you need to find the line where sweet and sentimental move into cheesy and corny and cross right over it. Just like Rom Coms teach us that you need to do whatever it is to find Mr. or Ms. Right, so you have to do the same in writing one. Not everyone likes this genre but those that do love it.

    My romantic/romance choice for this post is a kind of “out of the box” selection.
    “Celeste and Jesse Forever” (2013) – Jesse Eisenberg and Rashida Jones are a couple falling out of love. I found this romance about divorce rather touching.

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