28 January 2014

Romancing the Plot: Fairy Tales are Forever

Photo: Cinderella and Prince Charming kissingIf you've been reading romance novels for a few months—or in my case, decades—you've probably realized by now that these stories are nothing but a retelling of the fairy tales we read as a child.

Any romance writer and romance writing teacher will admit to it, too. Now, whether they will do so freely or silently is a toss up, but the standard fairy tales that our parents read to us at bedtime are being retold over and over again—in one form or another—in our favorite romances.

Let's review the more popular happily-ever-afters we've encountered as children and see where and how they've been used.


The plot to Cinderella is simple: poor girl meets wealthy prince, they fall in love, girl's relations put spanners in the works, but love conquers everything.

Cinderella stories has many variations and iterations, but at the heart of the romance is the rags-to-riches story. I've seen some romances incorporating other Romanceland tropes: marriage of convenience, secret or accidental pregnancies, heroine as nanny/governess, etc.

The thing is, because a lot of Romanceland's heroes are uber wealthy and the heroine's often one of the masses, I believe there's something Cinderellaesque in most of the romances I've read.

Practically every movie that I've ever loved had the Cinderella plot at its core: Pretty Woman, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Maid in Manhattan, The Prince and Me, Pretty in Pink, and (of course!) Ever After, to name a few. What can I say, I cut my romance reading teeth on fairy tales.

Beauty and the Beast

In this fairy tale, the male is untamed, savage, tormented—in short, the exact opposite of Prince Charming. No self-respecting heroine would dare fall in love with him because he's difficult and unattractive that way.

Usually, the torment and/or savageness comes from a lot of different things. Disfigurement caused by an accident. Hermit-like existence and worldview brought on by disillusionment. A childhood of abuse.

Whatever the reason behind the hero being difficult, the heroine is the complete anti-thesis. She's often depicted as bright, innocent, beautiful...in fact, sugar and (some) spice and everything nice! In the end though, her love is the device that starts the Beast's transformation or his healing in some way.

Some movies that come to mind: Casablanca, Edward Scissorhands, 10 Things I Hate About You, She's Out of My League.

Sleeping Beauty

This romance plot has, at its core, the awakening of the heroine to something. Mainly, it's the hero that opens her eyes, or her world, to a new perspective.

The change could be external—a new way of doing things, being transplanted from one world to another and experiencing the differences, a makeover. Or it could be internal—adopting new beliefs, or losing one's innocence to something. Used in Romanceland, it's often the worldly hero that triggers the change. Sort of a Pygmalion and Galatea or  My Fair Lady.

Movies with Sleeping Beauty as its core: She's All That, Never Been Kissed, Brokeback Mountain.


So who doesn't know about the girl stuck in the castle, waiting for some prince to free her? This fairy tale is dangerously close to Sleeping Beauty (and probably Cinderella) in plot, and it's possibly the most plot line that gets my goat.

The bare bones of it is that the heroine is in some kind of mess, and she needs the help of the hero to get her out of it. I don't like it mainly because her back is against the wall and the only way she can get out of it is through his agency. Sucks really.

The Rapunzel plot line is rife with hijinks though. Forced marriages—either by convenience, arranged or pretend—works well with it. I mean, we've seen the girl who needs to save her home or her family's business, and marrying the hero—who's got boatloads of cash—is the only way to save her.

The Proposal hits the right notes when it comes to this fairy tale plot (although Beauty, erm, Handsome and the Beast gets equal billing, too, I think). Chasing Liberty/First Daughter has also some elements of the Rapunzel plot in that the president's daughter in the story lived a life insulated from the outside world. There's also The Wedding Date, and to a certain degree (though I think I'm reaching) 50 First Dates. Leap Year, too, for that matter.

The Little Mermaid

Egads, this fairy tale is the stuff that broke my heart when I read it way back when! Even Disney's retelling of the mermaid story with the requisite happy ending couldn't quite get such a traumatic experience out of my happy-ever-after loving mind.

Here's the gist though: girl falls in love with someone—often from afar, and does everything to get him to know her...at a price...so she'll have a chance of getting him to love her. Or vice versa.

It's usually a make or break kind of love affair. If s/he doesn't meet the price then the romance—and the happy ending—is imperiled. The romance could go dark, too, come to think of it.

But self-sacrifice also is part of the plot, so you'll often find noble idiocy in the storyline. As in, I'll go away and sacrifice my love so s/he'll have a happy life...instead of talking honestly about the difficulties and working it out together. Noble idiocy, I tell you.

I'd like to think Meet Joe Black has some elements of the story, though the noble sacrifice in the movie isn't of the idiotic variety, heh.


What other fairy tales—and the movies that inspired them—can you name? Share them below, puhlease.
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