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Romance Plots from the Classics
by Anne Marble

Return to Writing Romance · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Many writers have found sparkling gems in the plots of classic stories. And that's my last bad mining metaphor, I swear. You'll never run out of ideas for stories as long as you keep in mind that you can use classic plots to create completely new stories.

There's a caveat here, though. Sure, the list of wonderful stories based on classics would go on for several pages. However, so would a list of failed stories based on classic plots. How do you base a story on something old and yet manage to create something new and original and true to your own artistic vision? Here are some tips to help you get ideas from the classics and still keep your story fresh.

1) Follow your heart. Use the stories you love.

If you love a classic, then any stories that spring from that plot to your page will have a brighter spark. If you love the story, you are more likely to know what makes it tick: its twists and turns, its highlights, and its secondary characters. You know why and how the story works, and you might even know where its seams show. If you've reread it often, you probably find something new it every time.

Don't pick a plot from a story you hate, or a story that bores you, just because you think it would make a great romance. Your antipathy for the plot will show up in your story. Stick to stories that excite you, and you will be more likely to thrill your readers.

2) Twist and change the original. Make it your own.

There are two main reasons you want to change the plot. The first is for yourself. If you are writing a plot too close to the original, you won't be able to give it your personal touch. The second is for your readers. Anyone who has read the original story will know where the story is headed. If your story follows that plot too closely, there will be little suspense and few surprises for them. Most likely, they will put the book down in frustration. However, if you throw in surprises and plot twists,

Trust your first instinct. What parts of the plot made you say "That isn't right..."? Did you ever watch a classic tragedy and wish it had ended happily? Or have you ever believed that the couples in an old romantic farce were hooking up with the wrong people at the end? If you feel strongly about that plot, this could be your subconscious clueing you into a plot. It might be hard to accept at first. We're taught to believe that the classic writers were always right. Yet they did make mistakes, or at least write stories that didn't always travel the path that you would have used. This is your chance to set things right.

When I was in college, I saw Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. In this problem comedy, Angelo, a strict ruler, is about to put a young man to death for premarital sex. He is confronted by the man's morally upright sister. At the end, she ends up marrying the duke. My first thought was "No! She belongs with Angelo!" By the time I graduated college, I had started outlining a futuristic romance novel based on Measure for Measure, only with a few minor adjustments. OK, major adjustments.

3) Make sure it fits its new setting. Don't be afraid to make changes to ensure this.

Some plots won't work well in contemporary settings, just as some modern plots would make no sense if moved into a historical setting. For example, revenge plots usually make no sense in present day settings because we expect the hero to go to the police rather than tracking down his parents' killers and shooting them. If your contemporary hero is going out for revenge, there has to be a reason he didn't go to the cops first. On top of that, the book will be a hard sell as a contemporary romance if he settles his problem with a cold-blooded shoot-out at the end.

What do you do if the plot you want to use seems unsuited to its new setting? Don't be afraid to tinker. Let's go back to the revenge story in modern setting. Here are three possible ways around the revenge catch. One, find a reason the hero would might vengeance in a contemporary setting. Maybe he was falsely accused of the crime and is on the run for murder, or perhaps the killers got away on a technicality. Two, write a story about a hero who seeks vengeance but eventually realizes that his quest has made him a bitter man. Three, the hero seeks his vengeance through non-lethal means, such as trying to drive the villain out of business.

Besides, who said it's the hero who has to find vengeance? Maybe you can twist the plot by letting the heroine try to avenge a loved one. This leads into the next point.

4) Consider switching the roles of the hero and heroine.

There's no reason the hero should have all the fun. Sometimes the heroine can be the go-getter, rescuer, or even the mentor. Judith Ivory twisted the roles of hero and heroine of Pygmalion in her romance novel The Proposition. In this story, the heroine was faced with the job of teaching a ratcatcher to pass as a gentleman.

If you switch gender roles in the plot, make sure you explore all the ramifications of switching those roles. Is your heroine rescuing your hero from danger? Most heroes won't accept being rescued by a woman without putting up a fight. Is your heroine in a male-dominated profession? Include something about how she copes with people who can't accept the idea of a woman in that profession. Let's say you have inverted the plot of Beauty and the Beast and written a romance about the relationship between a disfigured, tormented wealthy woman and a young man who is forced to serve her. How would a man feel in this position? It would take a special hero to endure long enough to bring her the beauty in her beast.

Keep in mind that some stories won't work well with switched genders. Can you imagine a version of Othello with the woman as the jealous spouse? It probably wouldn't work except as a dark comedy.

5) Make sure there's a reason to use this plot in this book. This shouldn't be a shortcut but instead a springing-off board.

Ask yourself if you're using this plot because you love the plot and want to adapt it, or if you're simply using it because you're desperate for a plot. Chances are that if you're using it for the plot, rather than because you're driven to retell this story in a new way, you will end up with a shallow story.

6) Consider humorous takes on a classic tragedy. Or vice versa.

Shakespeare knew all too well that comedy and tragedy are more closely related than most people think. Take the plot of Othello. A man is misled into thinking his wife was unfaithful, so he kills her. Surely this isn't the stuff of comedy! Yet in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare gave us a young man who repudiates his fiancˇe because someone set up a ruse to make him think she was unfaithful. For a time, he thought she had died, and once he realized she was innocent, he felt terrible. Yet for all his grief, the poem he reads at her grave is hysterical.

What if your favorite play is an Elizabethan tragedy? It goes without saying that you don't want to write a romance where the hero and heroine die in each other's arms. Having a problem coming up with a romantic plot and HEA for this couple? Then you might want to consider turning their story into a comedy. Imagine a farcical version of Macbeth where the hero and heroine are a modern-day couple trying to oust a business rival. And remember, the inversion can work in reverse. You could redo The Taming of the Shrew as a tearjerker about a hero who tries to dominate the heroine, nearly destroying their relationship in the process.

7) Try combining plots or even using a classic plot as a subplot.

You might not find the meat you need in one classic plot. In that case, try using it like a piece from a puzzle --- does it fit into any other plots? Try this on for size. The hero is a fugitive from the wrong side of the tracks who has been living on the run, and the heroine is the daughter of the police detective who is trying to track him down. Imagine the sparks when your heroine's father meets her new boyfriend and recognizes him, and all the secrets and connections are revealed! This plot combines elements of Les Miserables with Romeo and Juliet.

You can also find inspiration for villains and nefarious schemes in classic fiction and dramas. one of my favorite plays is Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling. In this story, the engaged Beatrice decides she wants to marry someone else instead. She hires her father's ugly aide De Flores to kill the first fiancé so that she can get engaged to the new man in town. Then she ends up sleeping with De Flores to pay for the murder. Wouldn't they make a great pair of villains for a historical novel? The hero could be the new man in town, who wonders why something doesn't feel right about his upcoming nuptials.

9) Make sure your characters act logically rather than in lockstep with the plot.

Just because you want to use a particular plot, that doesn't mean your characters will be happy to be there. If your hero and heroine seem to be protesting at every step, you may have picked the wrong characters for that plot. Before you start over in frustration, however, ask yourself if any part of the plot can be twisted to suit your characters. Don't shove your characters into directions they aren't meant to go.

The movie Ever After is an adaptation of the Cinderella plot with a kick-butt heroine. The movie worked for today's audiences because the heroine didn't wait around for the prince to do anything. One of the strokes of genius in the movie was the way one of the evil stepsisters wasn't evil after all; she was secretly on the side of the heroine. While reading a fairy tale, we can accept that the heroine waits to be rescued and that all the stepsisters are evil, but in a longer story, we want characters who behave as individuals.

10) Don't be afraid to pay tribute to the original.

Remember, you've adapted this plot because you love one. So it's OK to demonstrate your love by tipping your hat to the original. In fact, readers who admire the original story will be grateful for the gesture. Being willing to honor the original is one step to turning your work into a true homage rather than a pale imitation.

How you do the tribute depends on the tone of your novel. Are you writing a humorous paranormal romance based on the classic ghost stories of M. R. James and others? Think of the fun you can have by having M. R. James showing up as one of the ghosts. However, if you were writing a dark and edgy romance novel based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the tone would be disrupted if you had Robert Louis Stevenson show up at the laboratory door and try to sell a book of poetry to the good doctor. In that case, a better tribute might include naming locales after the characters in the original novel.

11) Keep in mind that some plots may be off limits.

Let's face it. Some stories, however classic, would make lousy romances. Try to imagine Ibsen's Hedda Gabler or The Doll House as a romance. Nope, those plots wouldn't work out well. Nor would the plot of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. At best, you might be able to use these plots as tragic subplots that contrast the happier story of your hero and heroine.

Some stories are so recent that adapting them would be a mistake because most readers would consider your adaptation as a rip-off, even if you mean it as an homage. (If the story is not yet in the public domain, you should probably avoid using it as a jumping off point.) Other stories are so well known it could be a risk to adapt them into romances without making huge changes. Of course, one such example is Pride and Prejudice. If you try to publish a Regency novel with this plot, you won't get far. The same is true of the novels of Georgette Heyer. Other stories have been adapted so often that it's hard to do anything new. That's not to say there isn't space on the shelves for another rendition of the Jane Eyre plot. However, in order to stand out, yours will have to be special.

Bear in mind that if you rework a very popular plot, your book might end up coming out at the same time as another book based on the same plot. Recently, two romances came out that were based on the poem The Highwayman. If something like this happens to your book, it could be confusing to readers. It could also affect your sales because readers who read the other book first are less likely to be interested in reading yet another book based on the same poem or story.

12) Be on the lookout for "new" old plots.

Of course, there's any easy way to avoid reworking a plot that has been adapted by many other romance writers. Look for less well-known works. Always be open to new inspirations, particularly works other people are less likely to have read. There are already many plots based on the works of Shakespeare and Greek myths. But what about the mythology of India or the fables of La Fontaine? Native America legends or the mythology of China? The plays of Moliere or the mysteries of Wilkie Collins? There are thousands of powerful stories out there that are waiting for you to discover them. What are you waiting for?

Copyright © 2001 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.


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