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[Analysis] Romance vs. Love Story

Exploring the key differences between two of the most divisive genres of fiction.

By Meg IlsleyPublished 2 months ago 6 min read

Being involved in numerous reading groups, I often witness to people sharing their disappointment in the “love story” they just finished. Often, the complaints centre around the fact that these stories do not adhere to the standard “romance” tropes and, thus, have not delivered what the reader was seeking when they picked the story up. Further inquiries into precisely what upset the reader typically led me to the same conclusion: very few individuals understand the difference between a love story and a romance, and those who are left disappointed in the love story they consumed are often disappointed because they were expecting a romance.

So, what is the difference?

Before we attempt to answer that question, there are two facts that must be considered:

  1. When discussing genre, what we are often talking about is the way stories are shelved in a bookstore or library; it is a means of grouping stories based on similar themes.
  2. Genre is arguably subjective, and two individuals who read the same book may not classify it in the same way; what one person considers romance, another may not.

With that in mind, let us return to the question: what is the difference between a love story and a romance? In literary terms, there is no definitive definition that distinguishes one from the other. One can argue the distinction is subjective, fluid, or arbitrary; that there are no rules, or hard and fast lines; and that distinction is open to interpretation. However, there are some distinctions between the two that help bookstores, libraries, and consumers categorise stories they read as either a love story, a romance, or something else entirely. In particular, there are three main points to consider:

  1. Characters
  2. Plot
  3. Ending


Though it is the second point on our list, I am going to begin with plot first, as understanding the plot-based differences between the stories is crucial to understanding other aspects. No matter the genre or the medium, every story has a plot. The plot is the vehicle by which the main question of the story is answered. In many stories, the plot is broken down into a three-act structure (a concept popularised by Syd Field in his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting): the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.

In a romance, the romantic relationship between the main characters is the entire plot. The point of the story is to follow them as they meet and learn about their feelings (setup), are forced to address them and/or manage the ups and downs of a relationship (confrontation), and eventually get together, either for the first or final time (resolution). The over-arching question of a romance is “how will these characters get together?” and the ups and downs of the relationship are what provide tension, conflict, and angst. Investing in a romance is investing in the story of these people and their love. All romances could be love stories, but not all love stories could be romances.

In a love story, the romantic relationship between the leading characters is often secondary or a subplot. The focus of the story is on other elements (e.g., Hazel Sinnet’s journey to becoming a surgeon in Anatomy: A Love Story or Jane Eyre discovering her power over her own life in Jane Eyre). In a love story, the romantic elements of the story are there for character development and growth, or to add conflict, but the plot would still exist if the romantic elements were removed. Take Me Before You by Jojo Moyes as an example: the over-arching question of the story focuses on Louisa’s growth as an individual, and while her relationship with Will is a part of that growth, it is not the only element to it.


Regardless of genre, characters are the central focus of any story. Through the eyes of the main character, we experience the events of the story as they unfold; through the experiences of the main character, we learn more about the world around them. Characters are the driving force for the plot, even if the over-arching question being answered is not specific to the main character themselves. Characters are the connecting point between the plot and the reader, and sometimes the means by which a reader relates to a story. If a reader is not invested in the characters and their journey within the context of the plot, they are unlikely to be interested in the story.

In a love story, the characters are relatable to the reader; they are deeply and authentically flawed. It is easy to believe they could exist in the world we live in, as their goals and motivations outside of their eventual romantic relationship are complex and varied. It is easier for the reader to put themselves in the shoes of a character in a love story, as the characters are often real people with no supernatural or magical abilities (though this is not always true). Precisely what type of characters – beyond the main character – are needed depends on the plot; there is no standard.

Characters in a romance are often exaggerated and idealised, they are - pardon the pun - romanticised. While they may have flaws, these flaws are often unimpactful or strengths in disguise, and they do not drastically affect the direction of the story. Romances often have a main character, a love interest, a sidekick, and a mentor, though other archetypes (such as the rival) are necessary depending on what tropes form the foundation of the plot. It can be difficult for some people to put themselves into the shoes of a romance protagonist, though it is not impossible for everyone, and it is not uncommon for supernatural or mystic elements to be added to facilitate the plot's progression (e.g., the concept of 'True Mates').


When analysing the endings of love stories and romances, we are able to see a clear distinction between the two classifications that can appear murky at best when considering other aspects. The distinction is summed up quite simply with one word: happiness.

In a romance, the ending is always happy; the main character and their love interest get together in the end and they all live happily ever after. There are different ways in which this ending can be achieved (e.g., marriage, just knowing they are “the one”, etc.) but there is no questioning that happiness is the goal. One of the most basic elements of a romance is an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, even with the struggles the characters had to overcome to get there. After all, the eventual romance of the main character and the love interest is the point; if they do not get together, the plot has not yet resolved itself.

While love stories can end happily (e.g., When Harry Met Sally), the fact that the relationship is not central to the plot means there are other ways a love story can end. Bittersweet endings are the most common (e.g., Brokeback Mountain where their love cannot exist), though the fate of the relationship being uncertain, the characters realising they are not meant for each other, or there being no resolution (e.g., Anatomy: A Love Story) to the romantic subplot are also possible. Love stories should never end in suffering, however. If a love story ends in suffering, it stops being a love story and becomes a tragedy instead.

These are just some common themes that differentiate the two genres; you may have different metrics by which you distinguish the two based on your personal preferences, and that is perfectly fine. Remember, regardless of what genre a story falls into, reading is about joy, pleasure, and investing your time into the stories of the characters. Throughout your lifetime, your views and opinions will change, you will meet other people who disagree with your views, and you will love and hate alongside countless characters, that is what makes the adventure of reading fun.

So agree with these views, disagree with them, but most of all find something you enjoy reading. As author J.K. Rowling once said: “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book”.


About the Creator

Meg Ilsley

Born in Australia, I moved to Canada in 2013 where I live with my four cats and two snakes. I have a Certificate in Creative Writing, am pursuing a Diploma of Graphic Design, and am an amateur author. Find me on Goodreads or Instagram.

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  • Test2 months ago

    It's well-crafted and offers valuable information.

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