Writing the Tragic Romance: 7 Essential Elements to Breaking Hearts

Heartbreak is the key feature of a tragic romance. 

The central love story ends in heartbreak and, as a result, audiences walk away from the film feeling heartbroken. Most people still remember the utter anguish they felt after watching The Notebook or Titanic for the first time. 

For a tragic romance film to be effective, viewers must form an emotional attachment to the main characters and their relationship. Once audiences are fully invested, tragedy strikes and the film delivers its final message about love and loss. 

In this article, we’ll help you navigate the seven most crucial aspects of a tragic romance script: 

Let’s start with the end…

1. The Ending of a Tragic Romance

The most defining characteristic of a tragic romance is its ending.

It’s therefore essential to map out the ending of your script before getting too involved in other aspects of the story. Knowing the fate of your characters will inform the rest of your writing choices and strengthen your story arc.

Jack and Rose struggle to stay afloat at the end of TITANIC

Death and(/or) Despair

A romance that doesn’t conclude in suffering is just a love story. Notice, however, that the word suffering doesn’t necessarily imply death. While many of the most well-known tragic love stories do end in the death of a main character, it is not a prerequisite for success in the genre. 

Lexico defines tragedy as “an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress.” Death is not the only outcome that causes despair and suffering, nor is it always the worst. 

  • At the end of one tragic romance film, a young woman is forced to raise her son on her own while her husband serves jail time for a crime he didn’t commit. 
  • A film about marital strife ends with the husband walking away from his wife and the child they raised together. 
  • At the end of an indie tragic romance, a couple breaks up in the hospital after the volatility of their relationship reaches its peak.
  • In one film’s conclusion, a woman sits across from her lost love at a concert, crying as she recalls their short-lived romance.

The above films (their titles omitted to prevent spoilers) are better categorized as modern tragic romances rather than classical ones, but they have the same gut-wrenching finale that tears the central lovers apart. 

In fact, tragic romances that don’t rely on a main character death can pack an even stronger emotional punch. It’s especially painful when characters choose not to be together, and it’s a more relatable outcome to those who have never experienced the death of a significant other. 

Dean leaves Cindy at the end of BLUE VALENTINE.

What Makes a Tragedy a Tragedy?

Not every romance with a semi-sad ending qualifies as a tragedy. 

Tragedy as a genre dates back to ancient Greece. Aristotle said tragedies were built around the tragic hero, a noble man with a fatal flaw (a hamartia) that ultimately brings about his downfall. 

If external causes like society or destiny lead to a character’s demise, Aristotle considered the story a misadventure rather than a tragedy. By this definition, however, films like Titanic and The Notebook wouldn’t be categorized as tragedies.

Neither would The Fault In Our Stars, which revolves around fate’s cruelty. 

So it’s safe to say the definition of a tragedy has loosened over the years. Throw in the element of romance and it’s a completely different genre, especially in terms of the final act. 

By the end of a tragic romance:

  • The main characters should be separated, or together but under distressing circumstances. For example, the characters in The Notebook are together physically, but Allie has dementia. 
  • At least one of the main characters should be dead, severely unhappy, or unable to interact with their significant other like they used to (usually due to illness or disability).
  • There should either be some semblance of hope/closure or a moment of reflection where a character contemplates all they’ve lost.

As a writer, it’s important to remember there are fates more painful than death. If death doesn’t feel like the proper end to your character’s story arc, play around with other ways to make them suffer. 

2. Why a Tragic Romance? Does Your Idea Suit the Tragic Romance Genre?

Atonement Tragic Romance

Although there are countless ways to torture characters, tragedy should always serve a purpose in your love story. Determining how tragedy will function is equally important – if not more important – than the tragic ending itself. 

The worst tragic romances use death purely as a plot twist. Think of Remember Me, which throws in a 9/11-related casualty in the film’s final 10 minutes, almost as an afterthought. 

To ensure your tragic ending doesn’t feel out of place, first determine and develop your film’s main themes. Perhaps you’re telling a story about forgiveness and reconciliation, like Atonement. Or maybe a critique of the criminal justice system, like If Beale Street Could Talk.

Whatever your intention with the story, make sure the tragic elements of your script are essential to the message. Ask yourself:

  • How does tragedy reinforce my script’s theme? For instance, The Fault In Our Stars is about fate and legacy, so its tragic ending is not only fitting but in many ways necessary.
  • Will my script have the same effect or convey the same message without a tragic ending? If so, it may be time to rethink your script’s final act.
  • Are you only killing one of your main characters to make the other suffer? If you’re solely using death as a manipulation device – especially a woman’s death, which often exclusively serves a male character’s arc – go back to the drawing board. 

Take time outlining what you want to convey in your script and brainstorming how tragedy might help you do so. Your tragic ending should feel earned, not tacked on. 

Scripts that employ tragedy for shock value read as lazy and uninspiring. A tragic romance should foreshadow its ending throughout the script to guarantee that all narrative choices feel intentional.

3. Foreshadowing in a Tragic Romance 

Even the twistiest of endings require some degree of foreshadowing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a writer should give away their script’s ending within the first five pages. The element of surprise is an equally important part of what makes plot twists effective. 

Finding the balance between foreshadowing and surprise is especially crucial when writing tragic romances, as the finale often makes or breaks the film. A tragic romance’s ending – if executed successfully – will evoke a wide range of emotions anywhere from grief to anger.

An ending that isn’t properly foreshadowed, however, will take audiences out of the story and feel like a cop-out. In hindsight, the viewer (or reader) should be able to trace a breadcrumb trail of clues that starts in the first act and leads all the way to the finale.

Overt Vs. Covert Foreshadowing

A Star is Born Tragic Romance Foreshadowing

While most films require some degree of unpredictability, many tragic romances opt for a more blatant form of foreshadowing.

  • In A Star Is Born, a suicide prevention billboard flashes in the background of one of the first scenes. Jackson Maine’s substance abuse is also prevalent throughout the film, and he even references a previous suicide attempt from when he was a child. 
  • Game of Thrones hints at the Red Wedding from the moment Robb marries Talisa and betrays Walder Frey. Catelyn warns Robb that “Walder Frey is a dangerous man to cross” and Lord Karstark tells him, “I think you lost the war the day you married her.”
  • All the Bright Places opens with one character contemplating suicide. The rest of the film centers around two high schoolers and their mental health struggles, specifically documenting one character’s downward spiral. 

Others foreshadow their tragic endings with more subtlety, which can also be effective. 

  • Toward the beginning of Bridge to Terabithia, Jess warns Leslie that the rope swing by the creek is old and may not be strong enough to hold them. 
  • In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis recounts a childhood memory in which a man from his hometown was murdered for his suspected homosexuality.

Brokeback Mountain also relies on the tone of the film – and more specifically the tone of Ennis and Jack’s relationship – to foreshadow its ending. Anyone watching their tragic romance unfold can see it’s not going to end well for the star-crossed lovers. 

When dealing with death, illness, and other sensitive subjects in a tragic romance, it’s essential to hint at your ending so a twist doesn’t feel lazy or exploitative. 

Knowing the typical structure of a tragic romance will help you better understand when and how to foreshadow throughout your script. 

4. How Should You Structure Your Tragic Romance?

There’s no one-size-fits-all tragic romance template, but there is a one-size-fits-most. 

The relatively consistent structure of tragic romances makes them easy to digest despite their heavy subject matter. Viewers and readers may not know exactly how the story will end, but they typically go into the film with a general and often intuitive understanding of its structure. 

  • The Meeting: The characters meet, usually by chance, and they’re instantly drawn to one another. Love at first sight might be overkill, but there’s immediate attraction and intrigue. 
  • Resistance: Despite the spark, the characters resist the temptation to be together. They’re often pressured to do so by outside circumstances.
  • Surrender: When they can’t take it any longer, they give in to desire. The external (and sometimes internal) forces working to keep them apart create conflict. 
  • Short-Lived High Point: Like a happily ever after ending, but about midway (or a bit more than midway) through the film. The characters are together and beating the odds.
  • Reality Check: But things go downhill quickly. Tensions flare between the lovers. Either the consequences of their actions catch up to them, or fate strikes, painting a dismal picture of the couple’s future.
  • Downfall: The characters are torn apart, or their relationship significantly changes for the worst.
  • Perspective/Reflection: The film puts the tragedy in perspective, often through the eyes of one of the heartbroken lovers. It might be a hopeful glimpse of the character moving on or a montage of memories as they reflect on the loss.

While films from other genres usually feature a low midpoint and then end on a higher note, tragedies flip that structure. The early high point gives viewers a false sense of security and sets the stage for the tragic finale. 

Structural Variation

Of course, not all tragic romances will perfectly follow this structure. For example, the resistance/surrender stages might play out less dramatically depending on your story. 

In The Fault In Our Stars, Augustus and Hazel Grace never deny their feelings for one another, nor do they suddenly declare their love in a fit of passion. Instead, they fall into a relationship more naturally. 

There is always room to push the envelope, especially in a genre that strives for heightened drama and shocking, emotional conclusions. Here are some ways to vary your tragic romance’s structure:

  • Write a meeting scene where the soon-to-be lovers don’t get along, like in La La Land. There should still be some force drawing the characters together, but an initially tense meeting can make the beginning of their relationship all the more satisfying.
  • Use an embedded narrative, like Noah and Allie’s flashback love story in The Notebook.
  • Start with the end of a relationship, like in (500) Days of Summer or Marriage Story. To ensure your script stays in the tragic romance realm, work towards a tragic twist that explains why the romance ended. 

Before writing your script, determine whether or not the typical tragic romance structure suits your story. If it doesn’t, which structural components will you sidestep? How will it benefit your story? How will it impact your characters?

5. Characters in a Tragic Romance

A Star is Born Tragic Romance

Even if you follow the standard structure, even if you properly map out and foreshadow your ending, your tragic romance script will fall flat if your characters are lackluster.

One of the main goals of the tragic romance is to evoke emotion. But it’s very difficult to make audiences feel much of anything if they don’t care about the characters. For a tragic romance script to have the desired emotional impact, its characters must be sympathetic and relatable.

To create these kinds of characters, a writer might:

  • Highlight the characters’ insecurities. Most people can relate to feeling not good enough, especially in the context of a relationship.
  • Give the characters a backstory that elicits sympathy from the viewer. 
  • Give the characters flaws, but also explain – or at least hint at – the reasons they might have those flaws. When people understand why a character is behaving a certain way, they are more likely to relate to them. 
  • Focus as much on the characters’ individual personalities as you do on their relationship dynamic. 

Both central characters (there are typically two in a tragic romance) should have a place in the story outside of the romance. Think Ally from A Star is Born, who is one half of the film’s central couple, but also a woman trying to carve out a space for herself in the music industry.

Characters should not feel like pawns who only function as plot devices. When this is the case, viewers become detached and the tragic twist loses its impact. 

It’s, therefore, crucial to write main characters who are relatable and sympathetic. But depending on the point of view of your story, it may make sense to develop one character more than the other. 

6. Point of View in a Tragic Romance

Tragic Romance - If Beale Street Could Talk

Although tragic romances often feature two main characters, they typically spotlight one of the two: the main protagonist

The main protagonist is the character who changes the most from start to finish or the character whose arc is at the center of the film. By the end of a tragic romance, the main protagonist is usually the one grieving, so viewers experience the tragedy from their POV. 

  • The Fault In Our Stars is told from Hazel Grace’s perspective, sometimes via voice-over. Augustus is also a primary character, but it’s ultimately Hazel’s story.
  • Brokeback Mountain chronicles Jack and Ennis’s tumultuous relationship. But at its core, the film is about Ennis and his struggles to accept his sexuality.
  • If Beale Street Could Talk also uses a voice-over to tell Tish’s story, one of a soon-to-be mother desperate to exonerate her husband. 

It’s possible to have two main characters who share the spotlight equally (or almost equally), like in Titanic and The Notebook. This POV can be effective when writing a tragic romance that focuses more on a relationship rather than an individual journey. 

Choosing a single protagonist gives viewers someone specific to root for, however, and can make a tragic ending more impactful. When the audience identifies with one character and sees the story unfold through their eyes, they’ll feel that character’s losses even deeper. 

So before writing your script, determine the POV that makes sense for your story. 

Is there a main main character? How will framing the story from that character’s perspective help convey your film’s message? If the script switches between the POVs of your two main characters, what purpose does the dual POV serve? 

A script’s POV also dictates which types of conflict best suit the story, and influences how that conflict plays out on screen. 

7. Tragic Romance Conflict 

Viewers may dream of a simple happily ever after for the characters, but a tragic romance that lacks sufficient conflict is boring. The factors that keep the characters apart are what make audiences root for them to get together.

Whether it’s disapproving parents, addiction, or terminal illness, there must be forces (both internal and external) bent on denying the lovers their happy ending.

Tempers flare between Jack and Ennis in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

Internal  

Films with a single main protagonist often utilize internal conflict. If a story centers around a single character’s evolution, it makes sense to spotlight their internal struggles.

For example:

  • The main conflicts in A Star is Born arise from alcoholism and mental health.
  • Ennis is unwilling to leave his old life behind and unable to accept his sexuality, which ultimately prevents the cowboys from pursuing a committed relationship in Brokeback Mountain.
  • In The Fault In Our Stars, Hazel Grace’s fear of dying and subsequently breaking Gus’s heart is internal.

External

On the other hand, tragic romances with equally central protagonists often rely on external circumstances to create conflict. In these films, it’s almost like the relationship itself is the protagonist, and the outside forces are the antagonist.

Some examples of external conflict in popular tragic romances include:

  • A false rape accusation that sets off the tragic sequence of events in Atonement.
  • The family feud in Romeo and Juliet that leads to the lovers’ demise. 
  • Classism, which is one of the factors that keeps the characters apart in The Notebook

The best tragic romances feature both internal and external conflicts. However, your film’s central conflict will likely be one or the other.

If your story is primarily told from one character’s point of view, internal conflict can be a great way to give the viewer a peek inside that character’s head. 

Once again, think about the message you’re trying to convey. If your script is a commentary on mental illness, for instance, it will naturally feature internal conflict. If it’s about war or the justice system, external conflict will better suit your script. 

But no matter the type of conflict, the odds must be stacked against your main characters. Their relationship should be an uphill battle from the hopeful beginning to the tragic end. 

The Tragic Romance: A Conclusion 

Tragic romances are riddled with conflict, star-crossed love, and of course, tragedy. They pull on people’s heartstrings and, when executed well, leave a lasting impression. 

Remember to be sensitive in your handling of touchy subject matter like death and illness. Draw from personal experiences if possible, or research your topic so your tragic ending feels authentic.

And now that you’ve read through these guidelines, you’re ready to break some hearts. 

In Summary

How to End a Tragic Romance?

A tragic romance should end in suffering, often as a result of death, illness, or some other circumstance that tears the lovers apart.

What is the Importance of Foreshadowing in a Tragic Romance?

Tragedy should not merely be used for shock factor. A tragic romance must foreshadow its ending so it doesn’t feel tacked on or unearned.

How do You Structure a Tragic Romance?

Most tragic romances consist of seven key structural elements: The Meeting, Resistance, Surrender, Short-Lived High Point, Reality Check, Downfall, and Perspective/Reflection.

Characters in a Tragic Romance

The characters must be relatable and sympathetic so the tragic ending elicits emotion. Viewers should experience the tragic twist through the eyes of the main protagonist. If the film focuses more on the relationship than either of the characters’ individual journeys, the script might alternate between both characters’ POVs. 

Conflict in a Tragic Romance

Scripts with a single main protagonist rely on internal conflict while those with multiple main protagonists lean on external conflict. The theme of your script will affect which type of primary conflict (internal or external) drives your story.

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This article was written by Alissa Evans and edited by IS Staff.

2 thoughts on “Writing the Tragic Romance: 7 Essential Elements to Breaking Hearts”

  1. Great article.
    In every romance, tragic or otherwise, there are obviously two main characters, the two lovers. Of these, one is likely to be more the protagonist, the other more of a passive character, though these roles can be exchanged at various points.
    There is, of course, often a third character, who forms the romantic triangle and is a rival to one of the other main characters. This third character can be the back-story (an old flame?) of one of the other characters, or the catalyst who sends, perhaps in combination with external forces, a main character on his or her journey to destiny.
    This third part of the triangle is not necessarily the antagonist, the ‘villain’ who may emerge from the external forces. Opportunities here for various narrative strands, which should feel integrated rather than disparate, and foreshadowing the final tragedy.
    Writing such a project is an important task not to be rushed.

    Reply

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