I happened to be reading an article by Umberto Eco which has nothing to do with romance when I came across the following, about old and new types of fiction, which did seem relevant to the study of romance:
the account greatly favored by antiquity was almost always the story of something which had already happened and of which the public was aware. One could recount for the nth time the story of Roland the Paladin, but the public already knew what happened to the hero. New additions and romantic embellishments were not lacking, but neither would they have impaired the substance of the myth being narrated. [...]It seems to me that romance novels resemble the older stories inasmuch as their readers know in advance what the ending will be. There may be considerably more room for "additions and romantic embellishments" given that the entirety of a romance's plot is not already known to the readers but I suspect that in very large part romances "work" for their readers "because the mechanism of the 'plot,' [...] succeed[s] in making them once more co-participants" in the emotions experienced by the protagonists.
The "civilization" of the modern novel offers a story in which the reader's main interest is transferred to the unpredictable nature of what will happen and, therefore, to the plot invention which now holds our attention. The event has not happened before the story; it happens while it is being told, and usually even the author does not know what will take place.
At the time of its origin, the coup de théâtre where Oedipus finds himself guilty as a result of Tiresias' revelation "worked" for the public not because it caught them unaware of the myth, but because the mechanism of the "plot," in accordance with Aristotelian rules, succeeded in making them once more co-participants through pity and terror. The reader is brought to identify both with the situation and with the character. In contrast, there is Julien Sorel shooting Madame de Rênal, or Poe's detective discovering the party guilty of the double crime in Rue de la Morgue, or Javert paying his debt of gratitude to Jean Valjean, where we are spectators to a coup de théâtre whose unpredictable nature is part of the invention, and as such, takes on aesthetic value. (15)
- Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” Trans. Natalie Chilton. Diacritics 2.1 (1972): 14-22.