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Too Many Rules, Too Little Romance

15 January 2013

From Dear Author:

Romance is often criticized for being formulaic, but in a way that suggests that the genre is synonymous with formula, and that formula is bad.

Romance, as a form, has come to be known by three main elements: a) a romantic love story, b) that is central to the narrative, c) and resolves in a happy ending for the lovers. But within that form are many formulae. For example, take one broody rake, mix with an impoverished but noble housemaid, add in a dash of villainy from a long-lost mother, and shake until true love prevails.

When people call Romance formulaic, it’s generally in a denigrating way, as if to imply predictability, triteness, and staleness. However, both form and formula are important to generic integrity, because while form ensures coherence and definitional consistency, formula provides familiar elements that a reader may like and want to see in particular combinations. Category novels, for example, often rely on formulae, and in the case of lines like Harlequin Presents, the formula is practically announced in the book title: The Incorrigible Playboy; The Greek’s Blackmailed Wife; Spanish Magnate, Red-Hot Revenge. The common mistake people make in denigrating genre as formula and formula per se, is the assumption that structural and narrative limits are bad, and that they contravene artistic freedom and creativity.

. . . .

Think about sonnets as a form. Sonnets traditionally have 14 lines with different rhyming patterns and numbers of syllables, depending on whether you’ve got a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, an English sonnet, a Spencerian sonnet, or a free verse sonnet (among others). At first glance, what could be more limiting than 14 lines of iambic pentameter? And yet, poets have worked with the form both in subject matter (extending it beyond its original focus on love) and structure.

. . . .

That’s the thing about form: it can be manipulated in myriad ways that keep it within certain boundaries but still allow it to challenge and run free within those boundaries. What makes a book or a poem fresh is not a change in form, necessarily – it’s the voice and the vision of the writer who understands that formal boundaries do not necessitate staleness and triteness. The same is true for formula. I have seen some people argue that books adhering to certain formulae gain popularity because of the formula. However, for every book that has a so-called winning formula, how many other formulaic books are there going absolutely nowhere?

. . . .

Ideally, a genre about so powerful a force as human love is vast with potential. Not only can it accommodate myriad elements, but it can concoct and contemplate many, many formulae. To some degree, there is a human impulse to locate boundaries and solidify them, either to make sure we stay inside or intentionally defy them. And readers often cannot articulate what did not work for them in a book beyond subjective responses that may not even correctly articulate the issue. There is a particular vocabulary of literary criticism, and if you have not been trained to know and use it, you may not be able to properly diagnose the issues you have with a book. That kind of finessing often takes the kind of conversation readers and authors may not be used to having.

But think about it: how many times have you read two books that contain virtually the same elements, and yet one seems just so much stronger and more satisfying to you? The relationship between books and readers is alchemical and sometimes seemingly random. More often than not, readers don’t even know what they want until they get something new, and then the industry moves to give them more of that same thing, rather than something unexpectedly wonderfully new again.

Link to the rest at Dear Author


30 Comments to “Too Many Rules, Too Little Romance”

  1. Yep, pretty much this.

    And for pretty much everything.

    My challenge is very similar: there aren’t *that* many different ways the particular sort of thing that has to happen in my genre’s stories can happen. I have yet to write a story that didn’t contain the same general sort of MacGuffin as multiple other stories I’ve read.

    Yet I am proud to say I’ve never “ripped off” a similar story, and I’ve given said MacGuffins, at the very least, a very nice customized paintjob and a new, unique serial number that will pass authentication.

  2. The Billionaire’s Christmas Baby
    The Billionaire’s Baby SOS
    Baby For the Billionaire
    Maid For the Billionaire
    The Billionaire’s Pregnant Mistress
    The Billionaire’s Bodyguard
    The Teacher’s Billionaire
    Bargain Bride, Billionaire Groom
    Billionaire Bachelors

    Remember when a million bucks was quite a bit?

    • My crit partner and I were always going to write “The Christian Virgin Cowboy’s Secret Baby” and sub it, but strangely enough, we never got beyond the title. Sigh.

      • I once came across a Harlequin Presents entitled “The Future King’s Pregnant Virgin Bride”. To this day, I wonder how that would have worked, since I doubt that Harlequin Presents includes immaculate conceptions now.

        BTW, I once tried to write a typical “Blackmailed into marriage by the gazillionaire” Harlequin Presents type romance in a space opera setting. I got a couple of chapter in. Maybe I should dig it up again, if only because it would be funny.

    • LOL. I began a NaNo book with the working title _The Supermodel’s Best Friend and the Billionaire’s College Dropout Roommate_, actually aiming to submit it to HQ Blaze, partially as satire. But then a funny thing happened… I really loved the book, the characters, and it just wasn’t a joke anymore.

      At the moment it’s my most popular title, published simply as The Supermodel’s Best Friend. (Though I do sometimes wonder if the complete title, which accurately describes the main characters, would help it go viral.)

      • I did something similar–started a book as a joke, with a joke title. A friend even mocked up a joke cover for me. Then I realized it could be a good book. It turned into my most successful manuscript to date.

  3. I like this! I agree with this:

    “…is the assumption that structural and narrative limits are bad, and that they contravene artistic freedom and creativity”.

    Limitations are fun. For example, writing haiku is a blast. It’s all about the restrictions and being creative within the restrictions.

    Also, people often want something comfortable and familiar for their entertainment. There is something soothing and pleasant about sitting down to a good read, when you know basically how things will go, and there will be a happy ending, but the fun is to see how it gets there.

    • This. While Janet’s letter of opinion makes good points, I think Mira’s analysis is as accurate but blessedly far more succinct.

      I read genre fiction because of the restrictions. I read romance for the happy ending. I’m perfectly fine with the formula and almost demand it when I’m reading this particular form. Give me a tragic ending in a romance novel, and I’m not going to think “Wow, what a twist! So unexpected! So original!” It will probably be more like “That was a crappy thing to do. I won’t pick up one of your books again.”

      I read to be entertained not to be startled by the author figuratively jumping out of the closet and yelling “Boo!” just because of some misplaced fear of formulaic writing.

  4. I personally agree with the notion that constraints foster creativity. I have seen too many interviews with film directors who talk about what the linits of their budget or mere physics forced them to get creative about to believe constraints actually constrain. I think humans are at our most creative when offered a narrow problem to solve.

    Also…there are as many numbers between 0 and 1 as there are countable integers. I have long viewed romance as the infinite set between two numbers. Small range but countless possibilities and variations.

    See also: anthologies built on giving different writers the same prompt.

    But this talk of genre limits is true for any genre. The key is writing a good story that makes those elements necessary and not self limiting. At its best the work will blind you to its own cage.

    • To be terribly math nerdy, in fact there are more numbers between 0 and 1 than there are countable integers. Integers are countably infinite, while real numbers are uncountably infinite.

  5. I think of it as an implied contract between reader and author. The reader buys the book and the author promises certain things about what will and will not be included in the reading experience. It seems to work. While I feel that my favorite genre (SFF) is in decline–or at least it’s no longer publishing the kind of books I want to read–romance seems to be robustly successful and releasing such a wide variety of books that there’s something for everyone.

    • Amy, do you share the viewpoint of the Human Wave movement with regard to SFF being “in decline,” or do you have some other general objection? Just curious.

      • To hell with Human Wave.

      • Yes, I do, although I only just learned about “Human Wave” and am not affiliated with the movement. Though when I went to fill out my Nebula ballot, I realized the problem was worse with fantasy, at least for me personally.

        This year, I have three solid science fiction novels to nominate, and not a single fantasy novel. I read a number of fantasy novels in 2012, some of which were 2012 novels, and I didn’t like even one of them enough to write its name on the ballot. It might be just me. Some people must like these books. But I’m not THAT hard a reader to please. I gave lots of books 5 stars on goodreads this year. Just not any fantasy novels, and it’s my favorite genre, so that’s odd.

        • Human Wave, like, say, libertarianism, has the problem that while many of its ideas are sound many of its proponents are strident to the point of being off-putting and coming across as rather fanatical. In both cases, it’s a shame.

  6. “Eternal love.” As if anything’s eternal, but love? Love? It’s an unstable state, thermodynamic nonsense, two energy sources, two suns, trying to establish orbits around one another, each one striving to give light and heat to the other. How pretty it sounds, how implausible. Naturally the system breaks down under gravitational stress sooner or later, and one pulls the other to pieces, or they spiral into collision, or they go tumbling away from one another. A waste of energy, a futile spilling of the life-force. Love? Abolish it! If only I could.
    -Robert Silverberg, Shadrach in the Furnace

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