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.
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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.
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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?
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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