As a longtime reader and writer of the romance genre, one of the most common refrains I have come across goes a little like this:
But it’s so formulaic.
You know how the book is going to end, why bother?
It’s just a fill in the blank.
Onward and upward. In fact, the mentality that romance novels are nothing more than Mad Libs for grownups is so prevalent that many publishing houses will specifically say that romance is not simply an equation to be filled in by any Tom, Dick or Harry ghostwriter, but just as unique, challenging and exciting a genre as any other.
There is a reason for this misconception, and it’s important we understand why before we go about rewriting the narrative. The truth is that there are several recurring themes and tropes in the genre that, from a bird’s eye view, give the uneducated the idea that all of the books are the same. The most fundamental of all these plot points is the HEA – the Happily Ever After. This is such an important element of the story that if the book does not have an HEA, then it’s not romance. Heroes and heroines cannot die, leave each other or otherwise compromise the main plot line of their developing relationship. The point of the romance novel is an HEA, that’s why we read it.
But just because the writer, reader and general populous know how the book is going to end doesn’t mean it’s not a book worth reading – or writing. In fact, as a writer I have discovered that writing the books with a required ending is more challenging than writing ones without.
I know, at first glance that seems odd. It takes some of the responsibility away from the author, giving them a rough map to follow to reach their final destination. It should be easier. In some ways, I’ll concede it is. But if the reader does not know the ending of my book, then I don’t have the added challenge of convincing them otherwise.
The very best romance novelists are masters of the black moment, the element of the story where everything goes to hell and it looks like there’s no way out, no way up and no way forward. The character’s worst suspicions are confirmed, the hero is dying and the ex-husband is holding the heroine hostage, onward and upward. The black moment is both fun and difficult, because your reader already knows for a fact that the characters are going to get out alive, in love, and with a whole long future ahead of them.
Convincing the reader that their belief in the HEA is wrong is what makes romance such a complicated genre to write.
At the risk of spoiling a wonderful series, I will withhold the name of an example book that does this wonderful. In the last novel in the series, the author shoots the heroine square in the chest, requiring a medevac to the nearest shock trauma unit. Only then does the hero realize he loves her, but the mission that keeps them all in danger isn’t over, and he’s required to see it through the end, as she undergoes emergency surgery.
I, logically, know the heroine will not die. This is a romance novel and I trust the author implicitly to give me my HEA. But as the hero considers a life without her, I am put into his shoes, not my own as the reader, and I believe right alongside him that she is fighting for her life. That is good writing.
It’s true that there are many signposts in the romance novel genre. Subgenres of pirates, Navy SEALs and cowboys all have their own recurring ideas and themes, the danger of this black moment, the emotional turmoil of that. Every genre, including romance, has certain prevalent elements. We forgive them in fiction, mystery and sci-fi, and we need to forgive them in romance too.
Yes, the ending is always the same – that’s the point. If we’re looking for grizzly murders, the loss of a loved one or the unraveling of a relationship, we’d pick up another genre.
The skeptics and critics aren’t wrong that romance is, in a sense, formulaic. It hits these points, promises certain elements, and always delivers. Where they are wrong, however, is in saying that this formulaic style makes it easier to write the genre. It doesn’t. The promised HEA is a huge responsibility, because if the reader truly believed in it from beginning to end, without once wavering, there’d be no conflict, and no point in reading the story.
Our black moments need to be blacker, our characters more bereft, our plots bleaker, in order to overcome the HEA. Because every romance reader knows – the bigger the challenge, the harder their heroes and heroines have to fight, the more they have to lose – the more deserved the HEA.♥