Skip to content

The Codes of Romance

Thursday, July 27, 2006

In their essay, “Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance,” best-selling romance novelists Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz* relate the relationship between author and reader to a nearly contractual agreement. When a reader picks up a romance novel, she comes to it with certain subconscious expectations in mind as to the development of the characters and their relationship, the plot, and the ultimate ending. When an author fails to follow through on meeting these expectations, the romance reader feels let down, betrayed even. It is this “code” which creates such antipathy for romance novels in the general public while keeping readers returning again and again to buy more books. Barlow and Krentz take this one step further to point out that it is not just the structure of the stories that carry expectations, but the language—the “diction”—of the genre that draw the reader in. They believe romance readers are trained through their reading to recognize turns of phrase or word constructs and respond with a deep emotional connection to the story and the characters. In fact, they posit, the reader looks for these constructs, wanting to relive these emotions with each book they read. They also expect character development and the relationship between hero and heroine to be the main focus of the story, and through the use of “descriptive code,” they expect a detailed description of the characters’ physical characteristics.

The irony of the situation is that these same readers who are looking for the familiar codes of the romance genre don’t want to read the same basic story over and over. They may be drawn to certain types of stories (pirates, captured by Indians, marriage of convenience/mail-order-bride, etc.) but they want each story to be fresh and unique.

As an avid reader of romance myself, when it came to writing Stand-In Groom, I used the structure expected in a romance novel: Anne and George meet in the first chapter and are “interested” in each other. An attraction develops on each side but is hindered by the use of a Shakespearean hidden identity plot in which Anne believes George is a groom for whom she is planning a wedding. When George’s true identity is revealed, there is an initial admitting of feelings for each other and a brief time of happiness. However, in a romance novel, the relationship cannot be so easily won. Therefore, a major obstacle must break them up, seemingly forever, which in this case is Anne’s believing George has lied and is using her for his own ends, making her turn down his proposal of marriage and tell him she never wants to see him again. The romance reader expects this breakup of the relationship, wanting to see once again that true love conquers all. What must be conquered in Stand-In Groom is Anne’s greatest fear when she has to decide whether her immobilizing terror of flying is worth facing to follow George and convince him to come back to her. The novel ends with the anticipated happy ending, as every romance novel should.

However, it is not just in story structure that I followed the conventions of the genre. I also incorporated the subconsciously sought-after turns of phrase to connect the reader with my story as well as connect my story with the genre; for example, when Anne first meets George, she gazes “into eyes the color of light-roast cinnamon hazelnut coffee, and her heart fluttered.” George appreciates Anne’s “shapely figure” and “Wedgwood-blue eyes.” Throughout the novel, eyes sparkle, pulses race, hearts thunder, toes curl, and cheeks burn (which is as far as the physical sensuality goes, of course). These are all “coded” phrases that bring to the reader a sense of familiarity—that wonderful, familiar tingle or twitter in the tummy because they are signposts, whether the reader recognizes them or not, that grow and develop the romance between the lead characters.

The idea of “coded” language or plot structure isn’t unique to romance—it’s something that appears in almost all genre language. Think about Mystery novels. There are certain buried/hidden codes within the language that give readers subconscious hints and clues. Science Fiction is replete with these types of codes. Even though the worlds of SciFi are extremely diverse, there is a certain language that all SciFi readers expect to find, a certain turn-of-phrase, a certain way of describing things, a certain focus on the technical aspects of how things work.

This is where the study of the particular genre one writes in becomes not just fascinating, but important. There are reasons why we each enjoy reading certain genres more than others, and a major portion of that is the familiarity of the “language” of the genre. In my program, I learned how to break down published inspirational romance novels for what worked and what didn’t and slowly realized that those who knew the “codes” inside-out and then added their own unique twist and voice to them tended to be more successful and have better-written, more enjoyable stories.

Coded language is one of the reasons why “formula” or Category Romance remains so popular to this day, and the authors who are the best at it know and understand how to incorporate the codes without letting that be all there is to their story.

*Barlow, Linda and Jayne Ann Krentz. “Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992. 15–29

One Comment


  1. Fun Friday: Romance Novels that Shaped Me «

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: