Romance Novels: What Are “Formulas” and Are They Bad? #amwriting
There are two words you’ll hear writers—especially romance writers—throw around which, if you’re only a reader, you might not understand: FORMULA and TROPE. Formula, when it comes to romance, has taken on quite a negative connotation, which I hope to dispel today. Tropes are something we writers like to talk about—which ones we prefer to read and which ones we’ve used in which of our books. Today (formula) and tomorrow (tropes), we’ll define these terms and decide for ourselves whether they’re good or bad for the genre.
How Can Formula Not Be a Bad Thing?
When we talk about romance novels, the words “formula” or “formulaic” almost always come up. In fact, that’s one of the most common terms others outside of the genre use to insult it—they don’t like romance novels because they’re too “formulaic.” (As opposed to mystery novels or other genre fiction, right?)
As I wrote in the post Romance Novels: What Are They, Anyway?, romance readers expect their romance novels to hit certain “beats”—or, in other words, to follow a certain formula: The meet, the separation, the reunion, the happy ending. This expectation may seem limiting—stifling—to the creative process.
Actually, as a romance writer, I find that already knowing I have a built-in structure, that I have certain beats I need to incorporate into my story, makes it so much easier to write and be creative.
Why? Well, because my story already has something of a structure before I even start writing. I know I’m going to have two main characters. I know the H/H are going to have to meet pretty close to the beginning of the book, because I know that the plot of my book doesn’t get rolling until they meet (after all, the plot of a romance novel hinges on and is built around the developing relationship between the H/H). I know I need to come up with conflicts that challenge the H/H’s developing relationship. I know there needs to be a major crisis/conflict that threatens the relationship (something that either separates them or that they need to face together, though one might not come out of it unscathed). And I know the ending of my book—the H/H will have a happy ending. I may not know how they have that happy ending, but I know that’s what I’m working toward.
But Doesn’t a Formula Make It Boring to Write/Read?
Which would you rather eat? A cake made by someone following a precise recipe, or one made by someone who’s just throwing a whole bunch of ingredients together without measuring anything?
If you’re an accomplished cook, it’s likely that you can walk into your kitchen, grab a bunch of ingredients, and make a tasty meal without having to follow a recipe or do much measuring. But were you always able to do that? Or was there a point at which you had to follow recipes (or have someone telling you exactly what to combine and in what ratios)?
Writing is a lot like cooking—and writing romance is even more like baking. When you first start out, you have to follow a recipe—you have learn/follow the “rules” of writing, and in genre fiction, you need to learn the formulas/tropes that are common in the genre (because they’re what the readers are expecting). But eventually, you’ve learned the theory so well, you can just sit down and “throw something together” because you know your “flavors” and “ratios” and how to balance everything out to get a “tasty” outcome.
With romance writing, our readers are expecting anything from a pie with a perfectly flaky crust to a massive wedding cake. And if you’ve ever tried baking either of those, you know that it not only takes practice, it takes precise measurements from a tried-and-true recipe. However, there isn’t just one kind of pie. Nor is there just one kind of wedding cake. As authors, it’s our job to give our readers something different—a peach and cherry cobbler or layers of chocolate espresso cake with raspberry filling beneath that fluffy white frosting—so that they don’t get bored with the same old “desserts” every time they come to us for their “sweets.”
Yes, bakers experiment and create new stuff all the time—cronuts, anyone? But they have to know what they’re doing—they have to be experts with their craft, they have to know the rules of baking (does it need leavening? how much? how much is too much sugar? what about liquid—how wet or dry does the batter need to be? what cooking method should be used—oven, deep-fry, boil? etc.). It’s knowing the basic recipes, knowing the “formula” behind baking, that allows their creativity to soar. And even then, even with the experts, there’s a lot of experimentation followed by failures until the right balance of formula and creativity is struck. It’s the same with writing romance.
Back to the cake analogy—think about how creative experienced bakers can be with adding other flavors or textures—not to mention the decorations, from simple and elegant to elaborate and breath-taking. Yet every piece of it, no matter how creative, still follows a “formula.” Frosting, fondant, ganache, and royal icing all have basic recipes which must be followed in order for them to have the right consistency. Could you substitute salt for sugar in buttercream frosting? Sure. And it might still come out looking the same and have the same consistency. But no one would eat more than one bite because it doesn’t meet the expectations of the consumers who want their frosting to be sweet, not salty.
Could you add flavors like amaretto or strawberry or lemon-ginger? Absolutely. What about changing the color? Yep. Using a combination of several different types of frostings/coverings? Sure. How about edible flowers or some made out of fondant or gum paste? You betcha. But no matter how creative these bakers get, when we go to a wedding (or a birthday party) and see something that looks like a cake, we have a certain expectation as to what we’ll be getting. What’s served to us can fail, meet, or exceed our expectations.
It’s all still cake. And it’s our prerogative as to what flavors we like and dislike, whether we want square or round tiers, and how much decoration we want. But now I’m dancing on the edge of tropes and that’s the topic for tomorrow.
What do you think of when you hear the word “formula” when it comes to romance novels? In what ways do you expect there to be a formula, and in what ways does seeing a novel following the formula bother you?
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