The Romance Formula Myth

Romance readers know there’s no formula for romance novels, but a lot of other people seem to think there is, something like, “First kiss on page three, problem arises pages fifteen, first kiss with tongue page eighteen, hero falls in love page seventy-two.”

This idea’s been around for a long time, and it’s still around, and romance writers still get asked what their “formula” is. Even writers who don’t write romance will say, “of course, those are based on a formula.” Anyone who’s read even two romance novels ought to know that it isn’t true.

The “formula” myth makes me want to scream.

All genres have certain elements that must be included in the story or else the story isn’t part of the genre. That doesn’t make genre formulaic.

I think the reason for this myth is that if you can say something is written by formula, you can dismiss it and feel justified in doing so. You can say “anyone could write that, if they had the formula.” You’re saying the novels are created mechanically, without art. Therefore you don’t have to think about them in depth, and can end the conversation right there.

To me, this ties in with the idea that men create art while women do craft, an idea which is still alive and well in our society today, and not only in relation to writing.

If you’re in a rebellious mood, like I am, check out Guerilla Girls.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. Her blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and occasional author interviews.
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10 Responses to The Romance Formula Myth

  1. Charlene says:

    If there was a formula, it'd be boring to write. Also, easy. Connect the dots, fill in the blanks. I think the "it's so easy anybody could do it" people should be handed blank paper and a pen.

  2. Victoria Janssen says:

    I think the "it's so easy anybody could do it" people should be handed blank paper and a pen.

    Yes!

  3. kylecassidy says:

    A while back I was photographing a romance writer and mentioned that Jude Devereaux' Knight in Shining Armor was my favorite romance novel and that I'd enjoyed it very much while reading it.

    She responded saying "yes, that novel couldn't get published today because it doesn't end in commitment. Today she would need to stay in the past with the duke and marry him."

    Do some publishers have greater restrictions than others? Can you tell before you pick up a book how graphic the sex will be and how often it will (or, I suppose will not) appear? Or is it just hit and miss based on knowing authors and best guess by the cover art?

    I've always wondered that.

  4. Melissa Blue says:

    Do some publishers have greater restrictions than others?

    Yes, but even then you don't know what you'll get. I set out to write a Harlequin Blaze so I picked up ten books. This line is known for having hot sex scenes. With the promise of a long-lasting relationship. Out of those ten books two were so, so hot I considered them erotic. This is coming from a publisher who sets guidelines on what a certain line of novels need. None of those ten books were the same.

    As to the post…what I think the problem is that people think certain ingredients = formula. I can do a search for bread and I'll probably need the basic ingredients–yeast and flour–but it is short-sighted to say all bread is the same. You've got banana nut, wheat, white, garlic bread, some with zucchini, some with raisins and cinnamon, etc. And just because you have the ingredients doesn't mean you can make the bread edible. So why would romance novels be any different?

  5. Victoria Janssen says:

    You can get an idea for explicitness before you pick up a book, but people's tastes/ opinions/tolerances are so different, it's hard to define clear boundaries.

    Sexual content varies widely, even within lines. Some lines (Kensington Aphrodisia, Berkeley Heat, Avon Red, Harlequin Blaze) are defined as having more sex, or more explicit sex, but the way those scenes are written may seem more or less explicit to different readers.

    I do think lines develop an identity of sorts and after a while regular readers get a feel for what they'll be getting. It seems to me that the line's level of explicitness is linked to the editor's judgement and may not be quantified in their guidelines.

    I have noticed that when a line is new, there is often more range of stories, until the editors figure out what sells and start buying more of that.

    Within the line I write for, Spice, the tone and style ranges all over the place, but the covers all say "an erotic novel" as a cue to the reader. All of them have a lot of explicit sex scenes; however, some of the books have more romance than others do, and they're in different subgenres such as historical, literary fiction, suspense, etc.. I've noticed each Spice author's covers are developing themes, I think to be a bit of a guideline to the different types of stories: http://www.eharlequin.com/store.html?vcname=backlistParent&cid=373

  6. Victoria Janssen says:

    I love your bread analogy, Melissa!

  7. Kate Pearce says:

    I get fed up with the dismissive "it's a formula, anyone could write one" attitude. I usually smile and suggest they do and ask them to let me know when its published.'
    Grr
    It's just because romance is mainly written by women for women-silly soft fluffy-brained little darlings that we are, we don't even understand that what we are doing is wrong :)

  8. Victoria Janssen says:

    silly soft fluffy-brained little darlings that we are, we don't even understand that what we are doing is wrong

    YES.

  9. barbarienne says:

    She responded saying "yes, that novel couldn't get published today because it doesn't end in commitment. Today she would need to stay in the past with the duke and marry him."

    –>I think this is part of the problem.

    One of the things about romance novels is that the essential framework of the story is defined by the genre: it is a story about characters' romantic relationships. You cannot have a romance novel without the romance. (Just as you cannot have a science-fiction novel in the completely real world, nor a mystery novel without some sort of mystery, usually involving a murder.)

    The mainstream romance genre–the main lines from large publishers–has gotten rather more staid in their plot-structures. While variety is permitted in specific imprints, or from small publishers, the meat of the genre is still focused on a hetero couple who go through some difficulties and win out to a HEA in the end.

    Thus the accusations of "formula" from people who don't know beyond the Avon Romantic Treasure sort of category. As far as they're concerned, the story can have a million ups and downs, but the hero and heroine will, somehow, get their HEA.

    I can see how that can be interpreted as "formula" by people who are oriented to the ending of a story as contrasted with the journey of a story.

    Modern romance readers know that the book is almost certainly going to end with an HEA–but they want to know how the characters get there.

    Whereas someone used to reading, say, thriller novels, is geared to view the ending of the book as the main point, and they are reading specifically to see how it ends. To them, if a whole genre (or at least the representative core of it) ends the same way (i.e. HEA), then it is "formula."

  10. Ashlyn Chase says:

    I challenge anyone to find the "formula" in my books! I'm known for breaking the rules or making up my own.

    If you know someone who claims there's a formula, recommend they read Love Cuffs by Ashlyn Chase and Dalton Diaz. It's a wild two first-person pov ride with half chapters.

    Ash

    Ash

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