Sunday, June 5, 2011

In Defense of the Formula

A criticism I have often heard about Romance is that the genre is formulaic. To which I reply... Yep. It sure is. But what in the world is wrong with formulaic? The history of literature is a long study of formulas. If writing to a formula means I must be grouped with other formulaic writers like Sophocles and Shakespeare, well, I guess I'll survive.
I could turn lead into gold again, but that
would be boring.

Almost all Western literary tradition can be traced back to ancient Greece. There, we find the roots of the formulas for tragedy and comedy. Anyone who survived high school literature class should recall that the plot of a classical tragedy is marked by a great person, possessed of a tragic flaw, suffering a reversal in fortune. Things will end badly for our hero. Comedy, on the other hand, deals in the base and lewd, has a bumbling protagonist who manages to reach his goal in spite of himself, and always features a happy ending. Watch a popular comedy movie in 2011, and you're witnessing a formula described by Aristotle 2300 years ago.

Poetry, too, is rife with formulas (aka structure) dictating the number of lines, syllables per line, rhyme scheme, and themes. Every English sonnet has fourteen lines of ten syllables each, written in iambic pentameter, usually centered on the theme of love. A haiku consists of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, and traditionally looks to nature for subject matter.

Back to Romance. Yes, there is a loose formula for Romance novels. It basically goes this way (SPOILER ALERT!!!): Hero and Heroine meet. Attraction grows, but H & H are kept apart by circumstance. Failure to communicate leads to complications. Hilarity ensues. External complications are resolved. Love is acknowledged; communication brings understanding and resolution for H & H. And the big ending, Happily Ever After.

There you have it. The master plot of every Romance novel currently in publication, revealed. You're welcome.

Literary formulas give the writer a skeleton to flesh out, and they give the reader a reasonable idea of what to expect. You know that when you pluck a novel from the Mystery section at the book store, before you even crack the cover, there will be a crime to solve and secrets to reveal. When you pick up a Fantasy novel, there will be magic inside. Science Fiction will take you to a future of fabulous technology. Formulas allow both writers and readers to find literary genres they enjoy.
Some of my favorite formulas end in cake.

Artistry in writing does not come from eschewing formulas, but from working within the confines of one and creating something new and wonderful. As strictly regimented as a sonnet is, there are still limitless ways to write a beautiful one. Even though you know the hero and heroine will achieve HEA in the end of a Romance novel, getting there will be an adventure. Working within the confines of a formula forces innovation on the part of the writer, and gives the reader a fresh take on a favorite genre.


  1. The problem with formulas of all kinds is when the writer pushes the characters around like pawns on a chessboard, to fit the demands of the formula, or, in other words, when the writer loses track of the structure and instead uses it as a substitute for thought, planning, and character development. A formulaic story in any genre, whether it's a car-chase movie or a Spenserian sonnet, doesn't offer anything beyond the formula to satisfy the reader.

    For me, the part you mention about lack of communication causes the problem is what revolts me about far too many romances these days. Any problem that can be solved by one good conversation is not a real problem and the story that hinges on that isn't a "real" story. It feels artificial and yes, formulaic. Because we all know life isn't that simple or that easy.

  2. Classical/Romantic-era music also was very formulaic. But the artist knows when to break the formula to good effect. Ever the innovator, Beethoven was bold and made the 6th Symphony five movements long instead of four, and the 9th Symphony has choral in the fourth movement. He received a lot of criticism at first when concert goers did not hear what they expected, but now we consider these musical pieces as some of that era's finest.

    However, the classical audience's expectations are not to be trifled with:

  3. Bonnie, you're absolutely right that sometimes the formula isn't used to good effect. That's a failing of the author, though, rather than the structure itself. Part of the challenge is making the formula disappear into the background, so that the reader isn't conscious of it.

    In regards to lack of communication in Romance, that's kind of a catch-all term and doesn't really encompass the varied ways in which not communicating is expressed. Romance deals (of course) with the development of romantic relationships. Most of us don't lay everything on the table as soon as we meet a potential romantic partner. We hold back parts of our lives to share when we know and trust the other person better. In a Romance, those held-back aspects of the characters' lives tend to be what drives the plot. So, it's generally not as simple as one good conversation solving the problems. The problems tend to exist outside of the relationship. In the end, it's the trust and love that develop between the leads is what gives them the ability to conquer those problems.

  4. Nefari, yes! Breaking the formula to good effect can be marvelous, when it's done well. However, in the case of Romance novels, there are some set in stone publishing industry conventions that must be met for a manuscript to fall under the Romance category, most notably the HEA ending.

    Thanks for sharing the Rite of Spring link! Any performance that turns into a classical music riot is alright by me.

  5. I guess the biggest problem with lack of communication as an obstacle for plots is that when the problem would be resolved easily by a conversation that two normal (or reasonable) people would have in that circumstance, it can't be seen as a sufficient obstacle. Oh, you can get away with it a couple of times but then the reader--most readers--tire of it.

    The reader has to believe that the obstacle would be an obstacle in this situation. And that's where a lot of writers fall down: they don't apply verisimilitude in every area they can.

  6. In my experience, most authors do have wonderful, creative reasons to explain why heroes and heroines must keep their secrets from each other through the first couple acts of the novel. They can be relatively mundane (fear of rejection, shame, protecting someone else) or wildly extraordinary (blackmail, issues of national security, etc.). So long as it makes sense within the context of the story, anything goes.

  7. Good Points. Addendum, when Shakespeare stepped outside of the formula (often with the very few plays--only 4--that have no known source) those plays are often categorized as "problem plays", but in truth, they are the most memorable and fantastically interesting precisely because they do not follow the formula. And across the vast expanse of the history of literature, a brilliant few have forged new paths to create new genres. Some, even rather recently, think Marques and Magical Realism which gave birth to a long stream of post-colonial novels dealing with clashes of history\culture from within that dream like genre. Then there are the overlaps, where sf meets fantasy, adventure or travel narrative meets utopia, and all of those often come with some romance tossed in. It is a beautiful pastiche of genres that often stick in our minds. You are right, though, not a thing wrong with formulas, but almost everything right with challenging them, too.