Welcome and Merry Christmas to one of my favorite peeps, Theresa Stevens! Today Theresa answers the question – is romance writing formulaic?
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Art Institute in Chicago, which for me must include a swing through the Impressionist gallery. Some of those paintings are like old childhood friends. There is one gallery in particular with several Monet paintings which has been one of my favorite places on earth since I was a kid.
The display hasn’t changed much even with all the recent renovations to the museum. Along one wall are six of the haystack paintings. Another wall shows three large water lily paintings. Across from the water lilies is a wall with several paintings from the London series. Monet tended to paint the same subjects over and over again, even from the same angles — twenty-five haystack paintings, thirty of the Rouen cathedral, perhaps two hundred and fifty paintings of water lilies in his garden — and yet no two paintings are alike.
This is where the lesson lies for us today. Nobody ever said to Monet, “Geez, talk about formulaic. All these haystacks are like art for farm wives.” Yet we hear all the time that romance is formulaic and even “porn for housewives” because it examines a single subject in different varieties. That criticism is foolish, and Monet proves it.
Art, whether paintings or novels, consists of both form and content. For us, the novel is the form. It is built of language, but not just any kind of language; the novel is written in narrative prose. There is a recognized basic structure for this form (beginning, middle, end — or, if you prefer, initiation, rising action, crisis, denouement). From this basic structure, particular structural forms emerge, such as mythic quest structure and fairy tale structure, with archetypal characters beginning to take shape. From there, we can split our examination of novel form into two loose clusters of elements, story elements (plot, character, theme, setting — the things that survive a book’s translation to film) and narrative elements (action, description, dialogue, interior monologue, and exposition — the way we categorize the actual written words on the page). Even though there has been some literary experimentation with form and content, the novel’s form has held fairly steady since its inception. It’s a form that seems to work.
Content, we might say, is specific to a particular work. It’s what we put inside our form to make our specific work meaningful, or it’s what our work is about. It’s what we use to make an intimate connection to our audience. Form is “heroine,” but content is “Minerva Dobbs.” Form is “romantic conflict,” but content is, “Minerva knows Cal bet ten grand that he could get her into bed within a month, but she needs a date to her sister’s wedding so she strings him along for a few weeks.” There are other ways to define form and content, but for our purposes, form stays true from work to work, but content changes.
What Monet did (and what we as romance novelists do in some ways) is extend the definition of form into areas that might otherwise be deemed content. A painter might ordinarily define his painting as “a painting of a haystack” to distinguish it from a painting of a puppy or a battlefield or a melting clock. The content in that case is what makes it unique. But with a series of paintings of haystacks, the haystack itself is as ubiquitous as the canvas, frame, or paint. It becomes part of the form. The content, then, is not puppy vs. haystack, but autumn haystack vs. winter haystack, or sunset winter haystack vs. sunrise winter haystack vs. noon winter haystack.
And so it is with romance novels. Saying that these books are formulaic because they concern themselves with romance is much like saying Monet’s paintings were formulaic because he repeated his subjects. Yes, our books are about people overcoming obstacles and falling in love. That is the form of the romance. Consistency of form doesn’t make all the works the same. What it does, instead, is free the creative mind to focus on particular aspects of the work. For Monet, it was light, season, and weather, and how those would change the appearance of a familiar object such as a haystack. For us romance writers, it’s character and conflict, what keeps people apart, what binds them as a unit.
The story begins with a heroine. She meets a hero. There’s an attraction, but there’s also something keeping them apart. How will the positive impulse overcome the negative barrier? What must the hero and heroine change in order to make that intimate connection? How do the hero and heroine know when it’s love? How do any of us know when love is real? These questions are resolved by the end of the story, which always ends happily with a committed couple.
This isn’t a formula. This is an established structure, a recognized form, and what matters is how the artist innovates within that established parameter. Innovation comes not in the big picture, but in the small details. We see shades of light within love the same way Monet saw it on the haystacks and ponds and bridges. He recorded the way weather changed the appearance of an object. We record the way the resolution of a trust issue can change the course of a life. This is an important matter, worthy of close scrutiny. That we also have a lot of fun with it says not that it’s frivolous, but that it’s satisfying and rewarding.
So the next time you hear someone scoff at romance for being formulaic, smile brightly and say, “If it was good enough for old Claude Monet, it’s good enough for me.”
PS. Monet was also ridiculously proficient, something else he has in common with us romance writers. And people love his paintings, much the way readers snap up our books. There are benefits to innovating within a strong form. =)
Writers, do you write out the basic structure to your novel? Do you seek out the small changes of light like Monet?
Have A Wonderful Christmas Everyone!!! Happy Holidays!
Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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