One Recipe, Two Very Different Dishes

acrossuniverse Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the Lord of the Rings books or seen the movies, this post contains spoilers regarding the ending.

We’ve been having quite the lively discussion on the Romance Potpourri Board about just how much the HEA constrains the writing of a novel, whether books are written to a recipe or formula, and what reasonable amount of reality and originality can be expected from genre fiction (romance in particular) given said restraints. The whole formula issue is an old one here at AAR, with some of us looking for the works that push that barrier, and others pointing out thatours are not the only novels written to a pattern.

The entire conversation was especially ironic to me because I had just finished reading two nearly identical and yet wildly different novels. The first novel Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan is about a teenage girl aboard a spaceship filled with dark secrets and sinister plots. She must choose how to respond to a less than perfect love interest and how much responsibility she has for what goes on aboard the ship. The second novel Across the Universe by Beth Revis is about a teenage girl aboard a spaceship filled with dark secrets and sinister plots. She must choose how to respond to a less than perfect love interest and how much responsibility she has for what goes on aboard the ship. Both novels have a post-apocalyptic back story. Both center on dictatorial leaders. Each has a young male lead heartwarmingly in love with the heroine. There is a mystery story in both books, and it is through the solving of that mystery that our characters grow and we learn the secrets of the ships. Because these were YA novels I knew what the ending would be: my heroine would prevail or as is more often the case, prevail enough to prepare for round two (aka, the second book in a trilogy). I finished the 416 page Across the Universe in one night. It took three days to finish the 320 page Glow. I gave Glow a C- and Across the Universe an A-.

So what was the big difference? The easy answer is execution; they were written differently, the main characters aside from being strong, independent teenage girls had nothing in common and the emphasis was on different issues. The mysteries were dissimilar. All the bare bones of what they were looked the same, what was constructed around that frame was not – and one ended up being much more effective than the other. And that is the essence of genre writing. The same plot can lead to lots of different developments.

This isn’t anything astonishing to romance novel fans. In fact, it was the idea behind the short story anthology It happened One Night. I would argue that foreknowledge is an important aspect to genre fiction. I pick the book up expecting something specific. But does that mean that the books are written to a formula? That we can’t expect too much originality or reality from them simply because they are forced to include a romance that ends happily or a mystery that somehow affects the characters?

Pam Regis points out in her book A Natural History of the Romance Novel “The term “formula” is often confused with genre and this confusion is particularly widespread in critical work on the romance novel.” I think this is an important distinction in the argument. A genre is “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content.” Because our books are written with a distinct content does not make them written to a formula any more than other genre fiction. One could argue that all genre fiction is formulaic but to pick our genre out from the others simply because it meets the same criteria they do is unfair.

One particular aspect of our content that some say separates us from the rest is the predetermination of the HEA. Because the HEA involves a happy ending, the author can’t have her characters get a divorce or die in a car crash, thereby negating a great deal of the license she takes in telling her tale. She knows in advance where her story is going and therefore can’t unleash her full creativity.

I say hog wash. I know of very few authors who sit down at the kitchen table with no clear idea of where their story is going. Tolkien, for example, whom it can be argued set the standard for the fantasy novel, did not arrive at the end of Return of the King in shock as to who won the war, wondering what the heck had happened to poor Lord Sauron. He set up his road to victory carefully, doing things like giving Merry the tools he would need to kill the Witch King of Angmar in book one, even though their confrontation did not take place till book three. Like in a romance, the road to the end of a fantasy novel may contain many surprises but most of us know where that road will lead.

So what do you think; are our books written to a greater restriction than other genre novels? Is there a formula that defines them beyond what defines a mystery or science fiction tale?

– Maggie Boyd

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42 Responses to “One Recipe, Two Very Different Dishes”

  1. A formula is precise, and if romance novels had them, we’d only have to read one. Which is patently not true.
    Sometimes people knocking the requirement for a happy ending are the ones who want to move into the lucrative market the romance novel. But if they ever succeeded, they’d in doing so, ruin it and I for one would be a very unhappy bunny.
    Mystery? Has to be solved by the end of the book. Crime? The perp has to be caught by the end, and brought to justice one way or another. Thriller? Has to be resolved. The hero can die, the world can be destroyed, but unless the thriller is part of a series, the issue at stake has to be resolved.
    Readers, including me, expect that happy ending. The whole book is written with that in mind and the story leads to it.
    If a writer wants to write a romantic story with an unhappy ending, there is nothing to stop her doing so. It’s just not a genre romance, that’s all.

    • Ilona says:

      Lynne Connolly: A formula is precise, and if romance novels had them, we’d only have to read one. Which is patently not true.

      Mystery? Has to be solved by the end of the book. Crime? The perp has to be caught by the end, and brought to justice one way or another. Thriller? Has to be resolved. The hero can die, the world can be destroyed, but unless the thriller is part of a series, the issue at stake has to be resolved.
      Readers, including me, expect that happy ending. The whole book is written with that in mind and the story leads to it.
      If a writer wants to write a romantic story with an unhappy ending, there is nothing to stop her doing so. It’s just not a genre romance, that’s all.

      Lynne said exactly what I would have but much more eloquently :D

  2. Leigh says:

    Interesting blog Maggie. I have been reading the potpourri posts with interest. And I think that Lynne makes a very convincing argument with her summary of the constraints of other genre. Most do have some type of requirement or restriction, depending on how you view it.

  3. Catherine says:

    The term ‘happy ending’ is not really accurate for the what’s required in a romance ending. The characters can be ‘happy’ at the end, but that’s not enough. The need to be in a relationship that shows every sign of lasting until death.

    Sometimes I think it doesn’t really fit the story, such as when the characters have been thrown together for some unusual circumstances, such as being trapped in the wilderness, or staying alive when some madman is trying to kill them. In the end, they have spent only a few days together, but once the conflict is resolved, the just decide to get married. I’m left thinking, “Huh? Maybe let’s go get a burger, but married? Really?”

    This sort of thing bothers me most in contemporary romance. I can buy the need to marry easier in historical books. So yes, Romance does have a very generic “formula”, which doesn’t preclude great variety, but at times I feel the story might have been better suited to another fiction sub-genre, but since the author “writes romance”, they had to make it a romance-limited ending (marriage, or promise thereof), even if it just feels tacked on.

    • maggie b. says:

      Catherine: The term ‘happy ending’ is not really accurate for the what’s required in a romance ending. The characters can be ‘happy’ at the end, but that’s not enough. The need to be in a relationship that shows every sign of lasting until death. Sometimes I think it doesn’t really fit the story, such as when the characters have been thrown together for some unusual circumstances, such as being trapped in the wilderness, or staying alive when some madman is trying to kill them. In the end, they have spent only a few days together, but once the conflict is resolved, the just decide to get married. I’m left thinking, “Huh? Maybe let’s go get a burger, but married? Really?”This sort of thing bothers me most in contemporary romance. I can buy the need to marry easier in historical books. So yes, Romance does have a very generic “formula”, which doesn’t preclude great variety, but at times I feel the story might have been better suited to another fiction sub-genre, but since the author “writes romance”, they had to make it a romance-limited ending (marriage, or promise thereof), even if it just feels tacked on.

      It’s interesting that you should mention that because this is something I have seen a change in in the last several years. Many authors leave things at the dating aspect and then bring us back for an epilogue where the characters, after months of dating, are getting engaged. That is definitely enough of an HEA for me.

      I should add that when I think romance novel I think single titles Harlequins (to me) are a whole different ball game because the rules there are stricter, imho.

      maggie b.

  4. Susan says:

    The devil is in the details. I have read many romances lately that had me clutching my Kindle white-knuckled and wondering how it was going to end. As for the HEA requirement, I’m happy with the couple wanting to further their relationship and often just roll my eyes at the marriage/baby/dog epilogue. (Extreme Exposure – cheeziest epilogue ever.)

    As to formula, Tolkien pretty much set the standard for epic fantasy for decades. It’s only been more recently that fantasy authors have stepped out of the box.

    I think romance authors are also stretching the boundries, and it makes the stories more exciting.

  5. hapax says:

    Umm, I cannot believe that I am the first to point out that Merry did NOT kill the Lord of the Nazgul.

    True, he struck a crippling blow, but the death blow was dealt by my hero Eowyn.

    That aside, I have long insisted that “genre” is not a literary criticism term, but a marketing term. It all has to deal with the readers’ expectations.

    You can take the same book, and the marketing will determine what elements must be present lest the reader deem it a “failure”. Put a woman in a pretty dress on the cover, and it’s a “romance” and must have a HEA; have her turn her back to the viewer and reveal tatoos and a crossbow, and suddenly it’s a “paranormal” and must have a smoldering sexual tension and a kickass confrontation (and a ton of sequels); have her leaning against a unicorn and it becomes a “fantasy” which demands strong worldbuilding and a sensawunda; no wait, the title is written in a drippy bloody font, it must be a “thriller” novel, with a villain-driven plot and steadily ratcheting terror to the climax…

    Obviously, that’s over-simplified; but after several decades of interacting with and listening to fiction readers, I don’t think by much.

    Obviously, that’s over-simplified

  6. Ann says:

    I agree with Lynn.

  7. maggie b. says:

    hapax I have always considered Merry to have dealt the death blow because the text says:
    Spoiler Alert, obviously:
    So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dunedain were oung, and chief among their foes was the dreal realm of angmar and its sorcerer king. NO OTHER BLADE, NOT THOUGH MIGHTIER HAND HAD WIELDED IT, WOULD HAVE DEALT THAT FOE A WOUND SO BITTER, CLEAVING HIS UNDEAD FLESH, BREAKING THE SPELL THA KNIT HIS UNSEEN SINEWS TO HIS WILL.

    So anyway, I always assumed that Eowyn could not have killed the witch king if Merry hadn’t broken his magic. Though technically she struck after his magic was gone, finishing him off.

    Just my interpretation of course :-)

    maggie b.

    • Lynn M says:

      maggie b.: hapax I have always considered Merry to have dealt the death blow because the text says:
      Spoiler Alert, obviously:
      So passed the sword of the Barrow-downs, work of Westernesse. But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago in the North-kingdom when the Dunedain were oung, and chief among their foes was the dreal realm of angmar and its sorcerer king. NO OTHER BLADE, NOT THOUGH MIGHTIER HAND HAD WIELDED IT, WOULD HAVE DEALT THAT FOE A WOUND SO BITTER, CLEAVING HIS UNDEAD FLESH, BREAKING THE SPELL THA KNIT HIS UNSEEN SINEWS TO HIS WILL.So anyway, I always assumed that Eowyn could not have killed the witch king if Merry hadn’t broken his magic. Though technically she struck after his magic was gone, finishing him off.Just my interpretation of course
      maggie b.

      Oh, I respectfully hope that your interpretation is not what Tolkein would say were he alive to answer the question of who really killed the Witch King. I always loved that Eowyn managed to get around the “no living man may hinder me” issue by “but no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter.” I get what you are saying – that Merry broke the spell so that the Witch King could be killed and it just so happened to be Eowyn – a woman – who was in a position to be the one to finally kill him. Which maybe means the Witch Kings “no man” protection was really more of a prophesy. Either way, I always felt that Eowyn’s slaying of the Witch King was reward for her unrequited love of Aragorn and the fact that being a woman precluded her from being a true warrior, leaving her feeling trapped and depressed.

      Sorry…didn’t mean to hijack the thread!

      • maggie b. says:

        Lynn M: Oh, I respectfully hope that your interpretation is not what Tolkein would say were he alive to answer the question of who really killed the Witch King. I always loved that Eowyn managed to get around the “no living man may hinder me” issue by “but no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter.” I get what you are saying – that Merry broke the spell so that the Witch King could be killed and it just so happened to be Eowyn – a woman – who was in a position to be the one to finally kill him. Which maybe means the Witch Kings “no man” protection was really more of a prophesy. Either way, I always felt that Eowyn’s slaying of the Witch King was reward for her unrequited love of Aragorn and the fact that being a woman precluded her from being a true warrior, leaving her feeling trapped and depressed.Sorry…didn’t mean to hijack the thread!

        It is an important part of the discussion, imo, so not hijacking at all. Yes, that “no living man am I” is good but she wasn’t able to kill him because she was a woman but because Merry’s sword had negated the magic. So – no MAN touched him. It was a human female and a hobbit. However, the hobbit sword was set up from book one, which was my point about foreshadowing and authors planning endings in advance. The foreshadowing for Eowyn was far more subtle, imo.

        On a related note, my favorite “no man” quote is from Shakespeare, from MacBeth, when MacBeth says:MACBETH
             Thou losest labor.
        As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
        With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed.
        Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
        I bear a charmèd life, which must not yield
        To one of woman born.
        and MacDuff answers:

        Despair thy charm,
        And let the angel whom thou still hast served
        Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
        Untimely ripped.

        Now who ever saw *that* coming?

        maggie b.

        maggie b.

  8. MarySkl says:

    Well I have been one of the posters in the thick of the debate and I have maintained that the HEA is no more constraining to the writing than required elements of other genres. Most fiction stories have a hero or heroine (they may not be human, but they exist). Most deal with relationships of some sort. Most go through some type of self-actualization, growth or other change within the story and Most have a resolution. I also agree that the genre classification is more for marketing than anything else as many books cross several genres within the same text. Some writers know exactly where they are going when they sit down to write and never deviate from that vision. Other writers have a general idea of what they want to write, but change and edit as they go along building the story as they get to know the characters. The book escapes me now, but I know one Dickens book began with two primary characters, but Dickens fell in love with some secondary characters and expanded their role to fit his greater interest in them. Writers do not always know where they are going.

    Tolkien did not have the entire story of the LOTR in his head when he began. He initially started to write a sequel to the Hobbit with Bilbo looking for another adventure where he might discover more treasure. During that writing he remembered the Ring and started to focus on that. His initial creation of Middle Earth began as something quite different. He was a linguist and began to create languages (Elvish, Orcish, etc.). He also had a profound interest in mythology. As a linguist he understood that languages had a history and he began writing the history to go with the languages he had created. He borrowed heavily from Beowulf in the Hobbit, trying to create a English mythology that combined Anglo-Saxon, Norse and German fairy tales. In other words, his epic LOTR grew out of tangents from his other interests. There was not a string pulled taut in a straight line from the kernel of his idea(s) to the finished product of the LOTRs. He meandered his way there nearly 30 years after finishing the Hobbit.

    I have a very difficult time with absolutes. If things are constraining, I think that most of the time it is because we make them so, not because they have to or should be. A HEA does not have to mean FOREVER. The ending of a book is a snapshot in time and if we each look at our lives in totality, we all have many of those HEAs. The day we graduated from college; the day we got married; the day our first child was born; the day our last child got off the payroll . We also have many trying times throughout our lives: illness, death, financial setbacks, etc. The story of our lives does not really change. Whether the ending is happy or sad just depends on what point in our lives we want to end the story. If we take each and every story to its final iteration, then every story is sad because we all die .

  9. maggie b. says:

    No writer can have a complete book written in their head. At least none I’ve heard of. But most, like, Tolkien, work from notes and plots. In Tolkien’s case these were so extensive that the appendices actually tell us what happened to our characters far into the future (my favorite is the Gimli/Legolas “finale”) JK Rowling has said that she had the ending to her series almost from the beginning BUT she was still surprised by some of the things that happened to the characters, such as Mr. Weasley in book five. And of course Sirius was a surprise to her as well. So I would contend that even with an ending that many pages still require some writing.

    Regarding the HEA I think what confuses me most is that authors aren’t constrained by it. No one holds a gun to Nora Roberts head and says “Happy Ending or Else”. This is what she chooses to write. And because she chooses to write it I guess I make the assumption that the tale she wants to tell is about a couple falling in love. If she really wanted to write something else, I figure she would. When Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag and a whole host of others wanted to go in another direction they did. Meg Cabot writes both romance and YA. A whole host of authors pick up and change genres when they tale they want to tell isn’t a romance.

    What I am trying to say (and doing a very bad job ;-) is that I think that for most, not all assuredly but a lot of them, of our authors they want to write a romance. The HEA is part of the story they want to tell. It is not a constraint on their writing but simply an element of their work.

    maggie b.

  10. dick says:

    I’m going to repeat what I wrote on the AAR boards. Romance, as far as I know, is the only “genre” which requires specific progatonists (usually a couple, except in the sub-subs) and a very specific kind of ending. I think it’s only logical to think that a required ending influences what precedes it. If an author must get the H/h together in a happy ending, in every shift and scene and event in the book, that ending must be kept in mind or the happy ending won’t fit what preceded it. Other genres can have many protagonists, one, several, three, seventeen; the ending in those genres can be whatever the author chooses, from catastrophe to happiness. That one can get to the happy ending of romance by numerous means, doesn’t, I don’t think, reduce the influence of the HEA on what precedes it. The required HEA makes romance more “formulaic” than other genres, IMO, but why is that a bad thing?

    • MarySkl says:

      dick: I’m going to repeat what I wrote on the AAR boards.Romance, as far as I know, is the only “genre” which requires specific progatonists (usually a couple, except in the sub-subs) and a very specific kind of ending.I think it’s only logical to think that a required ending influences what precedes it.If an author must get the H/h together in a happy ending, in every shift and scene and event in the book, that ending must be kept in mind or the happy ending won’t fit what preceded it.Other genres can have many protagonists, one, several, three, seventeen; the ending in those genres can be whatever the author chooses, from catastrophe to happiness.That one can get to the happy ending of romance by numerous means, doesn’t, I don’t think, reduce the influence of the HEA on what precedes it.The required HEA makes romance more “formulaic” than other genres, IMO, but why is that a bad thing?

      …and I am going to maintain (yet again), that an author will write the story they want to write. Look at the popularity of Jane Austen sequels. The reason they are so popular is that people know the story did not end there; that Elizabeth and Darcy went on to have a life together – a life full of good and bad. If Austen had continued her story and ended it with Darcy dying in a duel with Wickham, it would not have had a single impact on the story that preceded that ending. They still would have rubbed each other the wrong way, resolved that and got married as they did in the HEA ending. An ending can be changed with a swipe of the pen. It is WHEN the author decides to stop telling the story that determines whether the ending is happy or not. You keep stating that the HEA has an impact on every scene in the book. I maintain that the HEA’s impact can be negligible. Creativity is not always logical and to attempt to cram it into the logical box is like trying to cram a pillow into a shoe.

  11. Susan/DC says:

    @dick, but does the need to explain the who, what, and how of a crime not constrain the author of a mystery? Crime novels don’t require justice for the malefactor at the end (although it’s nice), but they do require that by the end the reader know who did it and why. If the author doesn’t unravel the mystery, then the reader appropriately cries foul and says the rules of the genre have been broken.

    When you say there are specific protagonists in a romance, the fact that there are (usually) two compared to the possibility of a multitude is, I think, a minor constraint. Those two may be M/F, M/M, or F/F, they may be alpha, beta, or omega, they may be Phi Beta Kappa or the equivalent of Simple Jess — the possibilities of human variation are enormous, and when you add in the paranormal variations, even bigger. Not to mention that many literary works, while having several protagonists, generally do focus on one or two of them, and many romances, while focussing on two, do place them in a more social context.

    While the HEA doesn’t allow for catastrophe at the end, there are so many different definitions of HEA and so many different roads to achieve it, that the picture you paint of an author restricted in “every shift and scene and event” somehow is itself too restrictive. Think of all the authors who say that a character insisted on taking a different path than the author had originally intended to his/her HEA. I agree that the HEA influences the author but don’t agree that it is nearly as binding an influence as you do.

  12. Dic, you’re wrong. I write menage sometimes. Still classified as romance, by definition it has 3 or more protagonists of any sex.
    If I write a whodunnit without a detective, or a solution to the murder at the end, then it’s not a whodunnit. In a whodunnit a detective, official or private, investigates a crime and comes up with a solution. The end is proscribed, ie there must be a solution and the protagonist(s) defined.
    That’s just one example.
    A thriller must thrill. A courtroom drama has to have a courtroom in it. A mystery novel should have a solution to the mystery.

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  15. Mark says:

    There is a quote I think is associated with Russian literature along the lines of “Everyone is happy the same way, but everyone is miserable differently”. Sorry I can’t remember the exact wording or the source. Anyway, I think this is hogwash, since in fact everyone is happy differently (for an extreme example, think of what makes a sadist vs. a masochist happy). The attitude behind the quote is one reason the romance genre and the HEA ending get so little respect.
    I think the basic problem in the board thread is linguistic. Most romance readers read “HEA ending” as “optimistic ending”, but dick keeps insisting on interpreting HEA as fairy tale fantasy, blissed out, nothing ever goes wrong for the rest of their lives. The HEA label comes from fairy tales, but the meaning has evolved just as many words do.

  16. dick says:

    @Lynn Connolly: I disagree. Often, in mysteries, there is no mystery at all; we know the villain from the beginning. Linking him and the crime is the substance of the book, a kind of solution to be sure, but it’s not a solution to the mystery. Some mysteries ask the question why, and the book shows us how that question can’t be answered at the present. Some mysteries examine the motives for an action that led to a mystery–e.g. Ruth Rendell.
    Some mysteries involve finding proof that someone was not involved in a crime, again something we know from the beginning. The mystery itself has already been solved with an incorrect solution. No specific ending for the protagonists is required. Quite often, he/she (they, maybe) is not affected at all.

  17. And in romances you can have one, two or three or more protagonists, they don’t have to be the same sex or, in paranormal romance, the same species. The heat level can be anything from no-touching to anything goes. I’ve read erotic romances where the couple don’t touch for the first half of the book, where they don’t actually have sex.
    There are always exceptions, always envelope-pushers. The more you try to create a general rule, the more slippery it gets.
    The only things a genre romance have to have is a developing romantic relationship and a happy ending, whether that is happy ever after, or happy for now.
    I’ve never heard of a whodunnit that didn’t end with the reveal of the murderer.

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