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