No, not THAT word. I’m talking about another word frequently attributed to the romance genre:
Early in my writing career, I lacked the vocabulary and ability to articulate what makes a romance story great. I once made the error of using the word “formula” in a media interview, and I regret it to this day. Since that gaff, I’ve made it my mission to change the perception of what it is to write romance.
While the belief that all romance stories are based on a “formula” isn’t entirely inaccurate (huge honking caveats on that), it’s the word itself that is problematic. “Formula” has a particular negative connotation, as if the crafting of complex characters, conflicts, plot and resolutions can be distilled into a simple equation that equals happily ever after. It reinforces the idea that it’s so easy, anyone can do it, like adding 2 and 2. This idea is so persistent, I’ve even heard some wannabe romance writers have actually contacted editors asking for “the formula” as if it might be written down on a recipe card and passed along.
I learned from Harlequin editors Paula Eykelhof and Victoria Curran that if you’re going to use an F word, use the word
Every story is built upon a framework, with a beginning, middle and end, a character who encounters a problem and strives to fix (or not fix) that problem. There are tons of resources out there for the burgeoning writer to understand how stories work—check out Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’sJourney and Robert McKee’s Story to start—but that’s a whole different blog post.
I like to think of a framework as being the skeleton of a house. Frameworks are strong, sturdy, bare-bones structures, without which everything else would simply fall apart. Building houses and stories both require sound blueprints and solid frameworks, and at least some basic idea of how things go together. Regardless, just because the framework is there doesn’t mean the rest is easy to build. And what each room will become or hold depends on how you finish, furnish and populate them. As a result, no two houses end up exactly alike.
“But Vicki,” you say, “all romance stories are alike. I just read two books that have the exact same plot!”
Unless you read the exact same book twice, I’d argue what you witnessed was a variation on an idea. Yes, there are many romance stories that sound alike: the powerful alpha male falling for his secretary; the secret pregnancy and the lovers’ reunion; the single dad falling for his home decorator—we’ve seen stories like these time and again, and yet, we keep reading them. Movies have similar variations on ideas: the buddy cop movie, the global disaster flick, the high-tech heist film, the space opera alien adventure, etc.
Each of these themes or subgenres have “frameworks” that we, as readers and viewers, inherently understand will have certain common elements: character archetypes, goals, themes, tone, settings, and so forth. None of these stories can be easily defined by an a + b = c formula, and it’s unlikely any of them will use the exact same devices or details. Just because you’ve seen Star Wars doesn’t mean you’ve automatically seen all the Star Trek movies.
Author Jude Deveraux says, “There are no new stories. It all depends on how you handle them. In romances the characters are going to fall in love with each other; you know that when you see the syrupy cover. It’s how get there that’s the fun.” I tend to agree with her. Originality has its limits; but instead of worrying about it, just enjoy the ride. And the next time you’re tempted to use the word “formula” when it comes to romance, say FRAMEWORK instead.
I leave you with this hilarious rant about "Pachelbel’s Canon"—the framework for so many songs...: