Friday, June 03, 2011

Patterns in Romance Fiction

People who don't read romance novels have been heard to say that the entire genre revolves around a handful of cliches.  The powerful Type A male and the woman who tames him, the experienced rake and the beautiful virgin, the kidnappings, the marriages of convenience, the secret babies...etc.

I say, not true!  Yes, these aspects still appear in many novels but they are not cliches any more than the suggestion than a novel about star-crossed lovers would necessarily be a re-working of Romeo and Juliet.  These are patterns and patterns persist because of their universality.  If, as some literary experts have it, there are only thirty-odd plots in literature and Shakespeare has done them all (and well too) then why is anyone bothering to write anymore?

Well, simply, because it hasn't all been done yet.  Every new novel has the potential to add a twist on the old thirty-odd plots.

Patterns are good.  They give readers a foundation of the familiar from which the writer can jump off with their own take or twist.  Done right, a pattern does not have to become a tired cliche.

Romance fiction itself relies on certain rules.  For one, the romantic element of the story takes precedence over all other aspects of the plot.  There is a difference between a mystery with a romantic subplot and a romance with a mysterious subplot.  Read any Agatha Christie mystery and you will almost invariably find a romance brewing between two of the characters but the mystery is always predominant.  While the romantic subplot may throw a twist into the works, the real purpose of the story is to find out whodunnit and why.  The romance adds a vital flavour to the mystery.  Similarly, the addition of a crime and the process of figuring out who committed it, in addition to adding danger into the lives of the main characters, can drive much of a romance novel.  However, the end purpose is to use the crime to bring the two characters together; the solution to the crime itself is incidental.

Another frequent romance pattern is the Happily Ever After (or HEA) ending.  While not all romance publishers or specific lines demand it, most still do.  In other words, the two main characters should end up together (often on the verge of marriage) when the last page in the book has been turned over.  They've worked out the differences that kept them apart throughout the book, have overcome many obstacles large and small, and have realized their love for each other.  They belong together and their coming together at the end of the book leaves us with a feeling of rightness.  All is warm and fuzzy in the world.

I have to admit that I enjoy the tried-and-true patterns.  I've even produced manuscripts using many of the patterns I noted above.  Hey, if it ain't broke...

Photo courtesy of Tina Phillips at

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