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On Clichés and Formulas in Romances

People often criticize the Romance fiction genre for its formularity — conventions that can make stories predictable — but the truth is it’s not just Romance titles that are formulaic. The majority of what we read and watch also follows a formula. I’m not just talking about the three-part structure of movies and books (inciting incident, rising action, and climax). Believe it or not, there is a common template that almost all stories are built around called the monomyth or hero’s journey. (But more about that in a future post.)

Screenwriter Robert McKee defends movies’ formularity in his seminal book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. McKee says that rather than hinder creativity, rules and formulas unleash it instead. He offers a quote by poet and playwright T.S. Eliot showing this debate has been around for some time:

“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

T.S. Eliot

The idea is that without a framework, writers have so many options that making a decision can be a bit overwhelming. Interestingly, economists have observed the same effect in commerce, where they’ve dubbed it the paradox of choice. The crux of it is, we assume choice is a good thing (and of course it is) but when there are too many of them, most people will refrain from making a decision, deciding that more analysis is needed.

A common framework and unifying story template are similarities that arguably enhance the stories we tell. There are other similarities, however, that diminish them. I’m talking about story clichés, or tropes: ideas that were good at one point probably but they’ve just been overdone at this point. This is all a matter of taste and opinion, however. My list won’t be the same as someone else’s. And remember, one man’s cliché is another’s warm, comfortable blanket of familiarity.

Romance Clichés in Need of a Time Out

  • the mousey girl (or boy) in need of a makeover;
  • the billionaire bachelor who can’t find a woman who’s “real”;
  • a hero or heroine who’s “perfect” (which comes across as two-dimensional);
  • the “evil” other woman (two-dimensional again, and sexist);
  • the universally disliked love interest whose pain or sadness underneath the facade can only be seen by the heroine (no, sweetheart, he’s abusive and you’re codependent);
  • the dying hero or heroine; and
  • basically anything from a Disney princess movie.

The Romance Rule that’s Not Optional

There is one cliché that Romance readers (and most writers) insist upon, however, and it is a simple one: every romance must end with an HEA (Happily Ever After). Or, as the Romance Writers of America states, every Romance must have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” This wording has added some wiggle room to how one interprets a happy ending, such that today, the more realistic HFN (Happy for Now) will suffice. Anything can happen after the last page has been read.

The HEA/HFN rule has been the subject of endless debates in online forums, and continues to be contested regularly. But it’s less a question of a cliché that should be avoided than one of what genre of book it is. Writers who want their story to have a “realistic” (i.e. depressing) ending have a very easy solution: don’t call it a Romance. How about Contemporary Fiction or some other genre? Just not Romance. This does not seem to be as difficult a quandary as many people make it out to be. And in any event, since Romance readers demand a happy ending, why piss off your core audience? They’re a fiercely loyal fan base, and a good group of readers to have on your side.

For those non-writers criticizing the Romance genre’s happy ending precondition, please note that Romance readers and writers simply don’t care much what you think. They have little patience with critics of their chosen genre, and, truth be told, have little need for them, either. The Romance industry is booming. It’s the most popular genre in self-publishing, with a billion dollars in sales a year.

Plus, let’s just admit it: tropes or not, Romance stories work on an emotional level. The predictability of the outcome of most Romance stories is kind of the point, too. Readers choose these titles to escape, not to be challenged or surprised. In today’s world, as we continue to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism in our justice system, devastating wild fires, and a divisive Presidential election, a vicarious “happily ever after” sounds like something from which most of us would benefit.

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