Critics of romance novels often cite a long list of problems with the books and one of the most frequently used is that the books are formulaic. Some authors embrace that idea and give a guide to what they think of as “the formula” such as Paula Graves or Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher. Others like Anne Gracie heartily reject the idea. Harlequin calls it a format and insists that all genres use such a tool.
I tend to agree with Harlequin. A format just means readers can know what to expect when they pick up the book. Most of my favorite writers produce works that meet a certain expectation. For example, I read Sarah Addison Allen expecting lyrical writing with a touch of magic woven into an otherwise everyday story with lots of heart. When I read Susanna Kearsley I know I will get a lovely blend of past and present. For many years I read Suzanne Brockmann knowing that her Tall, Dark and Dangerous and Troubleshooters novels would make full use of her amazing ability to write the military hero. But while reading Sandra Brown’s latest I realized that there are expectations and then there are formulas. And formulas aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Mean Streak is the story of Emory Charbonneau, a really great gal who seems to have it all: good career, nice looking husband, great friends. That’s the surface. Beneath the surface we see that Emory has begun to question her marriage and wonders if she has really made the right decision there. Events conspire to prove she didn’t and bring her to the man she should have been with all along.
The courtship with her new love is anything but typical. Emory is on a run, training for a marathon, when she feels a blinding pain in the back of her head and fades into oblivion. When she awakens she is in an unfamiliar cabin with an enigmatic man who takes excellent care of her but essentially keeps her prisoner while refusing to tell her anything about himself. They are joined in this awkward situation by a nasty cast of characters who quickly have them depending on each other for survival. Along the way they find themselves solving the mystery of what happened to Emory on her run as well as falling in love.
I’ve read this story before. Oh, not the exact same tale but something very similar in Brown’s Envy. There we have the story of Maris Matherly-Reed, head of a publishing house and married to a man who once wrote a bestselling novel. He hasn’t produced anything since. When Mavis gets a package with a novel that tells the chilling tale of a murder, a stolen manuscript and a double cross something within her begins to ask questions. Following up with the author of the novel leads her to discoveries that change her life and bring her a new love.
The same scenario plays out in Chill Factor, Play Dirty, Fat Tuesday and The Witness. In all of these books we have a wife who finds herself with a hero of seemingly dubious character who rescues her from her bad marriage. Typically, they bond while running from some pretty nasty people. It’s a plot that Brown uses to excellent effect, changing it up enough to keep us turning the page but keeping it familiar enough that it seems like re-visiting a cherished friend.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips has a formula that turns to romance magic in her hands. I call it ditz + alpha = bliss. In It Had to Be You she combines Phoebe, whom even her own friends call a screw up, with Dan, a testosterone driven, hard edged, go for the gold football coach. Phoebe’s sexy, sweet nature, sassy repertoire and savvy business mind were exactly what Dan wanted from life, even if he didn’t at first know it. He gives her the no holds barred love that has been missing from her life forever.
Flighty Daisy Devreaux from Phillip’s Kiss An Angel has a choice between prison or marriage to the man of her father’s choosing. She chooses marriage to Alexander Markov, who wants the union even less than she does. Daisy is just what Max needs, though, to heal from wounds of the past. He is just whom she needs to show her how to grow up and take control of her life. It’s a sweet love story with some unforgettable moments.
Annabelle Granger is the family screw up but now that she has inherited her grandmother’s match making business she is on course to change that. Heath Champion is a shark of a sports agent, determined to find the perfect woman to fit his image. So how is it that he finds himself drawn to the impulsive, emotional woman who is supposed to find him his perfect mate? Match Me if You Can shows that sometimes what we’re looking for is the opposite of what we think we want.
Not all Phillips’ novels utilize this formula but when she does pull it out of her repertoire it works to great effect. I think that is part of the secret to good formula usage – it can’t be the only trick in your book. Brown also writes books with very different plots but she revisits the unhappy wife + enigmatic hero = love device fairly regularly.
Nora Roberts formula also involves the matching of characters but it doesn’t involve hero and heroine but heroine, heroine and heroine. Her series are often made up of three friends (or sisters) who are a certain type. The relationship between the women is every bit as important to the stories as their relationships with the heroes. The types? There is the calm, cool, and collected character like Brianna Concannon from Born in Ice, Kate Powell from Holding the Dream, Dr. Sybill Griffin from Inner Harbor, Jude Murray from Jewels of the Sun and Rosalind Harper from Black Rose. Then there’s the feisty heroine such as Maggie Concannon from Born in Fire, Darcy Gallagher from Heart of the Sea, Margo Sullivan from Daring to Dream and Hayley Phillips from Red Lilly. And then there’s the regular gal. The mix of cold and fire such as Shannon Bodine from Born in Shame, Brenna O’Toole from Tears of the Moon, Grace Monroe of Rising Tides, Laura Templeton from Finding the Dream and Stella Rothchild from Blue Dahlia. Each of the ladies above are unique manifestations of the character style they represent but the trilogies seem to follow a familiar pattern. The formula works because the mix of characters provides a tremendous amount of room for diversity. But it is also a formula because like in any good recipe the key ingredients are always the same.
I’m sure I have other favorite authors who write a certain formula very well and I am certain you do too. Who are your favorites and what are their formulas?