Romance and Predictability

If you read romance novels, be they written for a teen audience or an adult one, whether they’re contemporary, historical, or some other genre, you’re used to having people look down on your taste. It comes with the territory, sadly. Books centered on romantic relationships are deemed lacking in literary merit…unless they’re focused on a man and the woman dies at the end or some shit like that. Everybody loves a double standard, right?

One of the arguments thrown at romance novels is that they’re predictable. If you know the outcome just by reading the book blurb, haters say, what is even the point? Sir Studly McTightPants is going to abandon his bachelor ways and settle down with the only lady who ever truly challenged him. Yawn, they say.

And, you know what, that’s almost always true. They’re right about romance novels (generally) being predictable. In fact, that is EXACTLY WHY THEY ARE AMAZING.

The issue here is that someone decided that predictability was a bad thing. Sure, there are genres where you need your book not to be predictable, but there are plenty where that’s really not a bad thing. Fairy tales are predictable, superhero stories are (especially by the eightieth reboot), James Bond films are incredibly predictable, and so are westerns. Romance isn’t the only genre that follows specific narrative paths that have been well-trodden and with which most of the audience is incredibly familiar. We all know why it’s romance that has the giant target on its back: this genre focuses on women and lacks the large scope of some other genres.

Romances lean heavily on characterization. Any reader who’s not in it for character arcs likely has little to enjoy here. World building tends to be minimal (though not always), the writing aims to be accessible and fun because the goal here is something fully enjoyable, and the plots tend to be minimal and predictable. Everything also depends on the connection the reader feels to the main characters and the chemistry between those two. Some romances include a stellar secondary cast, but that’s still on the rarer side. Julia Quinn excels at it, and I’ve ended up loving some of her books with iffy ships because the whole cast was a delight, but that’s fairly unique.

For all these reasons, romance is an incredibly difficult genre to write and to write well. Romance authors have to take an over-done plot and figure out how to make it feel fresh. Generally, this is done with the characters, or, sometimes, by overthrowing some genre conventions or historical accuracy. For example, Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove has some fun with history, which makes for a fresh and delightful premise.

One of the tricky things about romance too is that they actually do need to be predictable. When I pick up a romance novel, I want a ship and I want a happy ending. I specifically don’t want to be confused by the book or left sad or angry. I’ve read romance series where the original hero dies or turns out to be a bastard and the heroine ends up with some other person (usually her previously totally platonic bestie), and this usually fails utterly. No one wants to come to a romance novel to see their ship not get together. Sure, no one saw it coming, but you’ve alienated your base audience and the other people probably won’t read it anyway.

In trying to write some of my own, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. One of my romance ideas very much sets the reader up to be surprised, and that could so completely backfire on me. It sounds great on paper: original, clever, and flipping tropes. But those same things could also make it fail as an actual romance.

If you’re going to criticize romance, don’t criticize it for predictability. You’re actually complimenting a romance if you say that. That was what the writer was probably going for. But, hey, unless it’s a genre you read and understand, maybe don’t criticize it at all. I don’t personally much enjoy mysteries, but I don’t try to argue the entire genre is stupid and pointless. Get over it, people. Romance is here to stay, and it’s damn awesome.

One response to “Romance and Predictability”

  1. ErininIowa says:

    Yes to all of this! I’ll usually pick characters over plot any day. And good characters make me so, so happy. I’ve been reading some of Mary Balogh’s back catalogue and you can tell they were written awhile ago, but then she surprised me with a plot twist that forced the characters in an unexpected direction and it was SO DELIGHTFUL to see what they would do. I hadn’t read much historical romance until about a year ago, so it’s all fairly new to me, but so fun to see what the tropes are and how the authors make them feel new. My favorite series of all so far was Balogh’s Survivors Club. The main characters actually talk to each other, come to love each other fairly easily and don’t even have to separate for any big part of the book, and yet there’s still tension and drama. I even cried at a few of them, which hasn’t happened with any other romance book I can ever remember.
    More than that, though, is that I want to know for sure there’s a happy ending. I deal with facts daily (I’m a reporter) and I know life doesn’t always get tidy, happy endings. So give me all the happy endings, all time.

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