Friday, June 29, 2007

Narrative Sameness and Reader Expectations

Romances are often derided -- one might even say MOST often derided -- for their "formula." Leaving aside issues of computer-generated novels where you plug in two names and miraculously get a book, for most critics, "formula" comes down to the necessity of the happy ending. If all romances have a happy ending, the argument goes, and the reader knows there will be a happy ending with hero and heroine getting together, what's the point of reading them?

Responses to this usually run along the lines of, well, we all know how mysteries end, but we read them for the process, for the story that gets you to that ending and why should romances be any different. Pamela Regis has brilliantly delineated the eight necessary narrative events that make a romance a romance: society defined, the meeting, the barrier, the attraction, the declaration, the point of ritual death, the recognition, the betrothal. The HEA is important there, of course, as the Betrothal, but the other elements are as important to the romance's journey. Especially the Point of Ritual Death -- this is the element that a lot of readers feel is lacking from so-called "True Mate" paranormal romances, in which the characters recognize each other as soul mates right from the start, resulting in very little internal conflict for them to overcome.

We know all this, though. Why am I bringing it up again? Jane wrote over at Dear Author about her sales expectations for Janet Evanovich's latest Stephanie Plum mystery and her (Jane's) utter lack of desire to read the book.

Jane wrote:
I am just glad that I have not even the slightest desire to read this book. It was a struggle initially to kick the Plum/Morelli/Ranger habit but as time has gone on, it’s been easier and I am happy to have left the series behind, particularly after having read that Evanovich plans to write Plum in continual stasis, never learning, never growing, always vascillating.
I responded with a "Me too!" post, but then tried to figure out why.

I devoured the Plum novels when they first came out, especially as I had lived in Trenton, NJ for a year and it felt like coming back home when I was stuck in Michigan (and I found one inaccuracy in the first book: Stephanie couldn't have thrown up into the garbage disposal in her old Trenton apartment, because old Trenton houses aren't allowed garbage disposals because of the pipes). I loved the Ranger/Morelli tension and didn't feel that I was either a babe or a cupcake because they were both so delicious. After the "Nice dress. Take it off" cliffhanger, I felt that I'd be reading the series forever.

In the first few novels, Stephanie was incompetent, ditzy, and disorganized, but SHE made the connections that solved the mystery and saved the day, and SHE saved herself at the end of each story. She was an active participant in her own life and the focus was on her and her personal growth. I don't remember the book numbers, but by the time I stopped reading them, it seemed to me that the books were all about checking boxes: Lulu? Check. Strange grandmother antics? Check. Stephanie bobbles her gun? Check. Requisite Joe/Ranger chest thumping? Check. Stephanie vacillates between the two? Check. The mystery seemed completely inconsequential to the story, but then, so did everything else. I enjoyed the first few because Stephanie learned and changed, but when it seemed that she and her stories were stuck in perpetual cycles without any possibility of change, I gave up. Apparently others have, too, but then, many more haven't, considering Evanovich's sales figures.

And then I thought about the other open-ended series I've given up on: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton, Anne Rice's anything, and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. And I wouldn't say that the characters don't learn and grow in these books. Even Anita, I think, changes and adapts and grows and becomes more from book to book, and I'm certain that Jamie and Claire (and Brianna and Roger) do, and Lestat, et al. But these narratives -- stretched out seemingly unendingly -- don't give me what *I* want and need from a romance (and yes, I know none of these series purport to be romances, but they all have or had strong romantic elements to it and strong cross-over readership from the romance community).

I’ve figured out that I read romances because I like the narrative structure. I like the eight narrative elements of a romance and I'm cranky when I don't get them. I like climax and denouement. I don’t like cliffhanger ending, and I don't like endings that go beyond one book to the next book. Seeing a happy couple in the next couple's book, as happens in romance series like Nora Roberts' or Suzanne Brockmann's or Susan Elizabeth Phillips', is great. I'm assured the characters are thoroughly enjoying their happily ever after but they're not having to deal with too much trauma. But if Jamie and Claire get their HEA in Outlander and then it's disrupted and they DON'T get one in Dragonfly in Amber and then they get it again in Voyager and then it's disrupted again in.....I don't have the emotional energy for this. I know others do and I understand why her books are instant bestsellers. They're just not for me anymore. I want to read the Betrothal element and then be able to trust it. And it's better that I know that than feel guilty for not knowing why I'm not reading all the great series I started.

The image is from the private page of a fan of Beauty and the Beast and is apparently a photo of the HEA kiss at the end of the stage musical of the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.


  1. I don't have the emotional energy for this.

    That perfectly encapsulates my feelings as well. I get too invested in my characters and to see them in a constant state of emotional disruption is hard for me to read. It no longer becomes the pleasurable reading experience that the author is offering.

  2. Thank you for stating so eloquently what I've been wanting to say for years about series. I have never liked them (or rather I never liked them once I learned what they actually entailed). I find them exhausting and if someone recommends a book to me that begins or is a part of a series, I won't read it. Part of the reason is as you said, that the narrative structure is perpetually in motion but without ever moving forward. Like the second to last note in a piece of music that's being hit over and over and over again without ever hitting that last and final note. To me, the formula of a romance novel is no more formulaic than the form imposed on any narrative, whether prose or poetry. I suppose that's the difference, romance has a form not a formula. The reason that series can be and often are disappointing is that they become sloppy in their structure. They stop adhering to a form and start adhering to a formula. Part of this is because somebody decides that's what sales. Stories have an end. The end can be ambiguous or firm, sad or happy. It can leave room for speculation about the future or not. But a series has no end, it is artificially extended into infinity so that the characters can have the same sort of adventures and the same sort of interactions but without actually getting anywhere. Because of this there's always a moment in a series where the author betrays the character. The character can't grow because that would propel them forward into an end. Thus they stagnate. For instance, Anne Rice did this, as you mentioned, and what I found so frustrating in her Vampire Chronicles was that all the characters eventually became caricatures of themselves, particularly in the final volumes. Which leads me to believe that there is a point where certain authors simply stop asking themselves the questions any writer should. Namely, what it the purpose of this story? What does it do for the characters, the themes? What am I trying to say? Does it add anything? Or am I merely beating a dead horse? Books aren't the only art form that suffer from stagnation when it comes to series. It happens to a lot of TV shows as well. I try to avoid them but that's not always possible.

  3. It seems to me that there are different kinds of problems that can arise with series in romances.

    1) The author/publisher thinks they're on to a winner, so tries to make subsequent books the same, even if this means they lose freshness. This can happen to series where the protagonists change (e.g. an entire regiment of vampires, each of whom must get his own romance) or to series where the protagonists are the same.

    2) The problem with protagonists remaining the same in a romance is that the arc of the plot needs to be stretched over the entire series for it to work emotionally for many readers. If the first book gives you what you think is a happy ending, and then in the next book the couple have split up, readers may doubt a subsequent happy ending. What's to say that it too won't turn out to be temporary if the author decides to write another volume in the same series? That's an overabundance of betrothals or recognitions. What Sarah's describing is maybe a numbing effect from having too many points of ritual death.

    3) the series arc hits a plateau. In other words, the reader begins to wonder if there's ever going to be a resolution to the romance set up in the first book? Will heroine X get her man? Or will she dilly dally for 10 books, doing things which don't move the romance forward (e.g. she solves mysteries, she talks to her friends, she goes out on lots of dates with her hero) until at last the publisher/author realises that the readers are losing interest and finally, in book 12 gives her a happy ending.

    Problem 1 can be combined with problem 2 or problem 3.

  4. Y'know, I hadn't consciously thought about narrative structure as the reason I've never been interested in picking up Gabaldon's other books. I read Outlander and thought, Nice (but not The Best Evar) romance with an HEA that probably won't last, given what was coming historically. I was never tempted to pick up the later books because I couldn't imagine that 1,000+ pages would sustain that particular HEA.

    Just curious, do you feel the same exhaustion (if that's the right word?) when it comes to reading other genre series or series without any significant romantic thread?

  5. I think it was Iris Murdoch who once suggested that the difference between a great story (romance or otherwise) and fantasy (as she was defining it) was that a great story offered the reader a sense of clarity, a truth that resonated for the reader because it expanded our imagination--or allowed the reader to see something not seen before)whereas fantasy (in her narrow sense of the term)only repeated and so reinscribed some symptom that the culture and/or the reader felt comfortable with. Many great stories seem to have a magic that draws the reader over and over again back to the story itself (ask any imaginative child what "once upon a time" does for her) but the repetition of "fantasy" often seems to simply make us comfortable with our symptoms. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the "series" attracts us but eventually turns us off.No?

  6. I think you really put your finger on something here.

  7. Jane, that's why I've given up on most TV drama shows. We don't watch TV to begin with, but I noticed a long time ago that the characters are never allowed to stay happy if they find happiness because then where's the story? They have to be miserable or fighting or in deep trouble one way or another for the show to continue getting good ratings. Shows depicting a bunch of happy people being happy doesn't really cut it. And again, I didn't have the energy to watch that happen time and again.

    Angela, I love what you're saying about the authors betraying the characters. That's what so many people complained about with Anita Blake. Now, I haven't read Nora Roberts' "In Death" series, but I've heard that she manages to avoid this type of problem somehow, that Eve and Roark keep growing. Maybe I should try to read it for that perspective on things. Hrm.

    jmc, I hang my head in shame, but I DON'T read other non-romance books. I haven't read Bujold's series, although I know everyone adores them. I don't read mysteries, although I've heard that some of those series are particularly good. I think part of why I don't might be for precisely this reason. I also know for SF/F, too much world building bores me--that's why I like worlds like J.R. Ward's and LKH's, because they're close to ours, with a twist, and that doesn't bore me. I'm an incredibly picky reader.

    Anonymous, interesting idea. I adore romances that take risks. I love seeing romance authors play with the conventions (not formula), the form of romance, but when they all end up the same, I stop reading. I guess I had the same reaction to Julia Quinn (say it softly), even though all those romances had different couples. They just all felt the same to me.

    I remember Stephen King's book Misery and how the author character wrote a "romance" series with the same character over and over in different books, and I so totally had to suspend my disbelief there, because I knew that's now how romances work. Then again, apparently Bertrice Small did that for her Skye O'Malley series, so occasional romances do extend their characters beyond one book, but very very few.