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.
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.