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The Secret Formula of Romance Fiction

© 2005 by Deborah Hale

Lots of people from outside the romance community refer to the romance formula as if it is some sort of stringent template authors follow to create our stories – just plugging in new character names, descriptions and settings to churn out books that are interchangeable. Romance readers and writers point to the thousands of new novels published each year in our genre and their growing sales and laugh at such a foolish assumption.

After writing over a dozen romance novels, it finally occurred to me that perhaps there is a formula at the heart of romance fiction. It isnít a strict recipe or template, but more like a scientific formula that describes fundamental principles. In a scientific formula, like Einsteinís famous relativity equation, each letter represents an infinite number of possibilities, giving rise to an infinite number of results. Yet the idea it represents remains constant.

I suggest the romance formula might be this:

(H + h x A) ÷ C + HEA = R

Okay, so what does that all mean? I’ll bet anyone who’s been writing romance fiction for any length of time can tell at a glance. H and h, of course, are genre shorthand for Hero and heroine. Your story may have lots of other characters, but without these two, you’re not writing a romance. The hero could be anything from a medieval knight to a Navy SEAL to a sexy werewolf. The heroine could be a bluestocking governess, a fashionista or a single mom. In addition to their social roles, the characters’ personalities can be as varied and unique as the billions of people populating our planet. By multiplying all these variations, romance writers can produce an infinite number of unique combinations.

A stands for Attraction. It’s the magical ingredient that gives romance its sparkle and sizzle. The basis for that attraction can be as varied as your characters. It will probably have a physical element. Even if the hero and heroine don’t look like covers models, their beauty will be in the eye of the beholder. She may consider herself overweight, but he’ll see her as lush, voluptuous and hot! The scars he uses to fend off dangerous intimacy may be potently attractive to her. And there will probably be much more to their attraction than just the physical. Honor, humor, courage, kindness...I could go on all day without exhausting the possibilities of what these two might admire in each other. It might be a quality they share. It could be something one lacks and the other supplies. Perhaps their personalities compliment one another in some special way.

C is the dreaded but essential Conflict – the stuff that makes romances compelling to read. Conflict is whatever divides the attracted hero and heroine. Whatever keeps them from acting on their mutual attraction the minute they set eyes on one another. Like attraction, conflict can have an endless range of sources. Mistrust, lack of self-esteem, opposing goals, fear of intimacy are only a few of the most common.

HEA stands for Happily Ever After. This is what makes romances satisfying. Things may go horribly wrong in real life. Bad things happen to good people while villains prosper. But in the pages of a romance novel, readers find a world they crave. A world that is ultimately fair and forgiving, where love and poetic justice carry the day. How each hero and heroine works through their conflict to find the fulfillment of their attraction in lasting love will depend of who the characters are and the unique makeup of their attraction and conflict. The twists and turns of their journey are only limited by the writer’s imagination.

So rather than narrowing the range of possible stories, this underlying formula of romance allows for boundless variety. While the fundamental idea it expresses may explain why our genre appeals to such a wide and appreciative readership.


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