Monday, February 13, 2012

A Word about Formulas

Besides being a writer, I also happen to be addicted to romantic movies. For the last few weeks, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of The Vow. Despite its too beautiful to be real actors and syrupy plot line (which to be fair has a tenuous base in reality), it’s just the kind of thing I love.

This thing I love is also true for the books I read. Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson happen to be among my favorite authors. And I’ll pick up any book that has a contemporary romantic theme and give it a fair shot. I can’t say the same about historical romance though. I’ve never gotten into these epic, sweeping romances. I like characters I can identity with.

Getting back to my excitement over The Vow, which I have yet to see due to time constraints, I did something last week I don’t normally do. I read a professional review of the movie. I have to admit the title intrigued me. I can’t recall it specifically, but it was something along the line of making sure to avoid seeing this terrible movie. There were a litany of complaints the reviewer had, but one of the biggest was the fact that the movie was formulaic.

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a formula for a romance. It goes something sort of like this: boy and girl meet, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl face many obstacles in their love, boy and girl may even separate because of aforementioned obstacles and finally boy and girl get back together and live happily ever after. This is a tried and true formula that is often panned yet continues to spawn successful books and movies. Agents and publishers and critics sometimes spurn writers or moviemakers for not bucking the system, but fans make us pay if we do.

Last week, I came up close and personal with this very thing. My young adult paranormal romance trilogy has been thriving on line for the last year. Last week, I released the final chapter of the final book, the ending of which failed to tie up the story line with a neat little bow. While I resolved the crux of the conflict that’s plagued the story since book one, I left some questions unanswered. I did this by design to allow me the chance to create a fourth book if I so chose. I’m here to tell you I’ve been taking what I don’t mind saying is a ridiculous amount of heat for this decision, and it’s been interesting.

Up until the posting of the final chapter, fans have been largely supportive. They’ve offered me rave reviews and boosted my ego and lifted my spirits when I doubted my talent. I suppose you could say what I’ve encountered in the last week is my first brush with the other side of fame. The adoration has given way to contempt. The heart of the complaints is that fans feel gypped because I had the audacity to end the story before the actual high school graduation. I’ve also received backlash for failing to write a nice Harry Potter style flash forward to give fans a glimpse of the characters’ future lives. I’ve been accused of ending the story too abruptly and without sufficient action. I’ve even been berated for failing to reveal the contents of a gift that was mentioned at the beginning of the chapter as something to be opened later. Everyone whose lodged these complaints, and I’m here to say the numbers are higher than expected, has begged me to revise the ending and give them an epilogue to tell them both what was in the box and what happened to everyone in the future. I’m remiss to do that for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to pigeon hole the story. The second, I’m not ashamed to say is a matter of principle. Now I don’t want to because I’m so irritated that people have focused on what I consider to be minor things.

So, I bucked the system. I resolved the conflict and left some unanswered questions. My idea was to leave it open for the possibility of a fourth book without having written myself into a corner because I had to the epilogue when I ended the third book. On an interesting side note, I had the epilogue in an earlier draft and took it out so I could avoid falling into the formula trap. I bucked the system and challenged the formula and I’m paying it.

So, here’s what I have to say to all those critics who call us formulaic and tell us to think outside the box: formulas exist for a reason. They work. If you want us to challenge the formula then you better be prepared to explain the dip in our popularity and our sales. If you don’t want to do that then please get off your formula soap box.

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