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Two Romance Novels: 1 Yeech, 1 Yea!

21 December, 2007

I recently read a book on fiction writing, which drew on the wisdom of various romance novelists of the Mills & Boon ilk. I haven’t read a romance since the Dark Ages when I managed a bookshop and used to plow through many different books as part of my job.

I started wondering how much the romance novel had changed. So I visited the local library and plucked two at random, one written in ’98, the other in ’99.

The two were surprisingly different. One made me say ‘yeech’ and I am vowing never to undergo masochistic reading again. The other kept my interest, and because of that, I am giving it a ‘yea!’.

The Yeech Read
By page 5, I was already discovering infelicities in the descriptions and dialogue. I plowed on, only to find it got worse. The plot twists and turns were implausible. It was hard to believe that the heroine and hero saw anything admirable in each other to warrant their exertions in chasing after true lurve. The other characters were only flimsy cardboard figures.

But the biggest problem was having the story told entirely from the heroine’s viewpoint. At every pothole on the rocky path to romance, she gave her perceptions and misconceptions. This limited 3rd person point-of-view meant that the hero’s views of events had to be confined to what the heroine could sense or conjecture: a gesture or facial expression, a comment, a change in the emotional atmosphere.

It could have worked. But for this author, it meant that the last chapter focused less on the usual passionate union and instead became a blab-fest between the hero and heroine, who had to clear up all their misconceptions.

The Yea! Read
The ‘yea!’ romance was much different. Both the dialogue and the main situation were realistic. The descriptions of places were so detailed that I felt as if I was there. Both of the main characters were three-dimensional, believable and likable. The host of other characters–major and minor–all had distinct personalities.

I found this novel the more enjoyable one because the author, Nora Roberts, chose to give the viewpoints of both hero and heroine. Instead writing about a strong, silent man who finally at the end blurts out all his misunderstandings, Roberts lets readers know what both of her main characters are thinking and feeling from start to finish. More importantly, she makes both of them grow emotionally, rather than relying solely on plot twists and mutual sexual attraction. This emotional growth makes the two characters more believable and interesting.

This growth, in which each character changes in response to the other throughout the story, also means that it’s not necessary for them to spend the final chapter trawling through all their misconceptions and tying up the loose ends.

Would I read any more romances? Probably not. Crime fiction is my usual escape read.

What I did enjoy was how the comparison demonstrated to me–more clearly than many writing how-to books–what can be gained by telling a romance story from the viewpoint of two main characters.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 January, 2008 6:48 am

    I’m chuckling to myself. As someone who spent a long career working with predominantly male colleagues, I feel qualified to say that men have the same emotions women have. The difference is in the expression of emotions, which I realize is what Marsha is saying above. In fact, I’d argue that men are extremely “emotional,” especially when it comes to forming attachments. Here’s the catch: our society stereotypes so severely that if we depart from what is expected in describing a character, it can be so distracting that it takes away from the story.


  2. 25 December, 2007 11:14 am

    Most romances are supposed to be from two points of view–“his and hers” but often the narration winds up being more omniscient, without much of a break between his viewpoint and hers. It can be pretty distracting when mid-paragraph the p.o.v. shifts. But if done right, it can really allow an author to get a lot of characterization done.

    Hi Jennifer. I agree about the need to be skilled in handling POV shifts. When done poorly, readers have to backtrack in order to work out whose perspective is being used. Whether they are interested enough to do so is the question.
    Talking about problems with romance novels, Janet Evanovich (author of the Stephanie Plum series, e.g., One for the Money, etc.) talks about a common mistake women writers often make. The mistake is attributing female emotion to the hero. I think she saw this problem in romance writing. She says she made this mistake when she was writing romances and for this reason now finds some of her old work embarrassing to read.


  3. 23 December, 2007 12:15 am

    You know, the first book that came to my mind when you mentioned single point of view was The Tin Drum, but it actually has quite a bit of omniscient narration. I’d like to think of an example in any genre, but I’m distracted. (laughing)


  4. 22 December, 2007 8:41 am


    I like your analysis of what made the novel you preferred superior. How does a writer succeed with a single point of view? I’ve never tried to sort books this way, but it would be an intriguing exercise.

    I too wondered about how to succeed with single POV, especially with a romance where the twists and turns with the relationship are everything. Perhaps find single POV stories written by the top-echelon romance writers and see how they handle it? Interesting project for the new year! But would I have the stamina to read another romance?


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