Jilly: Tell Me More!

Do you like your romance novels to be tightly focused, or do you prefer a wider, more complete view of the main characters and their lives?

I read a book last weekend that was passed to me by a friend of a friend. It was a romance, by an author I hadn’t read before, in a subgenre I don’t normally read. I’ve been on a fantasy/urban fantasy/steampunk kick for the last few years, with excursions into historical, paranormal and suspense. This was a contemporary romance with dashes of suspense and adventure.

My friend has high standards, so I was confident the book would be well-written. It was, but I found it enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure. The heroine and the hero were engaging, complex characters. They both had strong personalities, interesting careers, strong goals and challenging backstories. The setting was exotic and spectacular. The conflict was a little iffy, but both characters faced tough external obstacles and had to overcome some level of internal conflict in order to earn their Happy Ever After.

Sounds good, right?

What drove me nuts was that all that great stuff—careers, goals, obstacles, setting, deep backstory—was treated like wallpaper. It seemed to be there for decoration, to provide a beautiful and meaningful backdrop for the H&H’s interactions. It didn’t drive the action in any way. The author threw the H&H together and then focused almost exclusively on their relationship in the now. They discovered personal chemistry, spent a lot of time together, grew intimate, fell in love, broke up because Circumstances, got back together and lived happily ever after. The end.

I felt cheated and cranky, because the book could have been so much more. I was happy that the romance was the spine of the story, but I wanted to see the main characters grow together as they pursued their careers, came to terms with their backstories and overcame their obstacles, external and internal. I wanted them (or at least the heroine) to grow and change. By the end of the book I wanted to be able to picture every aspect of their future life together, not just their intimate one-on-ones.

I spent a while thinking about this after I’d finished feeling grumpy. The book was a full-length single title romance, but it read like a super-long category story (a Harlequin, or equivalent, typically around 50-60k words, where the focus is very tightly on the main couple). It was technically well-written and the author was clearly no dummy, so I assume she made a deliberate choice to structure the book that way. Which means that particular blend is what she personally likes, or that she believes there are readers out there who prefer this recipe.

I haven’t read a story like this in years, and I don’t feel minded to seek out more of the same, but I’m curious. Have you read anything with this kind of structure? Is it a Thing? Do you think there are readers out there who just want to see the H&H on the page together and want the bare minimum of other story elements?

As a reader and a writer I look for a more complete picture. I want to know about every important aspect of these characters’ lives. How about you?

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Tell Me More!

  1. Sorry to hear the unnamed book left you grumpy. I think the answer to your question is yes, based on a number of books I’ve read lately that had strong reviews yet left me equally grumpy. There seems to be an audience out there that just wants to see the H&H together and interacting, and doesn’t particularly care about character growth or even – so it sometimes seems – plot.

    Obviously that’s not you or the audience that you are writing for. Fortunately, there seem to be a wide range of readers, with a wide range of preferences. I guess the trick is to correctly match them up.

    • Aha! Then it seems likely the structure was a deliberate choice and there is a readership out there for these stories, even if it’s not me. One reason I chewed this over so much is that I just agreed to judge a bunch of contest entries, and usually that involves scoring stories that fall outside my preferred mix. It would be too easy for me to judge a story like this as technically flawed (no turning points, no character development, no plot arc) when it’s actually well designed for a particular audience.

      Jeanne was talking recently about bully romance, which apparently is a Thing right now and very popular with some readers. It’s a step on from enemies-to-lovers, and if I understand it correctly it’s abusers-to-lovers. I can’t for a moment imagine I’d ever choose to read that trope, but now I know it exists I’ll know how to classify it if I come across it as a contest judge.

      • It suddenly strikes me, reading these over, that maybe the writer is a short-story writer, and has added these things as a way to get word count? Or maybe it’s just Instagram writing — beautiful background and setting are THE point; maybe the romance was simply the thread to show off these beautiful people?

  2. There’s definitely readers out there who want only the hero and heroine and not much else, but I always wonder why an author develops the backstory, the setting, the obstacles, the goals, if they’re not going to be used in a more meaningful way. But that’s just me. I’m sorry the book made you cranky. There’s so many books out there, and so many good ones—so many that we’d like—that I hate it when we spend time on something that doesn’t hit our sweet spot.

    • Exactly! I wouldn’t have minded so much if there had been just the h&h and not much else. What bugged me was that the author made such interesting choices with all the other story elements–backstory, setting, obstacles, goals and whatnot–that I wanted to know more. She dangled them in front of me, got me all intrigued, and then didn’t use them in any meaningful way.

      I didn’t buy the book through the usual channels, so I’m not sure how it was positioned, but it was a helpful reminder that it’s not enough to write a good book–if you don’t give clear signals about the content, then you market yourself to the wrong readership, and that’s a recipe for mutual frustration and scathing reviews. I *think* I remember you saying that back in the day your space opera book was given a sci-fi/adventure-ish cover which wasn’t the best representation of its light, humorous content (hope I have that correct). So much to learn, so little time!

      • That happened to me, all right. I asked repeatedly for the art and marketing teams to remember that the book had strong comic elements, and they might have remembered, but they didn’t do anything about them. So my first review on Goodreads was one star with the comment, “Should have been darker.” Yeah, no. The cover and back cover copy should have been lighter. And as you say, all of this serves to remind us that as indie authors, we need to do our best to hit those marketing elements squarely on the nose. I’m struggling right now with cover taglines. I hate those most of all.

        I’m judging a contest now, too, but I am not going to keep in mind these new tropes—the bullying theme, the “need develop nothing else” theme. My scoresheet clearly says “Plot” and “Characterization,” and if those elements aren’t there, I’m not giving them a high score. So there. 🙂

  3. What I can’t figure out is why anyone would want to read about a romance that’s disconnected from the lovers’ real lives.

    Alice Faris’s Good Girl’s Guide to Talking Dirty has the couple in the cab of a semi-rig, crossing the country in 7 days. They spend almost no time outside the cab of that truck, yet she manages to pull in both East’s history as a member of a family of screw-ups and Ansel’s backstory as a former teacher with PTSD from a school shooting and blend it seamlessly into their growing intimacy. The book is also hilarious, as East has a gig as a phone sex operator she doesn’t want anyone to find out about (try keeping that a secret inside a tractor-trailer cab).

    So it’s more than possible to have lots and lots of one-on-one time AND a plot and character growth.

    Each to her own, I guess.

    • I don’t get it either, but I think we’re quite a self-selecting group here. If we weren’t character-driven GMC story advocates before McDaniel, we certainly were by the time Jenny had finished with us.

      I love the sound of that book, btw! Putting Good Gir’s Guide to Talking Dirty on my rainy day list. Thank you 🙂

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