A friend and I were discussing this topic a little while ago. I’d seen a recent social media exchange about it. Some folks expressed disdain. They couldn’t understand why people would want to read “predictable” romance novels.
And that’s a fairly understandable stance. I mean, I roll my eyes at a lot of Harlequin-type books. I know exactly how this is going to play out. And I don’t even need to read the book to find out.
And that’s kind of the point: Harlequin has a very strict formula for romance novels.
Comfort in an Unpredictable World
A lot of people crave novelty. They want to be surprised by a book. After all, if there’s no novelty—if we’re just reading the same story over and over—why are we still turning the pages? We know exactly how this scenario will turn out. We know exactly how this will end, without ever reaching the ending.
Yet on the whole, we don’t like too much unpredictability. We want familiar story beats. The novelty we crave is often in the characters or the writing. Maybe something about the scenario is unique, but if we start to unravel it, then we’ll see strong similarities between this story and many, many others.
There’s a reason for that, especially when it comes to romance novels.
We seek the familiar, because it’s comforting. Unpredictability is actually quite unnerving for a lot of us. And we live in a very unpredictable world.
Romance novels are often touted by readers as an escape from the real world. Real-life relationships are unpredictable. They rarely follow plot beats, and meet-cutes don’t always turn into anything than a “remember that one time?” type of story. The HEA is never guaranteed, even when it seems like someone has one.
So, if romance novels represent an escape from the relentlessness of real life, they need to be predictable. Because predictable is familiar, and familiar is comfortable.
Don’t People Get Bored?
This is where it’s possible to melt writing a romance novel down to a formula. But there are hundreds of thousands of Harlequin novels out there, many of which use the same tropes, the same plot beats, even the same stock characters.
Don’t people get bored of reading the same thing over and over? You’d think they would. And some people absolutely do. Some people have very low tolerance for “predictable.” They think that’s “boring,” and they’d much rather be surprised.
It’s the same idea with adrenaline junkies. They crave the rush, and they often get it from something novel. So they will continue to seek out novel experiences.
A lot of us, though, find great satisfaction in routine. We crave stability and predictability. And, as I noted, real life doesn’t always offer us that. So picking up a predictable romance novel offers us some kind of routine. Here’s something we can trust to “hit” every button we have, resulting in a pleasurable experience for us. And since it’s pleasurable, we seek it over and over again—almost like an addiction.
It Pretty Much Is an Addiction
The brain is wired to repeat “rewarding” behavior, which gives us lots of dopamine. Listening to a favorite song often results in a dopamine rush. Reading a favorite novel or eating a favorite food can do the same.
So, if we enjoy one story, it’s likely we’ll continue to enjoy that story, as well as variations on it. We may not love every single variation—there are going to be versions we like more or less, because execution will play into how much dopamine we derive from any given story.
So much as some people are addicted to novelty, others become addicted to the predictability of a story. They enjoy anticipating the pattern, and the brain is rewarded when it correctly predicts the story. The more predictable the story, the more often you get that dopamine rush.
It’s Not Just Romance Novels
Romance novels get a bad rap for being “predictable,” but they’re not the only books or stories that can be accused of predictability. Yes, romance novels thrive on tropes, but so does virtually every other story you’ve ever encountered.
Star Wars? Is a collection of tropes. Any fantasy story? Pretty much a collection of tropes. Even melodramas and comedies rely on tropes. “Epic” tales like the Odyssey and Iliad rely on tropes. Every YA dystopian story you’ve ever read is chock full of tropes.
This wraps me around to the point I made to start. As readers, we like novelty, but not too much novelty. We generally expect stories to hit certain plot beats, even if the scenario is novel. A lot of novelty comes from things like setting and characters, rather than plots.
In sum: it’s almost all in the execution.
It’s All Been Done Before
It’s a trite saying, but it really has been done before. There’s a reason we roll our eyes every time we see a headline about a novelist who’s “reinventing” the romance genre or claims to be doing something no one else has ever done before.
Chances are it has been done—this person just hasn’t read widely enough to see that it has been done. That’s no shade; there are millions of books out there, with millions more added last year alone. It’s impossible to read everything that’s out there, and it’s impossible to keep up.
Which is also why it’s impossible to claim that you’re doing something so novel, no one has ever done it before. You haven’t read all the books out there—how do you know no one else has ever done what you’re doing?
There’s a Reason Copyright Law Protects Expression
The uniqueness of every work lies in the execution. No two writers will tell exactly the same story, even if they’re using the same framework or structure. Even if they choose the same tropes or the same stock characters, they’re going to tell a story that’s a bit different from the other writer’s.
This is what I mean by wanting novelty—but not too much novelty. We, as readers, are attracted to the stories that we know will give us dopamine rushes. These stories have delighted us before, and they’ll continue to delight us, which is why we keep seeking them out. But we want a slightly different execution, so we can get that extra little kick of dopamine with the novelty of it.
Every Genre, Every Story
And that holds true for every single genre. I’m watching The Legend of Vox Machina right now, and it’s predictable as fuck. But it also hits a lot of fantasy tropes, which I’ve enjoyed before. So it’s not unpleasurable to watch. It feels a lot like the D&D: Honor Among Thieves movie that came out a little while ago. Also quite predictable, but enjoyable—provided you like fantasy stories. Both of these have a comedic twist, which is something that a movie like LOTR (which I really enjoy) lacks. But all three of these stories share a lot of similarities, which means there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy them.
Voltron? Predictable, until the last season—and the last season sucked. But it was enjoyable, even in its predictability. It did have some novelty. And let’s look at Gurren Lagan, another giant robot story. It did a lot of the “unexpected” (like including a major character death early on), but it still hit all the notes you’d expect of the giant robot genre—and it even made fun of them. Similarly, Kill La Kill made fun of the magical girl genre, even as it invoked all the tropes.
So we like different … but not too different. And most of us like predictability.
So when you start pooh-poohing romance novels for being “predictable,” you’re probably use ignoring the predictability of the media you enjoy. And you’re likely doing that because you have some sort of superiority complex.