Jul 10 2011 3:30pm

Isn’t It Romantic?: Romantic Fiction vs. Traditional Romance

Romance vs. The Romantic, Round 1When I signed up for this gig I kind of had to chuckle a bit. Me, writing for a romance blog? I am not the most well-read Romance reader. I actually had to go and read the books I first blogged about. There is nothing wrong with the traditional romance novel; I’ve read a few, and even liked some. I just tend to gravitate toward Romantic Love Stories than the straight-up category or genre romance.

Why? Hmm, I’ve been thinking about that. And I really don’t want to get cyber-shot here so let me stew for a second…

I think I like to be emotionally tortured while I read. Great tear-jerkers always tug at my heart.

The more tragic stories make me ponder what-ifs, like what if they did this, or did that. Like if I’m watching Titanic I bite my lip at the end like Jack is going to magically live. And yes, sorry for the spoiler alerts here. (If you haven’t seen the movie Titanic yet then I have nothing to say to you. Yes, the boat sinks and Jack and Rose in Titanicyes Leo dies. The end.)

I think the not-so-happy endings tend to stay with me. I get to relive the most beautiful pieces of them wondering, why couldn’t they be together, or what would’ve happen if they did. The story doesn’t end for me.

In traditional romances, the Happily Ever After, or the HEA, kind of sums it all up. The end, the white picket fence and all…

Okay, here it is—gimme a second to put on my cyber bullet proof jacket...there.

Romantic books for me have more emotional depth. Romances can be formulaic, not providing any surprise at the fact they will end up together. They are plot-driven, not character-driven. It’s a scenario: Girl meets or reunites with boy. Someone or something bad gets in their way. They must overcome said something bad and end up with some nooky in the process. They overcome and live HEA. It is nothing grand or emotionally pulling for me.

There are a handful of authors that I think about and my heart sighs. Nicholas Sparks, Robert James Waller, James Patterson (yes, he wrote a handful of lovely love stories), Erich Segal, and my most recent find, Jeffrey Stepakoff. Hmm, looking at these lists, they are all men writing poetic love stories; someone needs to do a post about that, but back to mine.

*Spoiler Alerts*

I devour Nicholas Sparks (Be careful what you say about him here. I willThe Rescue by Nicholas Sparks resort to cat-fighting to stick up for the man. Well, maybe not fists or nails, but you tell me what paintball arena to meet you at, and we’ll settle this like ladies). I even think a few of his books are Romances. Some do have a HEA. Reading his stories, half the blood pumping page turning is just to see how and if the couple end up together. All of his books have stayed with me.

In his novel, The Rescue, Taylor McAdden saves the life of a little boy, a four-year old with an undiagnosed learning disability. Naturally, he falls in love with the boy’s mother, Denise. Her heart breaks with the thought that she may never see her son again, one whose speech impediment has prevented him from ever saying, “I love you.” As love finds its way between these two broken individuals, it’s four-year old Kyle who brings them together. He thanks his mother for Taylor, which he pronounces “Tayer,” and tells her he loves her, “Kenk you Money. Wuff you Money.” (Thank you Mommy, love you Mommy.) Sniffle, sniffle, sigh! Oh, it was such a HEA I cried my little heart out.

Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison County changed me. I can still feel the gut wrenching emotion while Francesca held that door handle. I screamed at her to go to Robert, knowing she would not. I can still feel her heart breaking when she received the last of his belongings in the mail. I get goose bumps thinking about the scene where she is bathing, thinking about how Robert had just showered there, and how erotic it was. The image of Robert, sitting in a lounge, wearing a necklace with her name on it, all those years later, still makes me tear up. No, they did not have a HEA but you understand why they could not, did not. And there in lies the beauty of his novel.

Erich Segal’s Love Story left us with the tagline, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Give me a young couple trying to make it out in the world, cancer, money hungry father-in-law, and you had me at Kleenex. Can you really say anything bad about this classic love story? Please, say you can’t! (And the lack of a HEA doesn’t count!)

Sam’s Letters to Jennifer by James PattersonJames Patterson wrote three stories about love lost and love found. I, too, cried at some of these passages. They tend to be about widows finding love again and overcoming the grief. Very poignant, especially from the great thriller writer. My favorite was Sam’s Letters to Jennifer. Here a young widow overcomes her grief with the help of an ailing grandmother and an old flame battling stage four cancer. It makes you think with each page, can a woman who’s already lost love, risk falling in love again with someone who too, may die.

Recently, I found a new author to fawn over. Jeffrey Stepakoff, writer of The Wonder Years and Sisters. His debut novel, Fireworks over Toccoa, I devoured in a weekend. This love story, set amidst the backdrop of post World War II, reaffirmed my belief that all things happen for a reason. His prose reads like Whitman’s, and his descriptions melted in my mouth very much like the sweet butter that’s spread over saltines in one scene. Here, we have an elderly Lily, finding something of her past in the least expected place. It gives way for her to tell her soon to be married granddaughter the story no one has heard, a story that may change her life. Where one summer, in 1945, fireworks showered over the Toccoa, Georgia skyline. It brought with it a man who made it possible for her to have the courage to live the life she was meant to. She in return reminded him that the atrocities of war should not prevent the heart from loving again. Super duper knee jerking sigh. I’ll be covering his upcoming novel in the next few weeks. Woot woot!

Okay, so you gathered from my diatribe here, I’m a sap. A sap for tear-jerking, heart-breaking reads. I like not knowing if they will get together. I love conjuring up that ’what ifs’ in my head. I love the emotional roller coaster. I love blowing my big old red nose into a tissue at the very last page. It’s red for that reason, not because I’m a part-time clown, btw.

Since I’m such a softy, please don’t shoot me for not loving Traditional Romances. I’m just a girl who loves a great love story that stays with me, regardless of the outcome.


Philly native Charli Mac is an aspiring author, mother, wife, friend, and part-time clown. Come find lost love along the Jersey Shore at Twitter her @CharliMacs

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Carmen Pinzon
1. bungluna
I just had to say that I tried reading the "Bridges" book and couldn't get past the trite writing, middle-aged wishfull thinking story. One woman's wallbanger is another ones emotional romantic story, I guess.
Lady Trudy
2. Lady Trudy
Funny little heartbreaker of a story about The Bridges of Mad Co. - one day, while looking for something in my hub's closet, I found a copy of the video of the movie. It was so not his kind of movie and I asked him 'what the hey?' and he said some women at the office gave it to him, but he'd never watched it and had no idea why they'd give it to me. Within two years, he chucked our life and moved in with that woman in the office. Needless to say, I hate the whole story but, yeah, I get why Francesca never left her hub. Because she would have left a world of hurt behind. I get it - that huge glob of selfishness, though - how many times have I just wanted to walk because that picket fence came with a whole lot of baggage. I really don't have the answer - I loved many of the stories Charli Mac mentions. But I'll take the HEA for the most part in my reading. Cause it seems rarer than rare in real life.
Lady Trudy
3. Rose In RoseBear
Greedy here ... I want my HEA and my tears jerked!

Is that so wrong? :)
Lady Trudy
4. Christy Hayes
I think there is room on all of our bookshelves for both. Too many not HEA's and I won't want to get out of bed.
Lady Trudy
5. Laura Drake
Charlimac, thanks SO much for this post...I'm right there beside you, Girl! The problem is, the readers make the distinction, but the publishers don't. I write romantic fiction AND women's fiction (not quite the same, in my mind.) and keep getting bumped and tweaked to fit into traditional romance. It's frustrating!
Donna Cummings
6. Donna Cummings
Great post! I guess I'm too tender-hearted, because I have a hard time with love stories that end with tears instead of smiles. :) It feels like I've been promised a wonderful dessert if I eat my broccoli, but then it turns out the dessert is made of broccoli too! LOL
Lady Trudy
7. Karen Cote
Great post. I think in order to forsake the HEA of the relationship, there has to be a substitute to avoid failing the loyalty of the reader/audience. This is easier with works that are based on true events such as Titanic but unlike reality, in the movie the viewers are given a replacement for the tragedy.

If a book or movie doesn't have a bittersweet pull or yearning,(that tortured soul moment you mention that I love so much as well) then it's just manipulation and I hate that. If someone is going to mess with the HEA, which is very tricky, they'd better know how to pull it off as they risk losing more than a good read, they might just lose the interest of the fan base they worked so hard to achieve. HEA or not, no author wants that ending.

This was a fabulous topic and your own insights show you get that. Thanks for sharing.
Lady Trudy
8. Jillian Stone
First let me say I had a really enjoyable time in NYC swilling brewskies with CharlicMac. Who knew she was such a softy? Lol!

Since I write the other "less emotionally honest" sort of women's fiction, I would just like to take a moment to ask: Do you ladies really believe Nicholas Sparks does not shamelessly manipulate the reader's emotions?


Olivia Waite
9. O.Waite
There was a time in my youth when I only read canonical, classic works of well-reputed fancy literature. And in these books love stories always ended tragically (except in Jane Eyre and Jane Austen). And trying for happiness never ended well for anyone. And more often than not, it was the lady who died or was punished for her ambition to live a richer life than she started with.

I'm giving Thomas Hardy such a side-eye right now, you have no idea.

And while I love a good tearjerker every now and again as a palate-cleanser, that kind of thing feels like it happens too often in real life, where nothing is happily ever after and tragedy has a stronger influence. What I like about romance is the optimism of the ending—no matter how dark things get in the middle, the end will be sunny and sweet.
Charli Mac
10. CharliMac
@bungluna I'm sorry you couldn't finish the book. It is really one of the most emotionally pulling novels I've ever read. Waller's writing is far from trite, you are completely off base there. I mean I've read some traditonal romances that were nothing but throbbing manhoods and slicks folds. I mean, talk about trite.

@Lady Trudy Thank you for sharing something so personal. That sounds like the beginnings of a great book or memoir.

@Rose Oh I love to be happily jerked as well. :)

@Christy Yes, bookshelves should have both, IMO. Keep things balanced.

@Laura I know the feeling. I'm not WF or Traditional Romance but people try to put me in either box.

@Donna I get wanting to smile at the end of a book but I can smile too knowing that the characters are richer for the experience, regardless if it's a HEA or not. I like not knowing the ending...finding out along the way.

@Karen If you are selling a book as a romance, then you have to give it a HEA by definition. Nicholas Sparks has written 17 books. Only 5 have one of the main characters die. Most of his books are HEA believe it or not. But I agree, it can't just end tragically. The characters have to have growth, regardless of the outcome.

@Jill Yes, I am a softy at heart. Utter mush. And yes, I read Sparks becuase I know he's going to mess with my emtotions. That's the pull for me. He uses emotion, other authors use sex, adrenaline rushes, melo drama as their signature way of building a fanbase. And I like your style, BTW. See, I can be sappy and tough. :)

@ O. Waite Yes, I love optimistic endings as well. I just think that can happen without the hero and heroine ending up together. As long as they grow and things work out for them, I am satisfied.
Lady Trudy
11. Laura M. Campbell
When I turn to a book, I expect to escape from my reality. I want to experience something I can't have in my life. So, I find I'm split down the middle on the Romance vs. Romantic debate.

When I'm feeling down, a good HEA really lifts the spirits and rekindles my faith in love. Then, other times I want a romantic twist to a character-driven story where love takes the back seat and ends without a HEA.
Lady Trudy
12. BrooklynShoeBabe
I'm reading Fireworks over Toccoa right now. Sometimes, I just like to know that my HEA is guaranteed, so I pick up romance novels more often than romantic fiction. I won't say anything bad about Mr. Sparks. I will say my only good thought about him. One of his books was the inspiration for one of my favorite romantic movies, A Walk to Remember. Also, Bridges of Madison Country was one of the most romantic and heart wrenching movies I've ever seen. My husband and I were both sitting clenching our teeth wondering if she'd go with Robert (swipes a tear from my eye).
Lady Trudy
13. BrooklynShoeBabe
Off topic a little bit, but is there a genre of book that James Patterson HAS not written. He is SUPER PROLIFIC.
Charli Mac
14. CharliMac
@bugluna BTW, I'm not sure how old you are but I first read Bridges in my early twenties and wanted to slap Francesca for not getting out of that truck. But I read it around this time last year, in my thirty-somethings, and it was a completely different read.

@Laura Yes, some read for the HEA escape, I get that. But I don't like knowing, it's just the adrenaline junkie in me.

@Brooklyn You MUST MUST READ Bridges and A Walk To Remember. Far, far better than the movies and I LOVED the movies. Bridges as a novel has more insight on Robert after the affair. Also, just me on my Sparks Box, Nicholas Sparks was more than the inspiration for A Walk To Remember. They are HIS characters, HIS plot, HIS words transformed for the screen. If you love the movie than you'll love the book. The difference betwen the two is the setting- the book takes place in the 50's and the movie present time.

As for Patterson, as far as I know he hasn't written Erotica yet but give him time, he will. I used to be a big fan but he is so huge he has ghostwriters now. All the novels that say James Patterson & so and so are basically ghost-written. But those romance novels were him solo, I believe and very good reads.
Carmen Pinzon
15. bungluna
@CharlieMac - I read the Bridges book just shy of 30, when I'd just returned from living in Spain for 3.5 years. Everybody was raving about it and I thought I'd give it a try. I can't remember what specifically set me off; all I recall was the urgent need to burn it, shred it, uterlly destroy it. (Slight exageration.)
Lady Trudy
16. Kiersten
I prefer an HEA but only after the h/h have earned it together. I can't bear the books of the Sparks oeuvre, but that's the beauty of reading: everyone has their keeper shelves and each and every one is unique.

Also, don't let Sparks hear you call his work "romance". He's gone on record that he does not write romance.

Now, have you ever read The Ditches of Edison County? I was in school in England when Bridges came out, and this parody followed soon after. Hysterical.
S Tieh
17. infinitieh
I read romances for the HEA. Period. If there isn't one, I will not read the book. If I want to read relationships in which the characters don't end up together, I'll stick with YA and sci-fi/fantasy (the love interest gets turned into a vampire and then has to be sacrificed to win the vampire war- top that, Nicholas Sparks). This is why I have not, and refuse to, read anything by the 5 authors mentioned (not even Patterson's YA books). In real life, HEA are rare if it exists at all (yes, I'm a pessimist who reads romances, go figure) so when I read fiction, I want HEAs. Otherwise, I'd rather stick with non-fiction (or YA or sci-fi/fantasy).
Charli Mac
18. CharliMac
@bungluna if you remember what it was about Bridges, please tell me. I'd really like to know.

@Kiersten I know Sparks says he doesn't write Romance. Since the reader never knows what they are gonna get, it can't be Romance and RWA says as much. So many in the Romance Industry have slammed him without ever even reading him, so I cannot blame him there.

@infiniteh If you message me offline I can tell you all of the above authors HEA titles and you will agree with me its technically romance. They are very good reads, amazingly emotional, and totally satisfying HEA!!!!!
romance reader
19. bookstorecat

I think you would REALLY enjoy the movie The Painted Veil, if you haven't seen it already.

Actually, I've watched it many, MANY times, and I'm still enjoying the heck out of it--up to a point. At That Point, I usually turn it off, and pretend that the last 15 minutes of the movie never happened.

I like my endings Happily Ever.
Charli Mac
20. CharliMac
@bookstorecat I LOVE THE PAINTED VEIL! One of my all time favorite movies. It's one of the only few movies wher I HAVEN'T read the book.

Such character depth, growth, and passion. I absolutely adore this movie with a deep sigh.
Lady Trudy
21. Karen H
I HATE Nicolas Sparks and his ilk! I put all of my emotions into the characters and then get dumped on! So I not only won't read any more of his books, I refuse to watch the movies, even if Richard Gere, or other eye candy, is in them! I read Romance proudly and insist on the HEA. In fact, for some books, especially romantic suspense, the knowledge of the HEA is all that gets me through the bad times. That said, I did enjoy "The Time-Traveler's Wife" even though it did not have a traditional happy ending because 1) the journey was so interesting and NOT full of manipulative Angst, and 2) since he was always popping in and out, I choose to believe that will continue to happen (so, HEA after all). I definitely agree with infiniteh and with Jillian Stone about the manipulation. The other reason I don't want to read those authors you listed is that they're all men and I prefer to support women authors! Women don't get enough respect as it is, so I'm gonna give them my hard-earned dollars instead. But I am a great believer in "to each her own" so you have fun reading whatever you wish, as will I!
Charli Mac
22. CharliMac
@Karen H I am sensing from your overuse of the exclamtion points in your comment, that you feel strongly about the topic. That and the all capped HATE, of course.

Listen, saying you hate an author, sorry- HATE- an author is a bit much. I dislike many but hate? I mean HATE is a very strong word. Basically on steriods when CAPPED.

And, apparently, me typing this in the original post, and in most of my comments, has been for naught. Spark has written 17 novels. 5 of them do not have a HEA, so to generalize his style of writing as all doom and gloom is simply false. 12 of his novels are HEA. 12.

Now, the absurdity that you only buy books written by female authors mirrors the very sentiment in which you, with the use of !!!, are trying to fight against. Think about that for a second.

I read books, period. I could care less what gender or species writes them. I choose to read books that emotionally tug me, where I don't know what will happen in the end, HEA or not. I like the journey. You enjoy knowing, that's your journey. You know, that whole "to each his/her own" thing.

This post was to simply point out why I enjoy these types of novels, since many who read traditional romance don't get why people do. By the end of your comment I sensed you shaking a fist at me then stomping off into an exclamation point filled cloud of dust. Or giving me a neener-neener with your thumb on the tip of your nose while wiggling your fingers at me. Truly, I was not putting Romance down, or female authors. Urm, herlo, I am one! As I was typing the post the fact the books I noted were all written by male authors struck me is all. I'm not some woman/romance hating type of gal. Please, put down the torch and exclamation point.

BTW, do you really think the Time Traveler's Wife is a HEA? He's dead!!!! He got shot by his father-in-law and died in front of his family and friends!!!! And keeps coming back through time not knowing he's dead!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks, I will have fun reading whatever I wish, as will you. (No exclamation point needed.)
Lady Trudy
23. Karen H
I didn't realize I'd used quite that many exclamation points. On the other hand, I am quite passionate and opinionated (I always say "Don't ask my opinion unless you want to hear it."). You're right that I should not say I hate NS because I don't really know him but I can say I hate his writing. And, since I have a limited budget for luxuries such as books, I will continue to spend my hard-earned money on women authors rather than men. I am old enough that I know and have personally experienced women getting the short end of the stick compared to men, for no reason other than their gender, and I will not make it worse (it's why I pick female doctors, too). Obviously, the men you mentioned are not hurting because they're not on my TBR list. I just don't see the point of putting that much energy into something that's not going to make me happy (and, yes, I read "Bridges of MC" when it first came out. I saw the emotional manipulation in each sentence and did not appreciate it one bit).
Carmen Pinzon
24. bungluna
@CharliMac- I've tried to recall what it was about "Bridges" that set me off, but I can't remember that far back and that many books ago. Maybe it was an extreme reaction to everybody telling me just how wonderfull this one was and how I should love it since I read 'romances'. I do recall that at that time I was into Dick Francis and Sue Grafton, so maybe that was my mystery period.
Charli Mac
25. CharliMac
@bungluna Maybe its the affair. Readers who adore traditional romance usually can't get over that part, especially the fact that Francesca's children came to embrace it.

@karenh I've been around the block too. As a woman who works everyday amongst men of power (local politics/government) I know how we have gotten the shaft time and time again. But if I adhere to your logic then I could never appreciate the political brilliance of JFK, RFK, MLK, President Obama, Clinton, Ghandi, or Mandela . Think about it. That's like saying since female painters never got the opportunity or notoriety during the renaissance then I can't appreciate DaVinci or Michaelangelo's work. As for Sparks you still can't say you hate a man's work when you've admitted to not even knowing it.

Emotional manipulation is an easy way of saying I didn't get the ending I wanted so the author deceived me in some way. I'm not buying that at all. Sparks writes emotional love stories, proclaims it, and his fans celebrate it. I've read all his books and never once felt manipulated. I could say that traditional romances manipulate with the cliched happy endings and neatly plotted string of events, but I'm not. Because it doesn't. Just because I'm not a fan doesn't mean its fair of me to through it under the bus or make baseless claims against it.
Lady Trudy
26. Gerd D.
@KarenH: "I am old enough that I know and have personally experienced women getting the short end of the stick compared to men, for no reason other than their gender, and _I will not make it worse_ (it's why I pick female doctors, too)." (Emphasis mine) And think to do that by avoiding authors for no other reason than their gender? Just needed to put that out there for you to consider. Anywho, I wasn't much in love with "Bridges" as a book either, I do love the movie though. I always felt that there was something highly unlikable about the characters in the way they are written. I might be completely wrong there, but Sparks strikes me as a very christian writer, meaning as one whose faith does heavily influence his plots? I have yet to actually read one of his books, but haven't one that really spoke to me so far, so my observation is mostly based on his movie adaptations and from flipping through some of his work in bookshops.
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