After reading several hundred of these books that are labeled romance in just under six months or so, I've come to realize (as every avid reader will inevitably see as well) the formula of authors. And yes, of course I realize that every author has their own formula that applies to the way they write their characters, the writing style, and the timing of their plot. It's unavoidable. Not everyone can be totally original in every book, especially in a genre like this. On the other hand, that so called formula is what makes that author recognizable.
But what I've come to realize is that the authors who have their formula but are able to disguise it to appear new in each successive book are the ones that are the ones who earn a higher place in my proverbial, and literal, bookshelf.
It's such a delicate balance to play. When the formula is way too apparent, as a reader, it totally turns me off. I've actually turned down a lot of authors that I've come across simply because I knew how the book would turn out even when I hadn't read it yet. At the same time, when the author tries something new and totally turns a 180 with a new formula, it's hard to get into a new groove and can sometimes feel like you're reading a foreign author instead of one that you've known for years. Like I mentioned, the authors who are able to disguise their formula are the ones to keep an eye out for.
Let's examine some of the formulas...
First up: Sabrina Jeffries. Jeffries was really my first romance. Not the literal first, but One Night with a Prince was my first self-chosen one. The literal first romance was one that was borrowed and read as a joke. But Jeffries' last Royal Brotherhood book was the one that I choose for myself. With Jeffries, it's a standard formula. Her hero and heroine meet and usually there's a bit of deception going on on behalf of the hero. The deception seems to be standard Jeffries and it's not a totally original formula. She pretty much sticks to a classic form: Meet, Attraction, Deception, Sex, Climax/Downfall, Resolve. From what I've read of Jeffries, and I've read them all, it feels that she doesn't stray from her formula. Now, what makes some of her books better than others simply lie in character developments, plot strength, and time constraints as a writer. With Jeffries, after you're familiar with the formula, you can actually just eyeball the pages that have past and gauge how close you are to the big blowup of the plot and the climax of the story.
Another author who sticks with a formula religiously is Jill Shalvis. She is strictly a whodunit author. There is no deviation from the formula. At first, I enjoyed Get a Clue and then Strong and Sexy, but by the time I got to the end of my third Shalvis novel, I knew that I would never get anything but a story straight out of the game Clue sprinkled with some mediocre sex that was fitted between the pages of the bad guy chasing the hero/heroine with a gun, a knife, or dead bodies popping up unexpectedly. Though the settings change, the overall trend of the plot does not. Somehow, I always end up feeling that the characters are sacrificed in order to develop the mystery and for me, the characters of a romance must be the most important. Even a lousy plot is easily rescued by strong characters, but a plot with no character development
will never make the reader care about the outcome and therefore the plot becomes a moot point. Shalvis is a 'stop reading' author for me now. The formula is just too predictable.
One author who comes to mind when I think of formula is Deirdre Martin. I had high hopes for her books initially. I was looking for something fun and nothing too adrenaline rush in terms of action, nor was I in the mood for real emotional pull, so I thought Martin would be a fast and satisfactory read. My first Martin was fine. I thought the plot was mediocre and the idea was okay but the characters had their funny moments and so I decided to give her another shot. It only got worse. I really did want to like the books, and some had their potential but it got too redundant. Her characters meet, attract, date, encounter a problem, break up, mope, and get back together.
An author who changed their formula recently is that of Lisa Kleypas with her venture into contemporary fiction with Sugar Daddy. I couldn't finish the book. And that's really saying something. Of all the hundreds I've read, there's only been maybe three at the most where I just stopped reading all together. While I can admire (but not appreciate) Kleypas' trying a new formula, I cannot say that it worked. She introduced her heroine and one hero that we read for a large chunk of the novel. However, it's at least half-way if not more into the novel when we finally meet the second hero who ultimately gets the girl. Switching from one hero to the other is too hard when the readers are way too engaged with the first hero that we've read. It's especially hard to switch to the 'other guy' when readers see the characters as children or young adults who have experienced a large part of their growth together. I really was appalled at the outcome of the pairing.
Off the top of my head, two authors who stick to a certain formula but are able to disguise it are J.R. Ward and Sherrilyn Kenyon. With Ward, her plots are continual and I think that makes all the difference. The stories are so intertwined that some secondary characters will appear in books and not be resolved until future books. Case in point: the character of John Matthew. We see the introduction of John Matthew in the second book, Rhage and Mary's story in Lover Eternal. To this day, John Matthew's story is still going on and Ward will be releasing the sixth book come June. Even with that, it's not even John Matthew's novel yet. His story is really a constant thread in the Brotherhood fabric. In Ward's writing, though there is a formula, it's harder to really guess as a reader when events will come. For example, with some authors, readers can gauge when bad news is about to occur. Not so with Ward. It can happen for the main hero/heroine at anytime and for secondary characters, it's true as well. As readers of Ward can attest, those secondary characters can hit just as hard as the main couple of the book. For instance, in Z and Bella's Lover Awakened, the shock of Wellsie and Tohr really caught me off guard. With Ward, it's not easy to point out a formula, which makes for a good book and a happy reader.
In the case of Kenyon, she has an ongoing plot but I wouldn't categorize it as extensively as Ward's. With Kenyon, it's more of the feeling of an ongoing mystery. The mystery of Acheron and other various characters. But still, while I wasn't an immediate Kenyon fan, I have grown to be a loyal one and I'm glad that I stuck with the books. Kenyon is now one of my favorites, right after Ward. Kenyon has a formula, though it's not as easily categorized as other authors I've mentioned. For me personally, I feel that with each kind of Dark Hunter, whether it's the originals, the Weres, or the Dreams, they each have their own timeline formula within Kenyon's subcategories of DH's. In some sense, it was smart of Kenyon to sprinkle a Were-Hunter in the midst of reading normal Dark Hunters. Right when I got into the groove of reading Dark Hunters, she throws in that first Were-Hunter and it shakes up the formula. Quite inventive to shroud her formula so that readers don't get bored.
Overall, while I've come to see many (if not all) of the formulas from authors I've read, I think that characters really make or break the book, formula be damned. Though Jeffries follows a formula I've come to expect, she has characters who can bring out the best in her stories. But someone like Shalvis where I feel that the characters are chopped down in favor of the formulaic plot...well, that's no good for this reader. But the authors who keep me guessing...those are easily everyone's favorites. It's no wonder why legions of loyal readers flock to Kenyon or Ward.
By the way, I saw my first Kenyon Dark Hunter license plate the other day on the 5 freeway. A plate that read DRKHNTR on a truck. I'm pretty sure that was what it read. Either way, no matter the spelling, I knew with almost complete certainty that it was a Dark Hunter salute.