I write genre fiction, and I say it without apology. I write what is often called "popular fiction" (to which I always want to ask, "Why would I want to write unpopular fiction?"). My 65+ books fall into such genres (or sub-genres) as historical sagas, historical romance, contemporary romance, and contemporary women's fiction. All of my books since 1999 are also Christian fiction.
Writers of genre fiction often bristle when someone says the word "formula." To many, that equates to saying all of our books are the same, that if you follow some predefined formula anybody could write one. But all historical romances, for instance, are not the same. The journeys of the heroes and heroines are unique to a book's plot and to a writer's style and voice. There isn't a formula to be followed. (Sometimes I wish there were!) So if that is the meaning when someone says "formula," then I'll bristle too.
However, all historical romance (again my "for instance" genre) are the same when it comes to meeting readers expectations. Or at least, they'd better be.
When a reader picks up a romance, they expect the hero and heroine to overcome the problems (physical and emotional) that separate them and, by the end of the book, to make a lasting commitment to one another in love. When a reader picks up a mystery, they expect the protagonist to solve the mystery by the end of the book. When a reader picks up a fantasy, they expect to find themselves in another realm of some sort.
Fail to meet readers' expectations, and a genre novel will fail to satisfy.
In Stanley D. Williams' The Moral Premise (a book for screenwriters but applicable to novelists too), he writes:
Genre films create certain audience expectations for the protagonist. Often the protagonist’s arc is known by the audience before the movie begins. Such expectations about the construction of genres may predetermine how the protagonist reacts to the story’s moral premise and conflict. This is because, as Thomas Schatz explains in Hollywood Genres, genre movies deal with fundamental cultural conflicts that can never be ultimately resolved but yet offer a solution, if only temporary and idealistic. Schatz refers to these fundamental, never-truly-to-be-resolved conflicts as the “static nucleus” of genre stories, and the resolution as the film’s “dynamic surface structure.”
In these terms, Westerns are stories about rugged individualism; that is, a hero who helps a community resolve a problem of social integration that brings about a new social order. But in the end, our Western hero returns to his individual ways and cannot himself be integrated into the new order.
[and a little later]
In the Romantic Comedy the fundamental differences between the sexes are temporarily resolved through a new order of compromise for the sake of love. But after the wedding, everyone expects the sparks to fly again.
Genre, therefore, helps define and describe the arc that the story, and thus each character, is expected to take as they test and then embrace or reject the Moral Premise.
I am now better than 12% into my latest work-in-progress which is (this will come as no surprise to most folks reading this post) an historical romance. It will release in the spring of 2013.
I've written dozens of historical romances in my career (complete list here), but I have never before written the story of Tyson and Diana (see image at left for how I envision their physical appearances). Their stories as individuals have never been told before. Their story as a couple hasn't been told before either. And that's why readers of historical romance will want to pick up this novel even if they've read a thousand romances before this one. Because they'll want to know Tyson and Diana and discover how these two individuals, who have such obstacles facing them and forcing them apart, will ever manage to overcome those same obstacles in order to find a lasting love.
Formula? No. Meeting a reader's expectations? Yes. The latter is both my job and my pleasure.