Form, Content, and a Haystack or Two


Every now and then I run across a piece that explains something in such a perfect way that all I can do is read and marvel. I just came from such a piece, by Theresa Stevens, at whose feet I lay chocolates truffles.

She explains the appeal of romance in terms far better than I ever could, indeed, in terms that I could not have begun to articulate. Indeed, I wasn’t even too sure that I had the concept, yet her explanation resonates in the way of true things.  I urge you to read the entire piece; you will understand the allure of romance at a level that goes far beyond true love and hot guys. And still be ready to read the hot guys.

…Art, whether paintings or novels, consists of both form and content. For us, the novel is the form. It is built of language, but not just any kind of language; the novel is written in narrative prose…

…Content, we might say, is specific to a particular work. It’s what we put inside our form to make our specific work meaningful, or it’s what our work is about. It’s what we use to make an intimate connection to our audience. Form is “heroine,” but content is “Minerva Dobbs.” Form is “romantic conflict,” but content is, “Minerva knows Cal bet ten grand that he could get her into bed within a month, but she needs a date to her sister’s wedding so she strings him along for a few weeks.” There are other ways to define form and content, but for our purposes, form stays true from work to work, but content changes.

What Monet did (and what we as romance novelists do in some ways) is extend the definition of form into areas that might otherwise be deemed content. A painter might ordinarily define his painting as “a painting of a haystack” to distinguish it from a painting of a puppy or a battlefield or a melting clock. The content in that case is what makes it unique. But with a series of paintings of haystacks, the haystack itself is as ubiquitous as the canvas, frame, or paint. It becomes part of the form. The content, then, is not puppy vs. haystack, but autumn haystack vs. winter haystack, or sunset winter haystack vs. sunrise winter haystack vs. noon winter haystack…

Yes, this, when the question is “Why romance? You know how it’s going to end.”  Yes, I do know how it will end, but I don’t know how it will get there. A haystack at noon looks different than a haystack at sunset, a haystack in summer is not the same as the haystack in winter, and a lot of those haystacks hang in museums.

To find this wonderful explanation at the beginning of a new year refreshes me–I am working on another romance, but I am doing more than that: I am experimenting with haystacks. I have haystacks in the snow, now I’m setting a few of them on fire.

Read the entire piece here, while I go find Theresa Stevens another truffle.

3 responses to “Form, Content, and a Haystack or Two

  1. I saw that too. [nod] Excellent, and very true — a great model for fiction.


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