Genre is important. Readers have expectations for their genre, and genres have certain conventions. While authors will play with conventions and tropes on occasion, there are still certain things that they will hold to. Fantasy needs an element of the fantastic. Be it high fantasy, urban fantasy or any other form of fantasy. Science fiction needs to take an element of science, or at least something that sounds like science. Historical fiction must take place at some point in the past and be accurate to that time.
The problem of genre is when the writer isn’t completely certain what kind story that they’re even writing. Then you get some of the more annoying elements of the Twilight Saga:
It’s Not a Romance (But It’s Trying to Be)
One issue with the Twilight Saga is very simple: Meyer doesn’t seem to be sure what genre she wants to write. Oh, the story is billed as a romance, and it seems that that’s mostly what her focus is, but in the end, she seems to have more elements from urban fantasy and horror than she does of romance.
So, before I go too deep into the idea of where Meyer isn’t quite getting the point, I’m going to talk a little about romance conventions and then why Meyer isn’t really doing that great of a job in fulfilling them.
Genre Conventions: Romance
So, romance is a surprisingly misunderstood genre for all that it’s one of the most popular genres, and one of the longer lived ones. I’m pretty sure that that genre is going to be one of the ones that always survives, just because it’s dealing with such a common theme that the vast majority of people share.
And, like every other genre, it’s got conventions.
Romance, either YA or adult relies on the tension between the characters to be the driving force. Everything that happens in the story must be because of the characters. Characterization is what the genre is built on, and what makes it sell. And it’s either a hit or a miss. If the one male lead doesn’t do it for you, you’re not going to find something else about the story to work with. This IS the story.
There is usually less outside plot than what is going on in the characters’ lives that either keeps them from being together, drives them apart, or forces them together long enough for emotion to set in. You often times don’t have a real ‘antagonist’, but when you do, it’s often someone personally invested, for their own reasons, in keeping the couple away from one another.
Romance is a funny genre since, while it, when standing alone, only attracts a smaller fraction of people (usually women), it is also the easiest genre to blend into other genres, and attracts a lot of people.
It’s easy to have a main story with romance. It’s easy to have two people fall in love over the course of events in a horror, an urban fantasy, high fantasy, mystery, sci-fi or any other form of story.
However, the opposite isn’t so true.
The Forms of Romance Detract from the Story
In romance, the drama, tension and major focus remains on the main characters. The driving force is their drama. You could even call it, to some degree, a character driven plot. However, this isn’t the case in all genres. For instance, horror and fantasy both tend to be event driven. Oh, sometimes it starts but the character moving to a new place or finding a thing, but ultimately the driving force is applied to the character rather than coming from them.
In the Twilight Saga, the action and drama stay firmly with Edward and Bella and their issues. This is fine for a romance, but there are too many urban fantasy elements. You have actual antagonists, and you have a societal problem in the form of the Volturi (or at least you should) that should be taking the main focus on the plot. In this case, the forms of romance, and the focus on the drama between the main characters only serves to make them both seem incredibly selfish.
It’s fine, in a romance novel set in the Victorian Era, to have a main character who mostly deals with her own issues. Yes, there are societal problems, and maybe she should try to focus on helping others, but it’s very much like our world. Yes, there are problems, but for the most part, we tend to focus on our daily lives, and only reach out when we can.
In the Twilight Saga, we have, not a problem but a legit threat that kills people in front of the protagonists that they do nothing about.
There is no scene that illustrates this better than the scene in New Moon when Bella and Edward have been reunited, and the Volturi bring in a bunch of tourists. Bella knows what is about to happen. She can see the fear on the one woman’s face who seems to know what is going on, and she does nothing. She sits, with Edward and Alice, in a nice area, away from it, but Bella’s heard the screams, and Edward can just dismiss it with “I wish you hadn’t had to see that” (Meyer 487) and by the next page, they’re happily gushing about how happy Bella is to be reunited with Edward, and what she’s seen is brushed aside.
The focus remains steadily on Bella and Edward and their relationship, but all the focus does is make the two of them look utterly selfish and uncaring about anything that isn’t about them. Bella never considers what’s she’s seen. She never worries about the fact that these are the people who run all the vampires.
It doesn’t matter because the story isn’t about the Volturi. They’re supposed to just be one of the factors that forces Edward to transform Bella so that they can have their happily ever after.
That is why, in the end of the series, everyone just talks it out and goes home. Because, to Meyer’s mind, this is a romance. They end up, like the characters in Merchant of Venice tricking the Volturi through legal issues and they can all go home happy, with the Volturi humiliated. And, if this were a romance, and the Volturi were not supposed to be actual threats, this might work. Unfortunately, all it seems to be in reality is the main characters steadfastly ignoring anything that isn’t directly about them. Including when their allies decide to eat people, and the simple fact that the Volturi are probably going to go home, consolidate their power, and murder them all later.
The Side Plot is More Interesting
If you actually look at a lot of romances, nothing actually happens that is not directly instigated by the main couple. This means that you’re not dealing with a much more interesting subplot that is generally getting ignored in favor if the couple.
In the Twilight Saga that’s just what is happening.
Now, in Twilight, this isn’t the case. There is nothing, outside action wise that happens until James and co. manage to stumble onto the Cullen’s baseball game. However, as the series progresses, subplots are introduced: the issue with the werewolves and the Volturi, Jane who seems to have some kind of agenda, Victoria and her revenge, and the new born vampires. All of these are, honestly, more interesting than the main plot, which is essentially whether Bella is going to become a vampire or not.
As a reader, it’s hard to be particularly invested in Bella’s woes that Edward has left her, or that she has to marry him if she wants to be a vampire when you have Victoria stalking around, killing people and generally being dangerous. This is more interesting. This demands more attention. Far more attention than the relationship drama between the main characters. The subplot is more interesting and more immediate than any love triangle, and again, the fact that Bella is more interested in romance than the literal serial killer than is going after her, makes her seem both selfish, and…kind of stupid.
Now, does that mean that nothing can happen in romance? No. For instance, I’ve read plenty of historic romances that have major events happening in the background, but it’s clear that those events are the setting. They are adding to the main story, and perhaps being part of the reason that the characters are meeting, but usually they are heavily in the background, and only come into play to cause conflict. And you usually do not meet with antagonists who have greater goals than to separate the hero and heroine for some reason or other.
By deviating from this, Meyer created potentially threatening villains, and thus a situation that demanded more attention paid to it than Meyer wanted to.
The Romantic Focus Makes the Characters Selfish
I’ve hinted on this a few times, but I’m going to actually talk about it here. The focus on the romance makes it so that the characters are even less likable than they would have been otherwise. Pretending that Edward was not a creep and Bella was not a budding sociopath, just with their interactions toward one another, if we were to look at the fact that the plot is so focused on romance, there is no way that the characters don’t seem selfish.
The reason is simple. Let’s look at Gone with the Wind. Ignoring the book’s flaws, particularly regarding an idealization of slavery, there is a lot of action that goes on during the Civil War, however, while this is a love story, the war is given the focus that it needs, with people talking about it constantly, it occupying the thoughts of characters, including Scarlet, and influencing the plot and the lives of the characters. There is one scene where the Sherman starts marching on Atlanta, and Scarlet suddenly finds herself surrounded with dying people, many of them she’d known and danced with and sort of shuts down.
If all she was thinking about was her relationship with Rhett at that point, it would be kind of awful.
While she’s usually outside of the action, when the action comes calling, it shakes (and shapes) the plot, and effects the characters.
If a character who we are supposed to see as shallow and kind of awful can avoid being see as that terrible thanks to the right focus at the right time, then it’s something to consider.
In reality, given the later books action and the plots occurring in the background, there wasn’t really a way that Bella and Edward couldn’t come off as selfish characters.
Now, I’ve heard some people say that ‘oh, Bella is just a human, she couldn’t do anything’. While I’ll focus on Meyer’s gross anti-human sentiment in the future, the problem with that is that she could do something even if it was nothing more than focusing more on the outside events than her personal life. And her boyfriend definitely could have done something.
While a focus on the character’s relationship is fine when most of the tension is coming from that, but when there is an outside source of tension that is a constant, it’s going to make the characters seem like utter self-centered jerks.
It’s Too Long
Most romances only last a book. The reason is simple, once the characters have decided they love one another, the tension is over. Twilight was also supposed to last only for one book, and, if you look at it, it actually works as a standalone. The major tension is resolved, the couple seems to think that they’re going to be happy, and everything is going well. Meyer could have ended the entire city on the first book, with the hint that maybe she will be a vampire or maybe not. It wasn’t a perfect ending, and it didn’t wrap everything up, but at the same time, it almost didn’t need it.
There was an element of mystery, but the two were happy for now. Maybe that was enough. At most Forever Dawn would have been acceptable as a sequel to the novel.
It could not support three more books. One of the reasons that the Volturi were so ineffective, as I mentioned in their chapter, was that they just showed up in the second book with no lead in to them. That’s because they didn’t really exist. This is not a series that Stephenie Meyer decided to plot out from start to finish, so that she knew everything that was going to happen. Meyer admits that the reason that the series went on was simply that she couldn’t let go of the characters.
Unfortunately, all this did was draw out a situation that could hold for one, maybe two, books into four. It’s one of the reasons that literally nothing happens in Eclipse that couldn’t have been summed up or introduced into Breaking Dawn.
A series can only be as good, or as strong, as the plot that supports it, and in the case of the Twilight Saga, it’s driving force was simply will Bella get turned into a vampire or not, which was resolved at the end of the second book, and will she get married, which didn’t need a book to resolve.
Even my rewrite has only got the planning for a trilogy. There’s just not enough to justify a forth book.
Had Meyer wanted the series to last for so long, she needed to focus on other elements than romance. Romance would have needed to take more of a back burner. Of course, things didn’t work that way.
And the other elements that she focused on were…strange.
The Horror Elements
I’ve said this before: I get the feeling that, deep down, Meyer really wants to write horror. The idea of imprinting, the sheer overpowered nature of the vampires, and the fact that in Meyerland humans are just bugs in the face of monsters that can kill them easily are all things that are pretty horrific.
But they don’t really lend themselves to romance. Horror makes a fine gothic backdrop, but it cannot be too pronounced in romance. The reason is simple: too much horror is unsettling. There is a mood for romance. Having too much horror is the literary equivalent to some icky couple making out through a haunted out attraction. It’s fine to have them clinging to one another, or make out after it, but the horror must be over.
Meyer tried to marry the two together, and has a result had awkward scenes such as Bella and Edward passionately declaring their love for one another while there were people being murdered in the next room. Or having the almost mind-numbingly horrific description of birth in Breaking Dawn, which was supposed to end up being tender and sweet. When, reading it, it gave me uncomfortable memories of Rosemary’s Baby.
At some level, I almost feel that Meyer wants to say something that might only be able to said using horror, but is holding herself back, so instead of a gothic novel, which often can contain some pretty disturbing themes, we have a horror novel that seems not to understand that it has horror in it.
So, I’ve whined about the whole thing, how does one fix this? Plan the series.
Know that the series is going to be long, and plan the growth of the relationship. I know that some people really, really don’t like outlines, but a basic plan can really help with a series. Have at least a basic idea of what you want to happen, what you want revealed and how.
Since most of the problem with this series is the fact that it’s taken too long, and the plot overlaps the love story, allow the love story to or actively become part of the character motivation and the plot. Allow the plot to work with the romance, and the romance with the plot, not trying to overpower it. No, it’s not necessarily the main focus, but that’s ok. Some of the most enduring pairings that I’ve read took time. They were parts of overlapping stories, and when they got their happy ending, they deserved it. It’s ok to develop a romance over several books.
Meyer wanted the romance of her novels to be a major factor. The problem was that she wouldn’t work with her story and her plot, but rather attempted to force it, while adding elements that hurt her characters, hurt her themes, and ended up, at the end of her series, with a great deal of disappointed fans.