The preview scene
Have you ever wondered about the brief scene that is printed on the opening page of a category romance novel? Extracted from the main story, this scene usually depicts a paradigmatic romance moment—the sexually charged build-up to the first kiss, an argument that results in a steamy lip-lock, the overwhelming sexual ecstasy the characters experience during lovemaking, etc.
Like the trailer for a movie, the preview scene seems designed to give the audience a taste of what is to come and incite them to read on. Yet preview scenes tend to single out very specific, often formulaic elements of the romance narrative: passages which focus on the couple’s exceptionally intense, over-the-top sexual attraction or on the miraculous, seemingly instantaneous switch from conflict to sexual desire that is a hallmark of contemporary romance novels and romantic comedies. Attraction and conflict are, of course, two of the main forces driving the romance narrative. Yet their stereotypical, often clichéd representation in the necessarily brief preview scene raises a question. Why are precisely such extremely conventional and formulaic scenes consistently selected for the preview?
The first answer to this question is simple: an emphatically conventional preview scene creates absolute clarity about the generic identity of the novel in question. Everybody who reads the scene—even if they know nothing about romance novels and rely only on the overgeneralizing cultural stereotypes about the genre—instantly recognizes its use of romance conventions, leaving no doubt that the narrative is a romance novel. This kind of instantaneous and universal generic identification is vital in the marketing of every form of contemporary genre fiction—and the preview scene is, of course, first and foremost a marketing tool. This is, however, not all the preview scene does.
To romance readers, the preview scene also illustrates how the author represents general conventions of the genre (and the imprint) in a concrete, singular scene. It shows, in other words, how the author fulfils the core creative task of the category romance format: using the genre’s conventions in such a way that they are at once both recognizable and novel, familiar and new. What to outsiders then appears to be a scene only filled with conventional generic elements—which is to say, presumably, the most “predictable,” “unimaginative,” and otherwise uncreative parts of the romance genre—is to experienced romance readers precisely the kind of scene that best prefigures the delicate, intricate aesthetic dynamic between conventionality and variation that underpins the entire category romance format. Only romance readers know the genre’s (and the imprint’s) conventions well enough to recognize variation as variation, novelty as novelty. Anticipating this sort of expert reading, romance publishers select extremely conventional scenes as preview scenes precisely because these scenes best illustrate the format’s central aesthetic dynamic.
Finally, the preview scene also offers the romance reader a first glimpse or taste (choose your metaphor) of the author’s voice—that is, the conglomerate of stylistic elements that characterize one’s writing and make it unique. Voice is particularly important in the popular romance genre (just ask editors and reviewers!) because how the author tells the story can decisively influence the reader’s ability to connect to it, no matter what the story itself may contain. The preview scene offers a first instantiation of the author’s voice and allows romance readers to determine in an instant if it appeals to them. If it does, the chance that this reader will like the story as a whole rise exponentially.
At first glance, then, the preview scene that shows up on the opening page of the category romance novel might seem to confirm and perpetuate a very stereotypical, even formulaic image of the genre—at least, that is, if the glance comes from someone who’s not a romance reader. A closer examination of this fascinating feature reveals that this scene functions in a much more complex and sophisticated way, much like the popular romance narrative as a whole.