Sunday 24 September 2017

Romance, tragedy - and a spark of inspiration...

Nicholas Sparks sells millions of books and movie tickets by adhering to a strict formula. Want to copy him? Here's how

The Longest Ride starring Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood (out now)
The Longest Ride starring Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood (out now)
Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
The Last Song (2010)
Safe Haven (2013)
Dear John (2010)
The Notebook (2004)

Helen O'Hara

Nicholas Sparks is more than just a bestselling author of sappy romantic fiction; he's a pop culture phenomenon. A former pharmaceutical salesman from Omaha, Nebraska, Sparks has sold a reported 97 million books worldwide, and the films based on them have, so far, have grossed a total not far short of $1billion.

The first Sparks adaptation was Message in a Bottle in 1999, with Kevin Costner and Robin Wright as the couple united when a journalist finds his letters in a bottle to his dead wife (he dies at the end).

That was followed by A Walk to Remember in 2002, where Shane West's bad boy falls for Mandy Moore's cancer-stricken teen (she dies).

But the one that really showed how big these films could be was The Notebook, making teens swoon since 2004 (Gena Rowlands and James Garner both die).

It took a while for the cult appeal of The Notebook to become clear, but since then we've had a steady stream of Sparks adaptations.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) skewed a little old, but the more recent efforts and their younger casts have hit a steady rhythm.

After two films in 2010 - Dear John and The Last Song - there has been one movie a year since 2012, in The Lucky One, Safe Haven, The Best of Me and now The Longest Ride, released last week and currently sitting pretty in the box office charts.

Another, The Choice, is scheduled for 2016. Given Sparks has published 17 novels to date, there are still another six to adapt, so we're set until at least 2022 even if he never writes another word

How has Sparks achieved all this? Put simply, he has a formula - the following six basic rules - and sticks to it:

Don't call it a romance

Perhaps because the genre is associated with lady writers who wear a lot of pink, the martial-arts practising Sparks refuses to countenance any description of his love stories as "romance".

"I don't write romance novels," he has said. "Love stories - it's a very different genre. I would be rejected if I submitted any of my novels as romance novels."

Of A Walk to Remember, he said in 2002, "It's not a romance novel. This is not a dreamy fantasy. It is about real love on a number of levels."

Trumpet your literary history

To produce each novel - roughly one a year since 1996 - Sparks writes 2,000 words a day, three or four days a week, for four or five months. He sees himself as part of a grand tradition.

"I write in a genre that was not defined by me," he once said. "The examples were not set out by me. They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were called 'the Greek tragedies'. These are love stories.

"They went from there to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms."

Sparks believes in adhering closely to his formula. As he puts it: "I could, theoretically, do a novel set in the 1800s. But the last thing I want to do is a novel that not a lot of people may read, because it's not what they expect.

"I don't want to disappoint them if they bought my book in good faith, expecting one thing, only to discover I delivered something entirely different."

Identify the conflict

The toughest part of writing a book, says Sparks, is finding "the primary conflict" that will keep his characters apart despite their instant attraction and evident compatibility.

In Dear John, it's 9/11 and the hero's determination to go to fight in Afghanistan. In Nights in Rodanthe, it's the hero's immediate need to go reconnect with his son in South America.

If all else fails, it will emerge that one of our central couple is rich with a snooty family who disapproves of the other's humble background: this trope features in The Notebook, Dear John, The Best of Me, The Last Song, A Walk to Remember and The Lucky One.

Whatever stands in their way, no one will curse at any point.

Unite your characters, then let love tear them apart

This is easy. At some point in the last 80 years or so, our straight, white heroes meet in a beautiful town on the North Carolina coast. She will be gorgeous, but humble, and unlucky in love. He will be stoic, a man of few words who has a latent capacity for violence. He will look great in jeans.

But something stands in the way. At least one will have a tragedy in the past - a dead spouse, perhaps, or an undeserved prison sentence, or a family illness (Safe Haven, The Best of Me, The Last Song).

There are thorny class issues, too, because one of them will almost certainly live in a beautiful antebellum mansion while the other comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Occasionally, there will be a war, and our hero will have to go away and fight (Dear John, The Notebook, The Longest Ride).

And if all else fails, the pair's own high ideals will separate them and demand that one sacrifices his or her happiness to the greater good, at least temporarily (Dear John, Nights in Rodanthe).

Kill your darlings

After someone dies at the end - and at least one person always does - the survivors will learn a bittersweet lesson on life and love and emerge with a sense of quietly tragic happiness.

Occasionally, one of the central couple will die, just to keep you on your toes, but more often it's a family member. You can usually spot the sacrificial lamb because they will be the one spouting the most obnoxious cod philosophy about savouring life and following your heart.

The soon-to-be-dead, you see, are wise and in touch with the universe. As Sparks puts it: "Faith, forgiveness, family - if you get it just right, these are themes that touch viewers, because they recognise them in their own lives."

Never change the poster

One aspect of the Sparks formula is absolute. The posters for all these movies must involve a man with his hand on a woman's face, or as one online wag titled them: "White people almost kissing".

On no account should you deviate from this rule, which has been achieved following extensive testing. (© The Daily Telegraph)

The Longest Ride is out now

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