Photo credit: Elena V's husband!
[Special note about the illustrations for this post: Since I never grab random pics off the internet, I asked my readers for cat pics. They responded with a flood of cute cat pics, on this Facebook thread. Thank you all!]

By Sarina Bowen

Making Familiar Tropes New Again

It isn’t uncommon to hear someone complain, “NA contemporaries are all the same.” Now, I know we don’t subscribe to that point of view around here. But it’s a good exercise to stop and think for a moment why that complaint turns up. It could be A) people who say that aren’t paying enough attention or B) tropes.

Or both.

The word trope, in the context of a literary discussion, means: a recurring literary device, motif or cliché.

If you hang around romance editors, they love dishing about their favorite tropes. One editor will love secret baby books and hate arranged marriage stories. The one sitting next to her will have a thing for rock star vs. commoner but dislike accidental pregnancy stories.

One of my favorite bloggers, Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, refers to her favorite
Photo credit: Yash L.
tropes and archetypes as her “catnip.” And I love that analogy! Because catnip might be addictive to kitty, but does not fully sustain kitty.

A beloved trope may be the reason that a reader picks up a book, but the thing that makes that reader leave a gushing 5-star review will be something else—a great story, unique voice, sidesplitting banter, a heartbreaking denouement, or a squeal-inducing plot twist.

In other words, a great writer takes a familiar trope and puts her own fresh stamp on it. However. Not all tropes are equally applicable to all types of stories.

If we define contemporary New Adult books by the age of their characters (and while I don’t need us to all agree on the definition of NA, this one is a well-accepted generalization) there are going to be some tropes that work better than others. And that’s probably why some NA stories resemble one another: First love. Still scarred by a difficult childhood. Virgins. Big brother’s best friend. Overcoming a recent trauma. Those all work well for 19-20-somethings. But when they often recur together, our readers may begin to experience déjà vu.

Conversely, in this age category certain tropes are much harder to pull off. For the younger set, second-chance-at-love, arranged marriage, and forbidden romance are not often applicable.

So what’s a girl to do if only some of the tropes work, and on a bad day it seems as if they’ve been done to death?

Come On Baby, Let's Do the Twist

Using those less common tropes is not impossible. It just takes some twisting. In The Understatement of the Year I’m arguably using both second chance at love and forbidden romance. (Although the romance may only be forbidden in one character’s head.)

Photo credit: Kev E.
I read an awesome YA called Graffiti Moon recently, which worked a second-chance-at-love story for a couple of high school students. Tricky, right? But this author pulled it off to great effect.

Sometimes all it takes is the tiniest twist off the familiar trope to create something new. When I was brainstorming for The Year We Hid Away, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to write about a girl who had been abused, because that had been done so well already by others. (So many others!) Then it occurred to me to write a story about someone who hadn’t been abused, but instead who had been tarnished by the scandal in a secondary way, and couldn’t get out from under the stigma. Et voila. The plot for that book just sort of took off underneath me like a frisky pony, and it was all I could do to hold on tight with both hands.

For The Year We Fell Down, I put the heroine in a wheelchair. I chose this conflict because most NA books feature a character who is broken on the inside. So my first thought was “I’m going to break one on the outside and see what happens.” The result was a character whose discomfort at wearing her troubles so visibly made her struggle feel fresh to me. (And hopefully to the reader.)

Here are a couple more trope twists I’ve noticed lately:

  • Twist on the virgin trope: In Lost and Found by Nicole Williams, and All of You by Christina Lee, it’s the heroes that are virgins! 
  • Twist on the fake boyfriend / girlfriend trope: In Finding Cinderella, the faked relationship isn’t done to convince anyone else, it’s done for the couple. Actually, this book twists two more tropes, too, but if I named them they’d be spoilers! Basically, I want to plot like Colleen Hoover when I grow up.

What are your favorite trope twists? And do you notice tropes when you’re reading NA?

Post a Comment

  1. I admit that I'm drawn to tropes. I especially like class differences and tortured heroes.

  2. Ooh. Class differences is a good one. It's a contemporary version of forbidden love.

  3. I LOVE this post so much. Some tropes immediately turn me off (i.e. billionaires), while others are totally my catnip (i.e. bickering couples, couples who fight together, the bodyguard crush, etc.). :)

    P.S. I love the way you obtained your images!

    1. Thank you! I will say that asking for cat pics EXPLODED my FB interaction, too. In the best way. (Note to self...)

  4. Fun post, Sarina. I do have tropes I like and dislike-- "fish out of water" is one I use a lot.
    P.S. Great cat photos!

  5. I love this post!! (Not because my kitty is here lol)
    Colleen Hoover is amazing with plot lines and trope twists! I agree on so many things you said.
    Well done!

  6. I think it's very helpful to view your story in terms of tropes, embracing them. (I know some think it's a dirty word, but I'm not sure there is a 100% original idea.) Then asking how you can alter them in some fun, unique way.

    Great post, Sarina!

  7. Awesome post, and I'm not even a cat lover. :)

    It's nice to have a reminder -- especially when we're stuck with plotting -- that there are many ways to skin a cat. (pun intended.)

  8. EJ-- you make a good point that "tropes" can be described as cheap. But that's just not true. Literary fiction contains tons of tropes! Michael Chabon's THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION is my favorite by him. And that book is brimming with tropes. It's a whodunit and a second chance at love romance. But it's set in the most amazing speculative time and place, and with flawless writing. And Mr. Chabon was smart enough to realize that his audience turns pages all the more quickly because they DO want to know whodunit and whether our policeman gets his girl.

    Tropes? Bring 'em.

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  10. Great post! And I *LOVE* GRAFFITTI MOON.


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