|Photo credit: Elena V's husband!|
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.
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.|
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.)
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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?