“Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again.” – Louisa May Alcott
My father read a lot, but almost exclusively read Perry Mason books written by Erle Stanley Gardner. As a teenager I tried reading a few, but gave up because it seemed to me they were all the same story. Someone, usually a woman, is accused of murder. Perry, Della Street (his secretary) and Paul Drake (his investigator) search for clues. The story always ends with Perry discovering the real killer and getting him to confess on the witness stand. Since I didn’t read very many of them, I’m not sure if that would qualify for a trope or a formula, but in my mind it made for boring reading. My father thought I was overly critical. As far as he was concerned, Perry Mason was the best. And hey, I was a teenager. Of course I was overly critical. Unfortunately, I never really outgrew that trait.
As an aside, Mr. Gardner had one of the most enlightening quote about writing I’ve ever read. Before he started on Perry Mason he wrote westerns for the pulp magazines. He said someone asked him why his heroes, who were crack shots, always had to empty their six-shooters before hitting the bad guy. He said that every shot was a ‘bang.” He got paid five cents a word and he wasn’t going to end a shoot-out when he still had twenty-five cents worth of ammunition in his gun.
But to get back to tropes. While the word has more than one meaning, in this instance I am talking about what Wikipedia has defined as “[a] commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” In other words, the basic outline of the story before characters, locales and plots have been added. While tropes are prevalent in all genres of literature, they are the mainstay of Romance novels. I believe the main reason for this is that to be able to earn a living writing in the genre you have to write a lot of books one after another. Mary Balogh has published over one hundred books. Nora Roberts over 200 books. Sometimes I think authors should be required to keep their day jobs so they don’t have to write so many books so quickly to survive. Or maybe society should just provide them with rich sponsors – or spouses – to support them. In any event, an author just can’t write that many books if she has to have completely new ideas for each one. Using a common trope gives the author a head start on each book, allowing her to increase her production. It also gives potential readers some advance information to help them decide what they want to invest their time in.
There are certain tropes I avoid, not because they aren’t legitimate stories. They can be well-written stories by authors I usually enjoy reading, but I just don’t like the particular type of angst in these stories.
I don’t like, and seldom read, stories where a character has been falsely accused of a wrongdoing. This is most often found in mysteries, but also comes up in Romances on occasion. Generally it is the lead character who has been accused, although often it is a friend, relative, or lover. These stories just make me uncomfortable, even though I know all will be revealed in the end, so I avoid them.
Finding a Lot Love is another trope I avoid. It is a frequent theme in Romance novels. In straight Romances it usually has a woman (Character A) returning to the small town where she grew up and immediately running into the guy (Character B) with whom she a) had a crush on in high school but never had the nerve to approach, or b) the one who took her virginity then dumped her, or she dumped him. In most of these stories ‘B’ was a ‘bad boy’ as a teenager but has become a cop. They almost always re-meet when ‘B’ stops ‘A’ for a traffic violation as she drives into town.
In lesfic, ‘A’ reluctantly returns to her home town and immediately runs into the ‘B,’ whom she had a crush on as a teenager. Or they’d had a short fling. Or kissed once. One of the other of them, usually ‘B,’ either didn’t want to be ‘outed’ or didn’t want to believe she was gay. Now she is divorced/widowed/in a bad marriage just waiting for ‘A’ to come back and make her life complete. Often there are kids involved – cute kids, of course.
I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it. I don’t care for those stories in the straight Romances, and even less in lesbian Romances. While I have nothing against cute kids, as a literary device they can be annoying. Apparently I’m in the minority as these books are very popular.
A trope that I like is Marriage of Convenience, which appears frequently in Regency and Victorian books. It actually fits with the times as most upper-class marriages were for reasons of wealth, status or connections. Surprisingly, at least to me, it also a common trope in lesfic. Often it is an Engagement of Convenience, or a Girlfriend of Convenience, but it’s the same story. For some reason, most often financial Character ‘A’ has to get a partner quickly. Enter Character ‘B.’ In Regencies/Victorians this usually is required for an inheritance. In lesfic it can also be about fame or notoriety. Many of these, both straight and lesbian, are boring and predictable, but by a good writer they can be very good indeed.
The most recent I’ve read was “Just for Show” by Jae. ‘A’ was trying to market a book about relationships when her fiancée dumped her. She needed another on in a hurry show off to a potential publisher so she hires an actress, ‘B,’ to fill in for the missing fiancee. And of course they have sex, then reluctantly fall in love, etc. to HEA. Even though this book is formulaic, following the trope to its logical end, Jae is an extremely skilled writer – it’s a great read. In fact, it’s nominated for a Lambda Literary award for the best lesbian romance of the year.
Another of these that I enjoyed was “Who Would Have Thought” by G. Benson. Again, a marvelously skilled writer telling what otherwise could have been a trite story. “The Arrangement,” a straight Regency by Mary Balogh, also qualifies as a great read for a formulaic book.
Interestingly the NatashaWest book “A Marriage of Connivance” is not an MoC story, but another of her books, “Just Married,” is. Goes to show you can’t judge a book by its title.
One more trope that you find often in both Regency/Victorian Romances and lesfic is Reforming the Rake. In the historicals it is generally a licentious nobleman, ‘A,’ who meets and falls for a prim virgin,’B.’. In lesfic ‘A’ tends to be a ‘player’ whose sex life consists of picking up women for one-night-stands. Then she falls for ‘B,’ a virtuous lesbian and settles down. Yeah, right.
There are more of these I could get into, but enough for now.
Novel Report: Very little progress, but I have been busy on another project. Last week I published another book on Amazon. “Girl of My Dreams” is a novella about two geeky women who meet on vacation, have sex and fall in love. You can still be the first to purchase it – and if you do please write a review. Also my collection of short stories, “Women’s Passions” is still available. You can be the second to buy that one. I’ve got to work on that promotion thing.