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Tropes: tried and tested

focused photo of a red roseI’ve recently been re-reading many novels by Sara Seale, who authored dozens of Romance novels from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Many of her plots and patterns are staggeringly similar: the last four I’ve read all feature a 19-year-old orphan heroine and a 37-year-old man living in a huge old house in Cornwall or Ireland. The dynamic between them is frequently near-identical in terms of the man being older, remote and worldly and the heroine completely innocent and wide-eyed.

But reading them leads me to two very important observations:

  1. If a reader likes a certain dynamic – and I enjoy the age-gap dynamic in Seale’s works – they will want it again and again and again.
  2. Even writing a near-exact scenario in terms of setting, dynamic, characters, it’s still possible to have huge variation and try out different angles. For example:
  • in some of the books the heroes marry the heroines as “marriage of conveniences” (no sex). In others there is no marriage. In some books the man has zero physical interest in the woman. In others he’s already interested (but usually fighting it – Seale’s books are very chaste).
  • sometimes the heroes are very attractive, other times the heroes are downright ugly, and we’re frequently reminded how ugly they are.
  • sometimes the heroes are divorced, other times they’re never married. They may be bitter due to a previous jilting or bereavement, or they may simply have never been very interested in women or relationships.
  • there are different themes, such as music or art or antiques, or running a hotel, or a troubled child.

All these differences make every book very different and interesting. It’s a new and unique story every time, even if the main characters are always the same age, the heroines have the same background, the setting is a remote castle/mansion, and there’s a glamorous rapacious evil Other Woman (most often a cousin) who is cartoon villain evil.

The messages to take from this are:

1. You don’t need to stress about repetition

Writing “more of the same” is an asset in terms of building a readership. If someone unearthed a chest containing a dozen more manuscripts by Jane Austen nearly identical to Pride & Prejudice we’d lap them up (or I would!) Readers seek out specific tropes – even clichés – because that’s what they like. That’s their fantasy. It’s their dream.

2. You do need something more than the central relationship

To add depth. This includes themes and deeper characterisation and also interaction with background characters. I’ve found with some contemporary romances that there’s almost nothing but the hero and heroine and their interactions, and it can feel both flat and suffocating. Colour is good. The heroine’s life progression in particular is good.