Jenny Crusie’s post “This Post is a Time Sink” sent me to Roger Ebert’s Glossary of Movie Terms the other day. Most of you probably know that Roger Ebert was the Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and also several syndicated movie review television shows, mostly with Gene Siskel. So because I miss Roger (he died in 2013) and I was looking to sink some time, I went to his glossary and read it.
Ebert’s definitions can apply to romance novels as well as films, and his glossary really nails it. Here’s Ali MacGraw’s Disease, for example: “Movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches.” (Named for Love Story, which MacGraw stars in.) The Hand-in-Hand Rule dictates that female characters “are incapable of fleeing from danger unless dragged by a strong man, who takes the woman’s hand and pulls her along meekly behind him. [For example], Sheena, in which a jungle-woman who has ruled savage beasts since infancy is pulled along by a TV anchorman fresh off the plane.”
There’s also Hollywood Grocery Bags (and how many times have we seen or read this one?): “Whenever a scared, cynical woman who never wants to fall in love again is pursued by an ardent suitor who wants to tear down her wall of loneliness, she goes grocery shopping. The bags will always break to (1) symbolize the mess her life is in, or (2) so that the suitor can help her pick up the pieces of her life and her oranges.” And of course there’s the Idiot Plot: “Any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots,” not to be confused with the Inevitable Sister trope: “In any movie where the heroine catches her boyfriend dancing in public with another woman and makes a big scene, the other woman invariably turns out to be the boyfriend’s sister.”
Ebert is funny and insightful, and he skewers the tropes that romance novels and films depend on. And of course tropes exist in the first place because they are handy storytelling devices that readers enjoy. But the devil’s in the details. In the hands of a skillful writer, a tired trope takes on new vitality.
I was looking to read something light and entertaining the other day, and all the descriptions and back cover copy seemed riddled with clichés. “Can John overcome his fear of commitment, and will Mary tell him the about her secret baby so together they can find happiness?” (My guess is, probably so.) “Will Jake find the clues he needs to defuse the bomb and save the world from annihilation?” (I’m thinking yes. Hell yes, if it’s a series.)
I just couldn’t force myself to click the button. In the background, I could Roger laughing at me. Was my reluctance to buy just because I was in a bad mood (hence, the search for something light and entertaining)? Or was it because, in fact, the writers had not dug deeper to refresh the trope on which their story hung?
Looking for answers, I stumbled across (yet another) year-end best romance novels of 2015 list, which Sarah MacLean compiled for the Washington Post. It includes The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev, which involves the trope of Big Misunderstanding, one my least favorite clichés. My alarms went off. But the big secret is mental illness in the family, and Dev tackles this issue along with family expectations and celebrity. Not to mention the Mumbai/American locations are definitely not your usual settings. So that’s on my TBR pile.
Second on the list is The Lady Hellion by Joanna Shupe. In this historical romance, the hero and heroine were crazy in love, but then Unfortunate Circumstances Separated Them. But the reclusive hero thinks he’s going mad because he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, while the heroine needs him to be her second in a duel because she’s masquerading as a man to save prostitutes. Definitely a twist there! Also on the TBR pile.
Playing With Fire by Kate Meader will appeal to those who like stories about first responders. This outing in the series about five adopted firefighting siblings stars a rough-and-tumble female firefighter; the hero is the mayor of Chicago, who has aspirations for higher office. Sparks fly (literally and figuratively). Looks good!
Serving Pleasure by Alisha Rai follows the Can She Save Him trope, with a twist. Our heroine becomes a Peeping Tom, watching the artist hero as he struggles with his painting after a vicious attack. What begins as a one-sided fascination ends as much more. MacLean calls this book an erotic romance, which usually is not my cup of tea. But the story definitely moves beyond the trope.
Finally, Sustained, by Emma Chase. In this one, the hero meets the heroine when one of her charges pickpockets him. The hero plays Mr. Mom to help the heroine and then tries to win her heart. That premise might sound too familiar, but MacLean says that Chase captures the male voice brilliantly, and the book is charming and surprising. I’ll check it out.
So that’s it. I feel grateful to both Roger and Sarah for helping me navigate the waters of fiction tropes to avoid A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length. But what about you? Do you prefer the comfort-level tropes, or do you need a twist? Whatever floats your boat, happy reading, all!