Advice from the Archives: Keep It Fresh!

by Johanna Raisanen, Editor (from a 2014 post on this blog)

So you’ve written a secret-baby story and you’re debating submitting to us. Well, you should!

But perhaps you’ve been told that secret-baby stories are so cliché! I recently read an article about “the worst romance-novel clichés,” where the author lists a lot of tropes found in romance and explains why she thinks they’re terrible. Well, she was missing out on something important, and I’m here to say you should write that secret-baby story, if that’s the story you want to tell. If you do, be sure to make it the freshest secret-baby story ever. At Harlequin, the editors are always looking for original twists on the classic romance-novel themes that are popular with many readers.

Any romance fan can name tropes and clichés that are instantly recognizable. How many times have you read a marriage-of-convenience story where the heroine’s family vineyard/farm/home is on the brink of financial disaster and the hero swoops in to save the day—but only if the heroine marries him!  Or the classic will story, where someone dies and there’s a stipulation in the will that the hero must get married in order to inherit the family fortune. How about a friends-to-lovers story where the hero and heroine are friends—until they’re more than friends. These are all oldies, but goodies. The first two examples are tough in a contemporary novel, but I could see them working quite well in historical romances. But secret-baby stories, friends-to-lovers, reunion stories and other tropes continue to be popular in contemporary romance novels. Why?

One of my favorite movies is When Harry Met Sally. This movie comes right out and says “men and women can never really be friends.” You might agree or disagree, but Harry and Sally start out not liking each other, then they become friends, then they aren’t and then they fall in love. The movie is a friends-to-lovers story, but it’s told in a brilliant and fresh way that makes the movie tough to beat. It’s interesting that the 2014 movie, The F Word starring Daniel Radcliffe (released as What If in the U.S.), also tackles the friends-to-lovers theme (the F in the title refers to the word Friend). I wonder if it will be as original as When Harry Met Sally

Another example of a tried-and-true premise is the movie The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. A classic fake-engagement story, right? But the movie was successful because it added twists that helped make this oldie-but-goodie fresh and contemporary. I thought the power imbalance in favor of the heroine was a nice change (Sandra’s character is the boss and Ryan’s character is the assistant); the element of blackmail was a great touch (Ryan agrees to marry Sandra to help her with her immigration problem in exchange for a promotion); and, well, there’s a hilarious naked scene during which we get a nice view of Ryan’s abs. But I digress.

Both When Harry Met Sally and The Proposal took an old premise the audience recognizes and added some surprises to tell a great story. So, if you’re wondering about that secret-baby plot, or marriage-of-convenience, or insert-your-favorite-romance cliché—remember Ryan’s abs. Oops, no! I meant remember to keep it fresh and make it uniquely yours.

4 replies on “Advice from the Archives: Keep It Fresh!”

Lol. Loved both those movies. True classics to watch over and over again. I agree that if we can write a romance and give it a fresh twist it will still appeal to the masses. After all, look at Romeo and Juliet or another of my favs You’ve Got Mail. Both are age-old tropes and have been redone many times but are always successful. And it never hurts to catch a glimpse of Ryan’s abs. Lol.

Years ago (when I still lived there) I caught a Thai movie on TV with the English title Phone Sex that was essentially just You’ve Got Mail, except that the two leads were rival neighbours and she called in to his radio show (with neither recognizing the other’s voice, of course!). It’s very hard to Google, for very unfortunate reasons… Still, a good example of an old trope done well!

Nice idea for an article. I”ll have a think about putting it together. Tropes aren”t necessarily a bad thing as I hope comes out in the article (although I think UV is an example where implementations often are) just that they”re not going to blow you away. As an enthusiast, I crave originality and while you can still have that in the way tropes are implemented, it”s hard to be very surprising. In terms of other tropes: * Counting puzzles this is the other trope that I generally dislike. * Numbers attached to specific objects and then some way of ordering (image, obvious size/weight or, if it”s a coloured ring padlock, the colour of the object). * simple ciphers generally I quite like these. * Magnet mazes (and mazes generally) I”m probably guilty of not referring to these as tropes although they are * Retrieving things using magnets or by pouring water in * Numbers hidden individually in sentences (either by converting letters to numbers or including words that sound like numbers) (Those are off the top of my head not an attempt to make an ordered list. I”m sure there are plenty of examples I”ve not missed that would be more important than the above.)

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