Keep It Fresh!

By Johanna Raisanen, Editor, American Romance

So you've written a secret-baby story and you're debating about entering this year's So You Think You Can Write contest? 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. And send it in to the So You Think You Can Write contest!

7 replies on “Keep It Fresh!”

It’s great to see the humour in this. It’s quite nice to hear that being able to laugh at one’s self and sarcastic elements or undertones are okay. It really dase make things so much better to read and enjoy the tips and lesson being taught.
I’ve not seen When Harry met Sally, but I have seen The Proposal and agree the twist in rolls to be delightfully new, it’s one of my favourite elements of the story.
I don’t know if my ‘secret baby’ Lucy in my story ‘Snowbound: Christmas’ actually qualifies as being a ‘secret baby’ since the whole town knows who her father is, everyone knows, except her father! 😉 But I do confess that all of the above listed concepts to be the very best of the ‘old but good’.

Eliana, yes, if the father doesn’t know — even though others do — it’s a secret baby story. It’s really the baby’s father that is the most important person here — the one the secret is being kept from.
— Kathleen, answering for Johanna, who is out of the office today!

My secret baby story sounds like a sweet romance or endearing story but it is in fact a festive intrigue one (just in case that changes the editor that’s meant to reply)
It’s actually the Killers fault for why Nathan (the father) spends 10 years not knowing he has a daughter.

A Secret Baby plot isn’t exclusive to any one particular sub-genre (such as can it be in a Historical/Intrigue/Sweet… so forth) or is it only accepted in a particular field?

I’m under the belief if written smartly it is an over-all-genre type of story concept.

If it’s not then I’ll have to re-write my story! 🙂

Although come to think of it, I read recently, an intrigue novel by Elle James titled ‘Thunder Horse Heritage’ and another one by Debra Webb ‘Motive: Secret Baby’ where both the fathers in each story were unaware that they both had children with the heroine/s. And both books where published by Harlequin.

Unless the rules have changed…? Having read those books, they answer my question and the answer is….yes! I can write a ‘Secret Baby’ Intrigue…. Debra Webb’s title of her book very much proves that :)after all.

Oh, yes. The secret baby theme can work for many of our series. Intrigue — definitely. It all depends on the tone of the story.

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