09 October 2011

Take a cliche and twist it... (how to create unpredictability in romantic fiction)

I have just finished reading Emily March Hummingbird Lake novel. Although it starts a little too slow for my liking, I'm pleased I stuck with it, because I've really enjoyed the book, and the main reason for that is the Heroine - Sage. She is an interesting mixture of soft and feisty, full of internal conflict (great way of contrasting her paintings as a metaphor to Sage's own internal contrasts) and carries a heart-wrenching secret. The story (and Sage's secret and internal conflict) unfolds in a way that the reader is bound to empathise with Sage and root for her, even when she's really mean to the Hero.
Great job, Ms March!

Sage's story made me go back to my notes from RWNZ conference in August and Lucy Gilmour's from Mills &Boon presentation on unpredictability in romantic fiction. Sage is a twist on one of romance favourite archetypes - The Wounded Hero. The twist is simple - just the gender swap, but for me it was enough to keep me turning the pages.

Photo by Digitalart
via www.freedigitalphotos.net

Lucy's presentation was in the context of preparations for New Voices competitions, and highlighted unpredictability as one of 6 relevant elements of a good story. Interestingly, unpredictability features also in the newest ebook prepared for New Voices contestants and anyone who wants to write Mills& Boon romance (Secrets uncovered - scroll down to the bottom of the page to download).

Many people reject romance as a genre because of its predictability. It's true - romance readers like their favourite plots and themes, 'dark and broody heros' or feisty heroines. They buy M&B's books because they know they are going to get what they expect and there is a Happily Ever After at the end. And since everything has already been done it's not easy for a writer to come up with new twists and turns.

So how to create unpredictability in romantic fiction?
1. Take a character (an archetype, trope or stereotype) and give them a twist: change the gender (I'm brewing a 'in-love-with- Boss' story with the role reversal), let your Cinderella be a man, make the most suspected person the culprit (a twist on the Dog was the Mastermind trope I'd love to read!), give your sweet, naive Red Riding Hood a few wrinkles and 'I-should-have-known-better', or just make your hero younger and less experienced than your heroine.

2. Take a well known plot and twist it.
Oh, how much I'd love to read a story about a Girl meeting Mr Right and then realising she doesn't really want to get married and have children, at least not before she travels the world (with him)! Or how about a genuinely loving couple who marry for convenience and what is the impact of it on the relationship afterwards (I know of a couple who got married after a few years of living happily together because as a married couple they would pay less tax; unfortunately, I don't know what was the impact of those wedding vows on the romance in their relationship, but just imagine the possibilities...). Or add some infidelity to the mixture (apparently the attitude to infidelity in M&B romance is changing).

3. Twist the setting.
Since I moved to New Zealand and have all those 'exotic' pacific islands within a couple of hours flight at most, the word 'exotic' has got a new meaning. I've spoken to a Kiwi woman once who told me that the dream of her life is to travel to Austria - the country where her favourite film, The Sound of Music was made. Quite an eye opener for someone like me, who spend the majority of her life in central Europe.
Twist the meaning behind a setting. Tired of sweet little towns? Show your H/h struggling with not-so-positive aspects of those close-knitted communities. Or how about a glam chick story set in a little town? Or a boy coming home to a modern, fragmented family in a big city?

4. A fresh POV
Give your Heroine a unique ability or disability that will affect the way she perceives the world (not a romance, but a great way of introducing unpredictability The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time ); introduce different formats (diary entry, txt mssgs, emails); or even EVEN (yes, Lucy DID say it) use the 1st person narration.

I love twisting and turning cliches and reading stories that turn out to be not what they appear to be. I'm currently writing a story, which was originally 'conceived' as a chick-lit story, but chick-lit has fallen out of fashion since (I'm way too slow for those trends!) so I'm setting it in a small town instead! As I said, I'm also brewing a reverse 'in-love-with-Boss' story.

Have you twisted any cliches? What is your favourite way of creating unpredictability in romance? Which cliches would you like to twist?

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