Monday, August 26, 2013

Genre Expectations Versus Cliches (Or, How To Keep Readers From Rolling Their Eyes)

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Ok, I'm going to start out by acknowledging that all genre writing requires adherence to some formula. Romance requires a happy ending with the couple united. Science fiction and fantasy require speculative elements while mysteries generally need a dead body ("onscreen" or off).Whether the author decides to use a little or a lot of formula depends on how much he or she wants readers to recognize themes or tropes, common literary devices, in the story.

What's the difference between genre expectations and clichés? How do you keep readers engaged if your story centers upon time-tested themes such as love, revenge, or coming-of-age? Since I write romance, I'm going to use the genre as an example. Let's look at some formulas and those dreaded clichés.

Romance Formula #1: A Happy Ending

As human beings, we all desire to be loved. Despite our knowledge that sometimes love doesn't last forever, that strife and separation between couples does occur, we hold out hope that there is someone out there who will love us continually, flaws and all. That's why romance is one of the most enduring and popular genres in the market today. A story that features a couple whose relationship doesn't survive the end of the book is not classified as a romance. It is a story with romantic elements.

Romance Cliché #1: A Dainty, Simpering Heroine

Sorry. My sarcasm starts to show whenever I get on this topic. Romances of yesteryear typically featured the standard 5'2, 98-pound dainty darling. Her sixteen-inch waist and ability to cry on cue were usually all it took to wrap the big, tough hero around her pretty little finger. Today, as you can guess, most readers don't appreciate this type of heroine. Blame women's lib or the decreased popularity of tight-laced corsets (I say tight-laced, because anyone who's ever been to a Renaissance Faire or steampunk convention knows that corsets are very much still in vogue ;-) ).

Romance Formula #2: Conflict Between The Couple

Actually, this formula applies across the board. There is no story without conflict. With romance, in particular, readers want to see the hero and heroine battle and banter for control, even as the two fall in love. The writer can't "seal the deal" too early by having them declare their love for each other in the middle of the book.

Romance Cliché #2: Pining Pairs

Yes, yes, we know the romance hero and heroine cannot stop thinking about each other, even if they're mad enough to throw something at the other person. That doesn't mean they sit around all day writing sonnets dedicated to the color of their true love's eyes. They should have other equally pressing things to do, such as -Oh, I don't know- earn a living, save the family farm, jump off a sinking ship, dodge bullets from the outlaw's Winchester rifle, whatever your plot requires.

Romance Formula #3: Characters Need To Meet ASAP

Thanks to fast-paced action movies and the instant gratification that is online media streaming, we are conditioned to expect things bigger, faster, and in our grasp last Tuesday. If you write romance, your leading man and lady need to make each other's acquaintance within the first couple of chapters, if not paragraphs. Readers simply have too many other things pressing on their time and attention in real-life than to wait around for the author to leisurely get the plot gears turning.

Romance Cliché #3: Characters Need To Act On Their Attraction ASAP

I can't tell you how many times I've explained to well-meaning friends that not all romances are bodice rippers. While there are certain sub-genres that contain a high level of heat, not all romances push the boundaries of morals and self-control. Since I write sweet romances, my characters experience the tensions and temptations that any normal-functioning adult in love would feel, but because of my faith, I don't write explicit scenes or have the characters engaging in premarital sex.

That doesn't mean the story will appeal only to a dour ninety year-old grandmother. Sometimes the most intense romantic scenes in novels are those that engage the mind and take command of a full spectrum of emotions, not just the tactile senses, although those are very important, too. Read the classics and take notes. There's a reason why Austen and Bronte are still popular two centuries later.

All that being said, recognizing formulas necessary for good genre writing and avoiding clichés isn't very hard. Use what I like to call the eye-roll test. Read parts of your manuscript aloud. If certain scenes give you the involuntary urge to glance skyward or you get a little antsy about another reader perusing your prose, chances are there's a cliché waiting for the delete button.

What are the funniest/most annoying clichés you've come across in books?


Debby Mayne said...

Some of the old alpha heroes used to bother me because I found them unlovable. However, if his heart changes, and he softens a bit, I see that as character growth, and I'm okay with it.

Brandi Boddie said...

Debby: I agree. The alpha male concept was alive and well in the earlier titles, especially the historicals. I like alpha males, but please, don't bully the heroine :-)

Evangeline Denmark said...

Excellent post, Brandi. You're so right, there are subtle differences between tropes and clichés. I think it comes down to the fact that we expect tropes when reading and therefore aren't bothered by them. But a cliché is something we were hoping to avoid, so when it shows up, we're disappointed.
One of my pet peeve clichés is the spunky heroine, perhaps the opposite of the simpering miss you mentioned. The spunky heroine is headstrong, sarcastic, and gets herself in trouble pretty much because she can't be bothered to think before acting. Those ladies don't pass my eye roll test. ;)

~sharyn said...

It drives me crazy when the author has a couple fall in love for no apparent reason other than he's hot & she's gorgeous. I just read a book that I thought was pretty terrible - & depended on many of the cliches you mention here. Had to force myself to finish it because I think, sometimes, writers have to read bad books to be reminded what not to do.

Anyway, one of the main couples actually fell in love at first sight. Since her parents didn't approve they didn't talk. Just mooned over each other from afar. She drops a flower to him; he sings a love song from his window to her. Ugh. Couldn't they have had one conversation about something?

Brandi Boddie said...

Evangeline: Yes! That's the opposite of the dainty heroine extreme. If there is going to be a spunky heroine, the ability to rationalize one's intentions should be part of her job description.

Sharyn: Ok, the love song from the window would have been enough for me to call it quits, lol. Seriously? I think society has come far enough to realize that one does not have to be hot or gorgeous to deserve love and a happy ending.

Thanks for your comments. Great observations!