It’s Day 20 of the A to Z Blog Challenge, and today’s blog is a rewrite of a blog I posted on the Goodreads Misty Matthews Site four months ago. I’ve been waiting for the perfect time to repost it, with a few minor changes, and just knew today was the day. Without further ado, I give you the letter “T”–Tropes and Ideas and Themes, Oh My!
Have you see the movie, The Wizard of Oz? Picture Dorothy and the scarecrow, arm and arm, going down the yellow brick road. Now, repeat “Tropes and Ideas and Themes, Oh My!” to the tune of Lions and Tigers and Bears. Feel the magic? Feel the tension? Feel the excitement? If you do, you’re where writers find themselves every time they begin a new book or a sequel to another one.
Romance Novel Recipe
Writing a romance novel is a lot like baking a cake. You need to gather the ingredients first and then follow the recipe. Every romance novel ever written follows a formula, a recipe, if you like.
Step one: Boy meets girl
Step Two: There is mutual attraction
Step Three: something/someone prevents them from acting on their feelings OR something/someone interferes with their first Happily Ever After
Step Four: black moment occurs when all hope of them coming together seems lost
Step Five: somehow they overcome the black moment and love prevails
Step Six: they live happily ever after OR in some cases happily for now
So, if this is the basic formula, how does a writer follow it and yet create a unique story to grab the attention of the readers? That’s where tropes, ideas, and themes come in.
A literary trope is the use of figurative language. Since the mid-nineteen seventies, tropes have also come to mean a commonly recurring literary device, motif, or cliché. The most common tropes include: synonyms, antonyms, hyperbole, alliteration, metaphors, euphemisms, metonymy, synecdoche, and the list goes on. (For a complete list with definitions, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure_o…)
In literature, a theme is the central topic of the text. There are two aspects to theme.
The first is basically what the reader thinks the work is about. Every reader approaches a book differently. As surprising as it may sound, a reader can take something away from a book which wasn’t what the writer intended at all–think of those high school English teachers–do you really think Shakespeare wanted people to read all of those things into his plays? Unless you can actually ask William yourself, you’ll never know.
As a reader, your understanding and appreciation of the story is based on your own personal experiences. That’s why people like some books and not others. That’s why a book can get a one star rating on Amazon or Goodreads from one reader and a five star rating from another. It all boils down to life experience. The saying, “You are what you eat,” is only partly true. “You are the result of absolutely everything that has ever happened to you–good and not so good.” Someone who has been betrayed by the person they loved will understand the pain of betrayal better than someone who hasn’t. Someone with a hair-trigger temper who reacts badly in emotional situations will empathize with a heroine doing the same, while someone who approaches all situations calmly will be turned off and may never even finish the book. An optimist will see hope where hope seems lost, while a pessimist will say, they never had hope in the first place.
The second part of theme revolves around the author’s take on it. When a writer pens, or in today’s case keyboards, a novel, the primary point is to entertain–to help the reader escape reality for a short time. Why? We all need a break. Since authors are human, like readers, their life experiences impact their work. Intentional or not, most novels have a message. In romance novels, that message is usually “Love conquers all”, but there are other things to be considered. For example, in a case where one of the characters has been betrayed, the author might be saying: “Trust, once lost can be earned again, but it takes time and effort.” Or in the case where a heroine runs away rather than confront a situation, the author could be saying, “It’s okay to back away and nurse your wounds, but sooner or later, you have to confront the truth.” In a suspense novel, the message might be love and perseverance can overcome evil. In the end, since we’re talking romance, the final message will be, “Love wins every time.”
Bound up in theme is the idea or concept central to the story. This can usually be summed up in one word—love, hate, death, betrayal, fear, regret, loneliness, etc. In our day and age, these themes have come to include things like coming of age (most often seen in YA and NA stories), nostalgia (remembering the good old days of one’s youth, but for many, those memories are tainted by bad ones), humans in conflict with one another (war stories or stories of returning soldiers haunted by what they’ve seen and done, quite common today when so many come home suffering from PTSD, abusive relationships, unwanted or unexpected pregnancies, unbridled ambition, greed, jealousy, envy, stalkers, and the list goes on.), humans in conflict with Mother Nature (surviving tornadoes, snow storms, hurricanes, near drownings, wild animals, fire, etc.), and, since it’s the twenty-first century, we now have humans at the mercy of science and technology (fast cars, motorcycles, computers, engineered viruses, and chemical warfare.) The list grows longer yet if you add paranormal and science fiction to the theme.
Some themes look at cross-cultural issues and historic concepts. When I was teaching English, I was astounded to find so many similarities in the mythos of cultures that couldn’t possibly have exchanged ideas. In the first book of the Bible, we have creation and then the great flood. Look at the myths associated with the Amerindians, and any other culture with a rich mythic history, and you’ll find similarities. Every culture had a great flood. Is it because of something people call a universal consciousness, or was it simply a primitive culture trying to explain the end of the ice age? Sibling rivalry? Look at Cain and Abel, Loki and Thor, the Greek gods—Zeus, Poseidon, Hades. Greed? Look at King Midas. Betrayal? Samson and Delilah. Infidelity? David and Bathsheba. Unexpected pregnancy? Mary and Joseph. You get the picture.
We trace many of the themes in today’s literature to the works of William Shakespeare, who relied heavily on the Classics for his ideas. Think Romeo and Juliet—two young people whose families are enemies fall in love. In the play, the results were tragic. Now, think of Titanic. Two young people who shouldn’t be together because of the circumstances of their births, fall in love and tragedy separates them in life, but they are together again in death. The theme is basically the same, but how the author uses the ideas, how he or she blends them together is what makes the story. Think of stories of twins switching places and you have Twelfth Night from Shakespeare and The Parent Trap from Disney. The same but different. How many movies deal with the same theme? Armageddon and Deep Impact are movies dealing with an asteroid hitting the earth—same theme different story. Mirror, Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman same theme, same story, different approach. I could go on, but you get the point. Themes aren’t new. They’ve been around for eons. No one can copyright them. They are universal.
Theme, together with a plot, setting, and characters forms the skeleton on which the romance formula is developed, and the tropes brought to life to create voice and style. The romance author must pull all these themes, ideas and tropes together into a well-written plot, with rising action that draws the reader in, crises that have them pulling for the characters, a climax that takes their breath away, and a resolution that makes them sigh. If they start to read and fall in love with the characters, so much the better.
Don’t forget to check out today’s other great A to Z Blog Challenge entries.