Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Common Theme Does Not Mean Stereotypes and Cliche'

When I tell people outside of the industry that I work with romance authors, I will often get comments about how every one of the stories are identical. I have found there is a widely held perception that romance stories all follow an identical formula, the characters are all the same and the plots are carbon copies of one another. Of course those of us who read these stories know good and well that is far from the truth.


Time and time again, we as agents and editors find ourselves rejecting stories for just this reason. It seems that many writers believe that following those common themes means to use that pattern or formula. It is also those authors who frequently use the line, "There are only so many different stories out there."

Let me take one from the Harlequin line. What follows are the submission guidelines for this line.

If you love small towns and cowboys, you'll love Harlequin American Romance. Our stories are heartwarming contemporary tales of everyday women finding love, becoming part of a family or community—or maybe starting a family of her own.

American Romance Key Elements
  • Central romance is driven by the hero's or heroine's (or both) desire to be a part of a family or community
  • Stories showcase the comforts of home and a sense of place – particularly the charm of small-town America and the ruggedness of western locales
  • Must be set in the USA
  • Western heroes and heroines are very popular – cowboys (ranchers, rodeo riders), law enforcement (sheriffs, deputies, Texas Rangers), etc
  • All stories must feature strong family elements such as pregnancy, young children, blended families, etc
  • Warmhearted stories offer a range of tones, from light humor to drama
  • Level of sensuality is low to moderate
  • Word count of 55,000–60,000 means stories must be fast-paced and plot-driven
Now, let's dissect this a bit. First of all, you will see a lot of comments that use the phrase "such as." This is not a mandate that the authors need to use these idea, but simply ideas that provide a contextual definition of the type of stories that you would see. Do you have to use exactly those points? Absolutely not. What you would use would be "similar ideas."

You will notice the common theme for this line plays off of the idea of "The American Dream." Although many of these ideas are universal, this is really the central focus. To write a story of this nature, it is crucial for a writer to take the time to identify what that theme or message is that he or she wants the reader to walk away with. At the same time, the common focus of  finding family, community and romance is the central hub to build on.

What are the big requirements outside of that theme?

  1. Must be USA Setting.
  2. Must have strong family element
  3. Lower levels of sensuality
  4. 55-60 K word count
Outside of that, writers have a lot to build on and work with.

Now, let's take this a step further. Even though these are common themes and ideas, we don't have to make carbon copies of all of the characters and story elements. Unfortunately, we, too often see these over-done ideas showing up in submissions. These might (note I am using that same might here as well):

  • The heroine is from the big city, dressed to kill and her car breaks down but the "cowboy" shows up in a beat up pick up truck to save the day.
  • The cowboy is an ex-Special Ops guy trying to hide away from the world in Backwoods, USA.
  • The heroine gives up a corporate job to go to Backwoods, USA to start a: 
    • bakery
    • flower shop
    • bed and breakfast
    • ... without any experience in these areas but simply because an relative left her the home.
  • Because of a clause in a will, the hero and heroine must live or work together for 1 year first.
I think you get the idea. The thing is that it is fine to use some of these ideas every now and then, but when we are talking about themes and ideas, you are not required to use A) every one of the ideas; or B) just copy what others have done.

Another example of this is when we see the international settings for stories and the hero happens to be an Italian Billionaire. O.K. I get Italy rocks! I get women think Italians are sexy (as well as the Aussie heroes) but be careful using the same stereotypical ideas. Don't get locked in.

While the example I used was for a Harlequin American line, the same idea works for pretty much any other genre out there. Historical romances don't have to involve the hero or heroine being forced to marry for money. Science fiction and fantasies don't have to involve "being chased by some evil ruler". And certainly those romantic suspense stories don't have to involve a Special Ops hero "in charge of watching over a heroine because his boss/ex-military leader needed her to be protected."

Be original people! I dare you!

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