Same Old or Tried & True?

From Susan/Miranda:

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet Philippa Gregory (most famously the author of the historical novel “The Other Boleyn Girl”), and hear her address a large group of fans and readers. While Philippa herself is a charming, intelligent woman, and her talk was both entertaining and informative, what really interested me about the evening was her audience.

Everyone had arrived early for the best seats, so there was plenty of time before the program started for the self-made introductions that readers do so well, the kind that always begin with “Have you read…?” This was a well-read bunch, too, with dozens of teachers and librarians in the mix, so there were many interesting conversations bubbling throughout the room.

Of course the most popular topics were Philippa’s books (after all, it WAS her night) and the “Boleyn Girl” movie currently in production on location in England, confirmed to be starring Scarlett Johnanson as Anne Boleyn, Natalie Portman as her sister, and Eric Banna as Henry VIII, and due for release next summer. (There you are, Hollywood scoop in the WordWenches!)

But then the conversations turned to other novels about Anne Boleyn. To my amazement, they never tired of Anne’s story, no matter how many times they’d read it. They all knew that in every book Anne would beguile Henry away from his wife, marry him, fail to produce a male heir, and have her head cut off. There weren’t going to be any real surprises, yet still they couldn’t wait for each re-telling.

“It’s like hearing the same gossip from different friends,” explained one woman. “I love the nuances of different perspectives.”

Now any writer who’s heard an editor/agent panel at a conference knows that those editors and editors will claim to all be seeking something fresh, something new, something we’ve never seen before. Yet here at the other end of the publishing food-chain were book-buying-readers saying they couldn’t get enough of exactly the same thing.

It doesn’t have to be Anne Boleyn, either. There’s also a new wave of Marie Antoinette books out now, and we all know how those will end, too. And no matter how many novels are set in the Civil War, or the Napoleonic Wars, or World War II, for the most part the same armies are going to keep winning those wars as well.

But it doesn’t have to be just a historical novel. In romance, readers and writers return again and again to the same kinds of stories. We all joke about the “secret-baby-in-jeopardy-masquerade-spy-runaway-bride” stories, and yet the classic plots continue to be reworked and retold by different authors.

Of course, romance by its very nature has a predetermined resolution. True love will triumph, and the girl will get the boy, or it’s not a romance. But between page one and the happy-ending there are –– and always will be –– endless variations.

I had one world-weary editor who claimed there was only one plot: “Take them up the tree, and get them down from the tree.” Loosely (very loosely) speaking, she’s right. Or, to trot out another aphorism, it’s not the destination that makes thejourney special, but the stops along the way. It’s those “stops” that help every good writer put her own spin on a classic plot, and make it fresh again to readers.

At least that’s what we try to do. 🙂

So what’s your take on tried-and-true plots? Would you rather read something new, fresh, unexpected, or do you reach for a secret-baby story every time?

24 thoughts on “Same Old or Tried & True?”

  1. I like books with a military hero, think The “SEAL” Series by Brockmann. I like medical heroes as well, but since I am in the business inaccuracies that most people wouldn’t notice ruin the story for me. I’m not a fan of the vampires or the dark side, nor do I care for any book set in the (US)Civil War period, other than “Gone with the Wind.” I like a book with character development and a strong love story, especially if it’s long, like the “Outlander” series. I liked the first few of the Jean Auel “Clan of the cave bear” books but haven’t enjoyed many of the others set in prehistoric times. If there’s one story line that I will always pick up, it’s the renewal of an old relationship where both partners are sadder and wiser and they struggle to make a new life together.

    Reply
  2. I like books with a military hero, think The “SEAL” Series by Brockmann. I like medical heroes as well, but since I am in the business inaccuracies that most people wouldn’t notice ruin the story for me. I’m not a fan of the vampires or the dark side, nor do I care for any book set in the (US)Civil War period, other than “Gone with the Wind.” I like a book with character development and a strong love story, especially if it’s long, like the “Outlander” series. I liked the first few of the Jean Auel “Clan of the cave bear” books but haven’t enjoyed many of the others set in prehistoric times. If there’s one story line that I will always pick up, it’s the renewal of an old relationship where both partners are sadder and wiser and they struggle to make a new life together.

    Reply
  3. I like books with a military hero, think The “SEAL” Series by Brockmann. I like medical heroes as well, but since I am in the business inaccuracies that most people wouldn’t notice ruin the story for me. I’m not a fan of the vampires or the dark side, nor do I care for any book set in the (US)Civil War period, other than “Gone with the Wind.” I like a book with character development and a strong love story, especially if it’s long, like the “Outlander” series. I liked the first few of the Jean Auel “Clan of the cave bear” books but haven’t enjoyed many of the others set in prehistoric times. If there’s one story line that I will always pick up, it’s the renewal of an old relationship where both partners are sadder and wiser and they struggle to make a new life together.

    Reply
  4. Exactly what would count as “new, fresh, unexpected” in romance? We all KNOW what’s going to happen, the thrill is in HOW it happens. In watching these two individuals find out how to make it work.
    What I don’t want to see are direct rip-offs of plots from books I’ve already read (and yeah, I’ve stumbled across a few books where most of the plot was CLEARLY lifted from another author’s work).

    Reply
  5. Exactly what would count as “new, fresh, unexpected” in romance? We all KNOW what’s going to happen, the thrill is in HOW it happens. In watching these two individuals find out how to make it work.
    What I don’t want to see are direct rip-offs of plots from books I’ve already read (and yeah, I’ve stumbled across a few books where most of the plot was CLEARLY lifted from another author’s work).

    Reply
  6. Exactly what would count as “new, fresh, unexpected” in romance? We all KNOW what’s going to happen, the thrill is in HOW it happens. In watching these two individuals find out how to make it work.
    What I don’t want to see are direct rip-offs of plots from books I’ve already read (and yeah, I’ve stumbled across a few books where most of the plot was CLEARLY lifted from another author’s work).

    Reply
  7. “Exactly what would count as “new, fresh, unexpected” in romance?”
    To me, “new, fresh, unexpected” could be anything from an off-the-beaten-path setting or character type to finding a new author with a strong, distinctive voice.
    Anyway, I suppose I’m a typical reader in that I like a mix of the familiar and the fresh. There are certain settings, plots, etc. that I’m happy to revisit again and again–but if I read too many too similar books too close together, I get bored with that setting/plot and have to take a break from it for a few months. And I like something completely different every so often, but blended with the comfort and easier reading experience of the familiar.

    Reply
  8. “Exactly what would count as “new, fresh, unexpected” in romance?”
    To me, “new, fresh, unexpected” could be anything from an off-the-beaten-path setting or character type to finding a new author with a strong, distinctive voice.
    Anyway, I suppose I’m a typical reader in that I like a mix of the familiar and the fresh. There are certain settings, plots, etc. that I’m happy to revisit again and again–but if I read too many too similar books too close together, I get bored with that setting/plot and have to take a break from it for a few months. And I like something completely different every so often, but blended with the comfort and easier reading experience of the familiar.

    Reply
  9. “Exactly what would count as “new, fresh, unexpected” in romance?”
    To me, “new, fresh, unexpected” could be anything from an off-the-beaten-path setting or character type to finding a new author with a strong, distinctive voice.
    Anyway, I suppose I’m a typical reader in that I like a mix of the familiar and the fresh. There are certain settings, plots, etc. that I’m happy to revisit again and again–but if I read too many too similar books too close together, I get bored with that setting/plot and have to take a break from it for a few months. And I like something completely different every so often, but blended with the comfort and easier reading experience of the familiar.

    Reply
  10. This is always something of a riddle with editors, isn’t it? Their usual response is that maddening, “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I see it.”
    I think Susan Wilbanks is probably right — that it can be a new voice as much as a new plot or concept. And, of course, as soon as something really new does well in the market (Vampires! Time Travel! Erotica!), then every other publisher jumps on the creaking bandwagon until the whole trend collapses beneath its own shuddering weight.
    Still, I think some basic romance themes like rags-to-riches, runaway brides, and older-wiser lovers will always be around in some form, even if it’s older-wiser vampire lovers. 🙂

    Reply
  11. This is always something of a riddle with editors, isn’t it? Their usual response is that maddening, “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I see it.”
    I think Susan Wilbanks is probably right — that it can be a new voice as much as a new plot or concept. And, of course, as soon as something really new does well in the market (Vampires! Time Travel! Erotica!), then every other publisher jumps on the creaking bandwagon until the whole trend collapses beneath its own shuddering weight.
    Still, I think some basic romance themes like rags-to-riches, runaway brides, and older-wiser lovers will always be around in some form, even if it’s older-wiser vampire lovers. 🙂

    Reply
  12. This is always something of a riddle with editors, isn’t it? Their usual response is that maddening, “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I see it.”
    I think Susan Wilbanks is probably right — that it can be a new voice as much as a new plot or concept. And, of course, as soon as something really new does well in the market (Vampires! Time Travel! Erotica!), then every other publisher jumps on the creaking bandwagon until the whole trend collapses beneath its own shuddering weight.
    Still, I think some basic romance themes like rags-to-riches, runaway brides, and older-wiser lovers will always be around in some form, even if it’s older-wiser vampire lovers. 🙂

    Reply
  13. I’m with Susan – it’s a different setting that will pull me in. Or maybe a character with an unusual occupation (one of the reasons I loved Rosalind Laker’s books so much). But there are also times when I want something totally familiar, which is when I’ll reach for a medieval or regency set romance.

    Reply
  14. I’m with Susan – it’s a different setting that will pull me in. Or maybe a character with an unusual occupation (one of the reasons I loved Rosalind Laker’s books so much). But there are also times when I want something totally familiar, which is when I’ll reach for a medieval or regency set romance.

    Reply
  15. I’m with Susan – it’s a different setting that will pull me in. Or maybe a character with an unusual occupation (one of the reasons I loved Rosalind Laker’s books so much). But there are also times when I want something totally familiar, which is when I’ll reach for a medieval or regency set romance.

    Reply
  16. That fascination with Anne Boleyn is weird to me. I can’t think of any real historical person or event I want to read about over and over again. But I suppose you’re right, Susan, and it’s like the readers who love to read Scottish books, or medievals, or Regency historicals with essentially the same dynamics every time.
    I’ve always loved a marriage of convenience story, and probably, for the drama of it, a forced marriage, but the set up has to ring true for me without either party behaving very badly, which does make it difficult to pull off. I’m open to all settings and periods. And despite being a feminist I do enjoy a story in which an ordinary woman is swept up into the world of a gorgeous and powerful man. I reckon it’s smart to win all that power, wealth, and great sex. *g*
    However, though I agree that as readers we tend to like certain plots, certain character matches and such, I’m not sure about there being nothing fresh in the genre, because in a lifetime of reading romance, things have changed quite a bit.
    For example, about 20 years ago Regency was not considered a suitable setting for a historical romance. There were a few, but they were the exceptions and by overly dramatic plots they tended to be outside what would be considered a true regency setting. Regency was “sweet”, it was comedy of manners, it was witty dialogue and discreet sensuality.
    Not that long ago, vampires were damned souls. If they were in a romance, the happy ending would be when they found their soul again, became mortal and thus worthy of love. I don’t think there were any furry creatures, shapeshifters etc in romance.
    Once upon a time rape sagas were the norm. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s we had super women finding happiness with laid-back beta/gamma men. Now we’re back to dominant men, but usually by supernatural attributes and powers. I’d say that a bunch of readers love to read about D&D heroes and a bunch of writers love to write them, and they’ll always find a way.
    I think we forget the changes once they’ve become the norm. There’ll be a new one coming round the mountain any moment.
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  17. That fascination with Anne Boleyn is weird to me. I can’t think of any real historical person or event I want to read about over and over again. But I suppose you’re right, Susan, and it’s like the readers who love to read Scottish books, or medievals, or Regency historicals with essentially the same dynamics every time.
    I’ve always loved a marriage of convenience story, and probably, for the drama of it, a forced marriage, but the set up has to ring true for me without either party behaving very badly, which does make it difficult to pull off. I’m open to all settings and periods. And despite being a feminist I do enjoy a story in which an ordinary woman is swept up into the world of a gorgeous and powerful man. I reckon it’s smart to win all that power, wealth, and great sex. *g*
    However, though I agree that as readers we tend to like certain plots, certain character matches and such, I’m not sure about there being nothing fresh in the genre, because in a lifetime of reading romance, things have changed quite a bit.
    For example, about 20 years ago Regency was not considered a suitable setting for a historical romance. There were a few, but they were the exceptions and by overly dramatic plots they tended to be outside what would be considered a true regency setting. Regency was “sweet”, it was comedy of manners, it was witty dialogue and discreet sensuality.
    Not that long ago, vampires were damned souls. If they were in a romance, the happy ending would be when they found their soul again, became mortal and thus worthy of love. I don’t think there were any furry creatures, shapeshifters etc in romance.
    Once upon a time rape sagas were the norm. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s we had super women finding happiness with laid-back beta/gamma men. Now we’re back to dominant men, but usually by supernatural attributes and powers. I’d say that a bunch of readers love to read about D&D heroes and a bunch of writers love to write them, and they’ll always find a way.
    I think we forget the changes once they’ve become the norm. There’ll be a new one coming round the mountain any moment.
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  18. That fascination with Anne Boleyn is weird to me. I can’t think of any real historical person or event I want to read about over and over again. But I suppose you’re right, Susan, and it’s like the readers who love to read Scottish books, or medievals, or Regency historicals with essentially the same dynamics every time.
    I’ve always loved a marriage of convenience story, and probably, for the drama of it, a forced marriage, but the set up has to ring true for me without either party behaving very badly, which does make it difficult to pull off. I’m open to all settings and periods. And despite being a feminist I do enjoy a story in which an ordinary woman is swept up into the world of a gorgeous and powerful man. I reckon it’s smart to win all that power, wealth, and great sex. *g*
    However, though I agree that as readers we tend to like certain plots, certain character matches and such, I’m not sure about there being nothing fresh in the genre, because in a lifetime of reading romance, things have changed quite a bit.
    For example, about 20 years ago Regency was not considered a suitable setting for a historical romance. There were a few, but they were the exceptions and by overly dramatic plots they tended to be outside what would be considered a true regency setting. Regency was “sweet”, it was comedy of manners, it was witty dialogue and discreet sensuality.
    Not that long ago, vampires were damned souls. If they were in a romance, the happy ending would be when they found their soul again, became mortal and thus worthy of love. I don’t think there were any furry creatures, shapeshifters etc in romance.
    Once upon a time rape sagas were the norm. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s we had super women finding happiness with laid-back beta/gamma men. Now we’re back to dominant men, but usually by supernatural attributes and powers. I’d say that a bunch of readers love to read about D&D heroes and a bunch of writers love to write them, and they’ll always find a way.
    I think we forget the changes once they’ve become the norm. There’ll be a new one coming round the mountain any moment.
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  19. As usual, the Gemini wants both. I tend to buy the same authors and probably would be disturbed if they did something drastically different but I get bored with books that feel like they came off an assembly line. And I will try a writer or genre that’s completely out of my usual reading realm. I don’t need so-called originality in plots (I believe there are only two plots, anyway)–which to me is another way of saying “gimmick.” But I like a distinctive voice and an interesting way of telling the same story.

    Reply
  20. As usual, the Gemini wants both. I tend to buy the same authors and probably would be disturbed if they did something drastically different but I get bored with books that feel like they came off an assembly line. And I will try a writer or genre that’s completely out of my usual reading realm. I don’t need so-called originality in plots (I believe there are only two plots, anyway)–which to me is another way of saying “gimmick.” But I like a distinctive voice and an interesting way of telling the same story.

    Reply
  21. As usual, the Gemini wants both. I tend to buy the same authors and probably would be disturbed if they did something drastically different but I get bored with books that feel like they came off an assembly line. And I will try a writer or genre that’s completely out of my usual reading realm. I don’t need so-called originality in plots (I believe there are only two plots, anyway)–which to me is another way of saying “gimmick.” But I like a distinctive voice and an interesting way of telling the same story.

    Reply
  22. I love Annie B – you want her to pull it off, even though you know she won’t. And without her there’s no Anglican church, there’s no Queen E and all her fabled story, there’s no Queen Jane – there’s not even Mary Queen of Scots. Anne going for it despite all reason and odds is the feather that tips the Tudors. What’s not to love?
    I hate secret babies a lot. But everyone has their familiar plotline they enjoy a new telling of – all of them are fairy tales, ultimately. It’s how you approach the fairy tale. Pat Gaffney did a book or two where she took a plot line with an unhappy ending and rewrote as a romance – I convinced my romance snob aunt to teach Wild At Heart alongside the Alice Hoffman book that was obviously the jumping point – she preferred the Gaffney and so did the college class – opened her eyes to a lot of her ‘notions’ about the genre fiction.
    It’s absolutely thre journey.

    Reply
  23. I love Annie B – you want her to pull it off, even though you know she won’t. And without her there’s no Anglican church, there’s no Queen E and all her fabled story, there’s no Queen Jane – there’s not even Mary Queen of Scots. Anne going for it despite all reason and odds is the feather that tips the Tudors. What’s not to love?
    I hate secret babies a lot. But everyone has their familiar plotline they enjoy a new telling of – all of them are fairy tales, ultimately. It’s how you approach the fairy tale. Pat Gaffney did a book or two where she took a plot line with an unhappy ending and rewrote as a romance – I convinced my romance snob aunt to teach Wild At Heart alongside the Alice Hoffman book that was obviously the jumping point – she preferred the Gaffney and so did the college class – opened her eyes to a lot of her ‘notions’ about the genre fiction.
    It’s absolutely thre journey.

    Reply
  24. I love Annie B – you want her to pull it off, even though you know she won’t. And without her there’s no Anglican church, there’s no Queen E and all her fabled story, there’s no Queen Jane – there’s not even Mary Queen of Scots. Anne going for it despite all reason and odds is the feather that tips the Tudors. What’s not to love?
    I hate secret babies a lot. But everyone has their familiar plotline they enjoy a new telling of – all of them are fairy tales, ultimately. It’s how you approach the fairy tale. Pat Gaffney did a book or two where she took a plot line with an unhappy ending and rewrote as a romance – I convinced my romance snob aunt to teach Wild At Heart alongside the Alice Hoffman book that was obviously the jumping point – she preferred the Gaffney and so did the college class – opened her eyes to a lot of her ‘notions’ about the genre fiction.
    It’s absolutely thre journey.

    Reply

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