Tropes. Archetypes. Recurring plots. Whatever you call them, they are embedded in our culture.
Genre fiction, as a whole, is criticized for using and re-using these patterns, but they are found in literary fiction as well. They are definitely found in TV and movies, and even in the dominant and minor chords that run through music. They’re in the blurbs on the backs of books and sometimes even reflected in the title and the covers. All of that is designed to let readers know that their favorite, heavily worn, storyline is back.
One of my favorite romance tropes is the “exes that get back together.” Come on! It is drama on top of drama.
You have two people who were (usually) passionately in love with each other, they break apart over an explosive argument or betrayal, and then they get thrown together again for a “second chance” at love. I can NOT resist a plot like this. It doesn’t matter why the couple originally broke up. It could have been an infidelity, or a misunderstanding, or a move out of state to follow their career . . . whatever. I don’t care why they are pulled back together.
Maybe they’re reunited at a class reunion. (Bella Andre’s Red Hot Reunion) or maybe they’re trying to stave off the apocalypse (Nora Roberts’ Face the Fire). All of that is interesting, but I’m really only interested in how the author is going to take me from “I love you” to “I hate you” and back to “I love you” with a few stops at “damn, you’re still hot” along the way.
You may think this is a way of circumnavigating around the whole “boy meets girl/getting to know you” kind of filler than can eat up word counts but can be a little bit boring. It isn’t. If anything, for this to be done well, the author must tell that story anyway, AND the story of the breakup, before pulling it all back together. The blurb on the back may say “She broke his heart, and now she’s back for a second chance at love” but if the characters between the covers are that shallow the book will fail. After all, if this was an easy breakup and an easy return, I wouldn’t be interested.
When you’re talking about lovers betrayed, there should be blood on the page. The emotional rift between them should be tactile (if very good) and at least visible, if decent. Maybe it is a little it of emotional masochism, but I’ll own that. In this kind of a book, if you’re not hurting me, you’re wasting my time. And no, repeating over and over again how much a character was “hurt” by another character’s actions and how they were betrayed/deceived/backstabbed etc isn’t the same as showing it through character interaction. If you can’t make me care about why you’re not together anymore, how can I care about your happy ending?
A book that hits it exactly right, for me, is Roberts’ Face the Fire. It is the last book of a trilogy, so world building and plot have been established. You know the heroine; you know the apocalyptic situation that is coming to a confrontation in this final book. When you meet Sam Logan, the hero to Mia Devlin’s heroine, you think you know how it’s going to play out. Yes, there will be anger and loud voices for awhile, but he’ll eventually work his way back into her good graces, and the good graces of the community he ran away from, just in time to save the world. Needless to say, things do not progress so orderly. The book reads like a restrained storm, almost to the point of frustration. The blood on the page isn’t gushing from an open wound, but is constantly seeping from a wound that our heroine is desperately trying to hold together.
The good thing about tropes is that there is one for everyone. If this one isn’t for you, there are a few hundred more to choose from. But, if you like your drama with an extra heaping spoonful of drama, the “my ex-romance” may be for you.
Robin Bradford is a lawyer, a librarian and, most importantly, a long time lover of words. You can check her out on twitter @tuphlos, on Unpaged, the book blog, at http://unpaged.blogspot.com, or read the backlist at Obiter Dictum at http://tuphlos.blogspot.com