Aug 8 2017 8:30am

Why the Fish-Out-of-Water Story Will Always Be a Favorite

What is it about the fish-out-water trope that readers love so much?

Today we're thrilled to have Shelly Stratton (Between Lost and Found) on Heroes and Heartbreakers. One time or another we've all felt like a fish out of water in a give situation, so it's a trope many of us find relatable in fiction too. Shelly is here today to talk a little bit about why we love it so much. Thanks, Shelly!

Perhaps, on some level, it appeals to the schadenfreude in all of us. I bet, like me, many of you enjoy watching the city-slicker bumble around the small town, lamenting about the lack of quality espresso and cell phone reception, drawing eye rolls from the townsfolk. Or maybe you have a good laugh at the silly American tourist in the Italian village who doesn’t speak the language, can’t figure out the road signs, and is all thumbs when it comes to cultural nuance.

Or maybe your reasons for liking this trope is less cynical than that. You love seeing someone struggle in the unknown, but cheer for them when they triumph in the end: the astronaut stranded on the alien planet who figures out how to survive before she is rescued, or the immigrant who travels to America with nothing but the money in his pocket and the clothes on his back and finds a new community, new friends, and a new sense of belonging. These are stories that reinforce the message that fish may not survive out of water, but humans are much more adaptable on new terrain—if they’re willing to give it a chance.

A good example of the fish-out-of-water trope appears in one of the short stories in Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo Moyes. It features the character Nell, a sensible British girl who makes what is probably the first rash decision in her life when she chooses to go to Paris alone, even though she’s never been there before. This is only after her boyfriend basically tells her via text that he won’t be able to go with her for the romantic Parisian holiday they had planned. The same holiday that she had been fantasizing about. Nell arrives in the City of Lights, not knowing how to speak French, and finds out the room she booked is no longer available. She has to share one instead with a perfect stranger—a loud, obnoxious American. (I told you that we were popular characters in fish-out-of-water stories!)

But despite these major setbacks, Nell keeps her chin up and decides to explore the city on her own. She runs into and falls for Fabien, a café waiter, who shows her all that Paris has to offer. Even though it is only a two-day vacation, Nell is transformed by the end of it. She is more confident and self-assured. She’s more willing to take chances. She breaks up with her boyfriend and returns to Paris to find Fabien. She discovers that she inspired has inspired Fabien too. He reveals to her that he finished his first novel, basing the premise on the weekend in Paris they spent together.

Another one of my favorite fish-out-of-water stories is the historical romance, Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins. This is a good example of how the fish-out-of-water storyline effects the main character, but also how these misplaced characters can influence the world around them.

In the book, Teresa July, a train robber and convict from the Wild West, travels to Philadelphia and becomes a cook in the elite Nance household. There, she meets Madison Nance, an up-tight banker who is completely put off by Teresa’s ill-mannered ways initially. He even questions why his mother would hire such a woman. But the longer Teresa stays in Philadelphia, the more polished she becomes—learning how to walk, talk, and dress like a lady with a few flare ups along the way. But she doesn’t change entirely. She still rides horses (refusing to do it sidesaddle), throws horseshoes, and still wears pants when the occasion calls for it.

Madison becomes magnetically drawn to Teresa’s heady mix of refinement and ruggedness—and he can’t resist his attraction to her. Some of her ill-mannered ways even start to rub off on him and he gets into a fistfight.

By the end of the novel both Teresa and Madison have transformed, meeting each other somewhere in the middle.

So what do I love most the fish-out-of-water stories? Probably watching the journey the characters take both externally and internally. Seeing them come full circle by the end can be uplifting and inspiring.


Learn more about or order a copy of Between Lost and Found by Shelly Stratton, available now:

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Shelly Stratton is an NAACP Image Award-nominated author who has written almost a dozen books under other pennames. Her latest book, Between Lost & Found (Kensington Publishing Corp., July 2017), is a work of women’s fiction set in the mythical town of Mammoth Falls, South Dakota. Find out more about her at shellystrattonbooks.com.

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