Popular Story Tropes in Current Fiction

When we think of fiction, we put books in genres based on the story line. Then within each genre, they are separated by subgenres. The Book Industry Study Group has defined over 100 different classifications of fiction. These BISAC codes are what you find on the back of the book.

And yet, despite the variety of genres, there are certain tropes (defined as overused plot devices) that appear regularly.

Recently Diane Urban, the Industry Marketing Manager at, identified a number of tropes among recent popular fiction in her article on their company’s blog. The trending novels are based on their customer’s engagement, sales, and in-house research.

Below is a selection with some explanations and then a few observations of my own.

Crime Fiction:
Missing Persons
Cold Cases

Historical Romance:
Marriages of Convenience (married for something other than love, only to find love in the end)
Heroes with Titles (like a Duke or Earl)

Historical Fiction (not focused on romance):
World War II
Early America

Literary Fiction:
Small Towns
Family Sagas

Science Fiction:
Artificial Intelligence

Epic Fantasy
Fairy Tale Retelling

Action & Adventure:
Military (either the setting or the main character has a military background)
Ancient Secrets, Codes, and Hidden Treasure

Memory Lapses
Children in Peril

Cozy Mystery:
English Village Setting
Bookish Themes (bookstore owner, set in a bookstore or a book club)

None of these are necessarily new themes; they are simply identified as what is most popular now on this particular online site.

When we take appointments with authors at a writers conference, we see many of these, one right after the other. At a recent Realm Makers event, which focuses on speculative fiction, over half of the pitches I heard were for Fairy Tale Retellings or Reimaginings.

What About the Past?

In 2016 this same blog identified these tropes as being popular at the time:

Romantic Suspense
Motorcycle Club Members

Dark Romance
Mafia Members

In 2014 Barnes & Noble identified the following as being popular:

Boy Who Pretends He Doesn’t Love Girl (But He Really Does)

The Gruff Older Character Whose Life Is Changed by a Precocious Child

The Plain Jane Who Gets Her Man

The Unlikely Hero of Humble Origins

The Love Triangle

The Creativity Challenge

In Christopher Booker’s massive 700-page book The Seven Basic Plots, he makes the claim that the following are the major “metaplots” found in all fiction.

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Thus the challenge for the writer of fiction is to find something that feels fresh and new, but also doesn’t stray too far from what is working commercially (i.e., writing what sells).

Be careful though. To chase the market is a mistake because it can shift suddenly. Over ten years ago chick-lit was the hottest thing on the market, but then it cooled off so fast that dozens of publishers were stuck with unsalable new manuscripts that no one wanted to buy any more.

As Booker notes above, there are, however, a number of common things that can be found in all popular novels. But using common or popular tropes in your fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While they may seem tired and overdone, they have worked for a reason. They engage the reader at some level. If it is very well written with compelling characters and an engaging story, the fact that the thematic device (the trope) isn’t surprising may still find a ready-made audience.





Leave a Comment

Lessons Learned As a Literary Agent

Dan is leaving the agency at the end of this month to focus his attention on the work of Gilead Publishing, the company he started in 2016. Here are some parting thoughts. _____ I’ve been a literary agent for about 2,000 of the 13,000 total days spent working with and …

Read More

The Biggest Question About Your Book

Authors are like small businesses. They have a finance department, a marketing department and an editorial wing. Then there’s the travel, human resources, IT and facilities management departments, all managed by one person, the author. While writing quality and author platforms are discussed at every writer’s conference, those aren’t the …

Read More

Same Message, Different Reader

When a published book is successful (sells well), the publisher and author begin pondering how to be successful again with the next book. Often times, the solution to the repeat-success puzzle in non-fiction is having a similar message but aimed at a different audience. You’ve seen it happen many times, …

Read More

A Writer’s Beatitudes

In the famous “Sermon on the Mount” passage in the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew, Jesus presented a series of eight “beatitudes.” Each was a saying that turned conventional wisdom on its head, showing how in God’s eyes the oppressed are blessed and the despised are prized. No one can improve …

Read More

Create Magic with Words

Years ago, I took my five-year-old daughter to Toys R Us to meet “Barbie.” “Barbie” turned out to be a cute and charming teenager who, yes, looked like the classic blonde image of the doll. She wore a pretty pink gown. I expected a lot more fanfare around this event. …

Read More

I Feel This Post May Hurt Your Thinkings

Everyone has pet peeves. I have a menagerie of them. One of my favorites is the common (and fairly recent) tendency of English speakers and writers to confuse and conflate the words, “feel” and “think.” But feelings are not thoughts and thoughts are not feelings. That might seem obvious and …

Read More

Book Reading in a Social Media World

At some point every writer confronts the trend of readers who would rather consume 140 characters in social media than 140 pages of words. Social media and smart phones change everything in our world and their impact on book reading and writing is substantial. At the same time social media …

Read More

A Title Wave

Some writers find it hard to title their work; others have as much (or more) fun creating titles as they do writing articles, stories, or books. So, just for fun, I asked some of my colleagues and clients: “What title of a nonexistent, imaginary, unwritten, or unpublished work do you …

Read More