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 BookBub.com, 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.
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
Fairy Tale Retelling
Action & Adventure:
Military (either the setting or the main character has a military background)
Ancient Secrets, Codes, and Hidden Treasure
Children in Peril
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:
Motorcycle Club 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
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.
Hmm. This gives me some food for thought. Thanks for pulling back the curtain on the fascinating world of publishing, and giving us a glimpse of what you see. And this post is going to get printed out and put into my notebook.
Steve, I am always educated by your agency’s posts. This is particularly valuable to me for it’s lucid explanation of the word “trope” as it relates to literature. I even found my genre, sub-genre in your list.
Interesting. Thank you for putting this together, Steve.
I think that there’s just one trope, just one reason for the plea, “Tell me a story!”
People want to know that their life matters, that events are shaped to purpose.
They want to know that the traumas were for a reason, and that the joys have some counterpart in Infinity and aren’t irretrievably lost to time.
And that there is a road ahead, leading to a warm place, and that everything doesn’t end in the cold and the dark.
Because we’re all of us so terribly afraid of the dark.
Ah, but Andrew, Jesus is the light of the world. The darkness knew him not. But you do. Therefore there is no darkness to you. There may be unknown, but Jesus’ presence is always our light.
And our God is so faithful that we can trust him with the unknown. I love you, little brother. And so does he. Grace and peace be with you this day – and always.
Well said, Andrew. You’ve expressed the continuous struggle that drives me to read and write. I encourage you to post that thought on your social media accounts so I can retweet it!
Ara, thank you so much! I just incorporated it into a blog post; please feel free to retweet, repot, or whatever! I’m truly honoured.
Here’s the link.
Done! I wish more writers realized how much more impactful are expressions of life’s struggles than its answers. Oddly, we do not really relate to answers as much as we do questions. Hang in there!
Thank you so much, Ara. And by the way, I really like your blog, and I would strongly recommend anyone reading this to pay you a visit!
Thanks, Steve. This information is particularly helpful for those of us who are new to fiction writing to keep us from going too far off base in the early stages of our development.
And thanks, Andrew, for your heartfelt comments.
And for those of us unable to keep up with changing terminologies.
This makes sense, Steve. I don’t write fiction, but I read it. I’ll get on some sort of binge (author, plot, era) and read several similar books in a short time. Then my brain shouts, “Enough!” I guess the same thing happens on a macro-scale.
Interesting. Thank you for sharing, Steve.
Interesting observations. The first time I met you, you advised me to stick with what I think God wants me to write. I love the freedom that provides. While we should be aware of market trends and always consider our audience, trying to chase the market seems akin to chasing the proverbial carrot on a stick. I’m grateful I have a God who knows His plans for me and I don’t have to worry about trying to predict future market trends. I only need to focus on being obedient to Him and the rest will work itself out.
My current novel:
Family Saga + Epic Fantasy + Ancient Mysteries + Quest + Rebirth
B I N G O !
Linda Riggs Mayfield
I think I’ve found the ultimate trope in the Hallmark Christmas movies, and using it is quite intentional. We’re inviting a young adult friend over to watch their premiers–she’s newly alone, has no nearby relatives, and no cable, and those are her favorite films. I had never seen one before. After just two Saturday nights I noticed a really high level of similarities between all the plots and Googled “writing Hallmark Christmas movies.” Sure enough–Hallmark DOES have just one general plot, which they clearly lay out on the web site for potential writers to follow, along with guidelines forbidding a few things and stipulating a happy ending. No wonder theyre so consistently safe and predictable! No stress or nightmares from one of those! Can you guess what I’m writing next? ;-D
didn’t keep in my final comment… ‘back to pg 1 of plot and character development’
This is good, Steve. We do need to strike a balance. We’re stupid if we don’t think of the market, and we’re not trusting God if that’s ALL we think about. a good story, a God-given story will find a home somewhere, but we need to do our part.