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.