Turning tropes in fiction: a fresh take with Mo Fanning’s ‘Ghosted’
When it comes to telling a story, writers get ‘the rules’ drilled into us. Otherwise known as ‘tropes’. We learn about three (or six) act structures, 12-beat outlines and other things that should matter not one jot to the reader – but actually do. We also get lectured on what is expected of what genre.
Mysteries and thrillers are plot-driven. Twists and cliffhangers keep readers guessing until the end. Romances must end with a happy ever after or a happy for now. Fantasy novels commonly involve quests or adventures, often with a hero or a group of heroes centre stage. Young Adult fiction (YA for all you dudes out there) is written in an accessible style, but never avoids complex or serious themes. Literary fiction has a pretty cover and lots of long words. Quite often a crow remains central to the plot. (Other feather flying things are available).
Readers know what they like. Tropes offer comfort and predictability, guiding them from one page to the next. And I do get that. But when I came to write ‘Ghosted‘, and a rough draft turned it into a Holiday Season romantic comedy, I decided to break rules.
Killing my darlings
First off, I removed two young gay male lead characters who were going through a rough patch. A dream Christmas break to New York and a holiday cruise was meant to revive their relationship. They would encounter sacked department store Silas hoping to reconcile with his gay son Joey. They’d drink cocktails with Ellen Gitelman, ticking items off her bucket list.
I decided to make ‘Ghosted‘ the story of Silas and Ellen. Two straight seniors steeped in the styles and trials of New York City. Each seeking something different. Both on a gay cruise through a bunch of misunderstandings. And then I decided to play down the rom in the com, never quite tuning it out, but keeping it in the background, like a poorly tuned-in radio station.
‘Ghosted‘ was my way of stepping away from the run-of-the-mill romance. Better yet, avoiding the Hallmark Movie Christmas romance. No high-flying city professional would find love with a small town woodsman.
The gay cruise setting immediately challenged the conventional backdrop of most Holiday season romantic comedies. Instead of predictable scenarios, I got to root around in life’s unexpected turns. I got to use darker paint on my frame.
Fancy literary types told me how the power of subverting tropes lies in the ability to surprise and engage readers in new ways. Take, for example, the trope of ‘love at first sight’. In ‘Ghosted’, Silas and Ellen’s relationship develops with a more nuanced and realistic approach. I look my cue from other storytellers who successfully subverted this trope, like in ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman, where love evolves through self-discovery and friendship.
Embracing unconventional characters
Silas and Ellen are mature, seasoned by life’s trials, and their stories reflect deeper themes of self-acceptance and second chances. I ditched the younger, unblemished characters seen in typical romantic comedies. I just so happened to be reading ‘A Man Called Ove’ by Fredrik Backman at the time I started work on this book. Backman (my hero, by the way) features an older protagonist finding unexpected connections.
Humour and heart
‘Ghosted’ doesn’t shy away from the messiness of real life, blending humour with serious themes like family estrangement and personal challenges. I wanted to have a go at being anything like as brilliant as Marian Keyes, who infuses her novels with levity and depth, addressing serious issues without forgetting to let the audience smile now and then.
Beyond ‘Happily Ever After’
Instead of neatly tied-up endings, ‘Ghosted‘ embraces the complexity of life’s journey. It aligns with how modern storytellers like Taylor Jenkins Reid in ‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ eschew traditional happy endings for more realistic, open-ended conclusions. It’s cost me a few stars in a few reviews where readers complained they wanted to know what happened next and see Silas and Ellen together and carrying on with their lives. It sort of tells me there’s a squeal in there, but I always feel that if I can leave you wanting more, I’ve probably done my job. You have the parcel, the paper and the string. Tie your own bow.
With ‘Ghosted‘ I wanted to see how things turn out when I turn tropes on their head. The story invites readers to explore a path less travelled, finding humour, heart, and authenticity in the twists and turns of life’s unexpected journeys.
What do you think? Do you like it when writers break the rules a little, or is life hard enough without this to add to your to-do list?