The Sporadic Scrivener Writes

Welcome to my occasional blog. :) I am a writer, reader and critic, and I'll be blogging about all of these topics from time to time. I also love discussion, so please feel free to hop in and contribute.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Warning: Low-flying Clichéd Plot Device

Plot devices. We’re all guilty of using them at one time or another. And sometimes they’re necessary. Sometimes, though, they’re a dangerous hazard that should be avoided at all costs.
Romance novels are certainly habitual offenders when it comes to the clichéd, hackneyed plot device. Pick any romance novel off a shelf and chances are fairly high that it’ll contain at least one device that really should be avoided.

For example, there’s the Big Misunderstanding plot device, usually carried out in tandem with the Failure to Communicate device. Do either of these scenarios sound familiar?

  1. Heroine sees Hero in a compromising position with another woman. Heroine assumes Hero is being unfaithful and just ends relationship, refusing to discuss her reasons in any way. Long interlude ensues before Hero and Heroine communicate again and misunderstanding is sorted out, and the resolution frequently necessitates the involvement of a third party.

  1. Hero sees Heroine in a compromising position with another man. Hero assumes Heroine is being unfaithful and confronts Heroine with evidence. Argument ensues, in which either Hero refuses to believe Heroine when she protests her innocence or Heroine asserts that Hero should know the truth about her without having to ask. Breakdown in communication results, followed by long interlude before misunderstanding is sorted out... you know the drill.

The variations on this plot device are now so common that they’re predictable a mile off. I can usually see this sort of cliché coming at least a couple of dozen pages away. By the time I actually get to the Big Misunderstanding I’m usually at the point where I just want to skip the next 50/100/150 pages (or however long the author takes to resolve the device), because it’s all just so predictable.

I’ve vented about another hackneyed device before - the Missing Heir plot. Lynn over at  Confessions of a Would-Be Writer has vented about the Secret Baby plot device. But if there’s one plot device above all that really gets me rolling my eyes, wanting to jettison the book and head over to Amazon to give the book a one-star review, it’s the Self-Sacrificing Heroine.

Here’s the scenario. Heroine is madly in love with Hero. Hero has proposed, or is about to. They’re blissfully happy and planning their future together. And suddenly Heroine does a complete about-face, announces she no longer loves Hero and - usually - then leaves town. Does a disappearing act, leaving Hero to wonder what he did or what changed her so much that he doesn’t even recognise the woman she became.

What’s behind it? Why does the heroine do a vanishing act? Because she’s found out something bad, something that’s going to cause their relationship some problems. And, rather than staying to work it through, rather than giving the hero credit for loving her and wanting to work through problems with her, wanting to support her and take joint responsibility for their relationship, she takes the decision not to tell him what’s happened. She decides that he doesn’t need to know.

In fact, it’s usually portrayed in novels using this plot device that the heroine is sacrificing herself and her own happiness for the sake of the hero. For example, one common use of this clichéd device is where the heroine suddenly discovers that she can’t have children. She knows the hero wants children, and so she makes the decision to free him to marry someone else who can give him children. She’s sacrificing her own wishes so that he can be happy.

That is such bullshit.

Apologies to anyone who has a problem with strong language. But, seriously, as a plot device that one has to be the least credible around. Apart from anything else, it is so incredibly patronising. It suggests a heroine who does not see her relationship as a partnership, or her boyfriend/fiancé as an equal in that relationship, a person who is capable of being understanding and supportive and of helping her to cope and come to terms with whatever this discovery is - while the inability to conceive seems to be the most common, there are variants in which the heroine discovers that she has only a short time to live.

Taking the baby example, fertility is such a hit-and-miss thing anyway. Many couples have trouble conceiving. Most couples do not have full fertility check-ups before marriage. Any couple could get married planning to have children and end up childless. So the idea that a woman should just end a relationship because she can’t give her man children is ludicrous. And the heroines who do this, to me, come across as weak, untrustworthy (after all, they’re lying to their significant others) and having no understanding of elements essential to any healthy relationship: loyalty, treating their partner as an equal, honesty and so on.

Self-sacrificing heroines? Give me somebody selfish any day!


Anonymous Karen said...

Ya know, I really have to agree. I've read a few stories where that's happened, and thank goodness, that part only lasts about 10 pages. Two chapters at most. Most of the time, I just want to throttle the heroine and make her see sense. It's utterly ridiculous!

The misunderstanding plot line, I've seen a few too many times. It seems like it's hard to find an original take on the plot line anymore.

10:17 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about a self-sacrificing hero? For example, a hero who thinks his high-profile peace-keeping work puts his woman in danger and therefore he should end their relationship? ;)

Devil's Advocate

3:53 p.m.  
Blogger Lynn M said...

Yeah, I'm with you on the tiresome plot device of self-sacrifice, especially if the reason isn't something I can get behind. In the fertility problem scenario, I'd much prefer a heroine who went to the hero and said "Hey, I've found out I can't have children. I know you want a family. I'll understand if you'd like to end this relationship." At least then the hero would have a chance to make a choice as opposed to being treated as a child and non-partner.

Too, I hate it when the sacrifice itself is combined with the Big Misunderstanding. Heroine learns that if she marries the hero, her brother, who is the hero's bitterest enemy, will kill the hero. So she goes off and pretends to be interested in someone else to spare the hero's life, thus setting up the hero to think the heroine is a big ho.

I'm all for sacrifices in a romance because nothing affects me more than when a person gives up something beloved to them for another, but it has to be handled very well. I even blogged about a situation that I appreciated in the show Over There because the hero's sacrifice was discovered and acknowledged. It was all very moving.

8:43 p.m.  
Blogger Rachel said...

Part of me still believes that there are no new stories, just new ways of telling the same stories.

Nonetheless, it would be nice if more people would present them in clever ways, rather than resorting to the familiar, musty ways of old.

And to anonymous, well said. Nonetheless, he's so darn cute when he apologises that you have to forgive him for his stupidity. She did too, apparently.

12:05 a.m.  

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