Common Tropes Editors Wish Would Curl Up And Die

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica,
erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her
husband, son, and three cats. Visit her web
, her Facebook page, and her Amazon
Author Page


Let’s play a game. You’ve written what you think is The Most Unique And
Exciting Story In The World, and you want to send it to a magazine or an
anthology submission call. You do exactly that and wait eager – and anxiously –
for over a month to get either an acceptance or a rejection. An acceptance will
be met with many congratulations and toasts with champagne – and pinches to
make sure you’re really awake.

A rejection, which deep in the back of your mind you may actually suspect
you will get because you are a writer and you may thrive on disappointment, will
leave you devastated. Or you’ll shrug it off and send your magnum opus
elsewhere. It’s a toss-up.

Rinse and repeat.

While you play the “hurry up and wait” game, you may wonder
how unique your story really is? Chances are, its theme has been seen before in
many different incarnations. Editors run into the same old stories all the
time. They often talk of common tropes that leave them guessing the plot and
ending before they even finish reading your submission. There are some tropes
many editors wish would never cross their desks. Those tropes should be buried
and the ground sown with salt.

Here are some examples of those kinds of common and tired tropes. First
up, here is a list of subjects Bartleby
Snopes Literary Magazine managing editor Nathaniel Tower is tired of seeing in
lit magazine submissions

Death Endings – For the love of everything
that is sacred about literature, stop killing off characters in violent or
sentimental fashion in order to achieve an ending. Characters die in
approximately 12% of the submissions we receive. 99% of these deaths are
pointless and make the story worse. Character death is not a substitute for a
satisfactory conclusion.

Opening with sex or masturbation – Nothing
turns me off faster than a story that opens with a masturbation or sex scene.
I’m all about being thrown directly into a scene, but sometimes there needs to
be some literary foreplay. If there’s an erect penis in the opening line of the
story, I probably don’t want to read it. Interestingly enough, these stories
are almost never sexy.

Sentimental cancer stories – Yes, nearly
everyone has been affected in some way by cancer. I’ve had family members die
of cancer. It’s been at least five years since anyone said anything new with a
cancer story.

Stories that open with light streaming
through the window – How many stories can begin with some type of light
bursting forth through a hunk of glass? Apparently there is no limit. At least
15% of stories contain some type of light coming through something in the
opening paragraph. There are often dust motes thrown in there for good measure.
Please, no more dust motes.

Stories that begin with someone coming out of
a dream or end with someone realizing it was all a dream – You’d
think that all dream stories would have been banned from the universe by
now. It seems as if many writers haven’t gotten the memo. I’ll personally kill
the next character that wakes up from a dream at the beginning of a story. And
ending with a dream? Well, that’s even worse. You might as well just call the
story “Nothing Happened At All” and leave the rest of the document blank.

Alzheimer’s stories – Like cancer stories,
only worse. These writers all pretend they understand exactly what it’s like to
have Alzheimer’s. The worst offenders are those stories told in first person
from the point of view of the Alzheimer’s patient. If I could forget one thing,
it would be Alzheimer’s stories.

Cheating significant other stories – Whether
the cheater is a man or a woman, these stories generally pack as much punch as
an empty bottle of sugar-free Hawaiian Punch. There’s almost always a scene
where someone is packing a suitcase, as if we’re supposed to feel some sort of
relief at this newfound freedom from the tormented relationship. The only
relief is when the story ends.

Machinegun bonus – Here’s a quick list of
other things I’ve seen way too much of:

Devil/God stories

Bar/diner stories

References to Nietzsche

Abuse stories

Stories of thwarted creative genius

Bad things happening to trust fund kids

This is a portion of a list of stories seen too often by Strange
Horizons, an online speculative fiction
. It is helpful in that it can steer you away from what
you may not suspect are common tropes. Please visit this web page often since
the list is updated and changed on occasion. Also visit the page now anyway,
since this is a very long list. The examples below are only a small part of it.

Creative person is having trouble creating.

Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re
not real, like in a dream. (There’s that dream thing again.)

Technology and/or modern life turn out to be

A place is described, with no plot or

A “surprise” twist ending occurs.
The “surprise” is often predictable, hence no longer a

A princess has been raped or molested by her
father (or stepfather), the king.

The narrator and/or male characters in the
story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the
standard stereotypes about women: that they’re mysterious, wacky, confusing,
unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.

Teen’s family doesn’t understand them.

Twee little fairies with wings fly around
being twee.

Christine Morgan has written horror, fantasy, erotica, and thrillers.
She has also edited numerous anthologies, including “Fossil Lake”,
“Teeming Terrors” and “Grimm Black”, “Grimm Red”,
and “Grimm White”. Her list includes some other common tropes:

Child characters that do not behave/sound
like kids! I’ve seen too many otherwise good authors present a child character
as if they’ve never even been around children in their lives.

The above can also apply to animals, or any
other different/differing perspective. In fantasy or sci fi, urban fantasy,
horror, whatever; if you’re going to give me a non-human race, then that’s what
I want to see played up, the differences, the exoticness; don’t just make ’em
humans with special effects makeup.

Any of the overdone sexism tropes: fridging,
smurfette syndrome, automatic love interest, passive prize women, etc. That
should go without saying but the fact it still so often needs to be said is
almost more annoying.

Fridging (I
think the term came from crime dramas and thrillers, where the body was found
in a fridge or freezer or something) is what they call it when someone, usually
a female character, is killed to motivate the male character … most recent
example that pissed me off was when I watched Thor: Dark World, when the easiest way to get Thor and Loki to work
together was to kill Frigga.

Syndrome is what I’ve heard it when you’ve got your group of characters, each
of whom is characterized by some trope or type … the jock, the nerd, the
weirdo … and the girl … because that alone is enough of an identifying
quality, right?

love interest is when a female character is added to the cast or in the story
and the main focus is only to be which guy gets her. My own beloved Gargoyles did some of that with Angela,
when, the moment she appeared, all that mattered was who she’d end up with. It’s
related to the passive prize woman thing, where the primary purpose of having a
female character at all is so the hero has something to win or gets the girl at
the end, whether anything else in the story had led up to it or not.

Radclyffe is an American author of lesbian romance, paranormal romance,
erotica, and mystery. She has authored multiple short stories, fan fiction, and
edited numerous anthologies. Here are a few themes/character notes/plot-lines
that seem overused in submissions she has seen:

who are relationship-phobic because they were cheated on. While this may be
crushing at the time, most people do not swear off love and/or sex forever
because of an unfaithful gf/bf/spouse etc. 

who are unavailable because they are mourning a dead spouse (while tragic in
real life, and I’ve used this storyline myself :), it’s getting to be

YA’s – along
those lines: dying teens as main characters

main characters (snarky, petty, narcissistic) – not the same as
arrogant, confident, alpha

International settings no one
would want to visit on a good day

Fantasy/sci-fi characters with
incomprehensible names

veiled morality tales (or social/political polemics). Write an essay or op ed

Fault in Our Stars clones

where one character dies (might be a great story, but it’s not a

BDSM novels
with no BDSM scenes (seen the movie?)

where the villain is declared insane and justice is NOT served

So there you have
it. Now you are armed with examples of what to not submit. Expand your mind,
avoid those kinds of tropes, and create something that may truly be The Most
Unique And Exciting Story In The World.


Author’s Note: My
story Infection appears in the
aforementioned TeemingTerrors. My story Black As Ebony,
White As Snow
shall soon appear in Grimm
. Both books are edited by Christine Morgan. My short erotic story Like A Breath Of Ocean Blue shall soon
appear in Best Lesbian Romance 2015,
edited by Radclyffe.

Theme: The Good, The Bad and The Preachy

I seldom walk out of movies. When I find myself in a movie that doesn’t particularly draw me in, I tend resort to viewing it critically: identifying the story arc, the character arcs, the nuts and bolts of the construction of the story. 

Two nights ago, I walked out of Ender’s Game.  I’ve never read the book. Although I am a massive sci-fi fan, there are certain areas of the genre that don’t turn my crank.  Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card just never did anything for me.  Nonetheless, big budget, hyped marketing campaign… I bought my ticket, sat in my seat, and stuffed my face with popcorn.

At some point – about an hour into the film – I caved to the overwhelming urge to be out of the cinema. Later, when I tried to analyze why I couldn’t bring myself to sit through it, I realized that it was the way the theme of the story was being presented that I found almost suffocating.

Without a strong theme, stories are soulless. They feel fluttery, airy and insignificant.  But when the theme of a story is so obvious and so constant that it eclipses the story, the characters and the plot, it becomes like treacle. It gums up everything.  Theme can, if you let it, suffocate every other aspect of your story.

Recent cultural and literary theorists have had a very low opinion of theme.  Post-modernism rejected the idea that stories have any responsibility at all, to anyone. Being a staunch modernist myself, I’m rather glad to see this era of the glorification of the totally meaningless pass.  But when I sat in that theatre and choked hard on the dominant theme in Ender’s Game, I could see why they wanted to kill the beast dead.

I teach writing at college level, and theme is one of the hardest things to teach.  It is easier to say what theme isn’t than to say what it is. And, of course, there are stories with more than one theme.  Time and culture can deeply influence the themes that come to the fore of a story and how they are perceived.

No matter what the story structure, the theme should be what the reader takes from the story as its overall message. In archaic structures, such as fables, the theme is the moral of the story. In parables, the theme is the ‘wisdom’ it imparts at the end.  Old story structures demanded that the theme was an answer to a universal question.  In more modern, adult story forms, the theme shouldn’t offer answers, but encourage the reader to a deeper consideration of some serious and universal question.

Because of its broadness of scope, erotic fiction has the capacity to offer a valuable exploration of many aspects of the human condition in depth and at a very personal, concrete level.  So often, themes in erotic fiction deal with issues of ethics and morality, of embodiment, of identity, of loneliness, of abjection, of mutuality. Deep, deep stuff.

Erotic writing represents an entirely culturally constructed part of humanity (our sex drive is animal and focused on reproduction but, as cultures we have abstracted and reinterpreted that drive to the point where the things that trigger our arousal are entirely constructed.  Horniness may be biological, but eroticism is the meaning we’ve layered on top of that biological imperative).  So it would seem that erotic fiction is a great place to explore theme. We bind our sense of the erotic to so many elements that don’t have a biological foundation.  Here, in the rarified air of lateral and obtuse relations between intellect, the emotions and groin, theme can run riot. That’s a wonderful garden to explore.

Choosing a theme can help you make decisions as to how to carve a peace between your characters and your plot.  It can guide you to where a story needs to go. And yet, if you let your theme dominate your story, it will leach all the colour, all the texture, all immersive ‘hereness’ from your story. Themes are abstractions. They should sit at the foundation of the story, but never on the surface.

Let me give you a very simple, obvious example: I want to write a story with trust as a dominant theme.  BDSM seems like a perfect fit. My characters are going to learn that the only way they can explore the outer reaches of their erotic imaginations is to trust each other.

However, if I keep bringing up ‘trust’ in the story. If I keep placing the words into the mouths of my characters, into their brains, if I keep bringing something as abstract as ‘trust’ to the fore of the story, it will lose every ounce of heat it might have had. You may end up with readers nodding their heads in agreement, but you’re preaching to the choir. You’ve just produced a piece of rhetorical propaganda, not a story. 

Of course, the issue of trust needs to be there. But it needs to operate below the surface, like a current in the river, driving the story along invisibly.  You can show your reader the ultimate results of a lack of trust. You can show your reader what its presence can enable. But if you bring it directly into the text of the story, you treat your reader like a child. You don’t allow them to discover the theme and its implications on their own. You need to let your theme inform your story, but not dominate it.

If you do, your reader will come away from your story not only having had a good, immersive erotic experience, but also with a head full of ideas and questions.  For me, this is the ultimate goal of writing anything.

When you start thinking about a new story, do you consider its theme? How do you weave it in?

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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