It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #4: Menstruation

Periods. Surfing the crimson wave. Getting a visit from Aunt Flo.

Lady characters getting their periods doesn’t come up in a lot of stories, and that’s fine. It’s a completely normal bodily function that can safely be ignored in many cases. It happens, everything is fine, the reader doesn’t need to see it.

But when it does get mentioned? Boy, do I hate how it’s usually handled. So we’re going to talk about it.

So when does it come up?

When a woman is concerned she might be pregnant. Okay, this one’s pretty fair.  Missing a period is an obvious first sign of a potential pregnancy, and depending on the situation and the person in question, this can cause a lot of different reactions.

Did you hear that, everyone? A lot of different reactions.  Not just the two extremes I usually see, which are giddy hope when pregnancy is the goal, or abject terror when it’s not.

And there are a lot of reasons a woman might experience a missed or delayed period that have nothing to do with pregnancy.  Stress alone can be enough, as can recovering from surgery, taking strong antibiotics, or switching birth-control medications–all reasonably common and totally unalarming causes.  Why don’t we ever see these? Because media has taught us that a missed/late period = a pregnancy scare.

Next, when a woman is using it as an excuse to avoid sex. Whether the state of her uterus is the truth or not, it’s definitely something I’ve seen. I remember a scene from Showgirls (yes, I’ve seen Showgirls, it was hilarious and terrible) where the main character is basically “Oh, I’d totally have sex with you, except it’s that time of the month.” And Mr. Not Getting Any slides his hand into her pants and checks.  I was horrified on so many levels.

Why isn’t “no” enough? (Rhetorical, that’s a dissertation in and of itself.) Why didn’t he take her word for it? And past that, why is “I’m on my period” automatically a “no”, anyway?  Why are women taught to assume no one wants in their pants during their period? (Also rhetorical, because just about everything about feminine hygiene product marketing is centered around concealing the existence of menstruation.  Shh, ladies, keep your dirty secrets to yourself.)

And, lastly, when the period causes embarrassment.  Yes, high school is often a cruel place, and teasing can be merciless.  No girl I ever knew wanted to be caught unprepared at school, and believe me, it happened.

But the problem with this is that, in my experience, it’s always portrayed wrong.  (And I admit, this is only my experience, so this is a biased opinion.) I always read about the boys teasing the girls about their nuisance periods, but my memories of that time of my life were all about girls who didn’t like me teasing me when they saw me head into the bathroom stall with a pad, or if I had to ask around for one.  The boys never did.  In fact, I can remember a few conversations where boys asked me and my female friends what periods felt like, so they could (attempt to) understand why we all hated having them so much–but they were respectful and curious, not degrading or disgusted.

Maybe I just had a lot of guy-friends who weren’t complete morons. Maybe it was because the catty, popular girls didn’t like me.  But it was always the girls who would chant “Aunt Flo” at me while we were running track in gym class, or who would loudly blame PMS if I stood up to them when they picked on me about something else.

Not the guys.

Just something to keep in mind if you have to embarrass a lady character.  Or, you know, you could find some other way to do it, that doesn’t shame her for an entirely normal bodily process.  (Thank you, again, mass media, for teaching us our bodies are gross. Wow, I’m really snarky today. Must be the PMS, right?)

 

 

Writing Homework #2: The Worst First Line I Have Ever Read

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Since I contribute writing advice to the vast jumble of the internet, I also read a lot of it, and there is a lot that’s been said on first lines.  I’ve even written some of it.

When I read, I’m not hyper-critical of first lines. I’m usually not even that harsh on first paragraphs or pages.  If I’m not into it by the end of the prologue/first chapter, that’s usually where my cut-off is, so I guess you could call me generous that way.

But a few days ago, starting another free romance on my Kindle, I came across the worst first line I’ve ever read.

I’m not going to give the name of the book, because I’m not that mean.  A large part of my literary heart still feels like judging an entire book from a single line and giving up on it is unfair…so I’ll keep this anonymous.  But I picked up the book based on an interesting blurb and a 4.5 star rating across several hundred reviews, so I honestly thought, going in, that it was going to be a decent read.  I’ve certainly been surprised by less.

So here they are, the four words that made me drop my Kindle into my lap in shock:

“My parents are dead.”

Yeah.

Think about that for a second.

“My parents are dead.”

Where do I even start talking about how terrible an opening line this is, according to every bit of writing wisdom out there?

  1. It’s backstory. Don’t lead with backstory. Lead with action.
  2. This is my first impression of the narrator. Is the fact that her parents are dead really the most important thing about her, so that it needs to be conveyed to the reader immediately? Isn’t that something that can wait, so it can have context?
  3. Not that this couldn’t be forgiven if the rest of the story turns out to be solid, but the absent/dead parents trope is overused.  In YA especially, to give the young protagonists more freedom than they would otherwise have, but it pops up in romance a lot as well, for the easy access to a tragic past. Boooooring.
  4. The only interesting thing about the sentence itself is the shock value, which is negligible at best, since we don’t know anything else about the narrator yet.  It isn’t descriptive enough to be a compelling hook, like “When I was ten, my parents died in a hot-air balloon accident, and I still don’t know how I survived.”  (I’m not saying that’s an amazing opening line, but it’s got a little more oomph, right? Because it sets up a little mystery around the narrator.)

So, this time your homework is to study some opening lines.  Do as many as you want, and again, I’d suggest a mix of some books you’ve read and some you haven’t. Ask yourself with each one if you think it’s a strong beginning, or not, and why.  Which commonly accepted conventions does it follow, and which does it break?  If you think it’s weak, how could you rewrite it to make it stronger? Or, for bonus points, are there stronger sentences on the first page that would have made better opening lines?  Could they be moved to the beginning, or does everything ahead of them need to be cut?

As for the book that inspired this exercise, I did tough it out to the end of the first chapter before I gave up.  It was ten pages long and covered eight years of backstory in the narrator’s life.  I would much rather have gotten all that information spaced out over the first few chapters, and this is a romance, for pity’s sake!  Couldn’t there be character discovery through dialogue?  Couldn’t the romantic hero be curious about the narrator’s past?  If/when she tells Mr. Right everything laid out in the first chapter, it’s all going to be rehash to me, the reader, and there was nothing there so interesting I’d look forward to hearing it twice.

I do not feel any guilt about setting this one aside.

It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #3: Love Triangles

So many readers abhor love triangles in stories, and yet it’s an incredibly common trope.

Why?

We’re going to have to dig a little deeper on this one, compared to the easy fixes for long hair and glasses.

Why is the love-triangle trope so prevalent, particularly in romance and YA?

It’s an easy source of conflict.  Don’t have enough stumbling blocks between your heroine and her one true love? Time to shoehorn in another potential romantic interest.  Bonus points if he’s the dark, mysterious, brooding type, because portraying the second guy as a bad boy gives the heroine (and the readers) an excuse to swoon over him, without him really threatening Mr. Destiny’s chances to get the girl in the end.

It’s an easy way to make the heroine seem attractive without actually developing her personality.  Because she must be amazing if not one, but two men are attracted to, or in love, with her, right?

It’s an easy role to toss onto a character that isn’t doing much else.  Need an extra guy around for some plot point, for whatever reason, then we never have to see him again?  So why was he there at all?  Because he’s got the hots for the heroine, problem solved.

Okay, so here comes the tough love.  How can we, as writers, fix this?

First–do you really need a love triangle?  Deep down, at the heart of your story, is that the point?  Because if it is, it can be done, and it can be done well.  Your romantic lead can feel conflicted about choosing between two partners–that’s a story.  But if it’s not the story, then you probably don’t need it.  So just don’t do it.  Find another minor conflict to throw at your lovers instead of a third wheel.

Second–okay, so the story you want to tell really is a love triangle.  Make both choices equally compelling.  Don’t set it up from the start that Mary and Jim are meant to be together, but that Rick, woooo boy, isn’t he something.  Give equal development weight to both options.  Make their personalities different in ways that aren’t just nice-guy/bad-boy.  Give them different appealing qualities, and give them different flaws.  Maybe Mary is initially attracted to Jim because he never fails to make her laugh.  Rick isn’t nearly as witty, but then, he’s got an adventurous side that makes her want to stretch herself, to try new things.  On the downside, as hilarious as Jim is, he’s got anger issues he’d rather live with than address, and Rick’s so fun-loving he can’t always meet his responsibilities.

See?  Yeah, those are just quick sketches, not actual characters, but neither choice is perfect.  If I sat down to write that story, I don’t even know who Mary would end up with, because neither man is perfect–neither is obviously the right choice.  And that creates real tension.  The guy who wins her heart in the end could be the one who decides to work on his flaws, to be the better person for her, instead of dismiss them–and that could be either one.

Third–Don’t pit the two love interests against each other directly.  No fistfights, please! Again, that’s an easy source of conflict, but a lover isn’t a bone for two dogs to fight over. And if for some reason you just have to have that fistfight…make her disgusted with both of them for acting like angry boys instead of adults, or something.  Let’s not reinforce another horribly-handled trope, that women (and the love/sex that come with them) exist as the reward for men who prove themselves in some way.  Like winning the fight, ugh.

So that’s my take on what needs to happen for a love triangle not to make me rage and throw the book across the room.  I haven’t even come close to covering every angle, so chime in on what else can be done to save this trope from the trash-heap!

It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #2: Long Hair

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(Obligatory “that’s not me.”  My hair, while long and blonde, never behaves that well for photos.)

I’ve wanted to make a tropes post about hair and hair styles for a while now, but in really digging into the topic, I’ve discovered there’s waaaaay too much to cover in just one post, so I’ll start where I’m most comfortable: long hair.  I have it.  I’ve had hair longer than my shoulders since sixth grade, which was the last time I had a chin-length bob.  It was cute, but it wasn’t me.

So, what does having long hair typically say about a character?  The biggest trait associated with it is straight-up femininity.  Girly-girls have long hair.  The more traditionally feminine a character is, the more likely she is to be portrayed as long-haired, and the longer and more lovely the hair is likely to be.

Solution?  Give your guys long hair.  They don’t even have to be in a band to pull it off.  Three of my male college friends had long hair (longer than mine, even, at times) and no one I know regarded them as less masculine for it.  The other solution, of course, is to let your girly-girls and lady-like ladies have any hairstyle at all that isn’t long and flowing.  Give them pixie cuts.  Shave their heads. Anything else.

Moving on: long hair as a sign of childhood and/or innocence, as symbolized by the cutting of it when the character has “grown up.”  I’ve seen this portrayed in two major ways–the hair cutting is an emotional reaction to something traumatic (example: Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite) and is part of the growing-up process organically; or the character feels more adult than earlier in the story, for whatever reason, and makes the conscious choice to change their appearance, wanting to shed whatever emotional baggage they had with their long hair. (Not a woman, but Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife comes to mind when he cuts his hair before the wedding.)

Solution: Don’t do that?  There are lots of other ways to show increased maturity, and if you have to give a character An Important Haircut, then have a good reason.

The last big trope I want to cover is long hair = sexuality.  This is so ingrained in the media I’ve consumed that I hardly feel like examples are necessary, but just to name one, there’s the buttoned-up professional by day, lets-her-hair-down-(literally)-at-night character.  Long hair is supposed to be restrained and contained in a professional setting, so obviously if her hair is down, all bets are off.

Now, this one is definitely a reflection of the real world for a lot of people, and it could be easy to fall into without meaning to, because who doesn’t love a little hair-pulling in the bedroom?  (Lots of people, I’m sure, just roll with this, please.)

But if your character would, logically and reasonably, let her hair down outside the office, in casual situations or in sexy ones, then don’t make that the only physical sign she’s different from her work persona.  Describe the change in her clothes, in her posture–maybe she slouches or her shoulders sag because she’s so tired from work and relieved to finally be relaxing instead.

Or just let her leave her hair up when she’s getting it on.  Maybe the encounter starts too fast to bother with all those pins and hair ties–leave taking her hair down for after. (That could be really intimate, actually, I’m filing that one away for later.)  Maybe whatever’s going on in the bedroom would actually be easier or more comfortable if her hair’s not in the way, so she wants to leave it up.  And again, it’s certainly a trope for a reason, so yeah, let her have her hair down, sometimes, too–but again, make sure that’s not the only sexualized thing about her.

Or, you know, if you already gave her short hair, then just let her get it on without worrying about it.  Problem solved!

It’s Time to Talk About Tropes #1: Glasses

Four-eyes.  “Why don’t you get contacts?”  Poindexter.  “Would you punch a guy with glasses?”

The tropes surrounding characters who wear glasses are well-worn, firmly entrenched things: the nerd pushing up his with one finger at the bridge of his nose, nervously; the brainiac girl who gets infinitely more attractive as soon as she takes hers off; the old lady who keeps her reading glasses on a beaded string around her neck and puts them on to peer disapprovingly at her grandchildren.

I wear glasses, I have since I was in junior high, and I happen to think I look better with them than without, so the ugly-with/pretty-without dichotomy in particular needs to die a fiery death.

When I sat down to think about main characters, dare I say heroes, who couldn’t be neatly pigeonholed into a classic glasses trope…well, I haven’t read everything, but I could only come up with Harry Potter.  His round-framed specs are iconic, and he’s certainly no nerd.

(As a persistent object in the story, Rowling’s treatment of Harry’s glasses is actually quite good.  He uses them in gestures often enough to seem realistic without being heavy-handed, and in situations where they would present problems, like getting wet in the rain during Quidditch, the issue gets addressed, not ignored.  I was always impressed with that.)

So, to set about fixing this dire lack of glasses representation in non-nerd form, allow me to present some glasses prompts for the romantically inclined:

(I’ve defaulted to he/she pairings for ease of pronouns, but of course, feel free to ascribe any gender combination in your own version.)

  • She’s upset and needs a good long hug, so he takes off her glasses carefully–the right way, with both hands–and sets them down nearby.  When she feels better and moves away, she twists around looking for them, but he’s already handing them back to her because he knows she’s uncomfortable when she can’t see clearly.
  • He makes a joke about how women always say he’s more handsome without his glasses, and takes them off so she can laugh and agree.  But she cocks her head, considers for a moment, then answers, well I don’t know who they were looking at, because you’re hot either way, and I actually prefer the glasses.
  • (school-age) She breaks her glasses so badly no tape can fix them, so he keeps hold of her hand in the hallways in between classes so she doesn’t get disoriented, and later he copies over the day’s notes for her since she couldn’t see the board clearly in class.  (Yeah, okay, that actually did happen to me once, but we weren’t dating, and unfortunately for me, never did end up dating.  He was so sweet…)
  • She pushes his glasses up his forehead into his hair and moves to kiss him, and he laughs and jokes that he can kiss just fine with them still on.  She shrugs and says, yeah, maybe, but not the way I was planning on kissing you, taking his face in her hands.
  • When she gets a headache she takes off her glasses and rubs the bridge of her nose, which ends up becoming his signal that she’s stressed and needs a face-and-neck massage to help dispel her tension.  Or, you know, other things that might dispel some tension…

Have some fun with those, everybody.  Give the glasses some love!