Thursday, 10 December 2020

Exploring Romance Tropes: Accidental Pregnancies, oh my!


The second in my intermittent series of blogs for romance writers on romance tropes is a chance to muse on the strengths (and weaknesses) of one of my favourite – and most used – tropes... I mean, I've used the old accidentally 'up the duff' plot hook rather a lot and it's the big draw of my two bestselling books: Pleasure, Pregnancy and a Proposition, and One Night So Pregnant (gotta love those insane titles, right!!)! So I feel I'm a bit of an expert on its strengths and weaknesses...

What's interesting about both of those books - apart from the fact that the accidental pregnancy trope features VERY strongly in the titles (which probably explains why they're bestsellers TBH) - is that in both books I open the story with the shock reveal of the accidental pregnancy itself, not the lead up to it (ie: the scenes in which the couple got up the duff in the first place!). 

In my fourth published book, Pleasure Pregnancy and a Proposition, I also turned things on their head a little by contriving to have it be the heroine who is unaware of the pregnancy not the hero. Say what now?! How the heck does that work, you're probably thinking... Basically, in the opening scene of the book, I have my hero turn up at the heroine's work and demand she take a pregnancy test. She doesn't know she's pregnant, but he's been clued into her symptoms by a mutual friend, knows they had unprotected sex and thinks – given the acrimonious way their one night together ended – that she does know and she's deliberately keeping the truth from him... I did get quite a few critical comments not just because of the hero's totally overbearing behaviour in that opening scene – he literally carts her out of her office and marches her to a Harley Street Clinic to get the test which she is convinced will be negative - but also because some readers thought it was impossible for a woman to be three months pregnant and not have figured it out. Fair enough, getting the reader to suspend their disbelief is the author's job and maybe for those readers I didn't do the job well enough. That said, I did quite a lot of research about whether or not it is physically possible – of course it is! – but more importantly I made sure my characters' motivations also worked to make it more believable, that my heroine would be in denial about her symptoms and my hero would be very angry if he thought she was keeping the truth of her pregnancy from him. 

My hero's motivation to explain his overbearing behaviour also drives a lot of the developing conflict in the rest of the story... As my heroine struggles to come to terms with the fact that she is pregnant with this man's child, while he pressures her into agreeing to marry him... 

So, why is it that he is so outraged that the heroine might not have told him about her pregnancy? Basically, he had been born illegitimate himself - the son of a Vegas showgirl and a British Lord (well this is a Mills and Boon book, folks!) - who was grudgingly 'taken in' by his father after his mother's death when he was still a child because he was the man's only biological child. He had been made to feel ever since by his father, that the circumstances of his birth and his illegitimacy made him less than. That he was essentially unworthy and unloveable because of it, treated with distain by his father and ensconced in a series of British boarding schools until he came of age. As a result of that lonely and emotionally barren upbringing, he had never wanted to have children, but when he thinks the heroine is pregnant, he is determined that no child of his will be born illegitimate, that they will always be acknowledged by him. What he doesn't realise of course, until later in the book - and with a lot of help from my smart and reckless and compassionate heroine – is that acknowledgement is not enough, that having your father's name is not the same as having your father's love. In short, at the start of the book, the hero is convinced he has none of the tools to love this child, and TBH he really doesn't want them, because to open himself up to those kind of emotions will leave him as vulnerable as he was when he was a child after his mother's death... Luckily for him, the heroine – once she has accepted she is pregnant with this man's child and decides she wants to have it, and that she can love it, despite the fact she thinks its father is an overbearing jerk! – does have the tools not just to love this child, but to show its father that she will accept nothing less from him than love too if he wants to marry her. Of course, after that rather contentious beginning, they both have a long way to go before they can get to like, let alone love... But luckily a skinny dipping scene and a few weeks at his manor house in Wiltshire helps with that!! 

So, anyway, that's the book's essential conflict: the hero insisting on marriage – because he wants to find a way to do the right thing by his child without actually engaging emotions he thinks he is not capable of showing –  and the heroine refusing to marry him – until he proves to her that he has the capacity for love, not just for the child, but also for her...

And rather neatly, that conflict perfectly illustrates what makes the accidental pregnancy trope so compelling as it cleverly combines external and internal conflicts in the hook... Because what is essentially an external conflict - ie: the accidental pregnancy itself – immediately creates lots of delicious internal conflicts while also raising the stakes exponentially in a relationship by introducing the prospect of unplanned parenthood... 

Instantly you have so many delicious questions to ask your characters. How do they feel about having children? What were their own childhoods like? Have they been given the tools to deal with this shocking accident (hopefully not!!)? Or will they need to embark on a journey of huge emotional growth to deal with this situation (hopefully yes)? How will that conflict play out?And what of the ongoing relationship? If it's a one-night stand pregnancy - which I particularly prefer, because the less the couple know each other, the more the stakes are raised! - those questions will become more urgent but also potentially more contentious as the couple struggle to align on what to do next, not just about the pregnancy but also about their relationship... And we hope will have to dig deep into their own psyches and confront difficult questions about themselves and that relationship before they can even consider becoming parents...

So, what are the weaknesses/potential problems for a writer when using the accidental pregnancy trope? 

Well, while this will very much depend on the type of romance you're writing - ie, is it high romantic fantasy, or more gritty and realistic, is it a historical romance or a contemporary one, etc. For me, one of the biggest difficulties, even when writing high romantic fantasy, is making an accidental pregnancy entirely believable in this day and age, given all the possible avenues your couple will have to sort the problem out without ever having to answer any of those questions... Not gonna lie, the very low failure rate on most forms of contraception these days has caused me no end of problems when it comes to making this trope fly!! And don't even get me started on the morning after pill...

Finally there is also the question of termination... I always include a conversation in my narrative which indicates that a conscious choice has been made to have the baby. Although this question too can lead to lots of interesting conflicts... I once came up with the idea for one of my longer novels - So Now You're Back - based on one simple question: how does a man deal with an accidental pregnancy if he does not have the right to chose whether or not to become a father? 

Of course there have been some terrific romance books written where the choice was made not to have the baby, and I applaud those writers for tackling what was once a taboo subject in romance and really shouldn't be IMHO - not because everyone has to agree with a woman's right to choose, but simply because it is an experience that many women go through, and I don't think it should be taboo in romance for that reason. Abortion is an extremely polarising and also emotive subject and how we react to it as readers as well as writers will most likely come from our own believe systems as much as those of the characters we create, but I feel it's important that romance novels reflect the full gamut of human experience. That said, when employing the accidental pregnancy trope, of course one of the main aspects of the trope that makes it appealing to readers is that it introduces the prospect of parenthood to your couple. So can it work, if the decision is made not to have the child? Or does it become a different trope entirely?

Obviously these are all just my opinions, about the trope and the choices I make when using it in a novel, but I'd love to hear from other writers (and readers).... Do you love the trope, too? If so, why do you? Do you find it problematic? Are there elements of it that you struggle with, etc.


BTW if you're an aspiring romance author and want to learn more about romance writing from a USA Today bestselling author, I tutor a 7-week online course for the Professional Writing Academy in which we learn about subjects such as Creating Convincing Protagonists, Plotting a Romance, Crafting Effective Dialogue and Writing Compelling Scenes of Intimacy. My next run of the course kicks off on 22nd February 2021 and the early bird offer is available until 21st January.

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