Three Plots Readers Can’t Get Enough of and Why


I love the title of my blog today, don’t you?

Doesn’t it sound like I know what I’m talking about?

That’s always a plus, but not necessarily the truth. Quite honestly my social science background is shaking me by the shoulder and asking how I know what readers love.  Have I done studies or even read other people’s? Have I stood in the doorway at multiple bookstores with a clipboard, number two pencils and questionnaires? After all, I am the same woman (somewhat older) who wrote a master’s thesis on the American family as portrayed in comic strips. The same woman who faithfully gathered up weeks of comic strips from half a dozen major newspapers and submitted them for my own carefully devised content analysis.

And for that and a year and a half of fascinating classes unrelated to comic strips, Virginia Tech gave me a master’s degree.

There was at least a smidgen of scientific method in that madness. There’s none today. Absolutely none. I’m simply going to expound on several plots I see over and over again, everywhere, and why I think they’re so popular.

And then I’m going to turn you loose in the comments section to have at it, too.

Before I start, let’s not confuse plot with genre.

We all know that when simplified, romance novels are about two people falling in love, fighting their attraction, and finally overcoming whatever kept them apart. Mysteries are about the successful solving of a crime, usually a murder. I won’t go on. What interests me today are the stories themselves and not the genre they’re found in. In theory each of these plots could be tweaked to fit into almost any genre.

So here we go.

A woman (almost always a woman) returns to her childhood home after years away (and usually after some cataclysmic event like divorce or infidelity) and makes peace with her past, quite often in the form of a man she left behind. The home is often a small town or community that she fled. There’s often family she has to confront and deal with.

This story crops up all the time under the category of “women’s fiction.” Why is it so appealing? I can think of a number of reasons. Life in the city is complicated, and returning to a small town where you are known (and loved by somebody) is a way to simplify your future. All of us want to crawl back into the womb after life treats us unfairly. This story assures us we can. A successful reunion with the past also girds us for dealing with our own and helps us think about tying up loose ends. Maybe we won’t run right out and do anything after that final page, but someone else’s happy ending opens that door just a crack.

A curmudgeon, who is determined to alienate everyone around him/him learns that people are much kinder and better than he or she believed and steps into the light again with the help of cheerful strangers.

Who doesn’t want to believe that by extending a hand to even the most annoying loner, misfit, or survivor of abuse, we can change their life and our own for the better? If we can change the world one grouch at a time, nothing is impossible. As a race, we humans are nothing if not optimistic, especially in fiction. We may not want to take the time or make the effort in our daily lives, but on the pages of a book, we are delighted someone else did.

A man or a woman who starts out with almost nothing fights his or her way to the life they’ve always dreamed of. Sometimes they’re sorry because the reality is not all they hoped it would be, but more often they end their journey by stretching out their hand to help others. (Why do you think Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey is so busy doing charity work throughout the series? And yes, I read it. Get over it.)

The Horatio Alger myth is alive and well. Anyone with enough pluck and brains can make it in this great society of ours. Whether his mother was a drug addict or she was abused as a child. We want to believe that everyone can achieve a happy ending if they just work hard enough. Of course the dark side of that? We want to assume if they didn’t find a happy ending, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.

Definitely the dark side.

Of course there are many more.

I feel a sequel to this blog coming on, but for now, I’m turning you loose. What plots are you seeing over and over again, and why do you think they are so popular? Do you care if stories are repeated in different forms? Is there a particular story you never grow tired of?

I’m in the mood for some controversy because hey, there’s not enough on the news these days and somebody has to liven things up. So let’s talk plots.

Have at it.


  1. Martha O'Quinn on March 22, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Good morning Emilie. What a challenge. Why not more plots similar to Dragon Slayer? Such a cutting edge topic and also a “plot” that addresses so much of our country’s current plight. Drugs, poverty, inner city with enough blame to go around; and it’s okay to not always have a happy ending. And, it’s easy to throw a bit of romance, moving on up and bad guy into a plot plus an entire side of brotherly love that transcends romantic endeavors. Now you know why I leave writing novels to qualified artists such as yourself. Thanks for listening!

    • Marsha Markham on March 22, 2017 at 10:30 am

      Good, thoughtful post, Martha. Years ago, I thought I had a book in me but no longer feel that way. My standards in an author are high. I agree that I’d like more books about people who live up to what isn’t easy. I also thought Dragon Slayer was a great book and loved The Color of Light. I would like to see more books like these…people who help other’s on their way. I liked the glimpse into the clergy and how they deal with the many problems and the variety of people they try to shepherd.

      • Martha O'Quinn on March 22, 2017 at 5:14 pm

        Thanks Marsha. I loved all of the books in the Goddesses series, especially The Color of Light.

  2. Barbara on March 22, 2017 at 10:13 am

    One of your questions “is there a story you never tire of” hits home with me, I love the old “fish out of water” story lines. Especially when the heroine has to “start over” somewhere, new house, new town etc. I love it when she has to fix up a house to make it livable, every little detail can be interesting, the older and worse shape the house is the better! The time period can make it interesting as well, making a home livable in the 1800’s can be more interesting than current day sometimes.

    • Emilie Richards on March 27, 2017 at 10:24 am

      I love those, too. Maybe it’s the idea of taking something old and making something wonderful out of it. Something most of us would like to do in real life, too, and not necessarily with houses.

  3. Patti on March 22, 2017 at 11:48 am

    When I read the curmudgeon plot, I thought of the book A Man Called Ove. I think those sort of stories appeal to me because of the part of me that feels like a misfit and I want to believe that there are people that would like the real me.

    • Kay Myhrman-Toso on March 22, 2017 at 4:18 pm

      Patti, whether in fiction or real life, I prefer relationships that are authentic. I’m not one who wants to force the square peg into the roind hole, but much prefer delighting in what the square peg has to offer. To me, it makes a novel, and actual relationships, so much richer. I hope you have people in your life who celebrate you, exactly the way you are!

      • Patti on March 23, 2017 at 4:06 pm


    • Martha O'Quinn on March 22, 2017 at 5:03 pm

      Patti, please take to heart Kay’s message to you. I can identify with “feeling like a fish out of water/misfit.” And, even though years have made me a great-grandmother there are occasionally times/places/events that conjure up those feelings. Thankfully I’m able to suppress them quickly and put myself out there knowing that those who really matter are those people that I love and who love me in return.

      • Patti on March 23, 2017 at 4:07 pm

        Thank you!

      • Nancy Lepri on March 23, 2017 at 7:15 pm

        Thanks for your comments on this topic. Many times in my life, I’ve felt like I didn’t belong, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept myself as I am. I go out of my way to be friendly and outgoing and if I’m snubbed, I tell myself, “It’s their loss.” Everyone goes through times believing they don’t belong, but life is too short to worry about what others think.

  4. Kay Myhrman-Toso on March 22, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    As I read this post, my wish was to read Emilie’s master’s thesis! Looking at family relationships is an area of interest to me, too, as part of my graduate work was within the discipline of family social science. While I never thought of analyzing comic strips, this idea is quite brilliant! Emilie, I am not surprised that you use your foundations in family relationships as you create characters & devise plots for your novels. Your work is deeply grounded & multi-layered, just the way real relationships unfold. Novels that have formulaic totally predictable plots are among those I’m unlikely to read. Give me some depth! Lucky for us, Emilie does just that!

    • Emilie Richards on March 22, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      You are so kind, but I promise you, reading my master’s thesis is way beyond the call of duty. Luckily my writing is much, much better these days.

  5. Patti W on March 22, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    I think the most common one I read is the first one you mentioned- woman leaves her busy big city life behind-usually due to divorce, job loss, etc and returns to a small town- almost always near a lake or in a small coastal city. Somehow a body of water is always involved! Also the body of a rugged outdoorsman type is also involved-in her previous life she was almost always with a staid businessman or lawyer type. It’s a very common theme but as you say, it is comforting in a way. Don’t we all long for an escape from our busy lives ? And I don’t know about anyone else, but I love the water! Living near a lake would definitely be a dream!

  6. Dell Martinez on March 22, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    When I lived in Spain books in English were at a premium. I obtained mine at the University book stalls.
    The plots were of two varieties: Mystery/crime and romance. My description of the romance books was that they were all”Cinderella for adults”.
    Finally I started to import books ($$$) via the mail.

  7. Nancy Lepri on March 23, 2017 at 7:25 pm

    I have to say that I especially love Emilie’s Happiness Key series. I enjoy reading how different women band together to help each other.

    I also think we need more novels with older women protagonists. There are tons of young 20-30s women finding the hunky guy. I love stories with depth and much more going on than romance.

    I don’t see many novels based on older women and the perils they face.

    That’s my two cents! ?

  8. Janet Warren on March 27, 2017 at 12:11 am

    I like stories that have blizzards and thick snow. One way or another, they find a cabin. Of course, there is a serial killer out there. Many times there are people shooting at one another.Another story had a small plane crash landing in extremely deep snow where survival was added to the mystery.BTW,I live in Central FL so I don’t know why I am so enamoured of blizzard mysteries. Extra special when one has a fire, hot cocoa, and cookies!

    • Emilie Richards on March 27, 2017 at 10:27 am

      Interesting, and yes, these are popular tropes. I wonder how much of it is the idea that being forced to confront something (danger, love etc.) makes us face ourselves a little faster, sooner? And, if you live in Central FL in the summer, a good snow vacation might be enticing.

  9. Kate Vale on March 29, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    A plot I see frequently relates to star-crossed lovers in high school who break up/are broken up by life experiences and who then rediscover each other and their love after years apart.

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