Fish out of Water


Fish out of Water

This week’s romance trope is ‘Fish out of Water’; Ainslie Paton starts us off with a few classics of the genre.

A fish needs water like a human needs air, like spaghetti needs sauce. And a reader needs a story that intrigues and excites.

Or as the well-known industry pundit, Bookthingo says, “a romance has to gives all the feels”. (Source: Twitter, almost any time you care to check).

Well, yeah.

One way for an author to give good read is to dive into the ‘fish out of water’ trope, because by definition it’s designed to place a character in a situation where they’re very uncomfortable, which means there’s a lot of ways for a writer to twist the character’s journey to confound and delight a reader.

It’s pretty much the trope all reality TV is based on. Take some randomly selected (not really, but that’s the fiction) people, put them in an artificial world, and see how they cope when challenged with a specific task, be it losing weight, cooking a gourmet meal for ten, or living someone else’s life.

It might be one the oldest tropes around, but since the 1300s it’s kept on bringing the hits.

A monk when he is cloisterless,
Is like to a fish that is waterless.
Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
(A really, really long time ago)


A 1980s teenager travels to the past and has to make sure his parents get together so he can be born.
Back to the Future
(1985, now we’re talking)

A mechanic is suckered into a ballroom dancing competition only to discover through fancy footwork, someone worth changing his life for.
Grease Money Jive
(So current it’s hot)

This is one of my favourite tropes because of the rich story potential and because it’s not obvious how the story will unfold. You can time shift, location switch, isolate, surround and generally push your characters into situations they’d never consider choosing for themselves, and are horrified to find themselves confronted with.

It can be dramatic or dangerous, heart wrenching or hysterically funny. It’s a staple of both suspense and romantic comedy.

But don’t worry, all this discomfort is good for a character. By definition the trope calls for some kind of quest, triumph or rebalancing; a way of getting back to the future or creating a new normal, and it’s a sure-fire way to force heroes and heroines to emerge. Your fish-out-of-water characters just can’t help themselves but paddle hard against whatever you throw at them.

I’ve written to the ‘fish out of water’ trope several times. A roadie in a relationship with a rockstar (Getting Real), a divorced woman on her own for the first time in a new neighbourhood, in 1975 (Hooked on a Feeling), and a CEO who’s suddenly unemployed (Insecure).

Grease Monkey Jive was my first, most obvious homage to the notion of tipping a character off the deep end and watching how they swim, or in this instance dance the light fantastic with two left feet.


A romance about changing the game, finding the truth, and fancy footwork.

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