Can you hear that, readers? That’s the sound of sappy ballads, lovers’ sighs, and the whoosh of Cupid’s well-practiced arrow. It’s almost Valentine’s Day once again! In its honor, I thought I would do what I do best: write about love. So, today we are talking all about romance novel tropes. Merriam-Webster defines a trope as a “common or overused theme or device”. Some curmudgeons may refer to a trope as a “cliché”.
You might be thinking, “Aren’t clichés something I should be avoiding in my writing?” Sometimes that is true. However, many genres rely on tropes to set and fulfill expectations of their readers. Romance writers can pull from many different tropes, but they are certainly not the only genre writers that do so. Have you ever noticed that the plot of many YA Science Fiction/Fantasy novels centers around the main character having to save their community/people/world and many times the character does not volunteer to do this job, but instead they are forced to take it on because somehow they are the only character who can do so. The “Chosen One” is a common trope in YA SF/Fantasy. (Still not sold? See some well-known examples: Harry Potter, Jonas from The Giver, Tris from the Divergent series.)
Honestly. Think about your favorite fictional genre. You can probably think of multiple tropes that you have read in the recent past.
But we’re not here today to talk about those other genres. We are talking all about tropes in the romance genre!
Whew, boy, there are many of them. I’ll start with a few of my favorites. (CW: Discussion of relationships/romantic situations)
- Enemies to Lovers – Hotttt. And so very popular right now! This trope is just like it sounds. The main characters in a romance novel start off by hating each other and, over the course of the novel, things happen and that hate turns to begrudging like, turns to lust, turns to love. This trope seems to work best when the reader gets an inkling upfront that there may be a little something more to this hatred that the characters are claiming to feel for each other–perhaps there’s an initial attraction there and they’re acting out against it? Good examples: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne; The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn; A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole; It Happened One Autumn by Lisa Kleypas; Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert; Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston; The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
- “Office” Romance – This one is all the better for its often taboo-ness–a sort of off-shoot of another trope, Forbidden Romance. Usually this involves two co-workers or an employer and an employee (spicier, but there are many examples of it being done right), and the taboo-ness of their relationship will likely factor significantly into their storyline. Maybe they’re both up for the same promotion and that’s certainly going to put a strain on their burgeoning relationship (and possibly induce some hilarious antics). Or maybe they had a chance meeting at a thrift store (they both share a love of upcycled fashion), had the best first date of their lives, and now he (or she!) is actually the new CEO of their company, while the other is several rungs below that. Uh-oh. Good examples: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne; A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole; Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella; Take the Lead by Alexis Daria; Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren; Rock Hard by Nalini Singh
- Forced Proximity – This one is an example of a literary device, rather than a plot theme, but devices can work as tropes too! Are your soon-to-be-lovers caught in a blizzard? Maybe they would like to get away from each other, but now they certainly can’t leave until the snow plow shows up. And that won’t be for at least three days. *Evil romance writer grin* Or maybe your characters have both been erroneously booked into the very last room at the only bed and breakfast in the world’s most quaint and isolated town. Whatever will they do now? *Villainous cackling* Good examples: The Bride Test by Helen Hoang; Lord Dashwood Missed Out by Tessa Dare; Bollywood and the Beast by Suleikha Snyder; The Roommate by Rosie Danan
Tropes are the fuel of the romance genre and they work. I am also here to tell you that, as a romance writer, you can also use as many tropes as you frickin’ want. Okay, so maybe don’t try to fit every trope into your story because that would be overkill and likely would impede the story quite a bit. But an enemies-to-lovers office romance using forced proximity in a scene. That can and probably has worked before.
Those are some favorite tropes of mine, but I also have tropes that I would sort into my ‘least favorites’ category.
- Secret Baby – This trope is commonly cited on romance writers’ and readers’ least favorites lists. I think that’s because it’s difficult to handle it well. This typically involves a female main character who has a brief relationship with a male main character and that brief interlude involves S-E-X (spelling it out for those readers with innocent ears) which results in a surprise nine months later. Now this trope may diverge in a couple different ways. 1.) The FMC and MMC don’t really know each other. For example, this was a one night stand. After the FMC is aware she’s pregnant, she has no way to contact the MMC. Thus, said baby is a “secret” by default. Several months or years later, they run into each other again and eventually the topic will have to come up. Probably sometime after the two cannot resist their recurring attraction for one another. 2.) The FMC and MMC do know each other. The FMC makes a decision not to tell the MMC about the baby. This can be for many different reasons. For example, MMC is off to medical school and FMC doesn’t want to keep him from achieving his dreams. How absolutely selfless of her (sarcasm). Perhaps she also has trust and/or abandonment issues or MMC’s family is wealthy and would think that FMC just got herself pregnant to try to mooch of MMC. It’s a complicated, oftentimes messy trope. Not all secret baby scenarios are created equal–hence, it’s a least favorite of mine. But there have been some that have been done well. Good examples (maybe): A Scoundrel in Her Bed by Lorraine Heath; My (Mostly) Secret Baby by Penelope Bloom
- Bully Romance – This trope may be more common in the YA romance world. Sort of enemies to lovers, (I guess?), but the love interest is a bully to the main character. For me, it’s just hard to get past the emotional (maybe sometimes even physical) abuse that the love interest shows toward the main character. Nonetheless, something will eventually change in their relationship and these two will become an item. It’s certainly weird and not as common with adult romances. I have read some that weren’t…terrible, but, generally, it’s not my cup of tea. Good examples: ??? Sorry I’m really at a loss for this one…
But there are so, so many more tropes in the romance world! If you’re a romance reader, you’ve probably read many of them and just didn’t recognize them as such. It’s probably near impossible to come up with a ‘Master List’ of romance tropes and not leave some off accidentally, but I’m gonna take a stab at it.
Master List (Sort Of) of Romance Tropes:
- Accidental Pregnancy/Suddenly Parents
- Alpha Hero(ine)
- Amnesia Romance
- Arranged Marriage
- Baby Contract
- Best Friend’s Sibling
- Beta Hero(ine)
- Billionaire Romance
- Bully Romance
- Captive/Captor Romance
- Enemies to Lovers
- Escort Romance
- Fairytale Retelling
- Fake Fiancé/Relationship
- Fated Mates
- Forbidden Romance
- Forced Proximity
- Friends to Lovers
- Jilted Lover
- Love Triangle
- Marriage of Convenience
- May-December (Age Gap) Romance
- Mistaken Identity
- Office/Workplace Romance
- On the Road Romance
- Opposites Attract
- Playboy/Playgirl (Reformed Rake)
- Playing Cyrano/Matchmaker Romance
- Professional Catnip (e.g. Athlete, Cowboy)
- Rescue Romance
- Revenge Romance
- Second Chance Romance
- Secret Baby
- Secret Billionaire/Royalty
- Sibling’s Best Friend
- Single Parent(s)/Guardian(s)
- Slow Burn (Will They/Won’t They)
- Step/Foster Sibling Romance
- Tortured Hero(ine)
- Unrequited Love
- Virgin Romance
- Wallflower/”Ugly Duckling” Romance
I’m sure I have left out many tropes from this list. If you think of any others or your favorite tropes are missing from this list, please feel free to comment and I will be sure to add it!
Using tropes in your writing doesn’t make your writing outdated or boring. Tropes, like a happily ever after (HEA) ending, are expected in the romance genre. That need not stifle your creativity. There are so many examples of the same trope being used in romance novels in new and unique ways. You might consider taking a commonly used trope and subverting gender roles or combining a few tropes in a different way than has been done before. There are so many possibilities!
Tropes are a favorite topic in the romance writing world, but don’t take my word for it! If you would like to learn more about romance tropes and how to use them effectively, be sure to check out the following resources:
- The Misfit’s Guide to Writing Indie Romance Podcast with Adrienne Bell and Eliza Peake, “Episode 21: Tropes” provided a great overview of romance genre tropes. However, it looks like this episode is currently unavailable on podcast platforms, such as Apple Podcasts. Maybe they’ll bring it back? One can hope! Still worth a mention, as it inspired me to start thinking about my own favorite tropes and to blog about tropes eventually.
- Are romance tropes an old companion of yours and you’ve thought many times how nice it would be to have the ability to search for your next romance read by a specific trope category? Well, it’s finally happening! I stumbled across a new website that aims to do just that. The Scarlet Library is in Beta testing now and looks like a very promising tool for searching for that next romance novel by many different filters, including trope, era, kink, steaminess level, and more. Check it out!
- GoodReads>Listopia may have helpful lists of books categorized and ranked by trope. Trolling these lists might also help you find your next Enemies to Lovers or Office Romance read!
Happy early Valentine’s Day and happy reading!