How to Write A Romance Book: Tropes
Updated: Jun 11
Trope = Cliché. Right? Wrong! Understanding tropes doesn’t make you a clichéd writer, quite the opposite. Understanding the conventions of the genre you wish to write is empowering, and it allows you to tap into a primed market of readers.
In this #writerssupportingwriters blog I am going to explore:
· What a trope is;
· The benefits of understanding and using romance tropes;
· Identify and explain 12 romance tropes;
· Discuss how to make tropes fresh and interesting for readers.
So, what is a trope?
Masterclass, defines a trope as: “a plot device or character attribute that is used so commonly in the genre that it’s seen as commonplace or conventional. For example, a trope in superhero stories is a villain who wants to take over the world.”
Reedsyblog explains that, “Tropes are plot devices, characters, images, or themes that are incorporated so frequently in a genre that they’re seen as conventional.”
Tropes exist in every genre of writing, but romance novels are particularly trope heavy. While this fact might concern some of you, it shouldn’t. Tropes are helpful – for readers and for writers.
Think about it: I’m a busy working mum and I love to catch up with my latest book boyfriend in a well-earned bubble bath once my son is in bed. My ‘me’ time is precious, so I want to pick a romance novel that I know I’m going to enjoy. Yes, I want fresh characters, a good story, witty dialogue, and the obligatory heat… but as a reader I know if I’m in the mood to read a romance book about friends who become lovers; I know if I want to switch off to (and be turned on by 😉) an arranged marriage to a Duke.
By using tropes, authors are tapping into readers’ expectations and wants.
A writer is also tapping into an existing form of marketing; by using the key words associated with tropes, writers make their romance book more visible and more attractive to readers who might buy the book. Key words. Key words. Key words. More about this below.
Why use tropes?
1. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it: Tropes are tried and tested. They work. I’ve already explained that they work for readers but they are also an excellent place for writers to start. Writing your first romance book? Have a look at the tropes outlined in this blog and they might give you a good starting place for a story.
2. Key words: When a writer employs key trope words in their blurb, website, social media posts etc. their writing becomes more visible and more appealing to a reader. Their website might start appearing in Google searches, for example.
3. Primed readers: as mentioned in my bubble bath example above, women are smart, their time is limited, and they know what they like. By using tropes you are tapping into this primed readership and delivering what readers want.
4. Innovation and spin: no writer wants to be clichéd, and tropes done to death in the same repetitive way does not make a good read. What writers need to do is know their tropes, but then mix it up a little. Give a trope a fresh slant – read more about how to do this towards the end of the blog.
What are the Romance Tropes?
Below, I’ve compiled a list of 12 common romance tropes.
1. Love Triangle
Three’s a crowd: I’ve got to tell you, that this isn’t a trope I enjoy… and doesn’t this comment prove my point above about knowing and using tropes? If the blurb of a romance book made this trope clear I wouldn’t buy it, but other readers (those who enjoy the kind of conflict this kind of trope creates) would.
As with all tropes, it does what it says on the tin. A triangle of characters. Two competing for the affection of one – think Hunger Games and the triangle Katnis finds herself in. Romance books using this trope are going to be heavy in character indecision.
Some readers may enjoy getting behind a love interest and rooting for that character to be chosen… but not me, especially when the character chooses the ‘wrong’ love interest. When a love triangle is involved, I tend to end up not liking any of them!
1. (Secret) Billionaire/CEO/Royalty
I’ve read quite a few of these and quite enjoy them – Mills and Boon have whole lines in this trope.
For some plot worthy reason (perhaps the hero is tired of the pressure of his luxury life), a billionaire, or a member of a royal family, keep their identity secret so they can be treated like a ‘normal’ person. The heroine, therefore, doesn’t realise she’s embarked on a relationship with a super-rich and powerful man. There is characteristically some disinterest when the heroine meets the hero which gains his attention, and a reveal scene where the truth comes out and she feels rather betrayed by his secret keeping. The result is usually true love with no suspicion of gold digging.
I’ve added the ‘secret’ in brackets above because there is also a common line of these stories without the secret identity part – just old fashioned, powerful patriarch meets sweet (and often innocent) female.
A word of caution – which is purely my opinion. When reading up on this trope I came across some quite heated opinion. I’ve certainly read some good billionaire books but, equally, the older ones I’ve read tended to be quite abusive in nature. A dominating male, set on control… restraining order stuff.
It might be there’s a whole modern spin on this trope I have yet to encounter – but if you use it, make sure you give it a dash of twenty-first century sauce.
2. Friends to Lovers
I’ve actually just written a Christmas story with this trope that I’m really pleased with. Friends to lovers is wholesome and heart-warming and it works for a number of different reasons. Firstly, the pre-exiting friendship allows for a faster emotional connection than with strangers. There is also the build up of sexual tension and possibilities as the friendship shifts onto another level.
I also like to think that this genre works because it allows readers a glimpse at a real, possible love story that ties more securely to real life than, say, the secret billionaire trope. The secret billionaire royal love interest is pure escapism, but friends to lovers…? Why, that’s possible…
3. Forced Proximity
Again, this romance trope is what it says on the tin. The situation that traps a couple can be varied: a holiday gone wrong, locked in somewhere by accident, even the weather (think blizzard) might have forced them to take shelter together. The forced proximity might be for one night, or longer, and they usually have to work together to get through the experience… and fall in love as they endure.
The couple who are trapped together might be friends, they might be enemies, or strangers. They might be a boss and an employee. Of course, the story needs to be safe and consensual, obviously!
4. Enemies to Lovers
Hate at first sight, anyone?
Oh, to yearn… This trope can be rather fun if done right and is employed in classics like Pride and Prejudice, all the way through to modern romances, like book eight of my romance series which I am presently writing (The Guardians’ Trust: Megan)!
This trope sees a couple gradually change their opinion about the other and become lovers/partners/spouses after a period of conflict. Whatever the variation, one thing is guaranteed if the trope is done well: HEAT!
Caution warning: if you use this trope ensure the enemy stage behaviour doesn’t become dominant alpha reprehensible behaviour. The goal of the book is love, and if earlier behaviour is unforgivable or the hero (or heroine) is unapologetic, the reader might be left thinking, “Why would you be with him?” when they finally get together.
5. Forbidden Lovers
Of course, the most famous story of forbidden lovers is “that of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Forbidden love is the construct that sees two lovers facing obstacles preventing them from being together. The forces holding them apart might include family feuds, business rivalry, geography, culture. All of these forced divides add tension and drama to a story.
While “star-crossed” Romeo and Juliet were destined to die because their fate was written in the stars as impossible, in many romances the odds are overcome and the couple get their happily ever after: Romance rather than romantic tragedy.
6. Second Chance Romance
It’s never too late for love…
There is something very comforting about this trope. The second chance at love might come with the same person it failed with in the first place (perhaps because of some miscommunication), or it might be with someone new (after a divorce or a bereavement) for example.
I personally prefer a second chance after a missed opportunity, or because of divorce, rather than with a husband the heroine chose to leave or escape from (surely the reasons for ending the relationship still apply?).
If it’s a second chance after bereavement then I want a substantial gap between the late spouse and the new love interest or I find it an emotional turn off.
7. Fated Mates (Soul Mates)
This is a trope I use within my present series The Guardians’ Trust (along with arranged marriage. See below.) and I think it works particularly well with fantasy and paranormal romance books.
Soul mates are fated to be together and their love is true and destined. So, in short, fated mates are what romance books are all about – this is proper romance. Deep, essential and passionate.
Of course, the path of true love never runs smoothly, and obstacles are placed in the way of fated mates to ensure there is conflict before resolution and a happy ending.
8. Fake Relationship (Marriage of Convenience)
At first glance a fake relationship might seem like a different trope to a marriage of convenience, but I’ve put them together as their dynamic is essentially the same.
This trope seems to be particularly common in romantic comedy films – think of all of those weddings where the heroine took a fake date, for example – but whether a romance written for the page or for screen, this trope is undoubtedly popular.
Couples might pretend to be in a relationship for several social, personal, or economic reasons. But whatever the story, the characters want to get something out of the fake relationship. The pretend relationship might be constructed for a short period of time, or a longer situation – like a year long marriage. Whatever the reason for entering into the fake relationship, feelings change (usually after a lot of sexual tension!) and true love follows once one, or both, declare their true emotions.
9. Love at First Sight
I’ve got to confess, instalove isn’t my personal cup of tea. Opinions will no doubt vary but for me it lacks credibility and just feels too easy (lazy?!).
But instalust I can definitely get behind…
10. Love Epiphany
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it’s gone?" – Big Yellow Taxi.
For me this trope ties in with friends to lovers. One character doesn’t realize what they’ve got until it’s (almost) too late. This epiphany usually culminates in a dramatic scene of one party dashing to the other - think the airport chase in Friends when Ross tries to stop Rachel from leaving for France.
11. Arranged Marriage
The arranged marriage trope is linked to the tropes of forced proximity and fated mates/soul mates, and is particularly common in historical romance books.
The arranged marriage trope is central to the fantasy paranormal romance series I’m writing at the moment – fated mates, born to make an arranged marriage. Read more about The Guardians' Trust romance series here.
The arranged marriage trope can involve enemies to lovers and allows for a range of avoidance hijinks which can be rather fun. The trope also allows for a quick, committed relationship to be established in which the couple falls in love. The marriage is usually arranged by a third person for financial or political reasons (in my series the arranged marriage is linked to fate and an ongoing war in a dystopian realm).
To learn more about examples of this trope, have a look at this BookRiot article.
Now I know about romance tropes, how do I avoid cliché?
As I’ve explained above, being aware of, and using, romance tropes is not a negative aspect of writing. There are many pros to embracing tropes. Tropes work and readers are familiar with them. People like the familiar.
That said, tropes do need a fresh perspective to remain interesting.
The best example I can think of is the Secret Billionaire/CEO trope mentioned above. As a teenager, I read a lot of romance books that followed this trope and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but as an adult I re-read one I’d kept on my shelf and I was really shocked by the misogynistic behaviour of the billionaire towards his wife. For this trope to work with a twenty-first century reader, it would need a fresh take.
So how do you make a romance trope fresh? Here are 3 ways to avoid cliché:
1. Firstly, you can embrace the trope. In The Guardians' Trust: Ana, my heroine is told that her destiny is to cross into another realm and make an arranged marriage with her fated mate (notice the key words? 😊). In the novel, I give a little nod to the trope, aware the reader knows that Ana must swallow this unlikely scenario in order for the story to move forward, but aware that, realistically, any savvy woman would run for the hills if this conversation actually took place.
Here’s an extract to show you what I mean:
Ana’s cup hit the table, its contents sloshing onto the wood unnoticed. “Human? What, from fourteenth century history we’re now talking UFOs?”
Maddox laughed. “Not extra-terrestrials, no.” His expression sobered, his belief in his next words evident. “But Others.”
“Others?” Ana squeaked. Glancing around, she was relieved to see the kiosk worker was still there. A handful of tourists mulled around, too. She wasn’t alone—her skepticism would have done Scully proud, if not Mulder. “Look I saw the X-Files, who hasn’t? But Others? If the Trust is some sort of cult or something, I’m really not up for recruitment.”
Pryce almost smiled. “We are largely what we appear to be. A family who works in the Trust the Gatekeeper’s replacement formed centuries ago to keep our land safe.”
Ana frowned. They had both seemed so normal, and good-looking. It was such a shame. “And these Others?”
“I am an Other,” Maddox said calmly. “Or rather my parents were. I was conceived in the Other Realm and came here when still inside my mother’s womb.”
“The gateway between the two worlds is one of those secrets we spoke of,” Pryce said.
Ana stared from one to the other. How could two such respected businessmen be quietly bonkers and the world hadn’t noticed? “Next you’ll be telling me you are three hundred years old as well,” she scoffed.
Pryce shook his head, his lips twitching again. “I’m thirty-one.”
“I, on the other hand,” Maddox said, “am six hundred eighteen years old. My father’s Double was the Gatekeeper. I was born to take his place. I am the Caretaker of the Guardians’ Trust.”
“Six hundred eighteen?” Ana said faintly. She really needed to make her excuses and go.
“Given my youthful good looks,” Maddox said and smiled roguishly, “I can see why you’d doubt me, but every word we have said is true. We protect the land and the secret gateway it holds.”
Ana searched for something to say. She felt like a character in one of those novels where an impossible secret was told and the heroine was just supposed to swallow it. She glanced around warily. Perhaps she was being filmed? What was that American show called? Candid Camera? Did they even still make it?
This was ridiculous!
With deliberate care, Ana pushed her cup away. “I’m not sure what’s going on, or if someone put you up to this, but I think your joke is over.” She started to rise. “I thank you for the coffee, but I have work to do.”
2. Secondly, subversion. Knowing your tropes, you can mix them up. You might have a scene play out as the audience expects but then change the ending of the anticipated scene. I mentioned Ross and Rachel in Friends above. In that scene the writers subverted the trope's expected ending. Ross didn’t stop Rachel from getting on that plane and he returned home on his own… only for there to be an answer machine message, a moment of ‘did she get off the plane?’, and then Rachel was at his door for the (now) unexpected happy ending.
3. Thirdly, develop interesting characters. A good romance story needs conflict for the characters to overcome and characters we can get behind and fall in love with. My tip, is to use your real life as inspiration, and create characters that feel real. Also, focus on the plot so the reader becomes emotionally invested.
Tropes give writers the opportunity to play, so enjoy!
I want to leave you with these final two thoughts:
1. And they lived happily ever after. No matter the trope, the outcome of a romance book is a happy ending. The ending can be happily ever after (HEA) or happily for now (HFN). If it doesn’t have a happy ending for the couple then it isn’t a romance.
2. Love and sex are not the same thing. For a romance book to be a romance book the story must end with love and love is different to, and can be separate to, sex. A romance novel might be a clean read or rather erotic in style, either way the reader expects LOVE: emotionally rich, connecting love. Sex without love is, well, sex. A romance book might have loveless sex within it but by the end of the book, it is LOVE that should rule and be the emotion the reader departs with – if it’s all sex and no love then it’s erotica, not romance.
I wish the #writingcommunity all the best and would love to hear from you are embarking on writing your first romance book. You can contact me via the contact form on this website or via the social media links below.
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To find out about my novels click here and visit my books page where you can find the blurb for the first five books in the romance series.