No matter if it’s a closed-door, wholesome love story or provocative erotica, every good romance has a central theme, or “trope,” as the foundation. A trope is the basic premise around which the story is centered. At first glance, tropes can seem problematic: Who wants to write a predictable plotline? But the truth is that tropes work – and romance readers love them. Readers like to have that framework to guide them through the story. It provides anticipation to see how the author will make this particular trope unique while still leading to that happily ever after – or happily for now – that every story must have to be considered romance.
Jennifer Probst, bestselling romance author and author of Write Naked: A Bestseller’s Secrets to Writing Romance & Navigating the Path to Success, says that tropes have been used throughout history as a concrete, smart way to hook the reader immediately and set up the conflict. “This is true for both movies and books,” she says. “From second-chance love to enemies-to-lovers, marriage of convenience, and, yes, even secret baby, readers are familiar with the formula and can anticipate certain beloved ideas and themes woven into the story.”
Why do readers like romance tropes?
Some may say romance stories are all the same because the couple always gets together at the end. Yes, the couple does have their happy ending, but all genre fiction, not just romance, brings with it certain expectations, especially regarding the ending. In a mystery, readers expect the mystery to be solved in a satisfying way, and in a thriller, the hero/heroine makes it out alive despite the harrowing circumstances, etc. These are conventions set up by the genre, and readers appreciate them. “This deliberate unfolding of story can be a source of great comfort and excitement to readers,” Probst says.
Keeping it fresh when writing romance
While a trope provides you with some guidelines for how a story plays out, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get creative as an author. You still need to consider what you can do to make the story different while still staying within the parameters of reader expectations. Utilize your own unique writing voice to add your special touch to the story. Probst adds that the key to effectively writing a trope is to infuse the story with emotion and try to put a fresh spin on a familiar formula: “Some examples of creating unique content would be: flipping gender roles, combining multiple tropes instead of one, instilling dynamic secondary characters, updating traditional tropes into a modern environment – anything that invigorates a story by thinking outside the box.”
10 of the most common tropes seen in modern romance
1. Enemies to lovers
It’s been said there is a fine line between love and hate, and that’s exactly what this trope relies on. In this story, the two love interests start out with an intense dislike for each other. They’re constantly at odds, arguing with and annoying one another. This fuels their emotions – making them one tiny step from either falling passionately in love or throwing each other into a pit of scalding lava.
Kristen Callihan, author of Dear Enemy, says this trope is one of her favorites because there is so much potential for incredible romantic and sexual tension. “Going deeper, there is also so much room for character growth – either with the character(s) changing into someone kinder, more open, more accepting, or they realize that their ingrained prejudices about their ‘enemy’ were wrong. As an author, you have to give the reader a reason to believe that these people are ultimately good for each other and that they are stronger together than apart. You can’t do that successfully if one or both characters are cruel, bullying, or there is an uneven power balance. So, you have to come up with a scenario in which not everything is as it seems – the main characters misinterpreting certain situations, for instance – or, as in Dear Enemy, the strife was in the past, and the characters have grown since then. Finally, at some point in the narrative, these characters, who have been at odds, must somehow lock together and hold each other up. It’s a delicate balance, but one that pays off if done correctly.”
2. Different worlds
When two characters from vastly different backgrounds fall in love, plenty of problems can arise. Usually, those problems have to do with the other people in the main characters’ lives – family members, friends, bosses, etc. – as well as societal norms. Iconic romance movies like Pretty Woman, Dirty Dancing, and the recent book-turned-blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians all illustrate the nuances of this trope. In Pretty Woman, a sex worker and a rich businessman end up falling in love; in Dirty Dancing, our main characters are a young woman from a privileged background and a dance instructor at a summer resort; and in Crazy Rich Asians, it is an American university professor and a wealthy bachelor from a well-known family in Singapore. In all of these examples, the biggest tension comes from the expectations of the main characters’ family and friends, who don’t approve of the pairing. These external pressures push the lovers to examine what they really want in a relationship and to decide if they are willing to fight for it.
In Crazy Rich Asians, the biggest threat to the relationship between Rachel and Nick is his mother, who wants him to find someone with the same social and financial status as their family. The mom spells out her objections in no uncertain terms, and it’s a perfect example that illustrates the conflict at the core of a different world trope:
Rachel: …You didn’t like me the second I got here. Why is that?
Mom: There is a Hokkien phrase “kaki lang.” It means our own kind of people, and you’re not our own kind.
Rachel: Because I’m not rich? Because I didn’t go to a British boarding school, or wasn’t born into a wealthy family?
Mom: You’re a foreigner. American – and all Americans think about is their own happiness.
Rachel: Don’t you want Nick to be happy?
Mom: It’s an illusion. We understand how to build things that last. Something you know nothing about.
Rachel must decide what is best for her – and how much she is willing to fight for Nick. In these examples, one person is wealthy and the other isn’t, but there are other scenarios that can be used as well: neurotic scientist and a creative artist, city boy and a farm girl, or lovers from different races and religions.
3. Second-chance romance
In a second-chance romance, the main characters already know each other because they had a relationship at one time that ended. A large span of time passed, and now they are in each other’s lives again. Their past relationship comes with past feelings and emotions, which makes for great tension in a story.
Priscilla Oliveras, author of Resort to Love, says, “Whenever I’m writing or reading a second-chance romance, the motivation and conflict behind the breakup, continued time apart, and the reunion are key to making the story believable for me.” For Oliveras, the conflict that either initiated the initial breakup or came as a result must be both internal and external. These factors kept the lovers from reuniting, not just a simple miscommunication that could have been easily resolved with a simple conversation. She says, “With Sofía and Nate in Resort to Love, his desire to meet his family’s expectations and her personal values are key motivators for the decisions they have made. Nate’s father looms as a major external conflict for the couple, but the lovers also deal with internal, emotional battles that interweave with their motivations. All of these elements help the reader understand why Nate and Sofía broke up and why it seems impossible for them to be together when they first reunite.”