7. Marriage of convenience
With this trope, two people get married, but love is nowhere in the equation. The arrangement is more like a business deal, with each character gaining something from the agreement. In her historical romance The Duchess Deal, author Tessa Dare builds the story around a marriage of convenience between the Duke of Ashbury and a local seamstress. The Duke needs an heir, and he decides Emma will do as the mother of his child. After setting some ground rules, they get married, setting the foundation for a great unexpected romance. For Dare, the unavoidable physical proximity makes this trope fun to write. “Whether they’ve had a long courtship or are perfect strangers, the protagonists have to be in one room for the wedding! From there, the author can invent a thousand ways to keep them within arm’s – or lips’ – reach of each other.”
Because the couple has a goal other than love, a marriage of convenience has built-in stakes, like producing an heir in The Duchess Deal. “This means they have to sleep together,” she says, “no matter how much they clash outside of bed. Or maybe the two parties have an agreement never to sleep together – which becomes increasingly difficult as their attraction grows. Perhaps the marriage of convenience needs to appear genuine to outsiders, which means the characters must pretend to be in love or risk exposing the truth. Obviously the pretense becomes the truth along the way!”
Dare says the big challenge in writing a marriage of convenience is maintaining the tension and conflict throughout the story. “The protagonists are already married. Once they fall in love, what’s keeping them apart? It’s up to the writer to create internal and external obstacles to keep that happily-ever-after uncertain until the end.”
8. Love triangle
Love is complicated enough when there are only two people in the mix – imagine upping the ante with a third. Love triangles require plenty of feelings being tossed around. The classic ’80s movie Pretty in Pink sets up a great love triangle trope between three high school seniors. Andie and Duckie are best friends. Duckie is smitten with Andie, but she has fallen for popular rich boy Blane. As feelings between Blane and Andie heat up, Duckie’s hopes of a relationship beyond friendship with Andie begin to sink, but he won’t give up without a fight. This causes tension between the two of them, pushing Andie to dig deep to decide what she wants in a relationship.
A solid love triangle shows both suitors as viable choices for the main character, which adds to the tension for the reader. In Pretty in Pink, it is clear to the audience that Duckie adores Andie, they enjoy each other’s company, and are good for each other in many ways. With Blane, we see he is different than the other rich popular guys at school, and that’s what attracts Andie to him. Another key element to this trope is showing what is at stake for the main character with each choice. If Andie chooses Duckie, she risks their friendship; if she chooses Blane, she risks getting hurt and possibly humiliated because they are part of different circles at school.
With a love triangle, someone inevitably is going to get hurt. But once the main character makes the choice, the author must drive the reader to that great happily ever after they have been waiting for.
9. Fake relationship
Picture this: A family wedding is coming up, and the perennially single main character is tired of showing up to family functions alone – and getting the third degree about why she isn’t married yet. Out of desperation, she talks a friend into being her date (or even fiancé) for the out-of-town wedding. In a fake relationship trope, it’s all about creating a believable situation that forces the main characters to pretend they are dating or even engaged (think of the ’80s classic Can’t Buy Me Love, where Patrick Dempsey’s nerdy character hires a popular cheerleader to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month in order to help his social status in high school).
Probst says that each character must gain from the agreement. “Each of them must have a growth arc and change due to this relationship,” she says. “Forcing them together creates conflict and an opportunity for change within each of them. The second part of the story is the flip – the moment when the relationship begins to become real. This is a huge investment for the reader and must pay off. Their problems haven’t disappeared – in fact, conflict has now risen because the couple is now trying to find a way they can be together and make the relationship work. A writer needs to dig deep into the two characters for this trope and create obstacles to their relationship that are real – then find a way for one or both characters to make a sacrifice to be together or a compromise. Love may overcome all, but usually it’s because the characters have grown, changed, and made choices to get them there.”
10. Friends to lovers
This trope involves an established friendship between the two main characters. They already know each other’s habits, likes, dislikes, dreams, and aspirations. We skip past the “meet cute” moment and start setting up the story to show that these two could be more than friends.
Jillian Dodd, author of the That Boy series, loves the friends-to-lovers trope because she finds it so relatable. “Realistically, a reader is probably not going to meet a prince, but more than likely, they either have or have had a friend who they have crushed on.” She advises that when writing this trope, an author needs to consider the consequences for their specific characters. The big questions are, what will happen if they do decide to be more than friends? What if it doesn’t work – can they stay friends? Also, what if one wants more than friendship and the other one doesn’t? “Knowing your character’s personalities and how they deal with life in general will help you determine their individual reactions, which in turn helps shape your plot,” Dodd says.
Like a cozy blanket on a wintry day, tropes wrap readers in a comforting structure that fulfills their expectations. A skilled writer can use that framework but still create a unique story that is engaging and draws readers all the way through to the happily ever after.
—Kerrie Flanagan is an author, writing consultant, and freelance writer from Colorado with over 20 years’ experience in the industry. She is the author of WD Guide to Magazine Article Writing. She moonlights in the world of romance with a co-author under the pen name C.K. Wiles (ckwiles.com) and in sci-fi/fantasy realm under the pen name C.G. Harris (cgharris.net). KerrieFlanagan.com