Why do readers just know who the love interest is? How can they anticipate how the hero and heroine will get together in the end? We’re all familiar with the common themes found in romance novels that alert us to what kind of story we’ll be reading and hint at what will come next. These are called tropes, recognizable plot elements that readers intrinsically know and authors use regularly. Let me tell you why tropes are key to writing a good book and what ten most popular tropes authors use.
Why use tropes in your writing?
Tropes create a sense of familiarity for readers. People are inherently drawn to patterns. They seek them out, and in doing so, discover universal truths about their world and life in general. Readers find tropes relatable, which quickly captures their interest and encourages them to continue reading.
But tropes can also be used to target reader expectations. They can be used to subtly communicate larger ideas to readers without having to state your point outright. They can quickly inform readers because readers will already know the trope and have a set expectation for what’s going to happen. The meet cute, for example, is a simple way of establishing who the hero or heroine and love interest will be. But you can also subvert tropes to safely avoid slipping into a cliché. This could mean implementing a meet cute but then revealing that the interaction was deviously staged by the supposed love interest to gain the protagonist’s trust. Utilizing tropes enhances your story because you can say so much in a small amount of time, leaving room to add depth and intrigue to your plot.
Most Common Tropes
There are countless tropes in romantic novels. But here are some of the most common ones and why they were successful:
Friends to lovers
Friends to lovers entails two people who seem to maintain a platonic relationship but carry latent attraction to each other that builds tension between them and is often masked as a form of witty banter or bickering. The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling, has a perfect example in Ron and Hermoine, as the two are constantly at each other’s throats but wind up falling in love and getting married at the end.
Asking for Trouble, by Elizabeth Young, utilizes the fake relationship trope as her heroine hires a male escort to pretend to be her boyfriend at her sister’s wedding. But as the two are forced into close proximity for the duration of the nuptials, they realize they have an undeniable attraction that leads to a real relationship. This fake relationship is the catalyst that brings the unlikely couple together.
Enemies to lovers
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy depict the enemies-to-lovers theme in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as they first seem to dislike one another, identifying the worst traits in each other and squabbling over their differences. But after Darcy moves past his prejudice toward Elizabeth and Elizabeth realizes just how empathetic and loyal Darcy is, they become a perfect couple. Still, the tension between them throughout the novel makes their eventual romance far from predictable.
Marriage of Convenience
Marriages of convenience have proven another wildly popular trope. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series begins with Claire Randal getting transported back in time, where she’s forced to marry Jamie Frazer to avoid being prosecuted. But their marriage of convenience quickly transforms into a love that transcends time. Without being forced into marriage, Claire might never have fully realized her feelings for Jamie since she already had a husband in the present.
Second Chance At Love
Everyone loves the second-chance love of Allie and Noah in The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks. While their romance at the beginning of the book would indicate they’re meant for each other, it takes years for them to come back together once they’re torn apart. And in the end, their failed first attempt at love makes their second chance that much sweeter.
Love triangles effectively create conflict, like in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Between Peta and Gale, Katniss struggles for three entire books to know who is the right man for her. But that indecision, and the tension it builds, makes her final decision that much more meaningful.
The secret billionaire trope became very popular after Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. But this theme is a classic that stretches as far back as stories like Beauty and the Beast, where the beast is revealed to be a prince. Christian Grey is the modern reinterpretation of a prince, who turns out to be a billionaire, though he struggles with separating his money from his relationships.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the iconic forbidden love story. A story of star-crossed lovers who can’t follow their hearts because of the feud between their families. This trope sets readers up for tense conflict and romance set in hidden locations. It also raises the stakes, as the lovers’ future relies on their ability to subvert their families’ wishes.
The soulmates trope plays a major role in romance. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, follows the story of two lovers who are separated when Westley leaves home to find his fortune at sea. While away, he dies in a pirate attack. After years of mourning his loss, his intended, Buttercup, is forced into an arranged marriage with Prince Humperdinck, but fortunately, Westley returns home just in time to stop the wedding. They prove that not even death can stop true love, a powerful message everyone would love to believe.
Woman in Peril
Women in peril is another common trope, like in Nicholas Sparks’s Safe Haven. When Erin flees her abusive husband, she has to live life on the run, constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure he doesn’t use his detective skills to hunt her down. In the end, Erin and her new love interest, Alex, have to come to each other’s defense when her husband finds her. Only then can they live happily together.
Don't be cliché
But when utilizing tropes, be cautious of making them cliché. To keep your story fresh and your readers engaged, try turning your trope on its head.
- Have the damsel in distress save herself, or even the hero.
- Combine tropes in an unlikely way. Have the marriage of convenience lead to a love triangle.
- Consider putting them in an unusual context, such as having the second chance at love come at an older age.
- Give your trope more depth by making the fake relationship tie to the protagonist’s desire for attention and fear of connection; how will the fake relationship make them grow?
- Highlight and challenge the subtext of your chosen trope. For example, address how soulmates would indicate a lack of free will or choice.
Tropes sell books
Tropes are a key element to successful romance novels. They sell books because they’re tried-and-true engaging themes, subjects that readers relate to. Readers enjoy the sense of being in on the secret or decoding a message, which you can introduce through your tropes. These common themes address universal messages that everyone wants to consider more deeply, so by incorporating them into your book, it adds to the appeal. After all, fairy tales have proven that tropes can stand the test of time.
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