What is a trope?
Some say there isn’t a story that hasn’t been written. But what does that mean?
Since the beginning of time, people have told stories to teach lessons, connect, entertain and convey meaning. But the format of stories has evolved; storytellers began using common techniques, recognising that doing so was a useful way to gain attention and help the audience connect to the story, thereby ensuring a satisfying reading or listening experience. These common storytelling techniques are known as “tropes”.
A trope is a familiar or common storytelling convention, device, or character attribute. It briefly and succinctly describes the type of story readers can expect, such as “boy meets girl” — a trope that pretty much encompasses every romance novel ever written! (And it can, of course, be modified to “boy meets boy”, “girl meets girl”, or even “boys meet girl”, to encompass alternative pairings.)
Does my romance novel need tropes?
It’s fairly impossible to write a story without tropes, which is why some say there isn’t a story that hasn’t been written. Every story, in terms of its tropes, has been told before. Even a classic like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice contains tropes. “Opposites attract”, “enemies to lovers” and “poor girl, rich guy” could all be used to describe its storyline.
Tropes in the romance genre abound, and readers often browse titles according to the trope they’re most interested in reading — which is another important reason to identify the tropes in your story. They’re very useful for pitching your stories to publishers and marketing them to readers.
So the question is not so much “do I need to include tropes in my romance novel?” — because it really is a given that your story includes at least one trope, even if you didn’t intentionally set out to base it on one — but rather “how am I going to tackle the tropes in my romance novel to keep things fresh and interesting?” Keep reading for tips on how to do just that!
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5 popular romance tropes
1. Friends to Lovers
The “friends to lovers” trope is explored when the friendship between the main characters evolves into a romantic relationship. The characters may have been friends since childhood but not always; sometimes they don’t even meet until adulthood. The benefit, however, of the characters having had a friendship for many years means they’ll have a shared history and a strong personal connection. The story’s internal conflict often derives from the characters not wanting to risk their friendship by crossing the line to become lovers.
In Hook, Line, and Sinker by Tessa Bailey, Hannah must travel to Fox’s hometown for work, so she arranges to stay with him (a hint of the “forced proximity” trope I explore in 5 (more) popular romance tropes). The two originally established a fledgling friendship when Hannah’s sister and Fox’s best friend got together in It Happened One Summer, and once Hannah left town, they strengthened that friendship through frequent text messaging about usually trite but sometimes more meaningful topics. But now that the two are essentially roommates, their attraction to one another grows until they can’t fight it anymore.
What I loved most about the use of the trope in this novel was that Fox and Hannah’s friendship was still quite new when they were thrown into a situation that brought them together. They were really still in the process of getting to know one another, which left room for them to connect in a way that might’ve been more difficult to achieve with two characters who’d been friends for aeons.
Other examples of stories with the “friends to lovers” trope:
- Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren
- You and Me on Vacation by Emily Henry
- Blurred Lines by Lauren Lane
Beware the pitfalls
Not all friendships are destined to evolve into something romantic. Your characters will need to be romantically compatible but have a good reason for why their relationship has only ever been platonic up until this point. Not only that, story events will have to directly impact the characters’ feelings for one another. Neither of them can wake up one day only to realise they’ve developed feelings for their friend — something needs to have caused those feelings and the realisation is likely to be gradual.
Tips for writing the “friends to lovers” trope
The trick to writing a strong “friends to lovers” story is to find a way for the characters to connect on a new or different level so they see each other in a new light. Perhaps the hero feels protective of the heroine because he’s always seen her as a little sister, only something happens to make him realise that she is definitely not his sister. Or maybe the heroine has always seen her good friend as a bit of a goofball, never taking anything seriously, only something happens that allows her to witness him step up and take responsibility. In these cases, the characters’ eyes are opened to their friend’s true self and, from there, attraction grows.
2. Enemies to Lovers
A very popular trope in the romance genre is the “enemies to lovers” trope. As the name suggests, this trope involves the main characters starting out as enemies, but through the course of the novel, they overcome their differences and end up falling in love. The benefit of using this trope is that you have a solid foundation on which to grow the story’s conflict, which centres around the fact that the two characters can’t stand each other.
Sally Thorne wove a masterful “enemies to lovers” story in The Hating Game, in which Lucy and Josh, who are nemeses and co-workers at a publishing company, must compete for a promotion they both want.
Thorne’s choice to tell the story only in Lucy’s point of view was an excellent decision, as it allowed the reader to infer through Josh’s actions that perhaps he didn’t hate Lucy as much as she thought he did. This insight makes Lucy’s journey so much fun to read, as she eventually discovers what the reader suspected all along.
Other examples of stories with the “enemies to lovers” trope:
- Book Lovers by Emily Henry
- The Spanish Love Deception by Elena Armas
- Dear Enemy by Kristen Callihan
Beware the pitfalls
In writing two characters who loathe each other, there’s a danger in making one or the other unlikable, which may result in you digging a hole so deep for yourself that it’s impossible to climb out and redeem the character. Another pitfall to watch out for is settling for either a trivial or overly complicated reason for the characters’ hatred for one another. And finally, take care not to allow the two characters to overcome their differences too easily; if you choose to use this trope, the cause of the conflict between the characters should be continually present throughout the novel, raising its head even after the characters manage to grow closer.
Tips for writing the “enemies to lovers” trope
Keeping the cause of the conflict between the characters simple is a good idea. In Lucy and Josh’s case, Lucy’s hatred of Josh all stemmed from the fact that he didn’t smile at her when she first came to work at the publishing company. While that might seem like a trivial reason to hate someone, for Lucy, who is the epitome of sunshine, Josh’s snub proved to her that he was not her kind of people. (Read 5 (more) popular romance tropes for an explanation of the “grumpy vs sunshine” trope.) Of course, he then went and fired her friends, so that certainly added fuel to the fire. Essentially, this trope works best when the two “enemies” are complete opposites. Once the characters each learn to accept the other’s differences, that’s when love can bloom.
3. Different Worlds
The “different worlds” trope encompasses any story where the main characters are from — you guessed it — different worlds. This could be referring to differences in culture, lifestyle, social class, upbringing, or worlds in the literal sense, as in the case of romantic fantasy or paranormal romances, or even different times, as in Outlander. The conflict in stories with this trope often centres around the clash between these worlds as the characters try to make it work.
In Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Claire, a British nurse recently back from the war is travelling in the Scottish highlands with her husband, Frank, in 1945 when she stumbles into an ancient circle of standing stones and ends up in 1743. There, she meets Jamie, a kilt-wearing Scots warrior, who she soon starts to rely on to navigate the foreign and brutal world she finds herself in.
Claire marries Jamie to secure his protection while plotting her return to the stone circle so she can reunite with Frank in 1945, but she soon falls deeply in love with Jamie. With her head and heart torn between two worlds and two men, her internal conflict is palpable.
Other examples of stories with the “different worlds” trope:
- The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
- Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore
- Good Girl Complex by Elle Kennedy
Beware the pitfalls
The problems you may encounter when writing this trope will depend on the nature of the “worlds” your characters hail from. If you’re writing about different literal worlds, you will need to ensure both are as real to the reader as the one we live in. In other words, you will have a significant amount of worldbuilding to do.
When your characters are from two different cultures, particularly if one is a minority, the differences and struggles they experience should not be so far outside your own that you can’t write with authenticity. To do so would be to risk stereotyping characters and offending readers.
Tips for writing the “different worlds” trope
Often, when two characters are from different worlds, it’s the protagonist who is thrown deepest into the new world situation. It’s a good idea to create some similarities between the worlds so the protagonist can assimilate. Take Claire’s experiences in Outlander, for example. She worked as a nurse during World War I; she was able to put her knowledge and skills to good use in 1743 Scotland despite the lack of modern resources. Another way a character might assimilate is to find a “way in” to the foreign world. Perhaps they have knowledge those in the new world can use, as was the case for Jake in Avatar.
4. Sibling’s Best Friend
The “sibling’s best friend” trope, or its mirror, “best friend’s sibling”, is when the main characters know each other and share some kind of history due to one being the sibling of the other’s best friend. The nature of their existing relationship usually goes one of two ways: either one character (or both) has been pining after the other for years, or the two can’t stand each other. Either way, the trope offers a relatable way for the characters to know each other as the story begins.
In Never Marry Your Brother’s Best Friend by Lauren Landish, Luna’s brother convinces her to tutor his best friend, Carter, in art so that he can talk his way into landing a new art-collector client for his investment firm. When the tutoring doesn’t go as planned, Carter tricks Luna into staging a fake proposal in front of her favourite artwork — if he can’t talk art with his potential client, he can at least claim he has an art-loving wife. His plan backfires, however, when his target invites him and his “wife” to meet with her, forcing them both to act out the charade. (Read 5 (more) popular romance tropes to learn more about the “fake relationship” trope.)
In this story, Luna has an intense dislike of Carter and everything he stands for; she’s a penniless art lover, while he’s a ruthless investment broker. And his negative influence on her brother is another source of conflict for Luna. In this sense, the sibling/best friend connection acts as both a conduit and an obstacle to their relationship.
Other examples of stories with the “best friend’s sibling” trope:
- Twisted Love by Ana Huang
- Make Me Yours by Melanie Harlow
- The Game of Love by Libby M Iriks (moi!)
Beware the pitfalls
If you’re writing a contemporary story, try to avoid depicting older brothers acting as protectors of their innocent virginal sisters. Modern women can take care of their own and don’t need their brothers telling them who they can and cannot date. Such a dynamic is now considered by many as a clichéd depiction of this particular trope.
Tips for writing the “sibling’s best friend” trope
The sibling in these stories is a useful character to have up your sleeve. They know their sibling and their best friend better than anyone, so they can be used as a sounding board by either character, or both, when things get rocky on the road to romance. The insight they can provide can help either of the lovebirds come to an important realisation when it matters most. Check out my novella, The Game of Love, for an example of how this can play out. (Amazon AU, Amazon US)
5. Destined to be Together
The “destined to be together” trope is one in which either of the characters, or the reader, believe that they are fated to be together. The trope is especially popular in the paranormal romance subgenre, in which werewolves commonly find their fated mates. There’s something so romantic about the idea of two people being put on this earth for one another and who will go to great lengths to find each other. That’s what makes this such a popular trope.
In The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, U.S. Marine Logan finds a photograph of a woman on the battlefield. When no one claims it, he keeps it and it becomes his lucky charm. Once he’s back home, he can’t get the photograph or the woman in it out of his head, and so, feeling compelled, he sets out to find her. His search leads him to Elizabeth, a divorced mother with a young son. He’s surprised at how strongly he’s drawn to her. Learning she lost her brother in Afghanistan, Logan realises it must have been him who lost the photo of Elizabeth. The fact that Logan found it and it kept him safe makes the reader believe he and Elizabeth were destined to find each other.
Other examples of stories with the “destined to be together” trope:
- The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren
- Significance by Shelly Crane
- Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Beware the pitfalls
Although your characters are destined to be together, don’t fall for the trap of allowing them to fall in love instantly. They still need to face obstacles and experience struggles on their journey to finding their happily-ever-after. In the same way, be sure to avoid using their fate as an excuse to have them forgive each other for any hurt caused. They need to grow and develop as individuals and fight hard for each other.
Tips for writing the “destined to be together” trope
Not everyone believes in fate and destiny, but even those who do need a reason to believe your characters are soulmates. It’s not enough for the characters to simply believe they’ve found The One; something needs to compel them towards each other, as the photograph did for Logan, or as the scent of Bella’s blood did for Edward in Twilight.
Keen to see what other romance tropes are out there? Check out this list of 145 Romance Tropes!