Romance Tropes: The Heartbeat of a Genre
Hey there, writer. Welcome to the official blog post of what is literally my favorite topic in the entire world—romance tropes.
Romance tropes are the lifeblood of romance. The heartbeat of what makes romance novels feel like cozy sweaters you want to snuggle into while sipping hot mugs of tea in front of a roaring fire. If you’re thinking of writing a romance, you can’t do it without a deep dive into tropes. Lucky for you, by the time we’re done here, you’ll know all about them.
Romance Tropes vs Clichés
Before we get too deep, let’s take a moment to discuss the difference between a cliché and a trope.
A cliché is a truly worn idea that almost everyone can agree needs to unalive itself. An example of a cliché is assuming that a character who plays the seductress role must be female (cause you know, that’s kind of sexist). Another cliché is to give your villain hideous scars (thereby equating scarred people as evil or wrong).
Clichés are also phrases you’ve heard a million times like "there’s plenty of fish in the sea" or "let sleeping dogs lie."
A trope, on the other hand, is a familiar thematic idea that can be seen in many stories across the genre, but each with their own characters, settings, plot, and spirit. In romance, tropes are things like star-crossed lovers, there’s only one bed, and friends to lovers. Yes, you’ve seen all those things before, but that’s on purpose. Those are the tropes that define the genre. And all genre fiction has them—the chosen one is a popular fantasy trope, for example.
If you’re writing in the romance genre, your audience expects to see tropes. They make their reading preference specifically based on the tropes in your books. Personally, any time I see the phrase “enemies to lovers” in a book synopsis, I’m hitting Add to Cart before the body is even cold.
Romance Tropes 101
There are hundreds if not thousands of tropes out there. The beauty of tropes is they give you guidance to help shape your story. Choose a popular trope and then add a twist to make it your own. Don’t worry—I repeat do not worry—if you’re reading a book that uses a trope that’s also in your book. That is the entire point of tropes.
Literally no one anywhere ever said to themselves: I really loved this book, and I never want to read another one like it.
There are romance tropes that I like to think of as ‘bigger’ tropes. Ones that actually help shape the basis of your plot. These are ones like fake dating or second chance romance, for example.
The other type of romance trope is more of a detail than a plot point, though they can help drive the plot. You’re probably not going to base an entire novel on the idea that someone had to share a bed—there needs to be something more that makes that situation awkward, tense, or untenable.
So combine tropes with gusto. There is nothing wrong with an enemies to lovers turned marriage of convenience, where someone goes feral over someone being hurt and screams I love you while standing in the rain. In fact, if you write this book, let me know.
Let’s also get this out of the way before we dive deeper into tropes. A happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) ending are a requirement for a romance novel. This is non-negotiable. If it doesn't have a happy ending, then it isn’t a romance novel. Full stop. It’s some other genre of book that happens to have a love story in it.
You are not being unique or different by giving your romance book a sad ending. If you do this, I promise all you’ll be doing is setting yourself up for bad reviews. Romance readers are adamant about their happy endings and they will come for you.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And I will, too. You can also read more about writing romance here.
Popular Romance Tropes
Anyway, on to happier things. Romance tropes apply across all sub-genres as well. There are some that are more specific to subgenres—fated mates for example is one usually used in paranormal or fantasy, for example, but the ones below are seen in every subgenre from billionaire to mafia to romcom.
Enemies to lovers
There are legions of people who are fierce devotees to enemies to lovers. Your love interests start out hating each other, feuding on opposite sides of an issue, a kingdom, or the office. And of course, the sparks will (eventually) fly.
Friends to lovers
Basically the opposite of enemies to lovers where friends realize they have feelings for each other. I find this one especially awesome when one person has been pining for the other person who is completely oblivious to it all.
Fake relationship or fake dating
One of them is in a bind and needs to pretend they’re in a relationship for the sake of everything. (I cannot even begin to tell you how many times this has happened to me in real life.) Maybe they need a date for their ex’s wedding or are trying to quell rumors that they’re a player. Of course, the more you tell a lie, the more you start to believe it’s true and, inevitably, emotions will follow.
Marriage of convenience/forced marriage
A wedding is a good way to set off any romance, especially if no one is in love with anyone else. Yet. Sometimes it’s an arranged marriage, sometimes it’s for the sake of the kingdom, but if two people who don’t love each other are getting married, then they must fall in love (assuming we’re talking about romance novels, of course).
Second chance romance
Few things are sweeter than the couple who thought all was lost. Maybe they’re already married and things haven’t been going too well. Maybe they were in love a long time ago, but circumstances forced them apart. Either way, your soon-to-be happy couple is about to get another chance at love. (And because romance always has a happy ending, this time it’s going to work out.)
However you slice it, this trope focuses on people with power, money, and influence. Their lives are often like fairy tales (sometimes literally) that can create the backdrop of your story. Often this trope revolves around the ordinary Joe or Jane getting involved with the dashing celebrity, mafia boss, or royal and having their world turned around as a result. I don’t care who you talk to, it’s hard to resist someone who owns a castle or a private jet.
This one seems a little more specific except that it can cover a huge variety of settings. While this might have once been confined to a boss and secretary arrangement, it’s 2022 and times have changed. They can be coworkers, they can be dueling lawyers fighting for different clients, or they could be a boss and their assistant, too (sometimes we love a classic). Sometimes the setting isn’t an office but rather a hospital or a ranch or hotel. In any case, it’s about people working together and the fire kindling between them. You can combine this with other tropes too: an enemies-to-lovers office romance will always be my thing.
This one is an oldie but a goodie and can be the source of endless drama. Consider a scenario where two people are in love but one gets into an accident and completely forgets the other. For mistaken identities, it’s probably obvious but having your characters get confused about who the other person is can lead to the perfect meet cute.
**Meet cute: This is a romance term that defines the moment your love interests meet. If they don’t know each other at the start of your story it’s the first time they see each other or speak. If they do already know each other, then this moment is more about when the possibility for them becoming a couple* begins.
Best friend’s sibling/widow
This trope can take on any type of ‘forbidden’ love interest to give it lots of tension. Often you’ll see a period of denial, knowing those around them might not approve, until they finally give into temptation. Cue fireworks.
Putting two people together into a situation where they can’t escape is always a popular way to incite romance. Think a snowed-in cabin, a stuck elevator, or anything else your imagination can conjure. Here’s another one that combines nicely with an enemies-to-lovers or friends-to-lovers trope as well.
Grumpy versus sunshine
In this trope, you pair two opposing personality types together and watch magic happen. Character A is a surly, world-weary cynic, while Character B is about to swoop in with their special brand of charm and turn Character A’s life upside down.
As an aside, romances don’t have to take place between only two people. There are plenty of books out there that involve multiple love interests including threesomes, foursomes, etc. Reverse harem (a woman with 3 or more love interests) is an incredibly popular subgenre of romance as well.
Other romance tropes
Because this list could go on and on, here are some more ideas for your romance novels:
- Age gap**
- Teacher/professor and student
- Mafia princess and crime boss
- Returning home to your small town where you reconnect with that old friend or nemesis
- Christmas romance or home for the holidays
- Bully romance
- Alien or robot and human love interest
- Human love interest and any kind of supernatural creature like vampires, shifters, fae, or demons
- A human falls in love with a ghost
- A normal human falls into a fantasy world
- New person in town/at work etc.
**Hint: this doesn’t always have to be an older man and younger woman.
Romance Sub tropes
There are literally hundreds of tropes you can add to your books. The ones listed above aren’t exhaustive, but are a good place to get you started. In addition to these larger tropes from which you can derive a plot, there are smaller tropes that are more about the finer moments within your story.
Don’t discount the importance of these and sprinkle them throughout your narrative. There are readers out there who will hunt out books with a good “wound tending” or “only one horse” scene. Here are some other subtropes you can consider:
- Wound tending: someone gets hurt and needs tending by the other one
- One bed/room/horse/tent/seat: there are all kinds of variations on this trope, but it boils down to your love interests forced into some kind of physically tight space together
- Who hurt you?: character A gets hurt and character B loses their mind about it, demanding to know who did it (especially effective when it seemed like Character B couldn’t stand Character A until now)
- Wedding ring try on: character A helps out Character B by trying on a wedding ring for Character C, when Character B realizes how good it looks on Character A.
- Jealous/possessive: where one character is a little over the top in their infatuation
- Slow burn/just kiss: when the tension is so thick you could bite it, and your readers are screaming at them to just kiss already
- Brooding heroes: everyone loves a slightly emotionally damaged character
- Fighting turns to love: specifically when they’re arguing about something and someone blurts out “Because I love you!”
Last word on romance tropes
As with anything, the more you read a certain genre, the better you’ll be equipped to write it. There might be a specific subgenre that appeals to you, whether it’s contemporary, regency, or fantasy romance. Subgenres often have their own specific tropes too, but there are ones–like many of those listed above–that are universal across romance.
If you’re using Dabble to draft your story, it is easy to track your tropes using notes and the Plot Grid. You can color code the specific tropes within your book’s scenes to ensure you’re working them throughout your narrative. (Don’t overdo it of course, but sprinkle that tropey goodness with a free hand.)
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