5 Super-Popular Tropes in Romance Fiction and Why They Work – by Rose Atkinson-Carter…

As a genre, romance is more about the journey than the destination. One of the key promises it makes to the reader is that there will be a happily ever after (sometimes abbreviated as HEA) where the couple rides off together into the sunset. The question readers want to see answered is how they get there.

Often, authors answer that question by using tropes, in other words plot devices that recur. Despite the fact that these elements are used over and over again, they don’t lose their shine. Romances can really be defined by the tropes they use, rather than the subgenre they belong to. What people really come for are specific plot elements they know they enjoy, like love triangles. In this post, I want to explore some of the most popular tropes in romance and dig into why they work so well.

1. Enemies to lovers

First up, we have the enemies-to-lovers trope. Sometimes known as enemies-to-friends-to-lovers, this trope is exactly what it sounds like. The main couple do not get along with each other when they first meet. In fact, they kind of hate each other! But as they spend more time together and learn more about the other, things begin to shift until they fall in love.

This trope can be tricky to execute, but when it works it’s incredibly satisfying. The enmity between the two main characters creates tension and a will-they-won’t-they dynamic that keeps readers on the edge of their seat. The slow evolution of a relationship, especially one that is contentious at first, can be a great way to do a character study and create sympathy for the characters. After all, there is some chemistry between them; there’s just something getting in the way of them being together — whether that’s a misunderstanding when they first meet or an initial clash of personality. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch a character’s feelings change over the course of a novel and enemies-to-lovers has conflict baked right into it, guaranteeing character development and a neat narrative arc.

One much-loved romance you might know this trope from is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy get off on the wrong foot and spend the novel butting heads until Mr. Darcy unselfishly helps her family, completely changing her stubborn perspective. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular romance novels of all time.

While it’s always fun to watch two people who don’t get along fall in love, I think the next trope is even more satisfying: a relationship that was fake turning out to not be so fake after all.

2. Fake relationships

A well-loved trope in the romance genre, fake relationships give an author space to create all kinds of shenanigans as a couple mutually pretend to be dating (or even married) only to actually fall in love along the way. There are lots of different ways to set this up. The couple can be strangers or friends, they can be fake dating or courting or marrying, and they can do it for all sorts of reasons. But it’s crucial that somewhere along the way, their feelings and their relationship become muddled and real feelings start to emerge.

It works so well as a trope and it’s seen so often because you technically don’t have to wait to see the couple in a relationship. Though they might not be in love yet, they’re already acting like they are. And this can often lead to some wonderful mutual pining as each party begins to experience feelings but hides it in the hopes of preserving their relationship while not realizing they both feel the same way. There’s nothing readers enjoy more than a couple painfully yearning for each other, completely unaware that their feelings are reciprocated. It’s a key way to develop tension in a romance novel and can lead to some highly entertaining scenarios as they try to hide the true status of their relationship from the world and their feelings from each other.

This trope is famously seen in The Duke & I by Julia Quinn, the inspiration behind the Netflix series Bridgerton. In Regency era London, Daphne Bridgerton and Simon Basset each enter a fake courtship for entirely different reasons. Simon’s status as a duke improves Daphne’s chance of attracting suitors while appearing to court Daphne gives Simon freedom from having available daughters foisted on him by marriage-minded mothers. Their plan promptly falls apart when they develop feelings for each other that they refuse to acknowledge or act on.

Part of this trope’s charm is derived from the nearness the two characters find themselves in — like holding hands or sharing a room. Which brings us to the next trope: two characters getting stuck together in close quarters.

3. Forced proximity

Forced proximity encompasses a variety of different situations, but they all boil down to the same idea: two people stuck together, usually in an intimate setting, with no way to escape. Sometimes, this trope can be present for just a scene or it can be the frame for a whole novel. A very popular iteration is when, for some reason, there’s only one bed and our reluctant couple are forced to share it — bonus points if they wake up cuddling the next morning. They can be snowed in at a remote cabin, be forced to share an apartment or an office. Really, any situation that puts two people into close quarters works for this.

Whether they hate it or love it, this is an easy way to build a connection between characters as they navigate being in each other’s space. You won’t be surprised that it also cranks up the tension as that’s the bread and butter of any romance novel. It might be awkward at first, but slowly, as their feelings grow, some longing might come into play as they try to keep their space yet ache for more. When the couple gets together (or knowingly cuddles), it just makes it all the more romantic. This trope also works great in combination with others —maybe your enemies-to-lovers or fake relationship couple are forced to hide in a cupboard together during the course of the plot. In the movie Leap Year, for example, the protagonists have to pretend to be married to be allowed to share the only available room by a conservative inn owner. Guess what: it brings them closer!

Which is all well and good when you know who the love interest is. What happens when you don’t?

4. Hidden Identity

This trope comes into play when one of the characters isn’t being honest about who they really are — though, crucially, not in a malicious way. They might have a second identity as a superhero, a prince (‘secret royalty’ being a popular sub-trope), a billionaire, a spy — you name it! But it also doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Your couple might be pen pals who met online and only know each other by their screen names. As they get to know each other better, they think of meeting in person, but worry that their feelings might not translate into the real world — remember the movie ‘A Cinderella Story,’ for example?

A fun twist on this trope is the two-person love triangle, where our hero is holding a torch for someone but meets someone new online who they instantly click with. Now they have to choose between their old love or their new flame. Or do they? Because their two love interests might just be the same person…

If your lead is the one trying to hide their secret identity, part of the fun is the comedy of errors that ensues as they try to keep their alternate persona under wraps, with near misses and elaborate twists keeping readers going. The tension when the truth is revealed underscores the comedic parts, creating a perfect balance of drama and levity.

On the other hand, if your lead is in the dark about their love interest’s identity, the mystery becomes the core appeal. The reader will be guessing right along with the main character about who the love interest might be and if they might possibly know who they are already.

A great example of this trope can be found in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. No one knows Simon is gay, except his online pen pal, Blue. They met on Tumblr, through their high school’s anonymous confession blog, and have been exchanging emails ever since. Simon and Blue fall more in love with each other with every email, but a wrench is thrown into the works when a classmate discovers Simon’s secret and threatens to out him. As Simon juggles being in the closet, lying to his friends, and figuring out who Blue is, the tension and mystery drag you in and don’t let you go.

But if you want to go a less angsty route, there’s also something to be said for two good friends slowly (or not so slowly) falling in love with each other.

5. Friends-to-lovers

To wrap things up, let’s look at another classic trope: friends-to-lovers. This is like the flipside of enemies-to-lovers. Our main characters might be childhood best friends who seem to be growing closer and closer as the years go by until they develop feelings. But they’ve resorted to pining, afraid that the other person doesn’t feel the same and they’ll ruin their friendship by saying something. Or they’ve recently met but are insisting they’re “just friends” because of their current life circumstances.

Whatever the obstacle is, friends-to-lovers is a trope that is full of yearning. These are two people who know each other well and already have a proven bond. It’s watching these feelings grow and evolve, becoming something more, that hooks readers in. The internal conflicts of the main character as they decide whether they should confess can be incredibly emotional and drive a novel’s overarching plot. More than any specific situation, the emotional maelstrom this trope can create is what draws readers to it.

Keeping in mind what tropes are popular among readers can help you come up with an engaging story — and it doesn’t even have to feature the specific tropes themselves. Just knowing the “why” behind their success can help you craft a story just as compelling.

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Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects publishing professionals with self-publishing authors. She advises authors on all things publishing, from understanding hybrid publishing to finding an agent or Amazon self-publishing. She lives in London.

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