Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of romance novels marketed by their primary trope, like:
- Love with the Despised Stranger, a Marriage of Convenience romance, or
- Babies Happen!, an Accidental Pregnancy romance
I can’t decide if I think this is brilliant marketing or a terrible shame.
What exactly is a trope?
A trope is simply a convention commonly used within a particular medium. Every genre has tropes. For example:
- A common horror trope is a serial killer gorily murdering sexy teens
- A common mystery trope is a brilliant but baggage-laden investigator solving convoluted murders
- A common fantasy trope is an everyman revealed to be ‘the one’ using mystical power to defeat ‘the evil one’
In fact, if you think about it, genres are defined by tropes. We wouldn’t have the murder mystery genre without a mysterious murder occurring. And it wouldn’t be a romance without a happily ever after (well, generally speaking).
Tropes are everywhere! In fact, if you browse through a site like tvtropes.org long enough, you might start to think everything is a trope. And maybe everything is. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun (but that’s a cliche, not a trope.)
Does romance use more tropes than other genres?
I don’t actually have much hard evidence that romance uses more tropes than other genres. It’s difficult to compare, since tropes are hard to classify and count. (And I don’t really feel like counting, anyway.)
But, speaking very unscientifically, there do seem to be more romance tropes. You can take this long list of romance tropes, compiled nicely by GoTeenWriters.com, as Peoples’ Exhibit A.
Here’s my theory why romance relies so much on tropes…
Tropes and the problem of romantic conflict
Every story needs some kind of conflict — it’s not really a story without it. And in some genres, conflict is easy.
Take horror. Someone running around murdering everyone, ghosts and bleeding walls, monsters in the night. Horror is conflict, by default.
The mystery genre is the same — you always get the implicit conflict of an unsolved murder, that ‘who dunnit?’ curiosity gap.
But romance is different. It doesn’t come with implicit conflict. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. When people fall in love in real life, things generally progress fairly smoothly, if they’re going to progress at all.
Sure, there’s usually some tension along the way, the friction that results from one person’s unfulfilled desire rubbing against another’s. And it’s important to show that kind of tension in a romance, but that’s not generally enough conflict to hang a whole novel on.
So, romance writers have had to find the most effective sources of romantic conflict:
- How about, they have some reason to hate each other?
- Or, maybe they’ve been forced together, through an accidental pregnancy or something, and are forced to intimacy before they even know each other?
- How about if they were together once and something got between them, but then fate reunites them years later?
So, those common tropes we so love (or hate) are just evolution, simply the best solutions available for the problem of conflict.
Tropes and emotional response
So romance authors keep coming back to tropes. Not only because they’re a source of conflict, but also because tropes work at generating an emotional response. The ideas and scenarios that evoke the greatest emotional response, the ones that work, are the ones that are most often repeated.
And tropes do work. Imagine a woman who hates her co-worker, but is also secretly attracted to him. Just that tiny kernel of a story is enough to trigger a twinge of interest in my romance-seeking brain.
Yes, other genres can evoke emotion. You could say that’s the point of literature. But, for romance, making the reader feel something is its reason for being. So, unlike more literary genres, romance novels aren’t usually as concerned with artistic merit, stylish writing, or insight into the human experience.
Or, novelty. A literary author will run far and fast from scenarios that feel old or over-used. Romance authors? Not so much. We welcome a dependable, proven-effective skeleton (a.k.a. trope) we can then flesh out and make real.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that the other genre most noted for its use of tropes — horror — is also an emotion-based genre. You could probably list all the types of things that scare you. Horror authors base their stories on those common fears, so they’ve become tropes.
Is relying on tropes a problem?
If you buy my theories, it’s clear why romance is trope-heavy, compared to other genres. But, is that a problem?
I think it can be, but only because it can make writers lazy.
The last ‘tropey’ book I read featured a forced marriage: a down-trodden woman looking for an escape from her abusive father enters into an arranged marriage with a billionaire businessman.
I was into it. I like the conflict inherent in reluctant (compatible) strangers being forced together, and I was up for something fun and dramatic.
The problem was, the author never explained why this sexy, gorgeous, billionaire wanted to marry a woman he’d never even met. I wasn’t looking for pure realism, but I needed some kind of explanation.
I think the author viewed the forced marriage trope as an agreed upon starting point that didn’t require explanation. But that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted some degree of plausibility built up around the trope.
Salute the tropes!
Using tropes, beyond the basics like ‘happily ever after’, isn’t required in romance. And it’s possible to find successful romances (by that, I mean ones that are actually romantic) that don’t really use tropes.
Rainbow Rowell, for example, is known for writing more realistic romantic novels, like Eleanor and Park. In fact, when she does use tropes, she’s usually playing with them (like, the fantasy tropes in her Simon Snow books). But, her books are so lacking in traditional tropes that it’s easy to classify them as not romance novels at all.
I don’t think the goal is to avoid tropes. I love Rainbow Rowell’s books, but I wouldn’t want every romance I read to be so realistic. Sometimes I just want a classic romance scenario, and I don’t care how many times it’s been used before.
Personally, I like tropes, both as a writer and a reader. As a writer, I like the boundaries that tropes define — they aid creativity. In fact, my love of limits is probably one of the reasons I write romance, and not some less constrained genre.
And as a reader… if a story is based on a strong, tried-and-true conflict scenario, at least I’m guaranteed some sort of conflict.
My favourite romance tropes…
❥ Hate to love – can’t beat the tension in a good enemies to lovers book! This is a trope I’d love to write, once I have the right idea.
❥ Boss/Secretary – I know, totally dated. But, something about the power dynamic still gets me. I would like to write one of these, but I’ll have to figure out how to update the trope a bit.
My least favourite romance tropes…
❥ Reunited – I find these stories tend to rely way too heavily on the conflict in the past, and just fizzle out when we reach the present. But, my book, Love Me Later uses this trope (hopefully without the fizzling).
❥ Sheikh romances – I’ve read a few, and disliked them all – they tend to always have a chauvinistic hero, and I hate that. The Sheikh and the Chaperone is my attempt to update this trope a bit.