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Romance Novels: What Are “Tropes”? #amwriting

Friday, April 8, 2016

Romance Novels: What Are "Tropes"? | KayeDacus.comAs I mentioned yesterday, there are two terms you hear bandied about a lot when it comes to romance: formula and trope. We tackled formula yesterday (did anyone else crave cake after that post?), and today we’re going to explore (scratch the surface, really) of tropes and what they mean in the context of romance novels.

What does Trope really mean?
If we’re going by the dictionary definition:
Definition of Trope

I asked some colleagues how they would define trope, and here are a couple of responses:

When I think of tropes, I think of things romance readers want and expect. Here are the elements—bend them and twist them to suit your story. At first glance, incorporating tropes can look like it limits the creative process, but really, it gives an author free rein to make something tried and true into something different and amazing.
~Deanna Dee

I think of tropes as a form of shorthand—characters, settings, situations, or themes that are so commonly found in a certain genre readers have unconsciously (or consciously) identified them on their own and can spot them immediately. While I don’t encourage using tropes when avoidable, I also think it allows the author, aware their readers can spot the trope, to quickly insert an initial story element (i.e., a trope) then move on to digging deeper into how their story/characters make that trope unique. It means readers can crack open a book and in the first chapter get 80% of the “gist” of what the story is and where it’s probably going. Then the author gets to spend the rest of the novel surprising the reader with how they use the trope. Or boring them by sticking too closely to the trope.
~Anna La Voie

So, akin to the formula we discussed yesterday, trope can be a starting point, a structure on which to start building the story. According to the romance blog Heroes and Heartbreakers, tropes are “conventions of the romance genre. Some of them never get old and still have the power to delight. On the other hand, some of them need to die a fiery death.” (The page doesn’t go on to identify which ones they think should “die a fiery death.” And I think that’s wise; that, like all things, is a matter of personal opinion, I believe.)

If I don’t know what tropes are, how can I identify them?
You probably subconsciously recognize tropes, even if you couldn’t identify them by name. But let’s look at a few books you might have read (I hope!) and identify the tropes at work in them.

Book Trope(s)
Stand-In Groom
Trope 1: Wedding planner falls in love with “groom”
Trope 2: Hidden identity
Trope 3: Older main characters (contemporary = 35+)
Trope 4: Large, friendly, meddling family (southern)
Trope 5: Big Misunderstanding
Ransome’s Crossing
Trope 1: Girl disguised as boy, excels at boy stuff
Trope 2: Hero (almost) immediately sees through disguise
Trope 3: Cliffhanger ending (series novel)
A Case for Love
Trope 1: Forbidden romance
Trope 2: Enemies to lovers
Trope 3: Romance opens hero’s eyes to his/his family’s flaws
Trope 4: Romance trumps duty/obligation
Follow the Heart
Trope 1: Must marry for money/falls in love with someone relatively poor
Trope 2: Must decide between two suitors
Trope 3: Poor relations depending on wealthy relatives to help find marriage prospects
Trope 4: “Sense & Sensibility” siblings (one with all the reason/responsibility, the other giving into the whims of romance with no sense of responsibility)

While not all of these fall under easy to name tropes/categories, if you think about those I’ve listed, you might be able to easily identify other books you’ve read which have similar storylines/issues/plots.

What are some of the most common tropes?
Romance publishers have built their business—and even entire lines—on romance readers’ love of some of the most common tropes. Some of the most common, across-the-board (from all ends of the sensuality spectrum) are:

  • Marriage of Convenience: Characters are married (agree to marry) based on an arrangement other than love: a business contract, blackmail, personal safety of one or both, to inherit a fortune, etc. (Ransome’s Honor uses this trope in Julia’s marriage proposal to William; in Follow the Heart, Kate must consider a MOC in order to financially save her family). Subcategories of this include Arranged Marriage, Mail-Order Bride, Widower with a Child Marries Newly Widowed Pregnant Woman, Political/Royal Arranged Marriage, Substitute for a Runaway Bride/Groom. This is one of my favorite tropes.
  • Enemies to Lovers: The H/H dislike/hate each other and are at odds from their first meeting. They might have known each other a long time and one wronged the other while the other has never forgiven them, or the meet cute might be something that sets them down the path to anger fueling the flames of romance. Either way, the conflict between them is mostly internal—driven by their enmity for each other. You’ve Got Mail is a perfect example of this. I also used this to a certain extent in Turnabout’s Fair Play.
  • Friends to Lovers: The H/H know each other before the book starts and have been acquaintances/friends for a long time. The plot of these novels involves some kind of conflict that brings them together in order for them to realize (and admit) they’re falling in love and want to be together. Some of the most common conflicts in this trope are: will they/won’t they, matchmaker friends/family, we’re better off just friends, we grew up together and we’ve always been more like siblings, last-chance romance (agreed upon age at which they’d marry if neither is married by then). Examples: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, my Menu for Romance.
  • Reunion/Second-Chance at Love: The H/H had a romantic encounter/relationship in the past (at least a few if not several years ago) that didn’t end well (obvs, because they’re no longer together!). They went their separate ways, may have had other romantic relationships (or even been married, though no longer are), but “fate” has now brought them back together. This can use the “enemies to lovers” trope or “friends to lovers” trope as part of the re-development of their relationship. Subcategories include: We had a romantic encounter and I secretly had your baby (Harlequin has entire lines devoted to this idea); we married by convenience years ago, went our separate ways, but now I need you for something (social/political, an heir, a family gathering, etc.); we were too young and someone talked us into breaking up, but now we’re older and wiser and have always carried a torch for each other though we’re still to angry with each other to admit it; and so on. Examples: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, my Love Remains and Ransome’s Honor.

  • And a quick list of some of the other common tropes:

  • Love triangle—I used this in An Honest Heart, along with . . .
  • Character has secret, the revelation of which could destroy the relationship
  • Opposites attract
  • Poor character/obscenely wealthy character
  • Secret/hidden identity
  • Spies (historical in war, CIA/NSA or MI-5/MI-6 agents, etc.)
  • Law enforcement (US Marshal, FBI agent, etc.)
  • Military special forces (Ranger, SEAL, Green Beret, or historical equivalent)
  • Secretly royal
  • Amnesia
  • Older heroine/younger hero (The Art of Romance)
  • Successful (alpha) heroine / struggling (beta) hero (also The Art of Romance)
  • Fairytale retelling
  • Fake engagement
  • Matchmaker (um, I think I have some of these somewhere in one of my series)
  • Mistaken identity, unknown identity (see also Secretly Royal, Amnesia)
  • Identical twin takes sibling’s place/identity
  • Return to hometown / move to small town / stuck in small/hick town
  • Prairie / Wagon Train / American Frontier (different from “Westerns”)
  • Kidnapped by pirate / native / Viking / Fabio / enemy, whathaveyou (ding-ding-ding: Ransome’s Quest)
  • Sibling’s former/ex-spouse
  • Ugly duckling to swan
  • Revenge romance (seeking revenge through pretending to woo the other character, then accidentally falls in love for real)
  • Nanny/Employer (hello, Sound of Music!)
  • Shotgun/Soiled-Honor Wedding (after being discovered in flagrante delicto—anything from a stolen kiss in a historical to actually doing the “deed” in both historical/contemporary, the H/H are forced by others to marry in order to preserve their honor/reputation—or someone else’s)

There are tons more, but I don’t have all day to sit here and list them.

What are your favorite romance novel (or movie) tropes? Please give us some examples of your favorite titles!

One Comment
  1. Sunday, April 10, 2016 12:00 am

    Fabulous compilation!


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