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Romance Tropes: A Definitive Guide

From love triangles to secret babies.

romance tropes guide

Romance is a wonderful genre. It’s as varied and exciting as your wildest dreams can imagine. In publishing, romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry that has continued to change the rules and create trends for everyone else to follow. 

Whatever your romantic inclinations are, whatever sort of story you want to read, we can guarantee that it exists in some form in this beautiful, expansive genre. And while there are tons of romances trying new things, romance is also a trope-heavy world, and we love it for that. 

While romance subgenres tend to describe a book’s setting or world (historical romance, vampires, etc.), tropes are frequently-used plot devices. For romance tropes, think enemies to lovers, different social classes falling in love, and opposites attract, all of which can be used within different romance subgenres. (Check out one author's favorite historical romance tropes to see what we mean.) 

All of these tropes have been popular for decades, and great romance authors continue to use them while keeping their stories from feeling cliché. For newbies and hardcore fans alike, here are some of the most beloved tropes you’ll find in romantic fiction. 

Related: 10 Books to Read Based on Your Favorite Romance Tropes

Love Triangle

One plus one plus one equals trouble! What’s hotter than having one person fall at your feet in adoration? How about two? Love triangles are huge in romance for a reason. Double your pleasure and imagine the romantic, dramatic, and comedic shenanigans of being in the middle of an all-out love war. 

Love triangles are incredibly versatile and can be found in literally every subgenre of romance, as well as YA literature, where they experienced a major boom in popularity following the Twilight madness of Team Jacob versus Team Edward. 

Grumpy/Sunshine

They do say that opposites attract. The Grumpy/Sunshine dynamic does exactly what it says on the tin. One side of the equation is stoic, grouchy, allergic to joy, and then their life is changed by the intrusion of a smiley and optimistic darling who will do anything to turn that frown upside down. 

We usually see this trope fall along gender lines, with the man being the grump, but it’s flexible enough to fit any kind of character. Everyone gets grumpy sometimes!

May-December Romance

Sometimes age is relative. An older partner, one with more experience and less baggage, can be ideal for a new and passionate romantic encounter. 

With May/December stories in traditional romance, it’s typically a narrative of a younger woman with an older man, but that’s not exclusively the case. As romance becomes more diverse, the gender divide of age changes. Whatever your preference, an old-school age gap story retains its appeal across the board.

Friends to Lovers

It’s been a few decades since When Harry Met Sally asked whether it was possible for men and women to be just friends without sex getting in the way. Obviously, we know that it is possible, but we do love stories where those complications get very dirty! 

In friends to lovers romance novels, the chemistry is too much to ignore but our characters don’t want to spoil the relationship they've had with their BFF. It's a conundrum that's achingly addictive for romance readers.

Enemies to Lovers

What’s more fiery than falling in love with your best friend? Finding out that you have feelings for your worst enemy! That guy you’ve always been suspicious of? The one you can’t help but argue with every time you see him? What if that aggravating hunk is The One? Sparks will fly in more ways than one! They do say there is a fine line between love and hate, and the enemies to lovers trope makes that literal. 

Forced Proximity/Stuck Together

How do you speed up the romantic process? Force your two characters to be stuck together in a very small space! 

Forced proximity novels often combine other tropes. Maybe two friends are on a road trip together, and they accidentally booked a hotel room with only one bed. Or two feuding coworkers need to get that big presentation done by the weekend, so they’re locked in the office together. Or, maybe strangers are snowed in after an unexpected storm and must rely on one another until help arrives

Sometimes, when you're enclosed in a tight space with only one other extremely attractive person for company, there’s only one answer to all your problems.

Fated Love/Soulmates

Everyone loves a good fairy tale. What if that dream person was always fated to be your great love? 

Some see the soulmates trope as a cop-out, but when done right it’s an exciting way to explore the pitfalls of romance. How would it feel to be told that someone is your destiny, especially if you’ve just met them, don’t like them, or have a big problem with the whole lack of autonomy thing? Just because the universe says it is meant to be, does that mean you should accept it? And even if you do, it doesn't mean the drama will stop. 

Forbidden Love

We’ve been obsessed with the notion of forbidden love for millennia, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet to Christian and Satine. The forces that be stand in the way of true love and our romantic pair will do anything to reject the status quo. 

It could be the result of warring families, societal taboos, infidelity, or age-old rules that demand to be broken. This might be the most long-lasting trope in the genre, and for good reason. For better or worse, it never goes out of style. 

Reverse Harem

As erotica continues to thrive in relative mainstream popularity, polyamorous stories have received a greater focus from readers and publishers, A reverse harem is the gender-opposite of a "straight"-harem, wherein a harem typically focuses on one man with a bevy of women courting him. 

Here, there’s one woman at the center, surrounded by handsome and lovestruck men (although it's also popular among stories involving queer protagonists). Frequently inspired by anime, where the genre is extremely popular thanks to shows like Ouran High School Host Club, the reverse harem has grown in stature among American romance lovers, often with a heavy focus on sex, kink, and non-monogamous dynamics. 

Second Chance at Love

The course of true love has never been a smooth one. Sometimes there’s the one who got away, but what would happen if you were to get a second chance with the lover who left? How have things changed now that you’ve grown up? Are those old resentments still there? Can you regain their trust after all that heartbreak? 

These are just some of the conundrums posed by the second chance romance story. Falling in love all over again can be a very different experience from the first time round.

Fake Relationship/Engagement

Drama is everywhere! You don’t see a lot of people engaging in faux-relationships in real life, but they’re as common in romance novels as dukedoms and six-packs. The circumstances behind the need to fake a relationship of any kind can often be contrived, but we love this trope anyway. 

It could be that you both want that promotion and know your chances are better if your conservative boss thinks you’re married. Maybe you were caught alone under mysterious circumstances and you need to avoid scandal among the Regency ton. Or your mother is trying to set you up with some awful guy so you rope your BFF into pretending to be your partner so she’ll back off. 

It’s all simple, no-strings-attached, and deeply uncomplicated, right? Of course, growing feelings between won’t make things difficult!

The Romantic Bet

Wanna raise the stakes? There’s always been something akin to a game about romance and fiction has spent a long time exploring that. Consider how the classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses relied on a bet between conniving friends to meddle in the love affairs of high society (you may be more familiar with its American teen remake Cruel Intentions). 

What’s a greater gamble than having love on the line? A romantic bet can take many forms: a fight to prove you won’t fall in love; a chance to seduce someone who rejects everyone; or maybe a one-up championship of sexual freedom!

Marriage of Convenience

Much like a fake romance, sometimes the only solution to your problems is to tie the knot. A marriage of convenience relies on a couple turning to love to fix their errors or avoid a big old public mess. 

Popular in historical romances, where marriage often was the only option available or the only way for a woman to garner some semblance of freedom, a fix-all, no-love marriage can also be found in many contemporary stories. It never takes long for romantic feelings to blossom.

Accidental Pregnancy/Secret Baby

How can things get even more complicated? Add a baby! Sometimes, accidents happen. You spend one glorious night with a gorgeous stranger and all of a sudden you’ve got a nine-month wait before your life changes forever. 

Will you tell the future father? Will he want to be part of your life? And if so, will it be in a capacity other than purely parental? Category fiction, particularly the world of Harlequin romance, loves this trope thanks to its soap opera dramatics and added cuteness. 

Featured image via An Earl in Want of a Wife