Tropes (in Romance): Are they Avoidable?

Trope.” Ever notice that when the word “trope” appears in writer or reader conversation (or reviews), it has negative connotations, akin to invoking an evil spell or committing a crime? While the definitions of “trope” have several variations in the English language, for writers and readers alike, the most common usage of this term is an “overused plot device.” Are tropes overused because they represent reality and common themes? Does the fact that they’re overused mean that it’s time to discard them like a threadbare dish towel? Do we love certain tropes? Hate all of them? Or, more moderately, should we simply accept that tropes are a fact of writing life, or are there some that we should perhaps be cautious about using?

When readers complain about tropes, it’s because they’ve seen those plot devices over and over in other stories and have a gut oh-no-not-this-again reaction. True, one could easily argue that every idea has been already written, and this may indeed be the case when you examine an isolated description of a trope. For instance, take the friends-to-lovers theme. There are lots of romances with a friend-to-lovers theme. If done well, a friends-to-lovers theme can generate deep emotions and positive responses. So what differs between a time-tested theme and a tired old trope, and is there anything we can do to avoid committing the latter? 

The following are just three short examples out of a list of many possible tropes. The broader principles I’ll discuss can apply to lots of different genres, but as I’m working on a romance right now, I’ll focus on romance.

The Massive Miscommunication

– A character acts unwisely because of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of something that his/her love interest did or said. 
– A character acts unwisely because of a piece of misinformation from a secondary source (e.g., the BFF, an overheard conversation, or a fortune-teller).
– etc.
Red flag: A significant portion of your story carries on because of this miscommunication.

Why not try…
Ready for this one? How about some honesty? While your characters aren’t perfect and can have the occasional misunderstanding (because they are only human), the misunderstanding or miscommunication should not be the main source of conflict. When I was in college, my boyfriend behaved like a total jerk to me for the equivalent of 167 pages of my life. I later found out that it was because he was stressed out about the fact that we’d both be graduating at the end of the year, he really did love me but the future was uncertain, his parents were pressuring him to make a choice, etc. We would have had a much more interesting conflict if he had just been honest with me and if we’d had to deal with these multiple sources of conflict. 

The Love Triangle
– Two desirable characters vie for the attention of a single love interest.
– A character has deep feelings for two other people and just can’t decide.
– A character is expected to have deep feelings for one person (because of parental or social pressure) but really has feelings for someone who defies parental or social pressure #rebel
– etc.
Red flags:
– The entire plot revolves around this love triangle with no growth or change in the love interests.
– The rivals are both swoon-worthy and attractive, and their love interest is atypical (perhaps geeky or clumsy or unpopular)

Why not try…  
This is actually a fairly tough one because love triangles definitely walk that fine line between overdone and well-done (like when you’re cooking a steak). Characters have to make tough choices all the time, and love triangles, when done well, may be a powerful means to do so. However, when used solely as a plot device to create reader cheering sections, it can fail. If the love interests themselves do not change within the dynamic, it can fail as well. If you decide to write a love triangle, the key to avoiding disastrous effects of this trope will lie in the uniqueness of and dynamics among your characters. Be original in thinking about how the vertices of the triangle interact. Perhaps they aren’t fighting for your MC in a possessive “he’s/she’s mine” fashion but in a way where the three are walking in parallel.

The Morning-After Regret
– A character kisses (or does much more) with his/her love interest and wakes up with regret, guilt, and remorse.

Red flag: The morning-after regret creates the main conflict between the characters after “the morning.”

Why not try….
Sure, we’ve all done something like this at one point in our lives, but we move on. Try making your character more of an adult (unless you’re writing YA, and then, well… being more of a young adult) and waking up not with an oh, crap moment that lasts 167 pages but more of a Wow, okay, and now where do we go from this? moment. This can build sexual tension in a way that leaves us wanting to know the same question. Take a risk and try the “no-regrets” or the “fewer-regrets” approach. Who knows? It might be a better twist of this tired old trope, and your characters might like it better too.

What are some other examples of tropes in romance that you personally avoid? I’d love to hear from you!

* BookRiot has a great post with story trope BINGO cards, for several different genres. 

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her at

Love Triangles

Lately, more often than not, love triangles make me roll my eyes. I wish I could say I hated them, but honestly compels me to admit that there have been many, many books that I have read solely to find out which love interest the main character chooses (including an entire series of books, each about a different girl, that had covers featuring the main character standing torn between two boys). Also, you can’t watch as many K-dramas as I do without gaining an appreciation for a love triangle done right.

But how do you do a love triangle right?

First of all, there is no requirement that a story, even a YA novel, needs to have a love triangle. So if you don’t want to have a love triangle, don’t put one in your story. There are times, though, where a love triangle is a natural part of the plot/character development (Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch is a good example of this) or maybe you just want to explore some different avenues of growth with your main character. In that case, here are a few differences I’ve noticed between love triangles that annoy me and love triangles that tangle me up, torment me, and leave me desperate to know its conclusion:

(I know that there can be other love triangles besides the girl trying to decide between two boys, but since the majority of love triangles follow that prototype, I’ll refer to the main character as a she and the love interests as he.)

1. Both love interest have to have a chance at winning the main character’s heart.

This is one reason why I would say that the Edward-Bella-Jacob dynamic in the Twilight series wasn’t, in fact, a love triangle. Oh, sure, Jacob wanted it to be a love triangle, but he really never had the chance. Bella was always, always going to choose Edward (much to the sorrow of those of us who liked Jacob best).

2. Balance the time spent with each love interest.

The love triangles that work the best keep the reader guessing which boy she’ll choose by having a positive interaction with Boy A, but a negative encounter with Boy B. Then the reverse happens and something goes wrong with Boy A, but she’s really clicking with Boy B. Keep that going and you’ll keep your readers as torn and conflicted as your MC.

3. Each love interest appeals to a different side of the main character.

Maybe one love interest constantly challenges and encourages the MC, pushes her to be better, to try harder, but the other is more easy-going and accepts her for who she is, flaws and all. Both traits can be good in a romantic relationship, but the question is: what does the MC want? Or rephrased a bit, who does the MC want to be? Does she want to be strong and tough or does she want something more nurturing? Both are good options, but she has to choose.

One of the reasons that love triangles are so prevalent in YA literature is that the teenage protagonist is still trying to figure out who she wants to be, whether it’s a doctor or a poet or a star basketball player or whatever. For good or bad, love interests can be a big influence on a teen and that’s part of why the decision between them can be so engrossing: the MC isn’t just deciding who she loves. She’s deciding who she wants to BE.

4. Give your main character (and your readers) a reason to fall in love with both love interests.

Think about the good characteristics of each love interest. What makes him interesting? What makes him fun to be around? What is he passionate about? And then find ways to show that to your reader. Being brooding is all well and good, but I, for one, never fell for Darcy or Mr. Thornton or even Edward Cullen until I saw their good attributes. Darcy’s love for his sister, Mr. Thornton’s concern for the well-being of his people, etc.

Some love triangles that I think were done quite well:
The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni
The Raven Ring by Patricia C. Wrede
Pivot Point by Kasie West
Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

What other differences have you noticed between love triangles you like and ones you don’t? What are some love triangles that you think were done particularly successfully?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving