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

How to Keep the Stakes High in Character-Driven Novels

Okay, so I write romance. There’s not generally a lot of good vs. evil in a romance. No wicked overlord trying to unseat a king. Very few daggers and swords and magical spells threatening to bring ruin to all in the land.

No, romance is a character-driven beast. And what a beast it is.

When I first started writing romance, it was really hard for me. You could find me moaning in the corner with an empty package of Girl Scout Cookies, mumbling, “But what’s supposed to happen?”

Things really took a turn for me when I attended a class somewhere (I can’t even remember where or when! I take a lot of classes) and someone said, “The romance is the main plot.”

It was like someone had ignited the sun over my head.

The romance IS the plot. Huh. Who knew?

Anyway, once I had that well in-mind, the next question came as to how to keep the stakes high in such a novel. If the romance is the plot, there must be highs and lows. There must be SOMETHING keeping people turning the pages.

Now, before you go there, remember that I write Christian western romances. There’s none of that going on.

So what does keep readers flipping pages when they read character-driven novels like a romance?

1. Thoughtful pacing. 

Things are happening, and you as the author need to make sure they happen at exactly the right time. I always put a kiss at the midpoint. Always. At exactly 50% of the book. Too soon, and I’ve rushed. Too late, and readers are frustrated.

I always think, “Ebb and flow. Come and go. Two steps forward, one back.” That’s my mantra when I’m writing a character-based novel. If you can keep that forward progression going, but constantly put obstacles in the way, you’ve got it.

What obstacles? you might ask. Internal obstacles. Emotional turmoil. Questioning beliefs. Taking emotional risks. In the character-driven novel, the character themselves is both hero and villain.

2. Likeable characters a reader can cheer for. 

These are essential in any novel, but especially important for novels that are so character-focused. Ask yourself, “Why would someone want to spend the next 60,000 words with this person?”

Do they have relatable flaws? Realistic strengths? Compelling reasons to STAY AS THEY ARE? Because if they’re ready and rearin’ for change, the emotional pay-off for readers isn’t as high. It’s better to take a likeable character with Six Things That Need Fixing, and really have them buck against fixing those things.

3. Realistic and cruel obstacles. 

I know that sounds terrible! But if your story features a heroine who’s previous husband died in a fire, the best thing to do is give her a hero who fights fires for a living. She really needs to face her demons to go through the emotional transformation you want her to.

Likewise, your hero needs real and relatable problems too. There’s nothing that drives me more batty than the “perfect man.” True, that’s what most readers want — in the end. Not on page one. So the hero in a romance also needs his insecurities and shortcomings, and he should have to face his personal demons as he falls in love too.

This is where you can play with the plot a little too. These obstacles — what’s keeping the main character from getting what they want? — can be internal and external. It’s almost always the internal obstacles that must be overcome in the end, but external obstacles can force characters to examine themselves internally. So that’s where I throw in bad weather, or a fall from a horse, or a sick kid.

Or hey, that fire that just might be the end of a relationship. 🙂

How do you keep the tension high in a character-driven novel? 

Liz Isaacson writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Wyoming, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romances, SECOND CHANCE RANCHTHIRD TIME’S THE CHARM, and FOURTH AND LONG are Amazon #1 bestsellers and are available now.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency. Find her on Facebooktwitter, and her blog.