Last updated on Nov 02, 2022
13 Beloved Romance Tropes Every Reader Will Recognize
A romance trope is a plot device, motif, or theme that commonly appears in romance fiction. They can be easily recognized by readers of the genre, who enjoy and often find comfort in familiar romance tropes. While many readers and writers will think that we want something utterly unique, we often yearn for the kinds of stories we already love – but reinvented or tweaked with just enough originality.
In this post, we’ll reveal some of the genre’s best-loved chestnuts, and show how they can quickly inspire ideas for original stories.
Sealed with a kiss, here are 13 popular romance tropes:
- 1. The Meet-Cute
- 2. The Love Triangle
- 3. Enemies Become Lovers
- 4. The Fake Relationship
- 5. Trapped in an Elevator
- 6. Escape from the Friend Zone
- 7. Belated Love Epiphany
- 8. Destined to Be Together
- 9. Second Chance Romance
- 10. Forbidden Love
- 11. Trouble in Paradise
- 12. The Bad Boy
- 13. The Secret Billionaire
1. The Meet-Cute
A classic of romantic comedies, ‘meet-cutes’ are scenes where our lovers first encounter each other — often in hilarious, adorable, or serendipitous ways.
Examples of classic meet-cutes include Hugh Grant impressing Hollywood star Julia Roberts while confronting a book thief in Notting Hill (then spilling orange juice over her); or stand-up Kumail Nanjiani being heckled — in a positive way — by his lover-to-be at the start of The Big Sick.
Beware the sugar rush
The danger you run with meet-cutes is that they can be too saccharine. You want to warm the cockles of your readers’ hearts, not send their eyes rolling into the backs of their heads. A well-executed meet-cute will read like the most adorable (yet plausible) ‘how I met your grandmother’ story.
New story ideas
To show you how a meet cute can be used in just about any subgenres, we've created some new ideas for meet-cutes in a couple of different romance subgenres:
No Dogs Allowed (Romantic Comedy)
Two pet lovers accidentally switch dogs in the park and arrange to meet for an exchange.
Runaway Blorp (Sci-Fi Romance)
A space captain from the Omicron sector crash-lands into a wedding on the planet Zegnar — the hesitant bride jumps into his ship and tells him to “hit it.”
2. The Love Triangle
Charlie and Jim love Diane. Or maybe Diane loves Jim, and Jim loves Charlie, and Charlie loves Diane. Either way, our protagonist is going to have to choose between two people they care about — and somebody’s going to get their heart broken.
For a well-known love triangle, you might look to Arthurian legend, where Guinevere is torn between her husband, the king, and his best friend, Sir Lancelot. Or for something more this century, check out the Twilight series where sullen teen Bella must choose between Jacob, a lycanthrope, and Edward, a geriatric diamond-encrusted vampire.
Two different, but equally compelling options
Writers can use love triangles in almost any situation or subgenre — the real trick is to make both lovers seem like equally good options. Nothing kills the tension in a love triangle faster than the reader realizing too early that one potential coupling would never happen.
Take our free course on character development to learn how to create a finely balanced trio of characters.
New story ideas
Love triangles are a fantastic basis for romantic stories. To show you how versatile this trope is, we've invented a couple of new love story ideas where three’s a crowd:
Birds and Bees (Contemporary Romance)
A rural ornithologist quits her job to pursue her high school sweetheart, who has become a big-city banker. Arriving in New York City, she meets a down-to-earth urban beekeeper. She must choose between the fantasy of reuniting with her ex, or the possibility of finding new love.
Mad Jealousy (Historical Romance)
A reworking of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors where a baker arrives in Ephesus and falls in love with Dromio and Dromio, identical twins with the same name, and who have exactly the same personality. How can the baker choose between two lovers who are a hundred-percent indistinguishable?
3. Enemies Become Lovers
Anyone can write a romance novel about “love at first sight” — let’s talk about its juicer cousin: “hate at first sight.” This trope (also known as "hate to love") is when two characters start out despising one another but eventually fall in love. The characters will likely try to deny their feelings until it’s no longer possible.
An example of this trope is Sally Thorne’s novel The Hating Game, where rival assistants at a publishing company compete for the same promotion. The tension between them soon reaches boiling point, and, as we know from science class, a boiling point is where things change from one state to another.
We’re not so different, you and I
Very often, these lovers ruffle each other’s feathers because they’re actually very similar — and they might, deep down, remind each other of their own secret insecurities. Only once they acknowledge their own shortcomings can they open themselves up to the possibility of true love.
New story ideas
Do all “enemies become lovers” stories have to take place in a white-collar workplace? Well, let’s make up a few new ones:
Garbage Plates (Crime Romance)
The heads of two rival “waste disposal firms” (read: mob families) in upstate New York enter a bidding war to win an important municipal contract. As they descend into increasingly shady and violent tactics to outdo one another, they develop feelings – and eventually merge their families/companies.
Knight Takes Queen (Fantasy Romance)
Brave and loyal knight Sir Dorick is ordered to kidnap the Queen of a nearby kingdom. On the long road back to deliver the captive royal, they encounter roadblocks and mini-adventures, forcing them to cooperate and trust one another. What started as an unethical crime will soon blossom into love — and that’s fine, because social standards were different back then, okay?
4. The Fake Relationship
Two people find themselves in a situation where they must pretend to be in love. But, of course, make-believe finds a way to become more real than either of them had expected, and they fall in love for real. Typically, once their “arrangement” ends, they will part ways, thinking there is no hope for a real relationship to blossom. That is until one — or both — of them declare their true feelings.
You might recognize this trope from The Proposal, where Canadian girlboss Sandra Bullock strongarms her employee (Ryan Reynolds) into pretending they’re engaged so she can stay in the US.
Think outside the box
A lot of fake relationships center around “admin” as a story obstacle (“I need a green card/health insurance/to rent an apartment”), so it can be a good exercise to think of novel reasons for people to enter into these kooky, implausible arrangements.
New story ideas
Here are a couple of new ideas involving couples getting into fake relationships that blossom into real love:
Couples Therapy (Police Romance)
Two police detectives — long-time partners who have grown tired of each other — must pose as a married couple to infiltrate a trafficking ring fronted by a luxury couples’ retreat in Key West. While attending therapy sessions as part of their cover, they mend their working relationship and discover deeper feelings (as well as the location of 1,000kg of black tar heroin).
The Method (Contemporary Romance)
Ali and Riley are desperate actors cast in a new film by a revered director who insists that his stars live together as spouses as part of their acting “method”. Initially skeptical, the actors soon get into character — and fall for each other. But when the director decides to replace Ali with a new actor, Riley must choose between his shot at stardom or staying faithful to his fake spouse.
These tropes all depend on creating characters your readers will love. For help, download our free character profile template.
5. Trapped in an Elevator
This trope has several popular variations: the “have to spend a night in a cabin,” the “stuck in a car in a blizzard,” the “overnight office romance,” etc. The point is two people, who likely barely know each other (or aren’t very fond of one another), are forced together in a relatively enclosed space. They have to rely one on another to get through the experience, come to appreciate one another, and eventually fall in love.
In 1934’s It Happened One Night (you may know it from this hitchhiking scene), Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are forced to share a hotel room with twin beds (scandalous in its day!). They hang a sheet between the two beds to create privacy, but the night nevertheless turns intimate.
Pick a place, any place
If you want to write your own “trapped” romance, just pick a location — it could be somewhere exotic or mundane — and take it from there. I guarantee you that every person has had fantasies (and nightmares) about being trapped somewhere, so tap into your own and see where it goes.
New story ideas
Here are a couple of random ideas that center on something that Aerosmith might call “love in an elevator”:
Shelves and Meatballs (Contemporary Romance)
At a famous furniture superstore, Kendra from the warehouse and Michael from the kitchen are locked in overnight. To kill time before the morning shift arrives, they hang out in the store’s idyllic home showrooms, sharing their hopes, fears, and dreams. (Isn’t there an emergency exit? Why can’t they call someone? Hush! Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.)
The City of Western Peace (Historical Romance)
1860, China — Gwendolyn, the wife of an English missionary, arrives alone in a small city in Shensi Province. Unable to speak Chinese, she strikes an unlikely alliance with Jack, a disgraced Scottish soldier who has learned the region’s dialect. To protect him from Chinese Imperial forces, she teaches him to pose as her missionary husband — but if their ruse is discovered, their lives may be at risk.
6. Escape from the Friend Zone
The "friends to lovers" trope is when two friends realize their feelings for each other and start a romantic relationship. Maybe they were childhood friends who went through the trials and tribulations of adolescence together. Fast forward to their adult lives: they haven’t spoken in decades, but think of one another often. Brought back together for some reason, they reignite their friendship. For a while, they may see each other as just friends, but ultimately realize that they are meant to be together despite all the years apart.
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, young Fanny becomes best friends with her cousin Edmund. As they grow up together, Fanny falls in love with Edmund; a fact she fiercely conceals after Edmund makes it clear he does not feel the same. After Fanny is sent away and Edmund very nearly marries the wrong woman, they reunite, and Edmund sees what was in front of him all along.
Act on your feelings before it’s too late
You can use this idea of “best friends becoming something more” in all sorts of settings. As the characters should have known each other for quite some time, you’ll need to develop a story catalyst that forces one of the characters to realize their feelings for the other — and give them a reason to act on it right away.
New story ideas
Here are a couple of story ideas where a love-struck character must make their way out of the dreaded friend zone:
Homecoming King (YA Romance)
Laurie and Billy have been penpals ever since they were seven years old. Now that they’re sixteen, Laurie’s family moves to Billy’s town, and she enrolls in his school. To hide the fact that he’s unpopular and awkward, Billy reinvents himself overnight as a cool kid. This results in hijinks and confusion from Laurie, who was looking forward to meeting the sensitive, funny boy she’s known for almost a decade.
Capitol Steps (Political Romance)
Having met as junior political staffers over 20 years ago, Kwame and Jean have risen together. Now, as they’re set to run the campaign of a trailblazing presidential hopeful, they arrive in Des Moines for the Iowa caucuses, where Jean's feelings for Kwame begin to grow. Will she be able to win over the folksy Midwest voters, as well as her long-time best friend?
7. Belated Love Epiphany
As Joni Mitchell tells us, “don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it’s gone?” That’s the idea behind the popular “belated love epiphany” trope: the protagonist loses (or is at risk of losing) someone they overlooked. And only in their absence does the protagonist begin to realize what the other character meant to them.
In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins bets he can turn street urchin Eliza Doolittle into a “lady” with six months of elocution lessons. He wins the bet but loses Eliza, having only regarded her as a means to an end. He realizes he has "grown accustomed to her face” — but only once she's gone.
Stop! In the Name of Love!
This trope often sees our protagonist rushing through an airport to stop their newly realized love from leaving — but sometimes, in bittersweet endings, they realize they might be too late.
New story ideas
Here are some ideas for romance stories where a protagonist almost waits too late to come to their damn senses:
Rumspringa (Amish Romance)
Moses is a meek and God-fearing teenage boy living in an Amish community, where he has long held a candle for Rebecca, a girl from a neighboring farm. When Rebecca leaves the community on rumspringa — a rite of passage where some folk venture out into the non-Amish world — Moses realizes he must break out of his comfort zone (and into the dangerous streets of Philadelphia) to declare his affections before it’s too late.
Eyes to the Heavens (Hard Sci-Fi Romance)
Having been injured on re-entry to Earth, astronaut Commander Gary Simons is nursed back to health by his second-in-command, Lt Stacy Simmons. Their relationship deepens, even as Gary grows resentful that he may never again go to space. When Stacy is offered the command of the first two-year mission to Mars, Gary realizes that it’s not his career that he fears losing, but his time with Stacy
8. Destined to Be Together
While many of these romance tropes involve two people slowly realizing their feelings for one another, the “destined to be together” trope involves couples who know right from the start that they are in love. Their intense, immediate bond is what maintains their resolve that they’re meant to be together while the universe, typically, conspires to separate them. This “us against the world” conflict keeps the tension of the story going — rather than keeping readers guessing whether a couple will get together, here they’re wondering how they will find their way back to each other.
In William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Buttercup and Westley (a farmer’s daughter and farmhand) fall in love in Chapter One. After Westley goes off in pursuit of riches to provide for Buttercup, news arrives that he has died. In her grief, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink. But as it happens, our young hero is still alive, and the pair spend the rest of the story fighting for their One True Love.
Readers want to see your characters together
The tricky part about working with this trope is that you’re keeping your protagonists away from each other — which is usually the polar opposite of what romance readers want. So you have to find other ways to let your characters interact and stoke the embers of their love just enough to ensure that your readers stay to the end.
New story ideas
Of course, you can find stories about destiny and true love outside of fantasy tales. Here are a few possible ideas that might involve this trope:
Molly and Shoo (Middle-Grade Romance)
Molly, a spoiled housecat, and Shoo, a charismatic alleycat, fall in love through the screen door of Molly’s suburban home. When Shoo is picked up by local animal control and sent to be destroyed, Molly must leave her cushy home for the first time and track down her true love before it’s too late.
Love on the Fringe (Heavily Niche Romance)
GunMom123048 and MAGAdude232 are internet trolls. Between harassing grieving mothers and threatening politicians online, they fall in love. But when both of their Twitter accounts are banned, they are left with no way to contact each other. Separately, they criss-cross America, searching for one another at political rallies and marches — eventually arriving in Washington D.C. one fateful day in January 2021.
9. Second Chance Romance
The second-chance romance trope can play out in a few ways. Perhaps a couple breaks up only to reunite decades later. Maybe they have been deeply hurt in the past, and have spent years avoiding any kind of romantic relationship. Now they will meet and learn to give love another chance. Readers enjoy this hopeful trope, which reminds us that “it’s never too late.”
In Nora Roberts’ Birthright, Callie is an archaeologist called to work at a remote dig. While she expected to find five-thousand-year-old human remains, she didn’t expect to see her ex-husband. They once had a passionate marriage, but it disintegrated due to a lack of communication and trust. Forced to work together again, they revisit their old problems and are forced to acknowledge that they still love one another.
The agony and ecstasy of autumn romances
A lot of romance fiction tends to focus on younger protagonists: after all, what’s more exciting than first love? However, the second chance romance trope is a great excuse to work with characters who have already been through real-world joys and disappointments: fully fleshed-out individuals, who can rediscover something about themselves after so many years.
New story ideas
If you want to write a book about characters who are ready to love again, you could start with story ideas like these:
For God and Country (Regency Romance)
Amid the Napoleonic Wars, young lovers William and Catherine part ways to pursue their callings: he, as an officer of the British Royal Navy, and she, as a nun. Reunited in their early 40s, they rekindle their affection and face a difficult decision: to remain faithful to their oaths, or betray their duties and find happiness with one another.
The Last Mile (Sports Romance)
Taylor Fellner, retired 5-time NASCAR champion, returns to his small-town Arkansas home to attend his mother’s funeral and tidy up her affairs. Stopping by Town Hall, he encounters his high school sweetheart, Eliza Cooper: now the mayor (and a divorcee). Old sparks are rekindled, and their romance revs back up. Before long, Taylor must choose between going after one more championship, or setting his eyes on a new prize: love.
10. Forbidden Love
Forbidden fruit always tastes the sweetest, right? This romance trope involves two people who are desperately in love but are forced apart by their families, culture, or geographical distance. Whatever the case, something is preventing them from being together.
Note that unrequited love and forbidden love are not the same — "unrequited" love means that the protagonist's love interest doesn't feel the same way.
In 2004’s The Notebook (based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks), Noah and Allie fall instantly in love when they meet as teenagers. After a summer cementing their soulmate status, Allie’s family moves away. Her parents do not believe working-class Noah is the right fit for upper-crust Allie, so her mother hides every letter Noah sends, breaking Allie’s heart and forcing her to move on. Do they get back together? Millennials will certainly remember who won Best Kiss at the 2005 MTV movie awards, right?
Why can’t they be together?
If you’re looking to write a forbidden love romance story, think of a situation where a couple may encounter resistance and work backward. This resistance could be social pressure, family expectations, or legal restrictions. As long as their love is true (and consensual), then everything’s groovy.
New story ideas
Here are a couple of ideas for romance stories that feature a love that dare not speak its name:
Under the Flickering Light (Period Romance)
In 1945, talented writer Joshua Mostel arrives in Hollywood with dreams of writing the first Great American Movie. He meets with Philip Kovacs, an up-and-coming director — and their friendship soon becomes something more. However, the fates conspire against them, and they are kept apart by social intolerance, fear of scandal, and the looming Hollywood blacklist.
Together Again (Contemporary Topical Romance)
Having worked almost a year on opposite sides of the earth, computer programmer Shafiq and relief worker Susan find their big reunion delayed by the pandemic lockdown of 2020. After more frustrating months of a 12-hour time-zone difference, and many more delays to Susan’s return home, their relationship may be approaching its breaking point — unless one of them does something drastic.
11. Trouble in Paradise
Instead of following two people on their path to love, these stories start with two people already in love — either married or committed to one another. But when their circumstances change (a new job, friend, or city), priorities get all out of whack, and it starts to impact their relationship. In this trope, one of the partners always leaves, causing the protagonist to realize that they need to change or lose their love forever.
In the film of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea is consumed by her job as an assistant to powerful fashion magazine editor. She sees it as a temporary stepping stone to a full-fledged career as a journalist — but it soon changes her values to the point where her boyfriend Alex no longer recognizes her, and he leaves. Will she quit her job, return to her true self — and reconnect with her love?
Give them the thing they think they want
When working with this trope, the start of the story will usually involve your protagonist getting something they believe has been missing from their life, or being tantalized by the possibility of something they had never before considered. From there, figure out how it might complicate their relationship.
New story ideas
Here are a couple of ideas from off the top of the dome:
The Great Clambake Calamity (Cozy Mystery Romance)
Joyce, a crime fiction obsessive, has the perfect life with a husband, a young daughter, and a beautiful home in the sleepy coastal town of Cape Murtaugh. When a Town Hall accountant mysteriously dies at the annual clam bake, Joyce takes it upon herself to start untangling what could be murder most foul. Naturally, the case strains her marriage to big-city banker Wayne, who eventually realizes that he must put his career ambitions on hold to help Joyce get to the bottom of the mystery.
Fresh Blood in Bethnal Green (Paranormal Romance)
Londoners Rob and Maria are busy planning their perfect wedding when Maria is attacked late at night and transformed into a vampire. Maria promises Rob that nothing will change — a promise she will struggle to keep, as she adjusts to her new diet and a community of East End vampire friends. Will Maria be able to see how her changes have affected Rob? Will she learn to balance being a vampire with the love of her (after)life? Will their tropical destination wedding be scrapped in favor of an evening ceremony?
12. The Bad Boy
Who doesn’t love the classic story of someone cold and aloof (and conventionally attractive) whose heart thaws in the presence of “the one”. The key to deciphering this trope is understanding that every bad boy (or girl, or enby) is deep down a sweetheart who has faced personal trauma — and it’s up to the new love in their life to help them get back in touch with their feelings. If only it were that simple in real life.
In Charlotte Brontë’s gothic-inflected classic Jane Eyre, the title character is the new governess of Thornfield Hall. She starts developing feelings for her employer, the dark, abrupt, mysterious Mr. Rochester. Though they grow close, Rochester keeps her at arm’s length, even leading Jane to believe he intends to marry another. Of course, he eventually succumbs to his feelings, and they live happily ever after. (PS. Rochester’s first wife is locked in the attic.)
Give them a path to redemption
When creating a ‘bad boy’ in a romance novel, the key is ensuring that any bad behavior is plausibly redeemable. That’s why most bad boy characters in this genre tend to be emotionally unavailable, rather than, like, war criminals.
Let’s look at some story ideas we prepared earlier.
New story ideas
We put our heads together and came up with these ideas using the bad boy romance trope:
SHE.E.O (Corporate Romance)
New York, 1982. Ken Long is hired as a corporate lawyer reporting directly to the formidable Michelle “Shell” Irons, the first self-made female CEO of America’s third-largest ad agency. As they work on a massive merger deal, she browbeats Ken and treats him disdainfully. But soon, Shell’s hard exterior cracks, and Ken learns to love the woman she truly is.
Better in the 80s (Fish Out of Water Comedic Romance)
Calvin Baxter was the hottest rockstar of the 1980s — until he fell into a cryo chamber and disappeared. Thawed out almost 40 years later, Baxter’s music label teams him up with Abigail, a young A&R executive who must teach him how to live in the 20th century — and leave his misogynistic 80s ways behind.
13. The Secret Billionaire
The 1% — they’re just like us! Or at least, that’s the case with this romance trope. A royal figure or billionaire is tired of being in the public light. They long to be treated like a normie, so they adopt a disguise or go somewhere they won’t be recognized.
In 2004’s The Prince and Me, Crown Prince Edvard of Denmark is tempted by the promise of wild (age-appropriate) American college girls and abandons his royal responsibilities to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. There he meets Paige, a pre-med student who does not think much of Edvard at all. Their relationship develops at the coffee shop where they both work, and romance ensues. What will happen when Paige discovers Edvard’s big lie? Will she forgive him and allow herself to become a princess?
Don’t let the secret make your hero look stupid
This trope can be a near-endless fount of farcical comedy, as the secret billionaire’s hidden identity will almost certainly come close to being revealed. The trick is giving the unsuspecting lover good enough reasons to not recognize their partner as a Prussian prince or steel heiress. You don’t want them to become like Lois Lane, the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist who had trouble figuring out that her hulking deskmate was Superman with glasses on.
New story ideas
Secret billionaires come in all shapes and sizes. And they don’t even have to be billionaires: they could just be humble multi-millionaires or merely someone famous. Here are a couple of story ideas using this trope:
Sweets for My Sweet (Cozy Romance)
Shivani Patel is a no-nonsense investigative journalist given exclusive access to Sherman’s, a massive and secretive bakery that produces the world’s most popular cupcakes. On her bakery tour, she seeks out Daryl Sherman, its ultra-wealthy and reclusive founder. However, Shiv’s attempts to track him down are stymied by the company’s charming PR manager… who may turn out to be someone else in disguise.
Top Rope (Sports Romance)
Sheryl-Lynn is a pro-wrestling fan obsessed with El Pato, a masked luchador who disappeared from the scene a few years back. Heading south of the border in search of the wrestler, she hires Ángel, a soft-spoken cab driver in Mexico City. Along the way, she finds clues alluding to her hero’s tragic past — and grows close to Ángel, who may have a secret of his own…
Remember that tropes only become clichés when they’re used in the exact same way that people have seen time and time again. If you can bring new characters, settings, and specifics to these tropes, you can win over some of the most passionate readers on the planet.
In the next part of our swoon-some romance guide, we're going to show you how publish your romance novel once you've written it!