Romance novels are like the mac ’n’ cheese of the literary world. They’re comforting, indulgent, and familiar. A lot of this familiarity comes from popular romance tropes that we see again and again—recurring situations and plot devices that characterize this bestselling genre.

We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about what romance readers are looking for in these stories, some examples from popular culture, and some tips to get the most out of romance tropes in your love stories.

What is a trope in writing?

A trope is a recurring plot device, situation, or character type that occurs over and over in a particular genre of storytelling. Readers enjoy settling into these well-trod narrative devices that characterize their favorite genres. Putting two characters in a situation where they’re forced to share a bed is an example of a recurring romance trope.

Tropes can be a great starting place to develop a story, especially one with strong genre conventions like romance. However, when tropes become overused in exactly the same way, they become clichés. This is especially true of stock character stereotypes. The trick is to begin with a beloved literary trope and use it in fresh, creative new ways.

Romance novel tropes to elevate your story

To get you started, here’s an epic master list of the most popular romance tropes that romance writers (and readers!) love returning to again and again.

First flush

These are the tropes you can use when you throw your protagonists together for the first time.

The meet-cute

The “meet-cute” is the sort of chance meeting your pre-teen dreams are made of. They reach for the last instant-cook shepherd’s pie at the deli counter, and he asks her out to dinner instead. She finds him perusing an unapologetically feminist novel in the local bookshop, and she’s inspired to start a conversation. Their dogs’ leashes get tangled together. A small, seemingly inconsequential spark in the rhythms of the everyday.

The “meet-cute” is a classic romantic scene that brings two characters together.

The meet-cringe

What pre-teen nightmares are made of. One character has a mortifying mishap and the other character witnesses it. Character A thinks, “Well, at least it can only go uphill from here.”

The bristling miscommunication

A mainstay of “enemies to lovers” novels (more on that below), these characters misconstrue each other’s intentions on their first meeting, often because they’re after the same prize or pursuing mutually exclusive goals.

The wrong number

How great would it be if that next unrecognized number wasn’t an AT&T telemarketer, but a heartthrob in the rough? This might also be someone who accidentally shows up at the wrong house, or mistakes someone for a blind date or interviewer.

The bodily injury

And subsequent Nightingale-ing. Made famous by the McFly parents in Back to the Future.

Love at first sight

The moment when the whole world falls away. This often goes well with supernatural or destiny-driven romances.

Damsel in distress

Nothing puts a girl in the mood like a slain sea monster (or mob boss, or seemingly insurmountable deadline).

Where it all begins

But where are you going to set your love story? Here are some of the most popular locales.

The office romance

It’s never advisable to crush on a coworker, but there’s a certain appeal that can emerge when you’re stuck in the same hamster-mill hell between nine and five every day. The “office” could be any sort of workplace, from a hospital à la Grey’s Anatomy, to a hipster coffee shop, to a war-relic factory that produces dubious canned goods.

A workplace affair is always rich in tension and conflict.

The festival

You know the one. It’s all flowing skirts and golden-hour tunes and “What happens at Burning Man…” Or, your festival might be punk rock, fine art, an industry conference, or a comic book convention. Two people find themselves under the same roof/tent/open sky because of a shared love for something powerful.

The academic institution

With the rise of #darkacademia storytelling, romance readers are swooning over battles of wills (and limbs) in the shadows of the stacks. Put your heroes together in the hallowed halls of some ivy-league legacy and watch the sparks fly.

The hometown homecoming

Urban jetsetter Character A never wanted to return to their sticky-sweet Midwestern hometown again—at least until an unavoidable event (wedding, funeral, high school reunion, mysterious box containing ghosts of the past) brings them skulking back. Along the way they encounter an old flame / friend / reformed class bully that makes them wonder if the sweet life isn’t so bad after all.

The exhausting queue

Whether it’s waiting in line at the DMV, or at the ticket booth at 4am to snag front-row seats to Taylor Swift, the snail-pace lineup is a great place to put your leads together. They’re stuck in the same place for hours on end, dead on their feet, willing to sell their souls for something noteworthy and exciting to happen. They’ll start hitting on each other out of pure boredom.

The medical office

Nobody wants to be there, but we all keep coming back anyways. This might be a hospital, veterinary office, dental office, sexual health clinic, and so forth. These settings create intimacy and revelation about a person’s deepest concerns.

The one-night stand

Because doesn’t everyone deserve a chance to unwind? The characters go into it expecting a one-and-done hookup and discover an irresistible pull.

The best friend’s wedding

You’re there, dressed to the nines, having spent a small fortune on your ’do, killing your feet in stilettos you wouldn’t be caught dead in any other day (and may, in fact, be caught dead in before too long), doing your duty as BFF to a frantic bride-to-be. There’s enormous scope for all sorts of romantic shenanigans.

Getting to know you

Once your characters have come together, you may want to use some of these tropes to heighten the tension and move their story forward.

Friends to lovers

One of the most beloved literary tropes, from aching historical romance to trendy contemporary novels, is the progression of a deep friendship to a romantic relationship. The foundation is already there in place—all those secrets and shared experiences—and the reader will be rooting for them every step of the way.

Readers love seeing characters go from “just friends” to something more.

Enemies to lovers

On the reverse side, it’s always satisfying to see seething hatred boil into intense physical attraction before finally settling into a begrudging mutual respect. This trope also makes the reader feel smart because they figured out the heroes’ attraction before the heroes did.

Forced proximity

A great trick to throwing your leads together? Put them in each other’s orbit in a way they can’t ignore. They might both be starting at the same company, or be staying at the same resort hotel, or looped into the same apocalyptic war. For a little while, at least, they’ll be forced to occupy the same space.

Enclosed spaces

Speaking of space, readers love the “locked in” trope where the romantic leads end up having to share a small piece of real estate—an elevator, a hotel room, a bed. This is a great way to amp up the tension in your story.

Grumpy-sunshine couples

They say opposites attract, and some of literature’s most endearing couples consist of one rugged, bristling, pessimistic half and one cheerful, optimistic half. They play off each other’s strengths and bring out the best in each other.

Predestined couples

A mainstay of the “romantasy” genre, these couples are fated to be together. They might resist their connection at first, but there’s no denying the draw of destiny.

Long-distance pen pals

This might overlap with the “wrong number” trope. In these stories, the lovers start communicating over distance, sometimes without even meeting in person, and developing their connection through the power of the written word.

Imbalanced and/or forbidden partnerships

What’s standing in the way of your story’s romance? Sometimes, it’s a matter of forbidden love. Here are some of the popular dynamics you might see in romance novels.

The love triangle

Whether it’s an all-American boy choosing between two very different women, or a mind-numbingly boring girl choosing between two opposing supernatural hotties, the classic love triangle is one of the oldest tricks in the book. No matter how it ends, someone (probably everyone) is going to wind up crying into a bucket of Ben & Jerry’s.

Dramatic age gaps

In theory, lusting over men or women that are much older or younger can be kind of exciting. In practice, it tends to carry a lot of problems on both a social and psychological level. Whether your May-December couple falls apart or finds their HEA, consider the intrinsic imbalance of status they’ll be navigating along the way.

Economic and/or class divides

Everyone loves a classic Cinderella story, but juxtaposing poverty and Prince Charming also brings some unique challenges. Whether it’s a matter of elitist heritage or a billionaire playboy slumming it with his intern, these romantic leads will have to decide if their love is strong enough to break down economic barriers.

Humanity and the supernatural

Supernatural beings have occupied a special place in our cultural sexual awakening for a while, and readers never seem to tire of the urban fantasy pairings of human and Other. Just like gaps in age or economy, these partnerships come with a built-in discrepancy in status. In general, one has to come down or the other has to go up in some way for them to make it for the long haul.

Opposing workplace status

Imbalance can also be found in workplace romance where one person has power over the other. One might be a CEO, project manager, or independent entrepreneur with the world on their shoulders, while the other is coming up in the world and in desperate need of cash. Cue the sexual tension.

Within the family

Does it count as incest if there’s no actual blood relation? This trope sees a romantic relationship emerge from step siblings or adopted siblings who face all kinds of sticky existential questions and stigmas. Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd in Clueless may have been the only couple to pull this off successfully.

Beauty and the beast

Because beauty may be skin deep, but love can take any shape. These stories can be contentious, but are effective for conveying a particular message of looking beneath the surface.

Wrong sides of the law

The collision of lawful good and chaotic evil. These stories can go in a lot of directions, depending on how much good or bad each character is capable of.

Make your protagonists fight for seemingly impossible love.

Internal obstacles

Your characters need to face challenges on their way to Happily Ever After. Here are some of the inner conflicts which you’ll see coming up repeatedly in romance books.

The broken heart

The bad boy with a chip on his shoulder. The female heroine too jaded to entertain love. So much of the initial mess of romantic relationships arises because one character (or both!) has been hurt by a previous relationship before. Now, the couple will have to overcome their past traumas if they’re going to find love again.

Low (or high) self esteem

In these stories, one character thinks they’re not good enough for the other, or thinks they’re too good for them. The protagonist undergoes a dramatic character arc in which they learn to see their love interest, and themselves, a little more clearly.

Fear of commitment

This is one we see most often with men (usually an alpha hero), although it can be just as present in women. One character refuses to settle down because they feel like they’d be giving up too much freedom in exchange.

Preceding priorities

Sometimes that inability to commit comes from something more important in one of the characters’ lives—their career, family responsibilities, academic achievement, and so on. They think they can’t possibly balance a new relationship with so much already on their plate.

Internalized prejudice

This can be quite a delicate obstacle to overcome, although it’s also very human. In these stories, the main character has some sort of deep underlying prejudice towards the other person’s way of being. This might be internalized homophobia, a preconception about an ethnicity or culture, or a difference in religious beliefs.

External obstacles

In addition to your story’s inner conflict, you may want to use some of these popular romance tropes for your story’s external conflict.

The off-limits crush

There’s nothing more powerful than the allure of a forbidden love interest. This might be a sibling’s best friend (or a best friend’s sibling), or the devastatingly attractive friend of the main character’s parents. This romance trope comes up a lot in YA novels.

“Off-limits” love interests are one of the most common tropes in romantic literature.

The best friend’s ex

Speaking of off-limits, you know you’re never supposed to go after the best friend’s ex—especially if the breakup was messy. These stories see the protagonists caught between loyalties to two different loves.

Culture clash

The two lovers face a seemingly insurmountable social obstacle, such as religion, family values, or ride-or-die sports team loyalties.

A supernatural curse

Sure, they may be soul mates, but what if one of them turns into a bird at night? Or one is stuck being a clock until the next blue moon which falls on the second Monday in a week? Or one can’t have physical contact with a human being because if they do they’ll crumble into a rejected manuscript that’s missing the first page (for example)? There are no limits to the otherworldly obstacles you can throw in their path.

The complicated family

These characters want to make a go of it, but some family dynamic is holding them back. This might be a child or children with special needs, elderly parents who require around-the-clock care, or a troublesome sibling.

Financial restraints

What do you do when the poor stable boy catches your eye, but you need to marry up for $$$ so that you and your family don’t get evicted and probably murdered by highwaymen? Hijinks and emotional turmoil ensue.

Ghosts of the past

These characters have secrets that are coming back to haunt them. Maybe they’re the target of a mob hit, or they’re being blackmailed for past indiscretions.

Secrets and deception

No romance novel is complete without a dark secret or two. Here are some suspenseful romance tropes that will keep readers hooked.

The fake date

There’s many a rom-com that have begun because one character needed to present a fake relationship to their parents / well-meaning friends / immigration control. Whether these two end up falling in love through the hazy lens of subterfuge, or form a deep friendship that helps them each find love elsewhere, is for you to explore.

The hidden identity

Surely mild-mannered Clark Kent couldn’t be the same strapping hero that flies over Metropolis every day. Clark Kent has glasses. Whether your lead is a hero of the super variety, a covert assassin by night, or hiding out under witness protection, the dichotomy of their circumstance is sure to create some interesting twists.

The false persona

Another way your characters might develop hidden identities? By creating a façade based on what they think their love interest wants to see. Yes, she loves wearing aprons and cooking four-course dinners for fun. Yes, he loves spending time outdoors and communing with nature. When you’re trying to impress someone, the lies can start adding up.

Ask yourself: What secrets are your main characters hiding?

The secret bet

We’d all like to think that our dates show an interest in us because they thought we were intriguing, but what if there’s more to it than that? In this romance trope, a date or similar event happens because of a dare, a bet, or an under-the-table deal.

The secret admirer

It’s never who we hope it’s going to be… but sometimes, the reality turns out to be even better.

Two-person love triangle

This can happen when one character falls in love with someone who has a secret identity, or if they miscommunicate and think they’re talking to someone else. For instance, Peter Parker has the hots for Felicia Hardy, but Felicia’s only interested in Spiderman and thinks Peter is dull as bricks.

The hidden love child

Is there any more iconic soap opera twist than the revelation of a secret baby? The introduction of a brand new family member brings up all sorts of sticky existential questions.

Wedding bells

Weddings seem like a no-brainer in a romance book, but sometimes they can be used as plot devices or inciting incidents to create further complications for your characters.

The marriage of convenience

He needs to settle down and take a bride, or his father will cut off his allowance. She needs to claw back her social status after a recent scandalous snafu. Maybe they can help each other out in more ways than one.

The marriage of social norms

“Lavender marriages” are what they used to call marriages between a gay man and a lesbian woman: a socially acceptable cover so they can go out and live their best lives. This trope could also be a marriage to satisfy religious or cultural expectations.

The impromptu wedding

It seemed like a good idea at the time. May involve copious amounts of alcohol, a weekend in Vegas, and/or revenge against a recent ex.

The accidental proposal

Remember that episode of Friends where Joey proposed to Rachel with someone else’s ring? There could be any number of reasons why these wires get crossed, and they can either lead to unexpected love or a whole lot of problems.

The runaway bride (or groom)

If you know it’s not right, you know, I guess? Let’s just hope the cake is freezer-friendly.

Second chances

Second-chance romance is one of the most popular story types of the romance genre. Here are a few ways you can approach this trope in your own writing.

The missed connection

You meet your true love on a train platform, but they’re going one way and you’re going the other. You bond in the airport lounge before getting on different flights. You may be willing to write it off as a brief distraction, but destiny has other ideas.

The high school sweetheart

Your protagonist reconnects with their very first love—whether this was a first relationship or simply childhood friends—and discovers there may still be some time-transcending sparks after all.

Give your main character a chance to rectify past mistakes.

The one that broke your heart

Maybe it was because one character was going through a tough time and made a mistake, or maybe it was just a miscommunication, but this love hit hard and left some scars behind. When your characters reconnect, they’ll have to assess how much they’ve learned and grown out of their past.

The one that got away

For whatever reason, your main character screwed up their chance to be with an amazing, eligible person and has spent the last few years kicking themselves for it. Now, they finally have a second chance to make things right.

Happily ever after

The most important trope you’ll find across all romance genres? The essential happy ending. Whether it’s a result of childhood sweethearts coming together again, or a forbidden love that overcame everything standing in its way, the “happily ever after” trope—or at least, “happy for a while” (sometimes called HFN, or “happy for now”)—is the defining feature of the romance genre.

That doesn’t mean you can’t explore romantic relationships in your writing that don’t end well, or that have messy, complicated endings. In these cases, however, your novel probably falls more into women’s fiction or literary fiction than true romance. In a romance novel, readers expect the main characters to end up together by the last page.

Examples of tropes in famous romance novels and films

Ready to see how these iconic romance tropes look in practice? Here are a few stories that have used these narrative devices successfully.

Romance tropes in Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The grand dame of all romantic comedy, this distinctive enemies-to-lovers story has created countless retellings, spinoffs, and imitations. It features a matriarchal family hovering at the edge of poverty and whipped into a frenzy when two eligible bachelors move in next door.

This novel (and subsequent film adaptations) was filled with romance tropes before they became tropes. There’s the “bristling miscommunication” as Darcy’s standoffishness infuriates Lizzie’s pride. There’s a clear economic divide which plays an integral role in the plot. There are plenty of obstacles, including Darcy’s prejudice and Lizzie’s complicated family loyalty.

Pride and Prejudice combines multiple classic tropes to deepen the emotional connection between the characters and the reader.

Romance tropes in Ten Things I Hate About You

One of the great formative rom-coms of our age, this modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew hits all the right notes. Two sisters—the young, popular effervescent one and the elder, “shrewish” one—find themselves in a bind when their father decrees that the younger girl can only date when her sister does.

The hero of the show (a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes matters into his own hands by convincing a roguish bad boy (a young Heath Ledger) to pick up the older girl. This creates layer upon layer of deception—the false persona, the mistaken identity, and, of course, the secret bet. There are also obstacles like the fear of commitment, unrequited love, and the off-limits crush. And, of course, the most important romantic trope of all: the happy ending.

Romance tropes in Read Between the Lines, by Rachel Lacey

This romance novel is a trope-filled bibliophile’s dream. A bookshop owner begins a flirty, anonymous pen pal relationship with her favorite romance author. At the same time, she begins clashing with a property developer who wants to tear down the bookshop. Little does she know, the author is the developer’s secret, illicit identity.

There’s a whole lotta subterfuge going on in this story, as well as a classic enemies-to-lovers trajectory. Secret identities! False personas! A two-person love triangle! There are also tropes in the form of internal and external challenges, like the shop’s financial constraints and the resistance between the two women. Eventually, the bookish heroine falls for the cold, hard businesswoman with a gift for spicy writing.

Many books and films use more than one trope together.

Tips for making your romance tropes shine

Ready to take this romance tropes list and use it to create a love story of your own? Here are some things to keep in mind to keep your writing authentic and fresh.

Upend convention

Because these tropes have all quite literally been done before, they tend to come with strong predetermined expectations, especially regarding gender. “Beauty and the beast” is always a beautiful girl and a monstrous (literally or figuratively) man. An age gap or economic gap (like the popular billionaire romances) almost always have a man in a position of power over a woman. What happens if you turn these dynamics on their heads?

To get more impact out of your romantic tropes, consider the first thing that comes to mind when you think of these scenarios. This might be a specific novel or film that you know, or it might just be a sense of what this trope means to you. Then, discard that knee-jerk reaction and look for a way to come at it from a different angle. This will create familiarity in your reader while also giving them something fresh and new.

Do your character development work

Because readers have seen these same tropes over and over again, they need to see the humanity within these characters and the way that humanity creates these distinctive situations. It’s not enough to put your star-crossed lovers in a room together and describe their romantic feelings to the reader. You need to show where these feelings come from, and why these two people are drawn together in such a way.

This means carefully considering the needs, fears, weaknesses, and strengths of each main character, knowing where they came from before the point at which your story begins, and what they’re looking for (apart from carnal satisfaction). Make them feel like living, breathing people that the reader can relate to, rather than cardboard cutouts.

Use subplots liberally

Even though your romantic development should be at the forefront of your novel (it’s called romance for a reason, after all!), a successful story will have more going on between the covers than… what’s going on between the covers. Flesh out your characters’ lives by highlighting friendships, family dynamics, and strong social themes.

Your secondary characters, and your protagonists’ relationship with the secondary characters, can be a great way to incorporate some comic relief or to get your readers thinking.

Make sure your romance book is more than just romance.

Although we see the same tropes being used across sub-genres like romantic suspense, romantic fantasy (or “romantasy”), historical romance, and contemporary romantic comedy, the mark of a great romance writer is the ability to use these tropes in exciting new ways.

Use this romance tropes list as a starting point to dig into your characters and how they can be changed by coming together with just the right person at just the right moment.