A Little Subversion Will Do Your Trope Good

Celeste Davidson
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Try This - Aug 20, 2021

An artist's job is to make new clichés.
― Grayson Perry

Tropes get a bad rap. Many literary types discount them as clichés and nothing more. In other words, lazy, unoriginal and boring. I regard them as an opportunity and perhaps you will too, once I've made my case.
Yes, by definition, tropes are familiar storytelling conventions. And, yes, they are often overdone and unimaginatively utilized. But, that doesn’t mean they should be avoided at all costs. Frankly, they're bursting with potential (which is why you’d be hard-pressed to find any story that doesn’t employ at least one). Now, let’s talk about my favorite kind of tropes: romantic ones!
The love triangle. Enemies to lovers. Forbidden love. We know these story lines well, and either love them or hate them — rarely anything in-between. In our recent poll, we asked which trope you find most interesting and respondents were, well, rather passionate in their responses.

Which of these is the most interesting romance trope?

Enemies to lovers 52%
Friends to lovers 14%
Forbidden love 13%
Fake relationship 10%
Stuck together 8%
Love triangle 3%
Regardless of how you feel about particular tropes, you have preconceived notions about them. If characters are stuck together in a snowstorm, you don’t expect a prior partner to come to the rescue via snowmobile. Every trope is laden with certain expectations. If you ask me, there’s no better setup to surprise your reader.
With that in mind, I’ve outlined some of the most popular romance tropes below and suggested ways to put a fresh spin on them. Think of them as foundational, a jumping-off point instead of a limitation or lazy (wo)man's way to love. I can’t wait to see where you take them!
Six of the best romance tropes to make your own
1. Love triangle
Traditionally, two people vie for the attention of a shared love interest, but what about a “love square”? Seriously! See, for example, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir; now that’s a whole lot of cooks in the love kitchen. Who knew math could be so fun?! Alternatively, instead of two characters attempting to capture another’s heart, create a chain in which Character A pursues B, who desires C, who falls in love with A.
3. Enemies to lovers
There’s something so charming about sworn enemies who can’t even stomach the sight of each other at first. Put a modern-day spin on the classic, like Lily Menon does in Make Up or Break Up, where the two main characters create rival apps, one called Make Up, for couples looking to reconcile, and one called Break Up, the “Uber for break ups.” Or, what if your characters weren’t always enemies, but follow more of a friend-to-enemy-to-lover pipeline?

I tried to hate you, to forgive you, all just to forget you, but I'm only capable of loving you.
― Mirella Muffarotto, Every Boy Is a Story

3. Friends to lovers
Whether a particular couple have been best buddies since childhood or only recently met during a shared shift at an ice cream shop, their friendship is a great basis for love, both in life and storytelling. Riff off this idea by striking up an unconventional relationship. Maybe your characters only know each other as usernames online. In Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis, the lovers-to-be meet after one releases a balloon with her contact info attached, along with a secret.
4. Fake relationship
Sometimes the most profound connections we make grow out of initial inauthenticity— at least in the storytelling world. The way to avoid staleness with this trope is to think deeply about what your characters want, and what leads them to team up. In Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron, the characters form a partnership to enter a couples-only cooking competition show. What if your characters conceal real feelings beneath a fake relationship for a school play, or just really want a couple’s discount on a massage?
5. Forbidden love
We want what we can’t have. When employing this trope, ask yourself, “Forbidden by whom, and why?” We often hear of parents forbidding their children from dating, but what about a child forbidding their parent from dating a friend’s parent? Or maybe someone is forbidden by a friend to date again after they grow tired of watching them go through heartbreak after heartbreak. Keep digging until you figure out why someone so desperately wants to keep the characters apart.

It was terrifying to love someone who was forbidden to you. Terrifying to feel something you could never speak of...something that could destroy your life.
― Cassandra Clare, Lord of Shadows

6. Stuck together
A blizzard. Only one room left at the inn. These are some classic ways characters are forced together. But don’t just think “stuck” in the physical sense. In Christina Lauren’s The Honey-Don't List, two assistants come together to keep their bosses’ relationship intact. The only other choice is to quit. For a fun twist, try writing a story in which one of the characters knows of an easy way out but chooses to stay put.

Beyond infusing these tropes with creative twists and turns, why not mix and match? Combine two or even three for a truly unique story sure to make readers swoon. Enemies who are stuck together and become lovers? A love triangle with a fake relationship? So many tropes to subvert and so little time. Get hopping!
Try this: Write a few lines about a couple of characters trapped on a boat, who quickly develop feelings for each other: just not the kind you'd expect! Email your best response to adam@bardsy.com for a chance to be featured!
Update, some of the best responses to the prompt:
My head was torn at the fact that my wife thought that I never contributed to anything in our nuclear and multi-everything family. Being the only open lesbian married couple meant that we both had to work our butts off to well, do anything. I know in my heart that I strived a lot in the past 6 years of us staying together. I knew it was time for both of us to have a go at THE BREAK thing that all the married couples were doing. I booked the first flight out of my home in Ohio toTHE BREAK'S boat ride. That's when I saw her. This familiar face and a familiar vibe. I knew I had to talk to her at least once during the ride but the workers were forbidden. Anyone who hears me saying this story would think that i fell in love for a second time but that's when i remembered that this familiar face was none other than my old neighbour. This girl ratted me out to my parents and i never saw her again. After the ride started, she began by saying that she remembered me and that she personally became my plus two on the ride because she wanted to apologize for the thing she pulled 10 years ago. At once, my inner peace returned and I let her know that she gave me an idea to fix my family. It turned out ?a ride at THE BREAK worked after all!
— Manasa
I know you didn’t mean to hit me with the paddle, Honey. Now if you feel like taking a swim, I’ll keep the boat steady. Oops I seem to be drifting, can’t help it. Well, bye, Honey.
— Band
It's not the liquid sensuality that emerged in your brown eyes when we pushed off into the lake. I don't think that the warmth of the sun on your arms releasing your essence into spring breeze did it, or how the sound of the oars in water echoed the ringing of your laughter. But something stunned me like a dart, and now with you facing me, I am lost in this golden afternoon, drifting into sweet tomorrow.
— Lori
"Wow... I never thought we'd be trapped out here on this canoe together," said Joe, with contempt. "I mean, I know we work together and all, but how did we get matched up for this canoe competition? I deliberately tried to avoid you Marge Ann... and, can I be real with you, Marge Ann? You just really get under my skin, and... and I can't take any more assignments with you, for work or stuff like this, this, this picnic. .. Marge Ann, you just cause more trouble than you're worth; I really wanted to win this boating competition today for our group at the company picnic, to impress Mr. Custer, being that my DNA test just revealed he's my dad and all...and, and... here you go again, messing it all up for me! Now he's gonna think the worst of me, not the best!" Marge Ann looked back at him glaringly, but then got an evil twinkle in her eye. "I lost my ore Joe! I can't help that it just slipped out of my hand! But anyway, I wasn't gonna tell you this, at least not now, but after what you just said, I think now is the perfect time: I just got MY DNA test back yesterday, and well... Joe, we are SIBLINGS..." Joe looked horrified as he stared back, but then a big grin came over his face. "No wonder you drive me so crazy! But wait!... Then, that must mean your father is... Mr. Custer, the CEO of this Fortune-500 company, just like he is mine?... and we are the joint heirs of this multi-billion dollar legal firm???" "That's right," said Marge Ann, "We are ginna be spending a lot more time together, Joe... and he's been looking for his heirs for a while now, which is why he asked everyone in the company to take those DNA tests - apparently he sewed quite a few wild oats in his youth..." said Marge Ann looking back at Joe intently, "And you know what he always says..." "I sure do!" Said Joe, mischievously, and they both tossed their ores into the canoe, grabbed the sides of it, and began rocking it wildly, trying to tip it over - after all, they weren't going to win the competition anyway at this point, so they thought they'd enjoy their first sibling prank against one another, and on Mr. Custer, who would be as shocked as they were when they told him their identity. From a distance, Mr. Custer looked on. "Who are those two fools out there, and what the heck are they trying to do, this is a canoe competition, not the circus!" He remarked to the country club mobile barista, as he took a margarita from him, not knowing what news would come to him in only a few minutes.
— Cynthia
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