Know your tropes:
In storytelling, a trope is… a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly. Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.from www.tvtropes.org
- Speculative fiction genre tropes
- List of romance genre tropes
- Feeling bummed at the thought that everything can be boiled down to a trope? If you haven’t seen the “Everything is a Remix” it’s a short video series with an interesting perspective on creativity.
Books on craft:
- Verbalize, bring stories to life & life to stories (Damon Suede) The verb exercises we did in the class came from this book/workshop. Highly recommended!
- Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing (Constance Hale)
- Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels (Gwen Hayes) Also has a Scrivener template
A few examples of romantic subplots for your consideration — each of these does at least one of three things: complicates the plot, raises the stakes or increases conflict.
- Scene: “Madmardigan under the influence” (Willow, Fantasy)
- Raises the stakes – In this scene of the fantasy movie, Willow, the baby, and the brownies are trying to escape an army before dawn while Madmardigan is under the influence of fairy dust and confessing his true love to the woman who wants his head on a pike (or does she… ) Will he botch their escape effort? Will they make it out in time?
- Short story: “Free Jim’s Mine” by Tananarive Due (Horror)
- Raises Stakes — This subtle and evocative horror story uses of the existing relationship to increase the tension of the escape (we learn early both won’t survive the night)
- Bonus tip: Listen to Levar Burton read this story on his podcast “Levar Burton Reads” for full goosebump experience.
- Movie Subplot: Nakia and T’challa (Black Panther, Fantasy)
- Complicates plot– Comic book movie adds a personal layer to T’challa’s decision, as the new king of Wakanda, whether to stay isolated or help the rest of the world.
- Bonus: subverts tropes – Past relationship is depicted without familiar drama commonly seen in psycho-ex/”working with the ex” tropes.
- Novel scene/subplot: “Kaz and Inej in the bathroom” (Crooked Kingdoms by Leigh Bardugo, YA Fantasy)
- Complicates plot: Kaz and Inej lead a rag-tag team of underdogs in a world full of untrustworthy, backbiting characters. Both have personal aversions to touch, and yet…
- Bonus: Proof positive you don’t need sex on the page to build tension, develop character and reveal attraction.
- Subplot: Jim Holden and Naomi Nagata. The Expanse (TV Show, Science Fiction)
- Over the course of three seasons, this subplot has been leveraged a lot — more or less credibly — to increase stakes (Nagata and Holden have had to save each other multiple times), complicate the plot and increase conflict (they’ve frequently been on opposite sides of ideological lines in the middle of the interplanetary war)
- Novel Subplot: Desdemona “Dred” and Jael – Dred Chronicles by Ann Aguirre (Science Fiction)
- Increases stakes — On a private prison planet for the worst offenders, section leader Dred needs Jael’s superhuman strength to withstand attacks from other prison factions, but his unknown past may endanger them all.
Remember “everything’s problematic”? Some things that work (or did work) for you may not hold up to current interrogation, or in the view of others. To complicate matters, some aspects of a piece may fly while others fail. Pro-tip: learn to live with the discomfort of knowing the stuff you love may be problematic. Conversely, I believe it’s important to be able to critically interrogate the media we dislike as much as the things we enjoy. Much good work has been inspired by the failure of something that preceded it. Remember:
Next steps: So you want to read a romance novel? Great!
(Pro-tip: if you’re new to the genre, start reading in the tropes and subgenres you enjoy)
- Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (Also has reviews by grade and trope)
- Women of Color In Romance (searchable)
Other articles and columns with great recommendations:
- “Kissing Books” Seattle Review of Books (regular roundup of new and classic romance)
- Geeky Romance Novels You Will Fall In Love With
- A milk-maid can marry a duke, but a sex worker can’t? Romance novelists are shaking up the status quo.
- Fifty shades of white: the long fight against racism in romance novels
Jas, just tell me what to read! Here are a few authors I’d point just about anyone to. Bonus, most have at least one book available at the library.
- Alyssa Cole (historical, contemporary and inclusive)
- Amanda Bouchet (fantasy)
- Beverly Jenkins (US-based African-American centered historical, some “closed door”)
- Cathy Yardley (geeks!)
- Cat Sebastian (queer and queer-adjacent historical)
- Damon Suede (gay romances)
- Elia Winters (geek, erotic, poly and sex-positive)
- Kit Rocha (post-apocalyptic erotic/BDSM)
- L. Penelope (fantasy)
- Olivia Waite (historical)
Just like research for other topics related to your work, it helps to be “filling your well” when it comes to understanding romance/attraction, relationships, and sub-plots. Here are a few suggestions for sources of insightful analysis.
- Get Booked (recommendation podcast by Book Riot)
- Into the Stacks (romance friendly podcast for speculative fiction)
- Modern Love (non-fiction audio essays about relationships)
- Smart Podcast, Trashy Books (review and author interviews)
- Wicked Wallflowers Club (podcast, interviews romance authors)
With all things, YMMV* so take what works for you, leave the rest, and most importantly, keep writing!
I’m not able to do manuscript critiques at this time but if you’re looking for reading or craft-related recommendations around romance or romantic subplots, feel free to reach out to me. I’ll try to point you in the right direction!
*Your Milage May Vary