How to Subvert Romance Tropes

Diane Callahan
20 min readOct 28, 2022
Text: How to Subvert Romance Tropes; Background: books and hearts

We all know there’s nothing new under the sun. No matter what you do, your story will be similar to another story in some way, but that’s actually a good thing! Readers and publishers are looking for narratives they already enjoy but with a twist: familiarity plus novelty. Subverting tropes means that the author brings a fresh element to a beloved story type, adding surprise and intrigue.

Tropes vs. Clichés

People sometimes view tropes in a negative light, but this is based on a misunderstanding of what tropes actually are. Let’s briefly touch on the difference between a trope and a cliché.

A cliché is anything that has become commonplace through overuse. Clichés are often predictable, and predictability sometimes makes for a boring story. But all clichés are also tropes — common themes or devices.

Unlike clichés, tropes aren’t meant to have a negative connotation. Like TV Tropes says, “They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience.”

The most important phrase there is TROPES ARE TOOLS. There are only so many formations for romance — or any story, for that matter. It’s impossible to write a story without tropes because we’re all writing about the human experience, and there are commonalities in our life stories.

Trope: “a recurring element or a frequently used plot device in a work of literature or art”: Common, Neutral, Expressive. Cliche: “a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse”; Overused, Predictable, Boring.

Think of a cliché as a trope gone stale — a story type that has been told and retold so often it has lost that flavor of surprise.

A writer friend of mine, Lyle Enright, gave an insightful example:

“In a cliché, the bed-sharing scene happens because the author wants it to happen. In a well-executed trope, the characters end up there largely because their personalities lead them to make choices that naturally end them up there.”

To avoid cliches, consider who the characters are as people and what’s motivating them. Then, the trope will feel like a believable extension of their personalities, opinions, and goals.

Common Romance Tropes