Advice from the Archives: Romance Tropes–Fab or Drab?

Tahra Seplowin @calixofcoffee

How can you employ the tried-and-true hooks without becoming cliché? Editorial Assistant Tahra Seplowin offers advice

Ask a category romance lover what her favorite tropes and hooks are, and she might tell you she loves stories involving secret babies or enemies-to-lovers. Think reunion romances. Girl next door. Virginal heroine. Alpha hero. Marriage of convenience.

But what are tropes and hooks, exactly, and how can you become an expert in them?

Tropes are time-tested scenarios or plot devices that appear again and again, while hooks are any element of the story that might draw the reader in. You may have heard “trope” and “hook” used interchangeably, and there are often similarities and overlaps. One fundamental difference is that tropes are always tried-and-true devices, while hooks can be either well-known or brand new.

The best category romances add fresh, unique twists to reader-favorite tropes and hooks Claiming His Brother's Baby(or revitalize tired ones!) to create an utterly un-put-downable book. For example, there are dozens of titles out now with billionaire heroes. But what makes one stand out to a reader? What did the author do with her characters, her plot, her scenes? Once you start identifying what satisfies you as a reader, you can begin to work with tropes and hooks and figure out how to put your own spin on them.

Let’s go more deeply into the difference between tropes and hooks. Tropes are tried-and-true narrative elements that establish the story and drive the conflict. Amnesia. Bait-and-switch. Working together. Many different elements of the story can be hooks. In category romance, hooks tend to be character- and setting-based. Hooks involving a character’s career or personality will drive the dynamics of the story and dictate how the character behaves and interacts with others. Think nannies, military heroes, billionaire bosses. These are career- or personality-based hooks that will drive the dynamics of the story and dictate how the character behaves and interacts with others. Certain character hooks tell readers what to expect from the book. Boss/secretary? There’s a difficult power dynamic present in this situation, as well as forced proximity.  Nannies? Usually a story about a heroine who is hired to work with a child or baby somehow connected to the hero. Readers will dive into a tale of an unexpected family forming around a child.

The Nanny Plan     Moore - Conveniently Wed

Tropes build on the character hooks you’ve established. What if the heroine is attracted to her brother’s best friend, and he to her? There will be the forbidden love angle, and the honor vs. desire struggle for the hero since he knows his best bud’s little sibling is beyond off-limits. Hey, maybe he was asked to protect her and to keep his hands off of her at all costs! Maybe she’s been in love with him and views this as her one chance to show him how good they’d be together. Now doesn’t that complicate things nicely? Amp up the tension even more: what are the other reasons they can’t be together? Are there family secrets? Lives in danger?

When you sit down to plot out your book, have at least two to three tropes and hooks in mind that will flavor your book from the first page. If you’re ever struggling with conflict, be it internal or external, take a look at your tropes and hooks for inspiration. What has your military hero gone through that makes it difficult for him to reach his goals or fall in love? Why might the heroine resist falling into her boss’s arms? If your hero and heroine are trapped somewhere together, what’s stopping them from getting along just fine?

Let’s look at an example from one of our titles:

Desert Heat by Merline Lovelace, from Course of Action: Crossfire

Course of Action CrossfireWhen terrorists burst into a concert hall to kidnap beautiful opera singer Riley Fairchild and an Omani prince, special forces sergeant Pete Winborne claims to be Riley’s husband so he’ll be kidnapped, too. Keeping everyone alive and escaping from the remote desert outpost with his heart intact will be his toughest mission yet.

Main Hooks/Tropes:

 Heroine in Danger: This is a successful trope in Romantic Suspense. The danger needs to have high stakes, and they don’t get much higher than the main characters’ lives..

Fake Relationship: Hero and heroine must pretend to be in a relationship to get out alive. Here, it’s extremely effective because of the irony; several years prior, the hero tried to chat up the heroine and got turned down so hard he still feels the bruise.

Military Hero: He’s honorable, he’s ruthless, he’s dedicated to doing what’s right – and that sure drives his actions as he struggles to save the heroine’s . But he’d better protect his heart because that’s in danger as well.

The hooks and tropes in this novella promise an action-packed, taut, thrilling romance with plenty of high-stakes drama, not only for the hero and heroine’s survival, but also as they struggle to work out what they mean to each other in a foreign, frightening environment. Fantastic author, fantastic writing, non-stop action and romance… I’m sold!

So here’s a little challenge for you (feel free to take it up in the comments!):

Pick up a favorite series title and list the tropes and hooks in that book. Tell us how they drive the plot, characterization and conflict. Then, write down what the author has done toPossessed by a Wolf make the tropes and hooks feel fresh. Why does this book stand out to you? When you’re done with that, do the same with your own project: what are your tropes and hooks, and how will they help you craft a great plot and great characters? How can you make them your own?


4 replies on “Advice from the Archives: Romance Tropes–Fab or Drab?”

What great advice. You broke it all down so it’s totally understandable. I think I automatically do these things after reading and writing for over 50 years, but it’s always nice to hear it set out plain and simple. Thanks, Tahra!

Homework Assignment:
Main Hooks/Tropes
Little Secrets: His Unexpected Heir – Maureen Child
Secret Baby: ties the H&H together, past, present and future.
Heroine thought hero was dead: he wanted her to believe it, to save her from further heartache and trauma, and him from the possibility of hurting her in the future. Also to separate himself from an intimacy he fears. She, naturally, take issue with this and calls him out on it.
Former Marine – man of honour and integrity, used to making decisions, dealing (unsuccessfully) with PTSD. Blaming himself for the debacle overseas. Separating himself emotionally from family and friends.
Alpha Male: take charge and make decisions for others without their input or consideration.
Marriage in Name: forced intimacy that, in the short term, tears them apart, but ultimately forces them to deal with their issues and fight for what they really want – each other and their unborn child.
Family: both H&H come from tight knit, close, supportive families.
The hooks and tropes in this novel are emotionally driven. The heroine is a strong, successful person who has to stand up against the hero (and for him), forcing him to come to terms with his PTSD and reminding him that he is not alone, but surrounded by supportive and loving family, and, if he’ll only man up and let her in, a supportive and loving wife. She takes issue with his making decisions that affect her life without consulting her, and demands he respect her as an equal partner in their future together.
Main Hooks and Tropes (My novel, working title: Felicity)
Secret Baby: only it’s his secret and her adopted child.
Found Family: the heroine adopts her deceased friend’s toddler. The hero finds the family he never knew he wanted.
Beta Hero: strong, supportive, communicative type, and equal partner in love and marriage. But he messes up, and it just might cost him everything.
Alpha Heroine: she’s strong, independent and prides herself on her emotional and moral integrity – which just might be her downfall.
Redemption: after betraying the heroine’s trust, how can the hero win her back.
Secret baby tropes are used a lot (with reason). By flipping the trope to being his secret and her daughter, I bring a new voice to highly successful trope. It also opens the door for the hero’s betrayal of the heroine’s trust when he neglects to mention he’s her daughter’s biological father. The found family trope in this story is both emotional and physical for the H&H, and propels the story forward through their ties to the daughter. The Beta Hero is my favourite archetype. His strong, communicative, equal partnership approach to relationships is empowering to those around him. He’s not threatened by a strong heroine, and is a great leader precisely because he fosters the strengths and independence of those close to him rather than drawing his strength from them. An Alpha Heroine shares the hero’s characteristics of strength and independence, and prides herself on her moral high-ground. But doesn’t moral integrity include forgiveness? Finally, redemption – will the hero redeem himself in the heroine’s eyes? How will he earn back her respect and love and will she be able to forgive his deceit? Will they find they are stronger together, as a family?
Using this combination of tropes allows me to bring various character traits and POV to the story. This, in turn, will allow me to hook the reader emotionally to the story’s conflicts and their resolution. Yay – win-win! My favourite game theory outcome. 🙂

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