Harlequin Refresh: Romance plot clichés

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(We loved this post so much, we’re re-posting from our archives. Enjoy!)

Harlequin editors read a lot of romance books. Sometimes a scene idea or plot twist that seems fresh to a new author is actually one we’ve read many times. And that’s not surprising. When starting a new creative venture, it’s natural to emulate artists whom you admire, including aspects of their “voice” – word choice, character types and situations. On top of that, you’re writing category romance, with a mighty list of reader expectations built in.

As with so much else in fiction writing, thoughtful character motivation is at the heart of making your scenes feel fresh. Even the most familiar story ideas and situations can feel new in the hands of an author who has thought long and hard about how her characters react to conflict and why they do what they do.

We spoke to editors in all three Harlequin offices and asked them about romance plot clichés they would like to see refreshed or simply tossed. Read their honest answers below!  Names have been withheld to protect the innocent. (Ok, some of these are from Patience and can be found on her fabulous blog.)

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“Stories that start with the heroine driving back to her hometown and thinking about all the backstory that got her to this moment.”

“A heroine who states at the beginning of the book that she has no time for a relationship because she is focused on her career…in a romance novel the heroine should have something super-bad or significant happen for her to express this and mean it.” Variation: “Heroine (or hero) has experienced heartbreak and WILL NEVER LOVE AGAIN – meeting [the hero] was the last thing she expected! Unexpected romance does not necessarily mean conflict. I’d like to see a more compelling reason these two people are about to completely mess up each other’s lives.”

“The whole will-they-won’t-they question is not enough to keep a reader engaged. If a hero and heroine are obviously interested in each other and there is nothing keeping them apart, why aren’t they together?

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“Things fall a bit flat for me when the majority of the conflict relies on misunderstanding or miscommunication (like seeing the love interest with another man/woman and assuming it’s a date, or when one party refuses to talk to another because of something they think happened), especially when the instances start to feel repetitive or like antics.”

“The hero bullied the heroine when they were younger, but now that he’s older and she’s (inevitably) gorgeous, he’s super nice to her. I especially have an issue with this when the heroine doesn’t acknowledge their past. I can understand that sometimes people have done things they shouldn’t have in the past, but a man shouldn’t be nice to a woman just because she is beautiful. That in and of itself shows a lack of growth. And why is it always that the girl was nerdy, a tomboy, etc. (and therefore unattractive) when she was younger, and she’s suddenly gorgeous as an adult? Yet, the guys are attractive their entire lives!”

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“Anything to do with the heroine falling down or being clumsy.” Variation: “She’s daintily eating potato skins and some sour cream doesn’t quite make it into her mouth. The hero leans over and dabs at her lips, smirking over how cute she is.”

“Dinner is romantic, as long as they don’t eat the same thing in every book. I wish I had a dime for every ‘garden salad’ and loaf of ‘crusty bread’ that characters have chomped on.” (Food choices can date your voice too.)

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“The sex is just getting started, or the pleasure has been kind of one-sided so far (usually in the hero’s favour), and he says, ‘We’re not done yet,’ and she seems surprised. (‘We’re not? There’s more?’) I’m always like, ‘What’s going on? The reader knows more is coming, why is the heroine so surprised right now?’”

What are some romance plot or scene clichés that you’re tired of seeing? Join the conversation in the comments!

9 replies on “Harlequin Refresh: Romance plot clichés”

Babies as cute luggage which get parked with a convenient babysitter for 99 per cent of the story.
I understand readers want a fantasy and the focus must be on the growing romance.
That’s just super unrealistic for single parents. Also, parenting or the ability to possibly parent is an
way to grow and convey growth of a relationship and the people in it.
Please don’t put a cute baby on the cover just to get me to buy the book. I won’t give you a bad review…but only because I won’t finish reading it.

Thank you for this subject. When you read what editors are looking for, it can seem very constricted. This opens up a lot of possibilities!

This one always makes me laugh. My best friend’s brother was also a best friend. We were practically brought up together as our mothers had been best friends since childhood. The thought of a romance was icky to say the least. we holidayed together as families maybe 2/3 times a year. We told people we were cousins. I never write a make best friend/best friend’s brother romance because of it

I’m tired of all of these, too, especially the clumsy heroine. At one time I thought that HAD to be in a romance because I saw it so much, lol. Another one I’m tired of is the hero/heroine being mean to the other just to create conflict (though I don’t see that much anymore). One I still see and am tired of is the hero and heroine instantly disliking each other when there’s no reason to.

Cliche – Returning to home town/highschool girlfriend & secret baby/children

“Tom, if I didn’t know better I’d swear that boy in room three was yours.” Dr Thomas James slanted a flirty grin at his favourite nurse practitioner.
“I don’t make those kinds of mistakes, Anna.” The nurse wiggled greying brows, “Let me know when you’d like to.” Happily married for fourty years, Anna was still an incorrigible flirt drawing his laughter as she walked away with a hilarious butt wiggle that would once have been a sexy swing of her hips.
Tom knew being back in his home town after twenty years as an army doctor was going to be a big adjustment. There were a lot of memories wrapped up in places and people, even Anna. Nurse Anna had assisted at his birth. Hell she’d even been the shool nurse he’d gone to for contraception when he and…. Margaret.
Tom grabbed up his appendectomy patient’s chart on the wall looking for the red flag he’d missed.
Michael Thomas Rogers. Age, fourteen.
His hand ran through his hair as he swore quietly, only looking up when a sweet voice called, “Hi Tom.”
Maggie. It had been twenty years since she had been his. But he could still feel those silky mahogany curls gliding through his fingers like it was yesterday. Her smiling mouth pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Welcome home, soldier.”
Tom tried to ignore the warmth that flooded through him with her touch. She was a married woman. A mother. Maggie’s hand resting on his arm gave a light tug guiding him to the privacy of the parents room.
“Yes, Mick is your biological son.” Tom sat heavily, feeling the weight of her words. “Thanks to you, I have two wonderful sons. Mick is fourteen and Chad is twelve.”
Tom knew he’d asked not to be told, the decision had been easy. He’d just lost another friend in gunfire, his parents in a car crash, and his heart was calling him back to his duty caring for his fallen comrades. They would be Maggie and Evan’s children. He was just the sperm donor. But somehow he still felt cheated.
“Do they know?” Maggie nodded, “Yes. We told them when Evan got cancer.” Her smile was tinged with sadness, “We lost him last year.”
“I’m sorry.” Maggie thanked him for his words. But she wouldn’t thank him for his thoughts.
My Maggie. My sons. My family.

Word count -397

The single father (widowed or wife ran off, doesn’t matter) who doesn’t want to date simply because he thinks he has to dedicate all his free time to his child, so when he starts falling for the next-door neighbor, teacher, etc., he tries to keep her at a distance. I get waiting a period of time after the child’s mother passed away/ran off before dating someone (and that time is usually up at the start of the book), but I don’t think the hero believing he needs to dedicate ALL of his free time to his kid should be the backbone of the conflict. Single mothers in books date all the time, so why can’t single fathers? Yes, he needs to be particular about whom he allows to get involved with his child (which is usually a daughter); but why can’t he get a sitter and go on a date without involving the kid until the time is right? The conflict doesn’t always have to be centered around Dad not thinking he can manage his time well enough to have a life of his own without scarring his child – a child who, by the way, always ends up liking the woman and pushing Dad to date her anyway.

Also, why does it have to be divorce, a failed attempt at stardom, or a sick parent/grandparent that forces the wayward man/woman – who left the small town and, more importantly, the high-school sweetheart, the day/week after high school graduation – back to his/her small hometown? Why can’t he/she have left one big city (not a small town where everyone knows everyone) for another big city; or why can’t he/she return to the small town because of a serious case of home sickness, or perhaps he/she did make it big but now realizes he’s/she’s more suited for the quieter life, and therefore he/she returns home to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city?

Okay, last one. Let’s talk friends-to-lovers. I’d love to read a book about friends-to-lovers where one friend was not secretly crushing on the other friend for years prior to the change in the relationship; or both friends weren’t secretly crushing, but both too afraid to admit their feelings; and although they’ve been BEST friends since they were in diapers, neither knows the other well enough to be able to tell the other one really likes (imagine likes in italics) him/her. I mean they know EVERYTHING else about each other, but neither has any clue the other person is, and has been for years, crushing on him/her. Why can’t they BOTH develop new feelings for each other around the same time?

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