How can you employ the tried-and-true hooks without becoming cliche? 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 (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.
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 a couple of examples from recent Harlequin series titles.
Sheikh’s Desert Duty by Maisey Yates
Journalist Sophie Parsons needs a scoop to stop the sale of her friend’s hotel chain. And she’s found it! But being abducted by a sheikh goes way beyond the call of duty…
Sheikh Zayn Al-Ahmar has a wedding to arrange, a sister to protect and a country to rule. He’s not going to let one woman bring it all down with a headline! Kidnapping Sophie seemed like a good idea, but soon her delectable company puts everything he values at risk.
Only one mistress can rule Zayn’s heart—will it be Sophie, or his duty?
Sheikh hero: Wealthy, powerful and mysterious, this type of hero appeals to many readers.
Different Worlds: He’s a wealthy sheikh driven by duty to his family and country, and he’s used to absolute obedience. She’s an American who most certainly was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, who stands up for herself and for her friends. no matter what.
Abduction and Forced Proximity: He kidnaps her to keep her by his side so that she doesn’t spill the beans on a seriously juicy scandal she’s uncovered. (An example of how two different tropes complement one another.)
The summary tells me that the story’s going to open on a very dramatic scene – and that once the action begins, there will be a constant battle of wills between the hero and heroine. They have very different motivations. Both of their goals are driven by fundamental circumstances they have in common – both seek to protect loved ones. Forced to deal with each other as their personalities clash and they struggle to achieve two completely opposite goals… can’t you just imagine how the attraction will spin out of control? Aren’t you eager to read the banter? Are you curious about how they’ll resolve the situation without sacrificing what matters to them both? I know I was when I picked up the book.
Desert Heat by Merline Lovelace, from Course of Action: Crossfire
When 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.
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 to 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?
Want to read more great Harlequin romances that exemplify great use of hooks and tropes? Check out the titles included in this post. If there’s a hook you’d like to read up on, let us know in the comments and we’d be happy to make reading recommendations!
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