Romance Tropes: What Works for Romance Readers UPDATED

The 2014 Romance Book Buyer Report from Nielsen and RWA says that survey respondents in the “heavy” reader group gave these answers as their favorite romance tropes:
• friends to lovers
• soul mate/fate
• secret romance
• second chance at love

They’re missing my fave, but I can see the appeal in all of these, especially that first one.

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Friends to Lovers
I think this one is because the author is forced to set up a non-physical relationship first. That is, too often a romance set-up is that they’re both gorgeous and hot and they want each other. Yeah, that happens and then it ends. The relationships that last are built on a lot more, so if that solid relationship is already in place, when the lovers finally notice the physical attraction, the whole relationship deepens. I’ve used this one a lot, by my count ten times, because of how much easier it is to build a deep relationship, and because it’s fun to write, watching as two clueless people stumble toward ecstasy.

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Soul Mate/Fate
I think this is the fairy tale, the idea that there is one person in all the world you are meant to be with and Fate will deliver him or her to you. I’m as drawn to this as any romance reader, but the only way I could make it work as a central plot was to actually write a fairy tale. That’s still my most popular book, and I think a lot of that is because of the power of this fantasy: no matter how inept you are, Fate will deliver your love to you.

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Secret Romance
I think this one works because of the pain component: It’s stressful keeping a secret from friends, family, and co-workers, doubly stressful when there are two of you in the secret, triply stressful when the stakes are high. Which is where I always have problems with this one: If they stakes are high, just tell the truth and stop living a lie, people. On the other hand, if keeping the secret makes everything more exciting, go for it. I don’t judge. I also don’t write this one because none of my protagonists can keep a secret.

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Second Chance at Love:
I’m interpreting this one to be “your ex shows up again,” but it could also be the after-the-divorce-or-break-up story. The ex plot helps because again, the relationship is already there, so part of your romance arc is already there, too. But I think the idea of both second-chance plots is the refutation of Soul Mate trope: You can honestly and completely fall in love with somebody and have it go south, and when that happens your life is not over. Pick yourself up and get back in the game. I think this dovetails well with the friends-to-lovers trope since people who have burned by love (that’s essentially everybody) tend to be warier than first-timers, and they’re more likely to friend-zone possible romantic partners for safety. That also sets up a nice dynamic in that it takes a lot of power to blast people out of a friendship and into a love affair, so the attraction has to be strong. Also: fun to write.

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So here’s a question: Is your favorite romance trope in there, or did they miss one? My personal fave is the “Oh, hell, not YOU” trope, I think I’ve used that in every book, but that one probably wasn’t on the survey.

Movies pictured: When Harry Met Sally . . ., The Princess Bride, Avanti, Mamma Mia!, 10 Things I Hate About You.

ETA: Thanks to MJ, here are the choices from the survey:

(1) friends to lovers
(2) soul mate/fate
(3) second chance at love
(4) secret romance
(5) first love
(6) strong hero/heroine
(7) reunited lovers
(8) love triangle
(9) sexy billionaire/millionaire
(10) sassy heroine

That “sassy heroine” is at number 10 makes me sad (really, not even better than “sexy rich guy”?).

70 thoughts on “Romance Tropes: What Works for Romance Readers UPDATED

  1. Oooh, are mismatched couples a trope? Or do they fall in “Oh hell, not you?” I quite like those.

    I tend to not like “Returning Love” – where He/She left town but have returned and it’s all unresolved.

    I do like Rescuer archetype in Heroines. She comes in, saves him from his PTSD or something, maybe saves herself (Ever After: A Cinderella Story). Suggests that she has expertise in something. I do like that.

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  2. My favorite is second chance, so I’m really glad to see it here. Especially for that little unselfish reason you listed–it’s fun to write.

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  3. You know, I had a weird gut reaction against “Friends to Lovers” at first, but then I realized that many of my favorite literary romances are, in fact, set up that way (of course, many of my favorite romances are in non-romance books, so the focus is more on one character’s development and then a romantic subplot turns up). I also realized that I have a nascent FTL in my current WIP. Hmmmm.

    One like a lot is “oh hell, not you!” Which certainly should’ve been on the list, considering its popularity from Shakespeare and beyond! I mean, if Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth isn’t the British equivalent of “Oh hell, not you!” I don’t know what is (although I suspect for Darcy it’s more like “(heavy sigh) bloody hell, it’s you…”)

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    1. I would be very interested to see the ballot, though! What are other options? Werewolf vs. Vampire? (Autocorrect tried to make that “Werewolf vs. Bamboo”…probably not in the top ten.)

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          1. Also, here are the top 10 popular romance tropes: (1) friends to lovers; (2) soul mate/fate; (3) second chance at love; (4) secret romance; (5) first love; (6) strong hero/heroine; (7) reunited lovers; (8) love triangle; (9) sexy billionaire/millionaire; (10) sassy heroine

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  4. I like the first one – friends to lovers – but unfortunately I encounter it rarely in my reading. Most romances I’ve read start with the first meeting in the first few pages. I’d like to experiment with the ‘friends to lovers’ scenario myself, maybe for my next romance novella. Secret romance also sounds interesting, like Romeo and Juliet. The tension and the conflict are already embedded in the formula, and the author just follows along. Sweet.

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  5. Second chance is high on my list (Birthright, Maybe This Time, Bitten). Also love “Oh hell, not you.” I really like friends to lovers, and Harry and Sally in particular.

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  6. i really like the ‘oh hell not you’ but it takes some light footwork for it not to become confused with an abusive relationship? maybe that’s why it doesn’t feature. love it in your books though where you definitely don’t do that

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    1. No, not “I don’t want you pursuing me” as much as “Oh, hell, I’m falling in love with you?”

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  7. I’ve come to enjoy the Slow Burn romance even more than the First Glance, but Slow Burn pretty much has to be a subplot with a busier main plot. And of course it can also BE a Not You or a Second Chance — last one I read was a combination of all three.

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  8. My fave is the second chance at love. Too frequently the “oh hell, not YOU” trope is presented as “I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-want-you-I-love-you” and I struggle to make the believability leap from “I hate you” to “I love you”.

    In too many romances I-hate-you is still going on when they get (awfully quickly) to I-want-you and everyone jumps in bed. Which is just icky and doesn’t bode well for the longevity of the relationship (as noted in your “friends to lovers” section).

    You’ve Got Mail did “oh hell, not YOU” really well. Actually, the more I type the more I see my favorite stories have elements of multiple tropes woven in.

    Apologies for the ramble.

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  9. I’ve never actually thought about this. All mine seem to be a combination of soul mates/oh, hell, not you, emphasis on hell. Which I find pretty entertaining, so that’s probably why.

    Thanks for sharing this!

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  10. Wow–I such a sucker, I love them all, but confession? Secret babies–really! I loved writing that one in Once More From the Top because it led naturally to…reunited lovers–my next favorite. Best if they’ve been apart a long time, so that they can see the changes in one another, but one thing hasn’t changed–the spark between them. Thanks, Jenny! This was fun!

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    1. I once read in a romance “Hate and love are two very strong emotions and it is a thin line that separates them” therefore, it makes an easy step from hate to love. I always liked that.

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      1. The other part of that is that the opposite of “love” isn’t “hate,” it’s “indifference.” Hot vs. cold. The worst thing you can say to somebody you’re fighting with is, “I don’t care.”

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    2. I love stories about babies too. They guy comes along just as she goes into labor, or they meet after she finds out she’s pregnant and the father dumps her. And I’m not a kid person, but I do love these kinds of books too.

      I also like a book where the guy actually falls in love with the girl and spends the rest of the book trying to convince her she loves him too.

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  11. And of course–that should be “I’m such a sucker…” Yeesh. Can you tell I’ve been editing other people’s work all day…time for some wine!

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  12. I’m actually so SO tired of “second chance at love”/”reunited lovers” because it’s all over the place right now, and IMO it’s rarely done well. It seems to be the lazy writer’s way of creating a romance – they don’t have to figure out why two characters would fall for each other because the characters are *already* in love. And nine times out of ten the initial conflict that separated the couple is either stupid (they never should have split up), or insurmountable (they should never get back together) and the resolution to the conflict is almost always flimsy, reinforcing the stupidity or insurmountability.

    /end rant. Sorry, like I said, I’m *really* tired of that trope. It’s gotten to the point where if the plot description makes any mention of the hero and heroine having any kind of past with each other I won’t even try the book out, which makes finding a contemporary romance worth reading a little difficult these days.

    Bleh, enough with the negativity already! Friends-to-lovers is my all time favorite romance trope, but soulmates is definitely my favorite guilty pleasure trope.

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    1. With regard to Second Chance…sometimes it can work, but it’s my belief that there is a reason they split up in the first place. Whether good, bad, stupid or silly, why go back to that? Although I loved Mamma Mia.

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      1. I think there’s a good story in the sadder but wiser couple who meet again and are smart enough to know what they lost.
        If they’re just repeating the same damn thing, then I want to slap them both.

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        1. I loved the second chance in Maybe This Time. That moment when North finally gets what went wrong with Andie the first time was intensely satisfying.

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          1. Thank you. I liked it that they were so much smarter because they were so much older and they knew what they’d lost.

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  13. Maybe that’s part of why I can’t write romance. I’ve always read them for the “sassy heroine” (although I’d probably have used a slightly different word than “sassy” which always seems a bit condescending to me), and that’s what I concentrated on in the writing, but apparently that’s not what the majority of readers were looking for.

    The “sassy heroine” is definitely why I enjoy reading/writing mysteries. Although my heroines are more along the lines of “cranky” and “take-charge” with a bit of dry humor thrown in.

    I wonder what we’d get if we did a similar poll for cozy mysteries.

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  14. Booo, it ate my comment.

    Basically, I think the format matters for how well I like a trope. The fate/ romance one is my favorite, but only in self-contained stories. It just doesn’t work in series stuff like t.v. When it’s self contained, like a stand alone novel or a single movie like Sleepless in Seattle, or even a short film like Disney’s Paperman, Fate is enchanting. But when you draw it out too long, it starts getting either unbelievable, or creepy.

    For t.v., I think Friends to Lovers works really well, because it’s a trope that lends itself to taking it’s time in the background. One of the reasons I love the t.v. version of Miss Fisher’s murder mysteries is because they sort of do the “Oh Hell Not You” thing twice. First, when Phryne and Jack drive each other up the wall as reluctant partners, and end up forming a genuine friendship. Then, once they’ve settled into the friendship, they throw in the “Oh Hell Not You” again, only this time it’s a romance they’re resisting, so you get some nice friends to lovers worked in.

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    1. Love the Miss Fisher adaptation and the Jack/Phryne arcs. Great example!

      Although the ending of season 3 seemed very sudden and contrived.

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      1. Season Three is out?
        I think they’re dragging the Jack/Phryne thing out in the first two seasons. When he was married, it made sense, but the divorce is a done deal, and Phryne’s sleeping with everybody else. One kiss in two seasons is pushing it if you really want to make me believe they’re soulmates. I get bored with the yearning.

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        1. Season 3 is out only on Netflix in the US. It’s not even on Acorn which surprises me. I struggled with her promiscuity they same way I struggle with a guy who has someone new in bed every episode.

          Much less yearning and more smoldering in season 3

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      2. I think with season 3 they did make some effort to set that ending up, and progress beyond the above mentioned yearning. Although they were still incredibly slow about it. I kind of buy Jack hesitating because Phryne isn’t much for commitment, but three years? It’s time.

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  15. My favourite is when the couple comes together and builds a small community of found family. I love when lonely people build strong supportive groups, which is probably why I love your books so much Jenny. 🙂

    Or one why at least…

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    1. It’s that move from isolation to community, I think. The idea that isolation is a bad idea for humans coupled with character arc and relationship arc is pretty powerful, plus I think the idea of a community to approve of and cement a relationship is pretty basic. It’s why we have weddings. I think all of Shakespeare’s comedies ended in weddings, didn’t they? The marriage strengthens the community through commitment and the community strengthens the marriage through approval.

      And thank you for the compliment, too.

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  16. I like the Arranged Marriage trope, which I don’t see on the list. I’d have a hard time buying into it for a contemporary, unless it’s as part of a Fated Mates trope (which I guess would make it paranormal). Done right, I think it’s kind of like Iron Chef for relationships: here are your ingredients; what can you make out of them? But it’s the sort of relationship I only like in fiction. When I imagine myself in a situation like that, I’d be nope-ing the hell on out of there.

    I also kind of like Oh Hell Not You, but I’m leery of it combined with Arranged Marriage.

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    1. I think the two are often combined, but it would really depend on how it’s handled. Arranged marriages were the norm for a long time because marriage was more of a business arrangement than a love match, and it meant both parties went into it not expecting an emotional relationship, which simpled things up enormously. There were still miserable marriages, but we have almost all love marriages now and a 50% (?) divorce rate, so I’m not sure what we’ve got is any better. Georgette Heyer used to do those well.

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    2. I like the arranged marriage/marriage of convenience trope in historicals from time to time. I agree it’s not very compatible with the contemporary setting. There’s this Susan Elizabeth Phillips book called What I Did For Love where two former child stars end up married to try and preserve their careers. I remember reading something where she said she wrote it because she wanted to see if she could make the marriage of convenience trope work in a contemporary novel. I think she pulled it off; it’s a fun book. Well, all of her books are fun.

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  17. I’m trying to sort out what I like. I guess I’ve always had a fondness for unrequited love that becomes requited through bravery and guts and just getting to know each other. I really, really like double-unrequited love (often something stupid like love-at-first-sight) that grows into a mutal respect and admiration and opening of souls.

    A subset of which is not the “Oh hell, not you,” but “Goddammit, not ANYBODY. I’m too damn busy.” And then the control freak (freaks?) learn the power of sharing the burden. (I’m a control freak from a long line of control freaks. I like to say I’m a recovering control freak, but I’m not sure if that’s true this week.)

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  18. “no matter how inept you are, Fate will deliver your love to you.”

    And that’s why that’s my #1, the one I wish would happen to me, and it won’t. (Seriously, I broke out a ouija-type board with a friend and got a “maybe.”)

    (1) friends to lovers

    Used to be a favorite because of When Harry Met Sally, but real life has put me off that one, because IRL has mostly boiled down to one person has a crush, the other doesn’t, friendship goes ugly and over.

    (2) soul mate/fate

    Covered it.

    (3) second chance at love

    Usually like this one, but it does depend on how it’s handled.

    (4) secret romance
    (5) first love
    (6) strong hero/heroine
    (7) reunited lovers

    Good with all of that.

    (8) love triangle

    Not super thrilled with this one for the following reasons:
    (a) How many people do you know that have had two hot guys after them at the same time and polyamory wasn’t involved? For me, no one.
    (b) Love triangles usually are a case of:
    1. Twilight–the “triangle” is a joke because clearly the game is rigged
    2. Stephanie Plum–this shit will just drag on forever.
    3. Lost–gee, two jerks, which of the jerks will Kate choose? Who cares?

    I can think of a few authors who finally quietly and nicely resolved triangles–Toni McGee Causey and Patricia Briggs–but most of the time triangles are just there to drag on forever. Which is not how real life works unless polyamory is involved. (I’m totally down for the threesome, but most books won’t do that.)

    (9) sexy billionaire/millionaire

    NOPE. Usually Mr. Moneybags is a hot jerkass. Fuck him.

    (10) sassy heroine

    Shouldn’t they all be this?

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    1. With you on the love triangles. I suspect an over-exposure to CW shows has made my tolerance for them especially low. In a stand-alone story (novel or movie), I don’t object to them on principle, but I HATE them in a series. It just seems like it never ends, and you start to lose respect for everyone involved. On the other hand, when it’s a clear case of “good person but not the right person” and they wrap it up quick, I’m fine with it. You already covered Patricia Briggs; she did it right. Kelley Armstrong handled it pretty well too, both in Bitten (if you can even count that, Phillip was hardly there at all) and in her YA trilogies.

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      1. The real problem with love triangles for me is that readers/viewers pick a side, and then if their side is the one that isn’t chosen, the story fails for them. I think the whole Laurel/Felicity Arrow internet war was because of a very badly handled love triangle (by the writers, the characters handled it pretty well), and the venom that mess created is a good example of why you pick a lane and establish that romance contract. You’re just asking for bitterly disappointed readers. I remember reading posts back when I was researching the show that wanted the actresses to be attacked and die, which is just completely unhinged. Story is really powerful; don’t screw with it to be cute.

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    2. First of all, I adore the voice in this comment, but I object to #8. Love triangles are fascinating to me. I remember watching Sting on a talk show, saying something like, “‘I love you and you love me’ is boring. But if I love you and you love someone else…” As a kid, I was riveted.

      Twilight: I mostly ignored Bella and Edward and read Jacob. YAY, WEREWOLVES. Love them. Although the ended seemed kind of…pedophilish, and how could vampires procreate?
      Laurell K. Hamilton: Flipped through one or two. Was annoyed that the vampire always seemed king and the werewolf was more like a second-class citizen. Moved on to her fey series, the beginning of which was excellent.
      Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse: enjoyed the series. Again, lots of fangbanging. I’d given up hope on Sam. No spoilers.
      Okay, there’s a theme here.
      In my Hope Sze books, I have one major love triangle. And both guys are serious contenders. As she says in her latest, “It’s one thing to have one guy who loves you, truly loves you, more than he cares himself. There are guys who will fuck you, guys who will flirt with you, and any guy is willing to copy trigonometry homework. But to find two soul mates at the same time? The best of times, the worst of times.”

      I think that’s legit. I mean, if you happen to fall for the #1 love of your life who simultaneously falls right back, good on you. But most of the time, love and life ain’t that smooth.

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      1. You touched on the big problem with love triangles: readers pick favorites. And then if their fave isn’t the one chosen they’re disappointed and for them the story is lousy. It’s the contract with the reader thing.

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    1. EXTREMELY curious what search terms netted you this book! Change pronouns and that summary could be the teaser to any number of mainstream romances. Love is love and romance is romance. Tropes clearly cross the traditional/alternate divide 🙂

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  19. I have an almost-obsessive love of the Cinderella story, but it is being replaced by my new modern fav, the Candy. She is (in the Korean dramas that I watch), the plucky heroine who works six jobs to make her way in the world. She is completely positive in the face of adversity and she never gives up. Her rich prince’s wealth is often an obstacle to love, and to paraphrase Girl Friday and Javabeans, the writers of the Kdrama blog Dramabeans and the authors of Why Do Dramas Do That?, the Candy (unlike Cinderella) has success that feels earned.

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    1. That really is the problem with Cinderella: she sits on her ashes until the Prince shows up to rescue her. Sounds like the Candy is Cinderella with agency.

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      1. Er. I’ve heard this interpretation before, but I’ve never agreed with it. Cinderella’s not doing nothing; she’s being a dutiful daughter and obeying her stepmother. She was taught to honor her parents, and that’s what she’s doing. Her stepmother has a reciprocal duty to take care of her and fails to fulfill it. The prince doesn’t rescue Cinderella; her (fairy) godmother does. The prince is Cinderella’s reward, which is why he doesn’t need to have an actual personality for the story to work.

        Cinderella is not a story that works well for our time, since most people no longer think of children as their parents’ property (I hope). I can see why Candy stories would be more appealing nowadays.

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        1. Nope.
          If her goal is to be a dutiful daughter, then she has agency and a really boring story.
          If her goal is to go to the ball, she has no agency because she needs rescued by her fairy godmother.

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          1. I guess I see it as she has agency and what most people think of as a boring story, but it’s a story I kind of like myself.

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          2. That last bit is key; if the story is one that that you like, one that you can move into the white spaces, you’ll forgive a lot in terms of craft.

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    1. My Yes is in response to Jenny’s comment about Candy is Cinderella with agency. Thanks!

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  20. My favourite ones are friends to lovers and second chance at love. I guess it’s because they are romance stories that tell you that a lasting love takes its time. That’s why soul mate – something paranormals love- is not my thing.
    About your trope -‘oh hell not you’-, isn’t it something like ‘I hate you but I cannot stop thinking about you, damn it!’ ? It’s a sentence I think Sarah Wendell uses sometimes and in a way, it helps understanding an improbable attraction, one they don’t want to feel. I think Cal -in Bet Me, for instance, has moments of not wanting Min but being unable to think about her.

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  21. Very interesting. Thanks for posting the survey.

    Coming late to the chat, but I think the Frasier show mixed a few of these with the Niles & Daphne storyline and did it well. I’m thinking they at least had the Friends to Lovers, the Secret Love, and the Soul Mates covered with a few Love Triangle bits thrown in. But what I admired most was how when the finally got them together they had high stakes with difficult choices (breakups of two relationships–one at the alter) but big payoff for audience and community. Plus, then when they were free to be together, they gave Daphne the weight issue and used it as an expression of all the fears about their new relationship and what she and it had to live up to given the buildup. And while, yes, that was added to work in actress Jane’s real life pregnancy, it was very cleverly used by the writers, who also took the time to show the awkwardness of friends transitioning to more within their community and then followed through by giving them more seasons together to establish themselves as a couple. Just fab.

    I also loved how the Second Chance trope was used in As Time Goes By. Will always love Jean and Lionel and believe that I’d find them living in that house near the park if I were ever to visit London;)

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  22. It’s fascinating to see how my preferences tend to diverge between original fiction and fanfiction.

    Soulmates is pure delicious cake in fanfiction. (have you heard of the “soulmate-identifying ____” tropes?)
    Soulmates is grating for original fiction.

    Similarly, friends to lovers is the best for longform fiction. In fanfiction? Better at least acknowledge the attraction early on.

    Second Chances is good for novel-length, longer than films but shorter than TV. Not so fond of it in fanfic, because it usually means a (non-canon) contrived reason for them to have broken up the first time, that feels unsatisfactory and untrue to the characters.
    Reunited lovers is really great in any medium, though. Wasn’t it the foundation for most of the classic romcoms? The entire “comedy of remarriage” genre.

    One trope I don’t see listed here that is pretty popular on tumblr is “fake dating.” Great device for delaying the actual get-together while still including lots of fanservice.

    Enemies to Lovers also seems like it would be popular. You could either take it in the Star-Crossed Lovers direction, a Foe Yay variant, or as others have noted is trickier to handle, the Slap Slap Kiss dynamic.

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    1. I immediately thought of the “soulmate-identifying _____” trope as soon as soulmates were mentioned. 😀 I eat those like candy… Perhaps ironically, the reason I like them so much is most of the fics that use this trope take this concept of a world where everyone has a way to KNOW that they’ve met their perfect match and surely that will make love so much /easier/, and then they explore through their couples all the ways this perfect system can go WRONG. What does knowing the first thing your soulmate will ever say to you mean if you’re deaf, or seeing the world in color the first time you meet your soulmate mean to a blind person? What if you’re so opposed to or afraid of finding a soulmate that you refuse to even show or look at your soulmate mark? Most of these follow the process of “mutual pining and angst over not being soulmates” to “I don’t care if fate says you’re not my soulmate, you’re the one I love!” with a resolution of “Oh my gosh we’re soulmates after all, just not marked the way society has conditioned us to expect/why didn’t you tell me it was a nickname!” I’m always a sucker for a good trope-subverting, but mainly I just love how their message tends to be “No, seriously, love is complicated, there are no shortcuts, but it’s still worth it.” ^,^

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  23. None of these are my favorite! Both my favorites show up in your books – “You love the REAL me” and “rescue me from my awful parents” (the newest book I’ve read that did both of these at once, and really really well was Trade Me, by Courtney Milan. But Bet Me manages to do both these things in one scene for each partner.) Either of these makes me like a book better but both at once is the best.

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