If you write romance novels, you probably heard the term trope. In this post, I’m going to take a closer look at what tropes are, how tropes in sapphic romance differ from tropes in M/F or M/M romance, and what the top 10 most popular tropes in sapphic romance are.
What are romance tropes?
A trope is a plot device, theme, or scenario that is common in its genre. Often, it’s the catalyst that kicks off the plot, a character (arche)type, or a setting.
All genres have tropes, not just romance. For example, in fantasy novels, “the quest” and “the chosen one” are popular tropes.
Most of the tropes we are talking about are bigger, overarching elements that shape the entire plot, e.g., enemies-to-lovers, but there are also smaller tropes that only occur in one scene, e.g., only one bed—in which the main characters have to share a bed.
Each story can have more than one trope. Some go so well together that you’ll find them combined in a novel quite often.
How do tropes differ from subgenres?
A subgenre is a category within a broader genre. For example, romance contains subgenres such as contemporary romance, paranormal romance, and historical romance.
Tropes are more specific themes or character dynamics within a subgenre.
Most tropes can be used in many different subgenres. For example, I’ve used the fake relationship trope in one of my historical romances and in several contemporary romances. But there are also some tropes that are specific to certain subgenres. For example, “fated mates” is a common trope in paranormal romances.
But aren’t tropes clichés?
Tropes aren’t the same as clichés at all. Clichés have been used so often that readers have grown tired of them.
Tropes don’t have that negative connotation. In fact, readers will often actively look for books that contain their favorite tropes.
Of course, it’s possible to use a trope in a way that feels clichéd. The trick is to take a universally loved trope and put your own unique spin on it.
Romance readers want “the same, but different.” They want the same type of story—and the same feelings it evokes—but they don’t want you to write the exact same story others have written before you. Readers are interested in your original take on a trope.
Tropes give you a framework within which you can operate. Give readers all the things they love about a trope, but also try to surprise them with fresh twists and interesting interpretations of the trope. To me, it’s mostly the characters and their unique personalities, backstories, and dynamic that makes it different every time. For example, I have written four fake relationship romances, yet each of them is very different from the others.
What’s the advantage of using tropes in sapphic romance (or any romance)?
Using tropes in your blurb and in marketing is a shorthand that helps you communicate to readers what kind of book you have written.
Most avid romance readers know exactly what type of story they like. They will often ask for book recommendations by mentioning the trope they are looking for, and they will pick the books they read by their tropes.
Many readers also have tropes they can’t get into, so they have learned to avoid them.
Mentioning your book’s tropes will guide your target audience—the people who are going to love your book—toward it and let them know that this is a book they’re likely to enjoy. That’s why you often see book promo graphics like this one:
Do tropes in sapphic romance differ from tropes in M/F romance or M/M romance?
Some tropes such as enemies-to-lovers, fake dating, or friends-to-lovers are universally beloved by readers of all pairings.
However, there are also some tropes that are common in M/M or M/F romances yet not as popular in sapphic romance. For obvious reasons, the “secret baby” trope—in which the male main character doesn’t know he and the female main character have a child together—doesn’t really work in sapphic fiction (although Jenny Frame put an interesting spin on the trope in her novel Unexpected).
Sports romances, especially hockey romances, are very popular in both M/F and M/M romance right now, but that popularity hasn’t carried over to sapphic romance. The “best friend’s sibling” trope, mafia romances, motorcycle club romances, bully romances, and dark romances also aren’t as common in sapphic romance, and neither are “why choose” romances, in which the protagonist has two or more love interests and doesn’t have to choose between them at the end of the book.
On the other hand, there are tropes that are more popular in sapphic romance than in M/F or M/M romance. I would say age gap is one of them.
Some tropes are even unique to sapphic romance. I’m thinking of the “ice queen” trope, most of all. In M/F romances, it’s usually the male main character who’s the cold, successful alpha hero. While there are cool, powerful women in M/F romance, they are not as common or as frosty, and they are often no longer ice queens by the end of the book. In a sapphic romance, the ice queen might melt a little when she falls in love and show her well-hidden vulnerable side to her love interest, but overall, she remains her ice queen-ish self.
What are the most popular tropes in sapphic romance?
I’ve taken a closer look at the Amazon top 100 and at data from reader polls and my Sapphic Book Bingo to find out what tropes are most popular with sapphic romance readers.
Here’s my list of the 10 most popular tropes in sapphic romance (in no particular order):
- Age gap romance: A romance with significant age difference between the two main characters. Usually, “significant” means ten years or more. A subtype of age gap romances are May/December romances, in which the age gap is even more considerable. The younger character is in the spring of her life—usually her twenties—and the older is in the winter of hers.
- Ice queen: The main character is a cold, aloof, prickly woman who is powerful and very successful in her chosen line of work, e.g., a CEO.
- Fake relationship: Also called “fauxmance.” The two main characters pretend to be in a relationship, but, of course, the feelings are soon no longer fake. A related trope is “marriage of convenience.”
- Enemies-to-lovers romance: The main characters hate each other at the beginning of the book. Strictly speaking, if it’s more of a dislike or being rivals, it’s not an enemies-to-lovers, but it’s still often classified that way, so there’s an entire spectrum.
- Opposites-attract: The main characters are the total opposite of each other when it comes to their personalities and/or backgrounds. A subtrope of opposites-attract is the grumpy/sunshine trope, which pairs a gruff loner with a bubbly, optimistic people person.
- Toaster oven: One of the main characters assumes herself to be straight at the beginning of the book but then falls in love with another woman and realizes she might not be as straight as she thought. Not every reader might be familiar with the term “toaster oven” since it’s a bit of an inside joke. It originated when Ellen DeGeneres’s character on the 1990s sitcom Ellen came out as gay and her love interest was rewarded with a toaster oven for “turning her gay.” The term “toaster oven” is used tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the stereotype that lesbians are supposedly trying to “recruit” other women. Another term for this trope is “bi awakening” or “gay awakening,” and it’s often related to a coming-out theme.
- Celebrity romance: At least one of the main characters is famous. They can fall either for another celebrity or for an “ordinary” person.
- Office/workplace romance: The two main characters are either co-workers, boss/employee, or rivals working for competing firms.
- Friends-to-lovers romance: A true friends-to-lovers romance starts with the main characters already being friends. If they meet at the beginning of the book and go from strangers to friends to lovers, I’d classify it more as a slow-burn romance.
- Medical romance: At least one of the main characters is a medical professional, e.g., doctor, nurse, EMT, and the medical setting is central to the plot. Usually, both of the main characters work in a medical profession, which makes it a subtrope of the workplace romance.
In future posts, I’ll go into more detail on each of the most popular tropes in sapphic romance and share writing tips for each one.
What do you think?
Do you consciously use tropes in your writing? What tropes seem to resonate with your readers? Share your thoughts in the comments!