For a wide variety of reasons, I haven’t finished a book in the past few days – I’m too stinking popular. But rather than deprive my blog-reading public, I’m bringing forward something I’ve had on the back burner for a few months.

As is pretty obvious, romance novels are extremely formulaic, to the point where I’ve ironed out most of the common plots; some appear more often than others, and some only appear in historical novels. Very, very few writers can shake off these plotlines – not even the Great Nora Roberts. I’m going to attempt to put together all of these common threads; it will seem like a long list, but what generally happens is that a few of them will be chosen, woven together, and presented as ‘new.’

Without further ado, a Crazy List!

  1. The Underdog: this is the male character that appeared in the last romance I reviewed. A rags-to-riches business magnate (often with back scars) marries up.
    2. Anonymous: a woman with a publication on social commentary, who writes under a pen name. She is discovered! Gasp! Usually the newspaper/magazine is sold rather than passed out for free, so that the woman can have an independent source of money or because her family is impoverished (because a male relative likes to gamble or to put money into questionable business ventures).
    3. The Ramshackle: the duo rehabs a house or an inn.
    4. The Heist, The Fugitive, and The Smuggler: these all generally involve kidnapping. Prominent in The Smuggler is a keepsake stolen by one half of the [future] couple, which is later redeemed by the wronged party. If it’s an item stolen from a man, it will be a pocketwatch with some sort of inscription; if it’s stolen from a woman, it’ll be a piece of outdated jewelry of moderate value. All of these plotlines involve sneaking around, running from danger, and shots fired – and about half of the time, crossdressing plays an integral role; the other half, they pretend to be married (shared bedrooms!).
    5. The Guardian: a man in a position of authority feels bad about abusing that authority by falling in love with his charge.
    6. The Harry-Met-Sally: they hate each other with an intense but irrational passion, which painfully transitions into love.
    7. The Pooch: a dog of unusual intelligence (and an appetite for specific junk foods) brings two people together.
    8. Twinning: she falls for one, and then falls for the other. Often this transpires because she agrees to marry one twin and then he writes the name of his brother on the marriage license. So who is she married to? Drama ensues, after which she goes for the responsible one.
    9. The Estrangement: a crowd favorite. They’re young lovers, forced to be apart for at least five years, and then they come together again as new – dashing, fashionable – people. Usually the woman – who’s stayed at home and weathered the extreme social pressure – is trying to declare the errant husband dead, so that she can move on with her life. Turns out, he won’t let her. Emotional blackmail and eventual surrender are the inevitable results.
    10. The Deserted Island: two people are stuck together on an island, in a carriage wreck in a snowstorm, in a remote castle in a snowstorm, or in other situations involving the weather and/or an accident involving transportation. They survive the tempest! And now all their clothes are wet… (These stories progress pretty quickly.)

We’re zipping right along! There’s much more.

  1. Wounded Warrior: she helps him regain his dignity and a measure of independence. Lots of vague descriptions about how the trauma was induced; as it turns out, scars are sexy.
    12. She Reforms Him: exactly what it sounds like. Usually the man is a reclusive alcoholic, and the process of transformation is stunningly quick: the alcoholics emerge back into public live and never even think about booze again.
    13. The Crippled Agoraphobic Scientist: she blows into his life, opens the curtains, shows interest in what he does (either because she understands what he’s talking about or because she’s just THAT supportive), and translates sciencespeak for average people. He brushes his hair, smiles in public, and does it like they do on the Discovery Channel.
    14. The Right Honorable: he marries her because of some scandal. He might have been the male half of the scandal; he may not have been. Tense marital relations give way to a happy union.
    15. The Corporate Takeover: the male and female leads compete over who will have the estate (in historical books) or who will run the company (in contemporary ones). The woman was generally there from the beginning and feels that ‘I was here first’ is a suitable enough reason for maintaining her position.
    16. Love at First Sight: if a man falls in love first, he acts on it; if a woman falls first, it happens in puberty (with a grown man!!), and she doesn’t act on it – the main characters are later thrown together, and he finally catches up. If by some miracle she does act on her feelings, it’s a total unmitigated disaster and we fall into a version of The Estrangement.
    17. The String Puller: an older man arranges a marriage or gives an ultimatum that the male lead has to get married, at the threat of losing his inheritance. If it’s a historical plot, he’s evil and generally repents and/or dies by the end; if it’s contemporary, he’s a kindly if mischievous spry old guy. In either version, he gets his way.
    18. The Snappy Old Lady: the female equivalent of The String Puller doesn’t match people up or force the main characters to look for someone; she’s an enabler with an acerbic wit and a cane she uses to trip people up and to crush their toes. Generally, her hard exterior terrorizes most of the cast, but the main couple find her to be a big softie and couldn’t come together without her.
    19. The ‘Unexpected’ One: a conventionally beautiful person falls for someone in right field, who is either a bookish, fat, or ugly woman, or a dandified man.
    20. Friendzoned: if a woman is in the friendzone, it turns into a #19, but if it’s a man in the friendzone, he’s not the one she goes for, and generally turns out to be a serial killer or a shady dealer. He always ends the book waving a gun around and getting tackled by somebody.
    As a side note: for those unfamiliar with the friendzone, the Urban Dictionary describes it this way: “A state of being where a male inadvertently becomes a ‘platonic friend’ of an attractive female with whom he was trying to initiate a romantic relationship. Females have been rumored to arrive in the friendzone, but reports are unsubstantiated.”
    21. The Eyre and Reverse Eyre: if a woman is doing any kind of teaching, she’s generally not well paid or appreciated; however, the male counterpart sees her, is intrigued by her individuality and her relationship to his kids, and cannot live without her. The Reverse Eyre is less common, but sometimes occurs: he’s the logical, cerebral type, and she is a firecracker who makes him both intrigued and uncomfortable – meaning that it blends into The Agoraphobe Crippled Scientist nearly seamlessly.
    22. The Mystery: the qualified entities to deal with this particular [murder, plot, embezzlement] are either involved in the romantic entanglement or are completely incompetent.

And to finish, the Granddady of plotlines:

23. The Unprotected Sex: always leads to children. Always. And because it leads to children, marriage has to be involved. These books end with the fathers pacing and drinking heavily to the anguished sounds of childbirth.

I have probably missed a few of the main plots – let me know in comments if I did, as I’ll be sure to add them. I want this to be the definitive list!


18 thoughts on “Trope-ic

  1. AHHHHHhh Saraline…to Eyre is human.

    Love this LIST (laughed a LOT)
    and have lived most of them it seems.
    Which is why woman write novels about piecing a man together from assorted body bits (IT’s ALIVE!!!…IT’s AHHHH-LIVE!!!!!) …..and not watching sports.

    or do quilting…
    the taking of different and often clashing patterns and worn out bits and piecing them together. So you will have the man that does not make noises (from either end), the man with the long golden back, the man with naughty bits like a dray horse, the man with the great smile, understands your metaphors, is a great dancer, good shoulders, can fix things, intelligent and reads good books, good natured, a twinkle in his eyes, loyal, loves animals, a dashing protector,can bring something intriguing to the mix with his passion…mental and other….ohhh how I could go on.

    So every time you look at a quilt….


  2. […] that reaches its weak conclusion at the end of the book; there’s the main couple, who pull a When-Harry-Met-Sally, The Mystery, and a #23; and there’s not much else. The male hero makes an inadvertent pun on page 73, “’I haven’t […]


  3. […] I’ll blitz a bunch of the romance novels in one go; these are in ascending order by when they are supposed to have taken place. Some dates aren’t given, so I had to guesstimate. I’m also including the numbers of the tropes in the books, which you can find on my master list. […]


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