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A few examples of romance clichés:

  • A is in love with B, but doesn't dare to tell him/her.
  • After some chasing, A finally has sex with B (and the sex is fantastic).
  • Love triangle: A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A.
  • The novel ends with A getting married with (nothing worse).

How to write romance and at the same time avoid these cliches? Should one think of new formulas? Or slightly modify the existing ones?

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    I don't understand. There are two genders and three relationships. Unless one of them is "same sex." A ( a man) loves B( a woman). B loves C (another woman). Then C loves A. Or B loves C (a man), then a man loves A. – Tom Au Apr 18 '15 at 0:28
  • @TomAu Yes, I believe in free love. (And same-sex relationships are becoming cliche, too) – Alexandro Chen Apr 18 '15 at 1:44
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Romance follows the same basic plot structure as any other genre:

  1. We meet the protagonist.
  2. An "inciting incident" disrupts the protagonist's life (in romance: (s)he encounters "the right one").
  3. The protagonist now has a goal (a relationship with the right one).
  4. Obstacles keep the protanogist from his/her goal (for example, the right one loves another person; or the protagnost has first to become attractive [economicall, phyiscally, socially, or in another way]; the right one is actually the wrong one, and the protagonist has to understand that the wrong one is actually the right one; and so on).
  5. The protagnost (or the right one) finally overcome the obstacles and they kiss or have sex or marry or whatever serves as the summit of fulfillment in the subgenre (Young Adult, erotic romance, ...).
  6. They live happily ever after.

Romance deviates from other genres in that its readers usually expect a happy end, but dislike "insta-love". That is, the protagonist and the right one cannot just meet, fall in love, and be a couple, they must overcome obstacles first. Love is the goal.

The common clichés follow both from the genre-unspecific basic plot structure, romance reader expectations, and from how love works in the real world. Of course, in the real world, there are relationships that do not happen: protagonists that do not overcome the obstacles and do not find fulfillment with the "right one". But those stories are not the subject of romance, but of other genres of literature.

As in other genres, you can avoid common stereotypes by following the conventional structure but adding uncommon twists. A hundred years ago it was an uncommon twist if a female protagonist did not marry the wonderful man, but elope with his sister. (If the protagonist is male and the female right one elopes with his sister, so that he essentially fails his goal, it is not romance but socio-critical literature or whatever.)

But even if you give your readers a common story, you can narrate that story in a way that makes reading the same old story interesting (e.g. humor or an uncommon perspective, such as a love story told from the protagonist's dog). Sometimes a twist is created by crossing over into other genres (e.g. the right one is a vampire; this was new in YA before Twilight). Or, and this is my preferred method, you can intensify the realism. Romance is boring, if it is the same story again and again. But if it is different people, experiencing the same things in a unique and individual way, then reading about the same basic things becomes interesting again.

So, as in any other genre, to write a good romance, you must not emulate the books that you love (that is, not write the 267th Lord of the Rings clone), but bring yourself into your book.

Great writing is soul searching. It implies honesty towards yourself. You don't have to write autobiographica, but put yourself in the protagonist's place and imagine how you would feel. Or, if you are one of the rare writers you can understand other people, become that person and feel how love feels for him or her. Do not just use the words you know have to go with the story, but truly feel the fear, the excitement, the sadness, the joy that you felt or saw in others. Observe closely what happens in and with and around you when you experience what your protagonist experiences.

And then you will find the small, seemingly insignificant aspects of love stories, that most writers overlook, but that give a story flavour and richness.

When you write what everyone has read a hundred times before, write that story from your heart and soul, with your voice, as you see it. And do not be afraid that your story will be a cliché. Because love, of course, is always a cliché, and at the same time, if you allow yourself to open your heart to it, it is at the same time the most wonderful and the most frightening thing on this world. Write from the middle of this contradiction – and then allow your characters the happy end most of us have not found in their own lives, or only fleetingly, only to lose it again.

In the end, dare to write the cliché.

  • Technically, one can have a romance without an encounter as the inciting incident. The reader can be shown how the two are made for each other and long for that kind of relationship but they do not meet until fairly late in the story or meet (possibly multiple times) in a way that does not establish romantic desire. Avoiding comedic or tragic elements in "always just missing each other" may be difficult and sustaining the romantic mood in the two characters may be challenging (and part of the obstacles, settling for "good enough" or giving up would be paths to failure). – Paul A. Clayton Apr 12 '15 at 23:14
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    @PaulA.Clayton I just wanted to show to briefly remind us all of the basic plot structure and illustrate it with romance examples. Of course that is a simplified depiction that is almost wrong in its brevity, and my selection of examples does not imply that otherr possibilities do not exist. For example, there is romance where the protagonist loses the right one, but if that happens it happens not because the protagonist does not succeed but because a higher power intervenes. Think of the woman's death at the end of the movie "Love Story". I just did not want to complicate my argument. – user5645 Apr 13 '15 at 3:42
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The thing about romance is that it is aspirational, just like most fiction. To make a good romance, the reader needs to want to have the relationship in the book. They want to believe that the person falling in love could easily be them, and they will find the love of their life through similar means.

The way most romance writers do this is exactly the same:

  1. boy meets girl/girl meets boy
  2. boy and girl grow close
  3. obstacle keeps boy and girl apart
  4. boy and girl eventually overcome obstacle and are finally together

You've essentially written that format yourself in the guise of different clichés, but in fact they are all one (if you count number 3 as a love triangle).

The reason most romances are similar is that there is a definite idea of the 'perfect relationship' that our society has. Even an obstacle is a key part, it makes the other person in the relationship feel that the person is willing to tackle the obstacle for them. It also makes the relationship more interesting (if you have romance without drama, it's quite boring, in fiction or real life).

Of course, most writers have a slight variation on this, like girl meets vampire, or add a step 5 where boy/girl dies, or even points 1 and 2 are swapped around.

The problem with writing romance fiction is that you need to write a relationship that people want, and if most people want to experience the cycle, you have to give the readers what they want.

Unfortunately I don't think there is a way to break out of the cycle. Otherwise, for example, if you try to expand on number 3 over other numbers, then that's when it becomes a relationship in an adventure novel, for example. Or if you skip number 4, that becomes a tragic novel.

The best way to change the cycle is to change points, rather than the structure. Some of the best and most engaging romance films I've ever seen (I don't really read romance fiction that often) are ones that are 'boy meets boy' or even 'boy meets computer', and immediately the script is flipped. Even conforming to the most conventional romance plot from thereon out, the story is still entirely unconventional.

These wouldn't be particularly accepted in the past, but now that we live in a more accepting society the points are more malleable. Years ago, a story with 'boy meets boy' would have been burned. It likely still would in many countries. But now it inspires some of the most popular fiction, because it is different than other stories that have already been done.

So I would try playing around with the clichés, rather than avoiding them altogether. Clichés are clichés for a reason, after all. They wouldn't become overused if they weren't popular.

And if you think about the amount of people in the world that are in love, there is going to be a lot more individual stories than are written into books or put onto film. They will probably fit the script too, but have their own unique twist.

  • Side note: I don't think "boy meets boy" "inspires some of the most popular fiction". It is now an established sub-genre. Few heterosexuals are interested in reading about homosexual romances. Most find them somewhere between grossly immoral and unpleasant. Even those who find them totally unobjectionable don't relate to them. – Jay Apr 14 '15 at 14:19
  • @Jay that's where I disagree with you. Whilst a few years ago that would be true, in modern society it is less taboo, and many heterosexual people can relate to homosexual relationships because when you put aside the prejudice, it happens the exact same way. Otherwise, there might be around 5 people in the world who would relate to fiction where a human is in love with a robot or machine, and yet many pieces of fiction focus on this and are immensely popular. – Mike.C.Ford Apr 14 '15 at 14:24
  • I'll have to look for some actual statistics. RE in love with a robot: I didn't say that people can't relate to a romance where those involved are not exactly like them. The question is how the reader views it. I've never said, "I can't relate because the hero is short and I'm tall" or "because the heroine is black and I've never had a black girlfriend". But there is very little fiction about romances between people and animals, because most people find that idea distasteful. People and robots is, I think, mixed. Some find the idea distasteful, some find it appealing -- like, yeah, a ... – Jay Apr 14 '15 at 14:41
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    ... robot that looks like the most beautiful women I've ever seen but because she's a robot, she's do exactly what I want! I bet lots of men find that an appealing fantasy. A romance with a robot that looks like a person of the opposite sex can appeal to many. A romance with a robot that looks like a metal box ... I doubt it would have much appeal. To some, sure. But not to many. Note that stories of romance with aliens just about always involve aliens that look just like people except for the pointy ears or blue skin or whatever, not tentacled monsters. – Jay Apr 14 '15 at 14:44
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Romances are far more clichéd then you say. As Mike Ford points out, almost all romances can be sketched as: 1. Boy meets girl. 2. They fall in love. 3. Something keeps them apart. 4. They overcome and are together forever.

I don't read romance novels, but I see them on TV now and then. I've noticed that these days the obstacle that keeps them apart is almost always an argument over something that turns out to be a misunderstanding. I've often thought, wouldn't it be more interesting if they had a real argument and then came to some compromise. Or one of them does something truly wrong that harms the relationship but that apologizes and the other forgives. But I guess the nature of the romance genre is that both people must be completely likable. If they had a real argument, then the reader is likely to side with one or the other, and whatever resolution the author comes up with, the reader may think that one character is accepting something that he or she should not accept, they'd be better not to commit to this other person, etc.

Oh, the other obstacle you see is that one of the people meets someone else who seems more desirable in some way, but whom the audience knows is not a good person for some reason, and so the audience is cheering for the hero or heroine to match up with the good person rather than the bad person, and of course by the end of the story the hero/heroine realizes that they really should be with the good person. I read something by a movie producer once in which he said that he set out to make a romance where both the men vying for the woman's affections were good, decent guys so that she faced a real choice, rather than the good guy / bad guy stereotype. That's probably as far from clichés as most romance movies manage to get these days.

That said, what makes a good romance story is not a brilliant new plot idea, but doing it with style. There are some genres that are all about plot, about presenting the characters with some problem and then the author presenting an interesting solution to that problem. A lot of science fiction falls in that category. Romance stories are not about a clever plot. They are about creating interesting characters and making those characters appealing. Anyone who reads a romance thinking, "I wonder if these two will end up together" ... well, such a person must find the world a place full of wonder and mystery. OF COURSE the hero and heroine will end up together. The question is how they get there.

I read once -- I don't know if this is true, but I don't doubt it for a moment -- that publishers of romance novels demand that their writers follow this formula. If anyone submits a story that goes in a different direction -- the heroine's boyfriend turns out to be a thoughtless jerk and the story ends with her dumping him and becoming a nun or something -- are automatically rejected.

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When writing a novel of any manner (but particularly a romance) there is a danger of falling into a cliche. In fact I can boil every romance i've ever read into 1 of 2 stories:

Main Character (mc) meets Romantic Interest (ri). There is some plot reason or another that keeps them apart. Together (or separately) they over said reason and execute the author's final plan for them. (A mild plot variation is if they can't overcome plot reason and sadness ensues.)

Mc meets multiple romantic interests, he or she must choose which one they want.

If you are going for a love focused plot, even if it falls into a cliche, make your niche of the genre unique. If you have something that makes it different from the hoardes of other romance novels out there (for example mc is a necromancer or something wierd like that) even if the overarching story is cliche, your book will have many unique moments, lines, and characters.

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