My school is doing a romance writing competition in which there are no cliches allowed - but that is the only way I know to write romance. I mean, I haven't read a single book that hasn't had a bit of cliche. How are you supposed to make a romance novel without it having cliche parts?
A good way to avoid cliche in romance is to choose unusual characters as participants in the romance.
- The love poetry shared between a pair of nuclear physicists could be very romantic without being at all cliche.
- Escaped prisoners on the run from the Law might fall in love during a high tension cat-and-mouse pursuit, leading to frenzied encounters peppered with the risk of capture and betrayal.
- There is no rule that says that romance needs to involve humans. Try writing a canine or feline (or god-forbid, a mixed canine feline) relationship.
Breaking from traditional two person pairings and three person love-triangles can also be useful for avoiding cliche. A happy quintet would be ripe with odd geometries and opportunities for entertaining miscommunication.
Simply stated, if you don't want it to be cliche, make it strange.
Given that you haven't given us a lot of the givens...
Not every romance is cliché. There are formulas, to be sure (c.f. Harlequin, Nicholas Sparks, Lifetime), but just because the tropes are heavily used doesn't mean you have to use them, or that they have to feel worn.
So: Pick up the nearest romance book and start making a list of the clichés. I don't have one to hand, so I'm just going to start riffing off the top of my head. These won't all necessarily be in the same story:
- Man and woman
- Meet cute
- Love at first sight
- Hate at first sight
- Mistaken identity
- Pretend relationship for the benefit of a third party
- Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back
- Physical Mary Sue characteristics (heart-shaped face, vividly colored eyes, perfect physique [particularly without any effort like constant dieting or exercise], flowing/tousled hair)
- Person A is normally eloquent and intelligent but gets stupidly tongue-tied in the presence of Love Interest Person B
- Sassy Black/Gay Best Friend
You get the idea. So write down everything you can see in this romance in your hand.
Then make an effort to write something which avoids as many of those as possible. Make it a same-sex slow burn. Have no jealous exes or disapproving parents. Create normal, rounded friends. Describe ordinary-looking people. And so on. Brokeback Mountain is a heartbreakingly beautiful romance which I wouldn't describe as clichéd, even if it has "love at first sight" and "disapproving society" because it's fresh and uniquely done.
If you're worried about clichés, don't write them.
That's a bit of a tough assignment, because there is no precise definition of a cliche. But you may find the advice of George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language" useful. It's not about writing romance, obviously, but it is about avoiding cliche. Lazy writers, Orwell contends, write by stringing together familiar phrases that are rattling around in their heads. Often the result is opaque and frequently it is illogical as well. A good writer thinks through what they say, gets a clear picture in their mind, and then writes down what they see in their head in plain language. Thus they are describing things fully seen, not regurgitating word soup.
In my experience, the key to writing romance that won't be full of cliché is to make the protagonists complex, rounded characters who have a life. Give them backgrounds, duties, families, fears, hobbies, habits, friends (some mutual, some not), living conditions, dreams, goals, skills, past traumas and personality quirks. Those things don't have to all be in the focus of the story but will provide a terrain that, importantly, won't conveniently reshape itself to make way for the plot, but in which a path needs to be found. Such heroes just won't fit into the simplicity of a cliché. Not if you can keep them in character.
That's it. That's the trick. Easy to describe, less easy to actually pull off.
An example of one cliche bust romance I always like is Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, which sets up three different characters who are a romantically interested in Esmerelda: Frollo, Phoebus, and Quasimodo. In breaking with tradition of Disney in romance, the film ends with Frollo, the villain, bested by Quasimodo but Quasimodo realizing that Phoebus and Esmerelda are in love and giving both his blessing (implying he isn't going to try fight for Esmerelda's affection any more.). This is a subversion of numerous cliches present in romance.
For starters, the hero gets the girl: Not only does the male protagonist not win the affection of the female protagonist, Quasimodo realizes that while Esmerelda treats him with respect and decency, that doesn't imply romantic love... but he's the one to break the love triangle between him and Pheobus peacefully, which is rare for love triangles to resolve this way at all... but the protagonist being the graceful loser is all but unheard of.
Additionally, while it's clear that Frollo's desire from Esmerelda is lust and she strongly objects to his advances, Quasimodo's desire for her is, while wholly innocent given his sheltered nature, is shown to be very close to Frollo's motivations for their affection. Both ascribe there attraction to her as a result of supernatural qualities she does not poses (The often praised villain song "Hellfire" which shows audiences the full depravity of Frollo immedieately preceeds "Heaven's Life" where Quasimodo likens Esmerelda's concern for his well being to romantic interest and likens his feelings to what it must be like to feel "Heaven's Light", because his abusive upbringing has lead him to believe that Frollo is the high water mark of basic human decency. While the film predates the widespread use of the term, Quasimodo displays all the classic signs of the "Nice Guy" cliche... best described as some guys thinking that being "Nice" to women deserving a woman to show romantic interest.
Even if it was intended to be similar to it, unlike many explorations of this character cliche, Quasimodo is never once demonized for having this attitude and when presented the opportunity to eliminate the competition from Pheobus, refuses to take such actions. A more modern use of the Nice Guy always presents the behavior as wrong and something the "Nice Guy" should know is wrong, but here, it's clear through his background that he has a warped sense about the basics of human kindness, but it's symbolically done by the nature of the two songs (In the original release of the sound track, the two songs were listed as one under the title "Heavens Light/Hellfire" meaning that they were written to stand side by side. Notably they were separated by the Latin singing of Confiteor which begins on the conclusion of Quasimodo's song, and continues in Counterpoint to Frollo. The Confiteor is traditionally said publicly to the church at large prior to a priest hearing one's specific sins and is meant to be a general admission to sin to the public as a whole (The priest hears the specifics). In the Catholic Faith, an action can only be sinful if one is aware it is sinful. It's absense during Quasimodo's half of the song symbolizes that... while wrong, he's still innocent because there is no way for him to know it's wrong... but Frollo is clearly choosing to sin.).
The one cliche that the movie holds is to the idea that "The First Man Wins" that holds that the male character that meets the female character first will win her love in the end of the story. This isn't avoided, as Phoebus is the first of the three men to encounter Esmerelda, seeing her give a street dance while trying to find his way to the Palace of Justice. Upon witinessing guards harass her, he intervenes to stop her, at first appealing to their own decency (seems like a typical guy thing done to impress the girl) before revealing he's the new Captain of the Guard. After the fight scene is over, he recovers some money spilt in the confusion, spies an old beggar, and drops the money into the beggar's cup, and leaves without word... only for the audience to learn that the beggar is Esmerelda in disguise. It's clear from her reaction that she's unsure about Phoebus's interaction and what motivates them. If he gave the beggar the coins, not knowing it was Esmerelda, than it shows that he isn't doing this for his own benefit. If he knew it was her... then not only was he returning to her what was hers to begin with, but symbolically, he recognizes her for what she really is. Whether she trusts him or believes it's an act, he's still doing what is right. It's later demonstrated that his concern for Esmerelda is only motivated because he rejects the policies that persecuted her people and while they may be people beneath his station, they are still people and deserve the treatment of such.
The ultimate cliche of a romance is that the hero gets the girl (or that the girl gets the guy) because real life doesn't work like that. Some examples are that a guy and girl are attracted to each other but can't explore the relationship because one of them is currently dating someone else. When the person finally leaves the relationship and attempts to strike one up with the other... they learn that that person has moved on and is dating someone else. And the back and forth continues. Eventually, the meet later in life and both acknowledge their feelings for the other... but ultimately they decide that those feelings are strong enough that they would never ask them to become the kind of people to leave a relationship they developed on a whim and that the question "Were we meant to be" is to be left at the resolve.
Another popular story is that of the "The Lady or the Tiger". The story is of a man who falls in love with a princess who returns his love. However, he is not of noble blood and her father, the king, finds out. For his crime, the king sentences the man to die by being mauled in an area by the Tiger. The night before the execution the princess pleads with her father for hours to let the man live and tells the king of her love for the man. The next morning, the man is walked to area and told to go through the door when the trumpet sounds. He waits alone as the din of the crowd grows and the cheering as a speech is made bellows. Finally the trumpet sounds. The story always ends at this moment, with the narrator asking the audience which of the titular duo did the man meet when he opened the door.
Here the twist is that the conclusion of the story is that the conclusion is based wholly on the nature of the reader. That the crux of the story hinges on the fact that the build up is more important than the outcome... the answer will change the story and the emotional weight, but is never given and left to the reader to surmise the true meaning of the story and ascribe that meaning they choose to assign. Is it a happy story? Or is it a sad one? It says more about you than it does about the storyteller.
My suggestion would be, write the romance first, pick out as many phrases from it as you can, and search them up. If you receive many results, especially from excerpts or in a list of clichés, then it probably is a cliché.
The definition of cliché can be loose. One person may think it a cliché, while another doesn't. Most metaphors and similes are considered clichés, so you may want to avoid them, unless you came up with them yourself and cannot find a search result for them.
A plot form can also be a cliché. If you can't find an original plot idea, you are perfectly allowed to take a clichéd one, then twist it. Reinventing can be just as fun as inventing.