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I have read a couple romance books at most and so don’t claim to have very much experience with romance and clichés.

But here are the ones I can think of:

  • Something happens to make them hate each other when they meet even though they are otherwise compatible and they end up getting together.

  • Third wheel

  • Love triangle

  • A is in love with B but B is either oblivious, too focused on something else, or doesn’t love them back.

  • They’re in love from the start.

  • Getting together is blocked by one of them already being in a relationship or by one or both of them being committed to something else.

  • A waiting too long to confess their affection and by that time B is in a relationship.

  • They don’t even see each other as a potential love interest until something happens to one of them and the other flips out and has a panic attack and/or mental breakdown.

  • One or both people hiding their emotions by pretending they don’t like the other.

I’m not sure if all of these are stereotypes. But if they are, then I’m almost wondering what’s left.

Is a combination of these enough to avoid a cliché? Can that still be accomplished when the romance is a subplot? Are any of these such common clichés/stereotypes that they shouldn’t even be combined with something else?

  • Romance is built upon tropes. Are you writing romance? There are special rules for it, as I understand things, and as far as tropes go, look here eg: blog.reedsy.com/romance-tropes – DPT May 22 '19 at 22:28
  • @DPT I’m planning to write a romance subplot in a fantasy novel, but I thought that was irrelevant to the question, especially if I would like to apply the advice in a different setting in a different work. – Nadeshka May 22 '19 at 23:34
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A subplot, even a romantic subplot, is still a plot.

It has a change arc and conflict, which involves character flaws and handicaps. Your protagonist will have try/fail cycles. There is something they want and something they need. There may be an older mentor character who will guide them, an antagonist to menace them, and consequences from their choices and actions.

The goal will seem impossible and just as all is darkest, the protagonist understands what is important, makes changes and digs himself out of the hole…, or discovers true love was under his nose…, or falls in love with his wife again…, or whatever. A romantic subplot is more than just "love triangle" – that is like saying "bullet hole" is a murder mystery.

The clichés you've listed are the tropes out of context. Of course they sound bad because they are shorthand for basic set-ups. But they aren't plots, in some there isn't even inherent conflict.

Why couples argue

We've all seen eye-rollingly "bad" romantic subplots that make no sense because emotions turn on a dime and the obvious couple just bicker. It's probably trying something like Scene/Sequel structure to keep the relationship "turning" in lieu of any deeper arc or conflict. It feels pretty shallow because it is, but it can be a convenient way of shaping the main plot's emotional beats (the couple argue, but it is really about something else). "Good" romantic plots just feel like plots.

Typically you want to avoid tropes, not pile them up in a trainwreck and pray for serendipity. You can also subvert tropes by deliberately applying a twist, or reframing the context so it plays out in an unexpected way. You can have a positive change arc where something new grows, or a negative change arc where a relationship turns selfish and controlling. I'm a sucker for bittersweet elliptical arcs where characters get stuck in their own gyre or must return to their normal world. However it goes, it won't be static and it won't be a direct path.

Badly-written characters have arguments. Well-written characters have conflicts, sometimes you will show it in subtler ways. Real relationships aren't just hot and cold, some are competitive, some are one-sided, some are a compromise to get something else they need. A relationship might be rushed, or neglected, or under stress from outside forces (like the main plot).

Outline the romantic subplot's story beats

Give your arc a structure, at least a distinct beginning, middle, and end state. Merge it with your main timeline. If it doesn't carry the story, maybe it carries the theme. Or works as counterpoint: a unconventional romance on a conventional story. A hero can save the planet but not win the girl. A 1-night stand must learn to be cop partners. A boyhood crush isn't who he remembered. Turn the clichés upside-down.

Once you start thinking of them as plots it becomes easier to do something original with them.

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  • what do you mean by “beats”? – Nadeshka May 22 '19 at 23:44
  • @Nadeshka , beats are the points along a character's arc. The events that cause him to change, and the changes that lead to his actions. – wetcircuit May 22 '19 at 23:47
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Actually, in romance the clichés to avoid are the obvious ones. "weak, helpless woman" (or princess) needs "strong, brave male" (knight in shining armor) to rescue her, and rewards him with love and affection. Or man meets the most beautiful woman alive and she falls for him, because, reasons that don't really make much sense.

For romance, we expect people to fall in love with someone. Part of that is getting to know them, part of that is physical attraction (which may be felt after getting to know them). In the process we expect them to have conflicts; first because conflicts that have to be resolved is what drives stories, and second because loving somebody is often a matter of some shared values, and some complementary values that create a synergy that makes the partnership more capable than the two individuals alone.

All your suggestions can form the basis of a successful romance; if infused with something original. In "You've Got Mail", the partners begin an anonymous friendship online without ever expecting to meet each other, but it turns out they are business rivals.

In "Sleepless in Seattle", a woman in New York becomes obsessed with a widower she heard on the radio. Plus she is engaged; though this never presents much of an obstacle, it is more of a catalyst for her to make a decision.

In "When Harry Met Sally" an idealistic dreamer (Sally) shares a road trip with a pragmatic cynic (Harry). They have a platonic relationship for many years before they become lovers. Which ruins their friendship, a complication, but in the end produces a happy marriage.

In "Pretty Woman", there is a huge social station conflict; a wealthy man hires a prostitute, and they fall in love. That kind of romance has been popular since Cinderella.

"Two Weeks Notice" is also a kind of Cinderella story; but the woman (Sandra Bullock) is extremely competent (an idealistic environmentalist lawyer); she agrees to work for an incompetent billionaire; love and complications ensue.

Sandra Bullock reverses the roles in "The Proposal", she is the dominant partner and falls in love with a man that works for her.

In "Notting Hill" We have the gender-reversed social station conflict, though not as severe. A world famous and wealthy actress meets and falls in love with a very not-wealthy bookstore owner.

All of these are wildly successful, some are considered classics. All of them could be reduced to a somewhat clichéd plot. Don't worry about the plot cliché too much, inject some originality and creativity in terms of setting and the personalities and problems they will have, and it will be "new enough" for those that enjoy romances or romantic comedy.

There are exceptions to every writing rule, but in general for a modern romance I'd avoid any woman that only exists to please a man. She needs to be an independent person that can exist just fine without a man taking care of her. (That is even true in Pretty Woman.) I would avoid men that are only attracted to super models. Maybe at first, but then he'd have to change. Now it is true in most romances the female lead is good looking, but that can be offset by having the male reject even more desirable (and possibly wealthy) women first, or to choose our female lead instead.

Although I am using "he" and "she" here, all the same advice applies to same-sex couples. The modern romance is typically a romance of equals; in the sense that neither party feels like a subordinate in their partnership (even if technically one is a subordinate in a business sense). Nobody is in charge, the romance is usually begun as a friendship, or has an established friendship stage before the first kiss (or first real kiss, in a few cases). Try to write realistic people with uncertainties, insecurities, obsessions and personality quirks or issues. You need those so both partners have obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of love.

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Short answer: yes. If something feels clichéd, and you don't like that, one way to freshen it up is to throw another trope or cliché into the mix. You can think of this as an exercise in lateral thinking, a way to challenge your brain into coming up with creative ideas.

For instance, if you combine a love triangle with the initial animosity (your first two ideas) the challenge becomes to write the classic animosity-to-love story, but in two ways in parallel: two men in love with the same woman and hating each other, should now start out as two male friends feeling animosity for the same woman, and then slowly discovering their feelings for the woman (in parallel), as their friendship disintegrates.

The main thing to focus on is to follow through the consqeuqnces. Don't just add a meet-cute to a pre-exisiting relationship, and interlace the two stories. That makes your story more clichéd, not less. Figure out how one cliché forces you to change the conventions of the other.

Some more generally applicable tricks to freshen up a stale or clichéd story (sticking with romance as a genre):

  • Swap the genders Take a meet-cute with a clutzy woman and a confident man and flip it around. Since romance is particularly driven by gender-based clichés, this is a very cheap and effective way to inject some novelty.
  • Homosexuality Purely from a structural point of view, adding a gay character gives you a whole new range of ways to structure relationships. For instance, you can set up a love triangle where everybody loves each other, and nobody gets what they want. Even taking an existing trope, and playing it straight with gay characters totally changes the dynamics, and lets you write a fresh story.
  • Combining with conventions of other genre fiction Romance in space, romance on a pirate ship, romance in a cut-throat business environment, romance and zombies, romance and detective fiction. The more preposterous the combination seems, the more likely it is to tickle your creativity.
  • Non-linear story telling Take a straightforward romance story and tell it backwards (this makes a happy romance a tragedy and a tragic romance a bittersweet story). Or start in the middle and combine the rise of the courtship in flashback with the coming apart of the relationship in real time.
  • Deconstruction Take the most overplayed and unrealistic story you can think of, and deconstruct the tropes. Play them out as they would happen in real life, and then find a way to inject a more truthful level of romance, without letting go of the wish-fulfilment that makes romance fun. Batman Begins did this very effectively for the superhero origin story. They did everything they could to make a preposterous story more realistic, by letting all the parts of the story fit each other more logically. And the one ridiculous thing that they couldn't get rid of or make more realistic (millionaire decides to dress up as bat), they put at the very heart of the main character (his own fear of bats indirectly causes his worst trauma).

And again, this only works if you follow through the consequences. If you just swap the genders and play everything else out as though you hadn't, the story is still clichéd. You need to think though how the genderswap changes things, where it sends the traditional story off the rails, and how to maintain what it was that made the original work well in the first place.

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I don't think you make a cliche cease to be a cliche by combining it with another cliche.

The real way to make a cliche cease to be a cliche is to do it well. Shifting genres (because I don't read much romance -- see my profile where I checked the box "male" :-), "young man goes on a quest and fights evil villains and monsters" is as cliche as it gets. Yet that describes the plot of "Star Wars", and "Star Wars" is hugely popular to this day. Oh, a romance example that comes to mind: "couple alternates between being passionately in love and constant bickering" is another standard cliche, but that's the plot of "Gone With the Wind" which routinely shows up on lists of the greatest movies of all times. (Admittedly, it does break the cliche in that they don't live happily ever after in the end.)

If you are overly simplistic about it, you could say that 99% of fiction is a cliche plot. "Couple meet and go through various trials and fall in love", "hero sets out on a quest", "brilliant detective solves a crime", etc. I'm sure I could come up with a dozen or so such generic descriptions of a plot that would cover almost every story ever written. What distinguishes good fiction from bad is not that good fiction has some totally original basic plot idea that no one ever thought of before, but rather that good fiction does it well.

You could say that "Romeo and Juliet" is "just another story about two young people who fall in love and then face problems that keep them apart". But that would be a very shallow description. Of course there are plenty of stories that use a similar plot that are totally uncreative and boring.

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Also, reading a lot of material can stimulate creativity and show tropes being used in new ways. Tropes can be impossible to avoid, in my experience, but reading different kinds of stories can throw new elements into your brain. Maybe you'll get ideas from expanding your horizons?

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If you're writing romance, you'll need to embrace the tropes. Romances have one conflict: something artificial is keeping these two people apart. Virtually every device for doing that has been written: a misunderstanding, an existing relationship, an earlier relationship with the same person, feuding parents, misaligned career goals, differing ethnic or religious backgrounds, differing social status, a language barrier, lack of money, illness, magic, distance, even time. And every romance, by definition, ends the same way: the characters overcome the obstacles and commit to one another. (Something similar is true of drawing room mysteries, by the way.)

Instead, romance is more about the characters and the ways in which they bicker, struggle, worry, and scheme their way to love conquering all. Dialog, setting, and character color are what set romances apart.

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