All types of books, films and TV have their tropes – conventions that are often used and widely recognised. I don’t know if crime fans sit around talking about their favourites: “Personally, I always enjoy a cynical detective with a bleak home life and a drink problem whose unending search for justice has cost him everything he once held dear.” “Really? *I* prefer a feisty yet secretly vulnerable female cop who fights against the inherent sexism of the system.” “Will this quest put her in grave personal peril, from inside as well as outside of the force?” “Of course it will, mate.” “Nice.”
Romance fans actually do have a more fun version of this conversation, and we all know what tropes we prefer. I’m a big fan of the good old Marriage of Convenience – but then, I’ve just written a novel that features exactly that (The Second Lady Silverwood, published by Allison & Busby on 20th April 2023). Writers and editors, particularly of historical romance, love this trope because – let’s be honest – it allows us to get a sexual frisson into the story. Or even actual sex, if that’s the sort of book you’re writing. If you’re setting your novel in a period of history where a young woman’s sexual curiosity and disregard for convention (I’m talking about Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice here) nearly destroyed her entire family, it’s very handy indeed to be able to get your main characters in bed together nice and early on in the book. It’s OK, they’re married! This trope has an almost equally popular spin-off, The Hero Desperately Needs an Heir, which means that someone tall, dark and handsome really needs to have a great deal of lovingly described sex as soon as possible. It’s not that he WANTS to, you understand, it’s for the sake of the dukedom/kingdom/billion-pound business/his dying grandmother. Being in this highly pressurised situation in real life would be no fun at all, even if you were married to Pedro Pascal’s better-looking brother (this is a joke; there is no such person), but in fiction, we love it.
Another highly popular trope is Fake Dating – in historical romance this would be Fake Engagement, which is a tricky one to pull off. The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, one of the most successful contemporary romances of recent years, centres around this and it’s simply glorious. All you have to do is think of a minimally plausible reason why these two gorgeous people really urgently need to pretend to be going out with each other. But of course they have to make it CONVINCING, and this is going to involve kissing. You know it is. It’ll be awkward at first, obviously, but it’s got to be done for whatever those important reasons were, and… Oh! What’s that, you LIKE it? That can’t be right! Often in Fake Dating one of the participants wishes it could be Real Dating, but can’t do anything about it, because of whatever those reasons were again. Cue just the right amount of angst. Happy sigh.
I love to read Enemies to Lovers stories, but I’m not sure I could write one – my heroes tend to be too lovely to be proper enemies. Lucy Parker is the modern queen of this trope, and there’s no denying the timeless power of a real blazing argument between two people who, deep, deep down, really want to rip each other’s clothes off. My own lifelong love story started that way (I know it’s sickening and I’m sorry, but it’s true), in the offices of Mills and Boon, where a certain male editor thought I was way too uppity for my lowly role of assistant copy-editor. Our boss declined to sack me, but sent both of us (separately) on a course titled Dealing With Difficult People, which must have been pretty damn good as courses go, since we’ve now been married for 29 years and have two children. You see, tropes are real!
One of my personal favourites is Forced Proximity, also known as There’s Only One Bed. This was pretty hot stuff on its early appearance in the 1934 Clarke Gable/Claudette Colbert film It Happened One Night – this was one of the last romantic comedies made before the Hays Code came into effect and stopped all the naughty fun. If you haven’t seen this film, you’ve still seen it – our hero and heroine, at this stage very possibly Enemies and certainly not Lovers, are trapped in a remote cabin/snowy coaching inn/prison cell/spaceship, and simply must share the one bed. Poor lambs. Ali Hazelwood has a lot of fun with this trope in The Love Hypothesis, when her characters Olive and Adam are forced - forced, I tell you – to share a hotel room, and she is convinced there will only be one bed, to his increasing bewilderment, as it’s a fancy American hotel and he’s not a big reader of romantic fiction. Though he is big. There are actually two beds, but…I won’t spoil it.
I write Regency romance, and the Classic Regency Misunderstanding is a bit of a trope in itself. You know the one – the hero has decided for reasons best known to himself that he can’t marry the women he’s passionately attracted to, he needs to marry her sister instead. Just go with it. Or the heroine’s decided, for no good reason at all, that the hero actually has fifty illegitimate children. This is a true misunderstanding in an actual novel, I promise, not something I made up. Some of these conventions are still going strong, and some have died a welcome death in recent years as times and readers have changed. It used to be the case that rakish heroes rained hard, punishing kisses down on the upturned faces of the passive, virginal heroines, and readers lapped it up. This sort of thing was necessary in an era when women couldn’t be seen to enjoy sex and therefore the heroes had to take charge, but we’ve moved on, and consent – certainly in my books – is extremely important.
The thing is, writing romance – and editing it – is a dialogue with a really sophisticated audience. Young readers who get their book recommendations from TikTok, as well as older readers like me who grew up on Georgette Heyer, know exactly what they want from a novel. It’s not about bringing your characters together, any AI idiot can do that – it’s about bringing them together in ways that also keep them apart just plausibly for just long enough. It’s about putting your readers though the exactly right amount of angst before that all-important happy ending. As long as tropes still help us to do that, they’ll never die.
Emma Orchard was born in Salford. She studied English Literature at the Universities of Edinburgh and York, before working behind the scenes in publishing and television for many years. Her first job was at Mills & Boon, where she met her husband in a classic enemies-to-lovers romance. She now lives in North London.
Sir Benedict Silverwood needs a new wife, an heir and a mother for his young daughter, but he can’t envisage any eligible young debutante taking the place of his late wife. Then Kate Moreton, an impoverished spinster and Italian teacher, is proposed. It’s an outlandish idea, but one that grows on him, alongside his attraction to Kate.
Kate has been hopelessly in love with Benedict for years so the idea of marriage when he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings is appalling, but so very tempting at the same time. When Kate steps into her new life as Benedict’s wife, sparks fly, but as it becomes clear that incendiary secrets threaten their fragile new life together, the question is whether Benedict will be able to love and trust the second Lady Silverwood?
The Second Lady Silverwood by Emma Orchard is published in paperback at £8.99 on 20th April 2023 by Allison & Busby.