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If you’ve ever cringed while reading a book (or watching a movie) because the characters are clearly just repeating information for the benefit of the audience, you’ll know just why exposition in literature is so important to get right. But it’s a tricky line to walk: too little exposition and your audience won’t understand a thing about what’s happening. Too much exposition runs the risk of readers complaining that your book is boring and badly-written.
This post will help you define just what exposition is — and how you can write it in a way that captures readers’ attentions. Or, if you’d simply like to see it in action, please jump right to our 19 exposition examples.
How to write exposition in literature: a guide for all fiction writers! Click To Tweet
What is exposition in literature?
Exposition is a literary device that introduces key background information to the reader. This might include anything from a character’s backstory to a description of the setting. Note that it should not be confused with the exposition in the three-act story structure, which refers to the entire first stage of a story (where, similarly, important details are established).
Though exposition is necessary in nearly every single story, it’s a hard thing to get right. Indeed, you might already be familiar with the infamous “information dump,” which is essentially poorly-executed exposition that becomes walls of text that your reader hastily skips past. At its worst, exposition that’s badly written will make your audience put down your book altogether.
How to avoid 'information-dumping' in this post — and more Click To Tweet
To avoid such a scenario, exposition should always be pertinent to the story itself. As Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.” We can (and should) apply this guideline to exposition as well. It might be tempting to spill everything you know about the world and characters that you’ve lovingly created — but while you might know the world of your book down to the precise direction in which a blade of grass grows, readers won’t care if it’s not relevant to the story. Specifically, the conflict.
The importance of conflict and exposition
In his book, The Art of Fiction, essayist and author John Gardner advised, “No important information in the exposition should be irrelevant to the action that ensues.” John Yorke echoed a similar point in Into the Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them:
All good exposition is disguised by making it dramatic – by injecting conflict. Desire, in story structure, should always be countered by an opposite desire, and this in turn creates the conflict the drama needs. Exposition works when it’s a tool a character uses to achieve their desire. If this desire is confronted with opposition, conflict is generated and exposition becomes invisible. The greater the conflict, the less visible the exposition.
If the million-dollar question here is how to present information (that your characters should already know) in a natural and organic manner to new readers, conflict is the answer. Tying exposition into conflict will drive the central premise of the story forward while establishing the important pieces of information that you need in order to tell the story. Luckily, there are many ways to do this, from dialogue to narration.
Thinking that this is easier said than done? For a look at how authors have approached writing exposition in literature in the past, here are 19 exposition examples in famous works.
19 exposition examples from Pride and Prejudice (and more) to show you how to get exposition right! Click To Tweet
What are some exposition examples in literature?
As you probably know, language can be used in a million possible ways to convey a point. That said, authors generally depend on a few common ways to insert exposition into the text of the story:
Exposition through dialogue
Exposition through narration
Exposition through internal monologue
Exposition through special devices
Without further ado, let’s get into these exposition examples in famous works of literature.
Exposition through dialogue
Dialogue is one of the most organic ways to introduce exposition. In particular, exposition through dialogue is a prime example of the #1 writing rule, “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of telling readers the key detail that a group of boys are stranded on an island because of a plane crash, the author can show that through a conversation (as you’ll be able to see soon).
However, it’s important that your dialogue doesn’t sound too forced when you’re trying to impart information to the reader. If you’d like to learn more about the mechanics of dialogue (and how to write it correctly), go here for this master guide. Otherwise, let’s take a look at how some authors reveal key expository details through dialogue.
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Authors can set up situations through a few lines of dialogue:
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (establishing the entrance of Mr. Bingley to Netherfield)
"This is an island. At least I think it's an island. That's a reef out in the sea. Perhaps there aren't any grownups anywhere."
The fat boy looked startled.
"There was that pilot. But he wasn't in the passenger cabin, he was up in front."
The fair boy was peering at the reef through screwed-up eyes.
"All them other kids," the fat boy went on. "Some of them must have got out. They must have, mustn't they?
— William Golding, Lord of the Flies (explaining the plane crash that brought the boys to the island)
Through dialogue, authors can “show” the relationship between characters, instead of “telling” it:
Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,--
[Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.
— Shakespeare, Hamlet (establishing the relationship between Hamlet and King Claudius)
Exposition through narration
Exposition through narration is the most standard way to think about this literary device. By nature, the narrator chooses what to reveal and what background details are important enough to be said in the text.
Now, how the exposition is revealed might differ depending on the point of view used in the book, which you’ll see in the following exposition examples. Take heed as you explore this technique yourself: exposition through narration is the biggest perpetrator of the infamous “information dump,” which is a beginner mistake to avoid.
Let’s take a look at how an omniscient narrator (who knows everything and can see into every character’s minds) might handle exposition:
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.
— JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (explaining Bilbo Baggins’ background)
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.
— Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (setting the grounds for Fanny Price’s arrival at Mansfield Park)
He was old enough, twelve years and a few months, to have lost the prominent tummy of childhood and not yet old enough for adolescence to have made him awkward. You could see now that he might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went, but there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil.
— William Golding, Lord of the Flies (introducing Ralph in the book)
Now here are some exposition examples used in books that are narrated in third-person limited:
Catelyn had been anointed with the seven oils and named in the rainbow of light that filled the sept of Riverrun. She was of the Faith, like her father and grandfather and his father before him. Her gods had names, and their faces were as familiar as the faces of her parents. Worship was a septon with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song. The Tullys kept a godswood, as all the great houses did, but it was only a place to walk or read or lie in the sun. Worship was for the sept.
— George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones (establishing Catelyn Stark’s backstory and religious tendencies)
Of all the unusual things about Harry, this scar was the most extraordinary of all. It was not, as the Dursleys had pretended for ten years, a souvenir of the car crash that had killed Harry’s parents, because Lily and James Potter had not died in a car crash. They had been murdered, murdered by the most feared Dark wizard for a hundred years, Lord Voldemort. Harry had escaped from the same attack with nothing more than a scar on his forehead, where Voldemort’s curse, instead of killing him, had rebounded upon its originator. Barely alive, Voldemort had fled…
But Harry had come face-to-face with him at Hogwarts. Remembering their last meeting as he stood at the dark window, Harry had to admit he was lucky even to have reached his thirteenth birthday.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (explaining the events of past books in the series)
As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity.
— George Orwell, 1984 (explaining who Emmanuel Goldstein is)
Lastly, a first-person narrator can easily slip in exposition to establish key details about themselves or their story:
Now the way that the book winds up is this: Tom and me found the money that the robbers hid in the cave, and it made us rich. We got six thousand dollars apiece—all gold. It was an awful sight of money when it was piled up. Well, Judge Thatcher he took it and put it out at interest, and it fetched us a dollar a day apiece all the year round—more than a body could tell what to do with. The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied. But Tom Sawyer he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of robbers, and I might join if I would go back to the widow and be respectable. So I went back.
— Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (establishing Huck Finn’s backstory)
I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister,—Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.
— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (establishing Pip’s backstory)
Mom pulled into the circular driveway behind the church at 4:56. I pretended to fiddle with my oxygen tank for a second just to kill time.
"Do you want me to carry it in for you?"
"No, it's fine," I said. The cylindrical green tank only weighed a few pounds, and I had this little steel cart to wheel it around behind me. It delivered two liters of oxygen to me each minute through a cannula, a transparent tube that split just beneath my neck, wrapped behind my ears, and then reunited in my nostrils. The contraption was necessary because my lungs sucked at being lungs.
— John Green, Fault in Our Stars (explaining why Hazel Lancaster needs a tank at all times)
My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (establishing Nick Carraway’s roots)
I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate—most correct; and, having reflected a few minutes in order to arrange coherently what I had to say, I told her all the story of my sad childhood. Exhausted by emotion, my language was more subdued than it generally was when it developed that sad theme; and mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment, I infused into the narrative far less of gall and wormwood than ordinary. Thus restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible: I felt as I went on that Miss Temple fully believed me.
— Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (establishing the state of Jane Eyre’s childhood)
Exposition through internal monologue
Internal monologue is exactly what it sounds like: text that gives readers a direct glimpse into a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. As you might have guessed, it’s another way through which authors can insert exposition.
Remember when Kurt Vonnegut said that a sentence ought to do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action? Well, exposition through internal monologue is particularly useful for the former, as we’ll show you now.
Exposition shown through internal monologue can establish key expository details while advancing character development, as we can now see into the character’s mind:
The elevator doors close just as Luisa Rey reaches them, but the unseen occupant jams them with his cane. ‘Thank you,’ says Luisa to the old man. ‘Glad the age of chivalry isn’t totally dead.’
He gives a grave nod of acknowledgment.
Hell, Luisa thinks, he looks like he’s been given a week to live.
— Ayn Rand, Cloud Atlas (establishing the character of Luisa Rey)
There was only one occupant at the moment, obviously the young English lady referred to by the conductor. She was tall, slim and dark—perhaps twenty-eight years of age. There was a kind of cool efficiency in the way she was eating her breakfast and in the way she called to the attendant to bring her more coffee which bespoke a knowledge of the world and of travelling.
She wore a dark-coloured travelling dress of some thin material eminently suitable for the heated atmosphere of the train. M. Hercule Poirot, having nothing better to do, amused himself by studying her without appearing to do so.
She was, he judged, the kind of young woman who could take care of herself with perfect ease wherever she went. She had poise and efficiency. He rather liked the severe regularity of her features and the delicate pallor of her skin. He liked the burnished black head with its neat waves of hair, and her eyes—cool, impersonal and grey. But she was, he decided, just a little too efficient to be what he called “jolie femme.”
— Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (establishing the character of Mary Debenham)
Her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct, she thought, walking on. If you put her in a room with some one, up went her back like a cat’s; or she purred.
— Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (establishing the character of Mrs. Dalloway)
Exposition through other devices
Finally, you might see authors introduce key story details through some special devices — namely, other forms of media, such as newspaper clippings, letters, or emails. This kind of exposition helps establish a sense of immediacy, as readers are able to experience the piece of information for themselves.
Newspaper clippings allow readers to read a key piece of information for themselves:
Harry held the paper up to the candlelight and read:
BLACK STILL AT LARGE
Sirius Black, possibly the most infamous prisoner ever to be held in Azkaban fortress, is still eluding capture, the Ministry of Magic confirmed today.
“We are doing all we can to recapture Black,” said the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, this morning, “and we beg the magical community to remain calm.”
Fudge has been criticized by some members of the International Federation of Warlocks for informing the Muggle Prime Minister of the crisis.
“Well, really, I had to, don’t you know,” said an irritable Fudge. “Black is mad. He’s a danger to anyone who crosses him, magic or Muggle. I have the Prime Minister’s assurance that he will not breathe a word of Black’s true identity to anyone. And let’s face it — who’d believe him if he did?”
While Muggles have been told that Black is carrying a gun (a kind of metal wand that Muggles use to kill each other), the magical community lives in fear of a massacre like that of twelve years ago, when Black murdered thirteen people with a single curse.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (explaining why Sirius Black is a menace to society)
Letters function in much the same way, letting the audience experience a piece of information at the same time that the characters do:
“Dearest, dearest Meg,—I do not know what you will say: Paul and I are in love—the younger son who only came here Wednesday.”
— E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (explaining a key incident in the book)
Looking beyond exposition
When you're writing your novel, remember that the exposition is just one part of a much bigger whole. It must combine smoothly with the story structure, action, and character development in order for your novel to come to life in the reader's eyes.
What's more, there's no need to get it perfect the first time around. That's what editing is for! If you need a helping hand as you're fixing the exposition of your novel, consider taking this free course that's taught by Fictionary CEO Kristina Stanley. It's all about story editing, scene-by-scene.
How do you find writing exposition in literature? Do you have any approach that you particularly like? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
In the first season of Reedsy’s podcast, Bestseller, host Casimir Stone followed a single author’s journey from idea to publication. In the coming months, Stone will be releasing a series of one-off episodes (or addendums, to keep with the publishing theme). The first of these episodes has just dropped, and it features Bretton Putter: a London-based expert on “startup and high-growth company culture.”
Addendum 1: Choice Words for First Drafts - SoundCloud (1376 secs long, 216 plays)Play in SoundCloud
In the episode, Putter reveals how he decided to write a book based on his popular and influential blog posts. He shares the challenges he faced in his first attempt to finish a manuscript — and how hitting a creative brick wall ultimately led him to re-focus and write what would become his debut publication, Culture Decks Decoded. Centered on the 'culture decks' — presentations created to communicate values to employees — of various startups (including a few well-known ones like Netflix) the book aims to reframe how CEOs view their company culture. It aims to show leaders that culture is not another box to check, but a potential asset for growth.
A great listen for all aspiring non-fiction writers, Putter’s story also contains a lot of the lessons we’ve gathered from other authors over the years. Namely, the value of writing a book to boost your professional authority, and the benefits (and pitfalls) of turning a blog into a book.
Check out this interview with @BrettonPutter on the Bestseller podcast by @ReedsyHQ Click To Tweet
And if you haven’t had the change to listen to the full first season of Bestseller, now’s your chance. Enjoy the show!
If you have any suggestions for the kinds of authors we should be featuring in these one-off podcast episodes, just leave them in the comments below.
Just about everyone instinctively knows how to write in the first person point of view. Thinking back to your earliest moments of putting pencil (or crayon) to paper, you will almost certainly find perfect examples of this viewpoint — even if it was only to draft a short elementary school essay on “how many people are in your family.”
As a way of writing that seemingly never goes out of fashion, first-person POV is something that all authors should strive to master. Even if you don’t intend to use it in your next story, you should aim to have this tool in your bag for when the right moment arrives. With the help of editors from the Reedsy, we’ve put together this guide to writing in the first person point of view.
How to write in first person point of view: a guide for fiction writers! Click To Tweet
First person point of view is where the writer (or fictional narrator) relates information from their perspective. Perhaps they’re telling a story from their past, or maybe they’re giving you their opinion. If the main pronoun in a piece is ‘I,’ there’s a good chance you’re dealing with something written in the first person.
Just as the first stories you told as a child were likely in the first person, so were the earliest of all stories told in the first person, perhaps by our cave-dwelling ancestors. After all, if I were an early human trying to keep the attention of my fireside audience, which would be more compelling:
a story about some random caveman nobody’s never met,
or a wicked story about that time that I slaughtered a tiger with my bare hands?
In nonfiction, a first-person voice can lend credibility and immediacy to the writing: “I know this to be true, because I actually saw or did these things.” Readers get to relive the experience through a primary source, safe in the knowledge that this person knows what they’re talking about. (Having said that, we’ll later get into unreliable narrators, a phenomenon to which nonfiction is not immune.)
In this post, however, we will mostly focus on first person point of view in fiction — and how novelists and short story writers can use this viewpoint to their advantage.
Advantages of first person point off view
So, to answer the next big question: why should you consider using this particular point of view for your next novel or story? According to our editors, the benefits can be creative, practical, and market-driven all at once.
1. It’s easier for first-time authors
“In my experience, authors have an easier time handling first-person POV than third-person,” says Aja Pollock, an editor who has worked on books by writers like Neil Gaiman, George W. Bush, and more.
“This makes sense since it echoes the way we tell stories in real life. By its very nature, first-person basically eliminates the problem of ‘head hopping,’ which often shows up in the work of writers who use third-person.”
2. It brings the reader closer to the character
Many authors and readers prefer first-person writing for the intimacy that it creates between the character and the reader. Tracy Gold, a Reedsy editor and Adjunct Professor of Composition at the University of Baltimore, corroborates this:
“Writing first-person makes it easier to get deep inside a character's thoughts and feelings. With well-done first person, the writer or reader becomes the character as they get deeper into the story, and that's the kind of immersive experience that makes me love a book.”
Well-written POV lets the reader almost become your character. (Photo by Hermes Rivera)
Each distinct viewpoint comes with an inherent level of intimacy (though not necessarily in a romantic sense). First person tends to be the most intimate, as you have access to the character’s internal thoughts. Third-person omniscient exists on the other side of the spectrum, as an all-seeing narrator can often seem more detached from the characters because they describe the story with a broader lens. Third person limited sits in the middle, and is fairly intimate as well — but if you want readers to really connect to the character and empathize with them, first person tends to be more conducive to that.
First person point of view brings readers closer to the central character. Click To Tweet
3. It might be more marketable
If there’s one overarching piece of advice we regularly offer authors, it’s that they should try writing to market. While it might sound dubious as an approach to art, if you’re an author hoping to get your foot in the door, it often pays to know what editors and publishers are looking for. Every editor we spoke to for this article brought up Young Adult as a prime example of where POV can affect a book’s ability to interest publishers.
“Generally, if we're talking about YA, the preferred narrative mode is first person, followed by super-close third person limited,” says developmental editor and veteran book coach Rebecca Heyman. “When I see YA that doesn't utilize first person, I immediately question if the author is aware of (and reading through) the current market.”
Of course, there may be an underlying reason why fiction for younger readers tend to use this POV. Tracy Gold has a theory:
“Young adult and middle-grade books generally focus on young characters and narrate those characters in an immediate way — we get the sense that the plot is unfolding right now or in the very recent past. That's largely why they often use first person and the present tense.
“In contrast, books written for an audience of adults about a young person tend to be narrated by a character who is reflecting on the past.”
First person is still the preferred viewpoint for YA fiction Click To Tweet
Having taken a quick look at the strengths of writing first person, let’s see what potential drawbacks could lie ahead.
Challenges of writing in first person
Remember:, when we say ‘challenge’ or ‘drawback’, what we’re really referring to are the narrative limitations of first person. As is the case with a lot of art, limitations can often turn out to be a creative boon — and as is the case with any writing advice, the relevance of these challenges will depend on what you’re writing.
The scope of knowledge is limited
“The advice I most often give authors who use the first person point of view is: remember that your narration can't reflect knowledge beyond the scope of what the POV character would know,” says Pollock.
"If first-person narration discusses the interior life of another character, it has to be couched as the POV character's speculation or perception — not as absolute knowledge of what the other character is thinking or feeling.”
In Rear Window, the mystery unfolds entirely from James Stewart's POV (image: Paramount)
You might see this as a roadblock if, in a particular scene, you want to show what a secondary character is thinking. However, as Pollock alludes, your narrator can always indicate what other characters are feeling with a small observation. You might want to write:
Karen was nervous at the news
Of course, your first-person narrator can’t know what Karen is feeling (unless they are literally a psychic). But to convey the same idea, you might write:
Karen looked away nervously.
So you can get the same idea across without violating the ‘no mind-reading’ rule.
This limited scope of information becomes really important when your narrator isn’t your protagonist. For example, The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a newcomer to the East Egg set. All we know about Jay Gatsby is what Nick sees and the unverified stories he overhears at parties. This creates an enigma around Gatsby that plays a huge role in how the story unfolds.
Now that we’ve seen some of the benefits and challenges of writing in first person, let’s squeeze some practical tips out of our editors.
Top Tips for Writing First Person Point of View
1. Try not to ‘filter’ too much
Heyman describes “filtering language” as one of the biggest mistakes she sees in first-person prose.
“If your narrator is articulating her own experience, you don’t need to use structures like ‘I saw’ or ‘I heard’ — language that puts unnecessary distance between the narrator's experience and its articulation.
“For example: ‘An owl hooted softly’ vs ‘I heard an owl hoot softly’. One puts us inside the experience of listening; the other one just tells us about it. We know already that everything we're being told comes through the first person narration, so the character's use of empirical sense is implied.”
Don't filter this owl. Just let her be. (Photo by Philip Brown)
2. Be careful with multiple first-person narrators
As you’ll see in the examples later on, many popular novels employ multiple first-person narrators. If done well, it can add variety and layers of complexity to your storytelling which readers will greatly enjoy. But as Tracy Gold points out, it can be tricky as readers may get characters confused.
“I would caution writers who use multiple first-person narrators to vary the voices for each narrator as much as possible. For example, in Rachel Lynn Solomon's You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone, one narrator is a musician, and her language drips with musical metaphors. Meanwhile, the other narrator is interested in science, and her language reflects that.”
First person appeals to many first-time authors as it allows them to use their personal, real-world voice. But if all the narrators in a writer’s story happen to share the same quirky turns of phrase, then they might be running into trouble.
3. Consider the unreliable narrator
In the introduction, we teased the idea of the unreliable narrator — where the reader has a reason to believe that the character in question might not be telling the entire story. While this lack of credibility can be fatal in non-fiction (you don’t want an unreliable narrator teaching you how to fix a combination boiler) it can be a real delight in fiction.
Aja Pollock, for one, wishes she saw more of the unreliable narrator.
“When the narrator has questionable credibility, it keeps the reader guessing about the gap between reality and the observations of the POV character. Unreliable narrators can be tricky to pull off for inexperienced writers (or even experienced ones) — but they add an extra layer of mystery and tension that keeps those pages turning.”
When writing first person POV, consider the reliability of the narrator! Click To Tweet
4. Don’t use “I thought” with italics
This final tip comes from Tracy Gold: “Writing ‘I thought’ and using italics for thoughts is almost never necessary when writing in first person.” Yes, it’s more of a style suggestion, but one that will come in very handy.
For example, you might write:
The soil was wet and left a red mark on my shirt. Where did the clay come from? I thought.
The soil was wet and left a red mark on my shirt. Where did the clay come from?
By the very nature of first person POV, we know who is thinking everything on the page without that extra explanatin.
So now that we’ve seen what the experts have to say, your last step to head over to our list of POV examples to see some first-person narratives in the wild. And once you've done that, perhaps even give the viewpoint a spin: pick a writing prompt and see what comes out of the mouth of your first-person narrator.
Do you regularly write fiction in first person? Or do you actively avoid it? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
We get it: writing a book requires a lot of your time, effort, and money. Taking a book from inception to completion is intense work, and by the time you’re ready to publish you might find yourself referring to your manuscript as “my baby.”
Of all the big decisions you have to make in your journey as a self-publishing author, one of the biggest is whether or not to enroll your ebook in Amazon's KDP Select: a program which offers authors bonus incentives in exchange for granting Amazon exclusivity.
But going exclusive is a big deal. Are you sure you want to let Amazon put a ring on it before your book has had a chance to test out the other options? Is KDP Select the right choice for you? That’s what we’ll answer in this post, covering the following points:
The great "KDP Select or not" debate: where do you stand? Click To Tweet
What is Kindle Direct Publishing?
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is Amazon’s ebook publishing unit, which allows authors to sell their books directly to Amazon’s readers. The Kindle and KDP were launched concurrently in 2007, laying the groundwork for Amazon’s ebook empire which now holds more than 80% of the market in the United States and United Kingdom.
While numbers like these are not the norm for the average writer, KDP has become the heavily preferred route for self-publishing authors — many of whom also decide to enroll in KDP Select. Speaking of which...
What is KDP Select?
KDP Select is a program available to all authors willing to grant Amazon exclusive rights to sell their ebook through the Kindle store only. By agreeing not to sell the digital file of their book through any other retailers, authors are given access to a variety of promotional tools — the most significant of which is Kindle Unlimited — and the opportunity to earn higher royalties (in some cases, more on that later).
The KDP Select program lasts 90 days, after which authors can either choose to opt out of the program, or auto-renew for another 90-day commitment.
While digital copies of the book must only be sold through Amazon:
A 10% sample of the book can be made available outside of the Kindle Store;
Print (or any other non-digital) versions can be distributed elsewhere; and
Copies of the book can be emailed to reviewers for editing purposes.
So, a higher percentage of sales and additional book marketing tools: sounds pretty good, right? Why would an indie author not want those things? Well, the question of whether to grant Amazon exclusivity or to “go wide” is a constant talking point amongst self-publishing authors, as both options come with their own sets of pros and cons.
Let’s start with the perks authors can expect when they marry their ebook to Amazon for 90 days.
The obvious pro of KDP Select is joining Kindle Unlimited - but does it work for all authors? Click To Tweet
The Pros of KDP Select
The main benefits of enrolling in KDP Select include access to:
Kindle Countdown Deals
Kindle Free Promotions
Kindle Owners’ Lending Library
Increased royalties for sales in select countries
The crown jewel of KDP Select’s incentives is, without a doubt, the access to Kindle Unlimited (KU). It’s a topic we covered extensively in our weekly marketing newsletter (to sign up, select “book marketing”), but we’ll start by giving you the KU highlight reel here.
1. Kindle Unlimited
When authors enroll in KDP Select, their books are automatically made available to readers on Kindle Unlimited: an “all-you-can-read” service that allows subscribers to read as many ebooks as they’d like for $9.99 a month (if you’re thinking “Netflix for books,” you’re on the money).
Because of the ease with which readers can find books (KU customer receive emails suggesting books based on their reading history), and the ability to “test-drive” many books without having to pay full price for them all, KU has become an extremely popular program. In fact, it has become such a go-to for readers that for many genres, it’s basically impossible for a book to rank well on Amazon if it’s not listed in Kindle Unlimited.
How do authors make money from KU?
Here’s how it works: at the end of each month, a Kindle Direct Publishing Global Fund is announced. This fund determines how much each title available on KU has earned it authors. For instance, in January 2019, the KDP Global Fund was $24.7 million.
Amazon then determines how this money is split between authors and publishers with a per-page-read royalty — so the more pages of your books are read by KU subscribers, the more money you stand to make.
So let’s say an author has a 300-page book in Kindle Unlimited. In January 2019, the payout per page was $0.0044, so the author will have earned $1.32 for every reader who borrowed and read their title cover-to-cover. (This is regardless of the actual retail price of that book).
Kindle Unlimited can be a truly great resource for self-publishing authors, depending on your genre. But it’s not the only incentive KDP Select offers authors. Let’s take a look at some of the others.
2. Kindle Countdown Deals
For one week every 90 days, authors have the ability to discount their book by putting it on a “countdown deal.” Authors continue to earn a 70% royalty on the discounted price, even if it’s priced below $2.99. (Note that authors who run price promotions outside of KDP Select only earn 35% royalties on books priced below $2.99).
The price before the countdown must be between $2.99 - $24.99 on Amazon.com or £1.99 – £15.99 on Amazon.co.uk;
The minimum discount is $1 on Amazon.com or £1 on Amazon.co.uk;
The title must be enrolled in KDP Select for at least 30 days; and
You cannot run a deal if the end of your KDP Select enrollment is 14 days away or less.
3. Kindle Free Promotions
For five days every 90 days, authors can set their book to free. (Note that it can’t be in the same 90-day period as a countdeal deal). Both countdown deals and free promotions allow books to appear on the Kindle Store Deals page, promising a boost of visibility.
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4. Kindle Owners’ Lending Library
This is a program open to Kindle owners with an Amazon Prime subscription. Each month, they can choose to borrow one book for free from over 800,00 titles — with no due date or late return fee to pay.
As with Kindle Unlimited, authors earn a per-page-read royalty for books enlisted in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library program (KOLL), based on the KDP Global Fund.
5. Increased royalties for sales in select countries
Authors earn a 70% royalty for each book sold to customers in Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and India, if it’s priced between $2.99-$9.99. Without KDP Select, authors earn a 35% royalty on sales both in the US and internationally.
Suffice it to say, Amazon offers some pretty enticing perks for enrolling in KDP Select. However, as with anything there is another side to the coin. Let’s take a look at why a self-publishing authors might want to cast a wider net.
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The Pros of “Going Wide”
The primary reason for an author to go wide is so that they can list their book on as many e-retailers and library distributors as they want, in addition to selling and distributing it through their own author website.
While Apple Books, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Google Play are the main “competitors” to Amazon, there are literally hundreds more e-retailers and ebook distributors around the world. You can view them all in our complete guide to ebook distribution.
But if these other distributors and retailers only represent under 20% of the market, should you really bother going wide, if it means missing out on all the incentives KDP Select offers to keep your exclusivity?
Here are some reasons why you might (or should) want to go wide:
In some countries, Amazon isn't as dominant as it is in the US
You can build a presence outside of Amazon (which can be fickle)
You will have the ability to hit bestseller lists (outside of Amazon)
1. Access a larger portion of the international ebook market
With around 80% market share, Amazon undeniably wears the crown when it comes to control of the ebook market in the US and the UK. However, this isn’t the case across the globe:
In Canada, Kobo alone controls over 25% of the ebook market;
In Germany, Tolino and Amazon have equal ebook market share; and
In Australia, Apple Books controls about 30% of the ebook market.
So by not going exclusive with Amazon, you allow yourself the opportunity to tap into these markets and better reach a worldwide audience.
Also, while Amazon’s presence in the US is going to be hard to challenge, Kobo’s recent partnership with Walmart does open a new door to readers in America.
2. It’s harder to build a wide presence… but harder to lose it as well
While Amazon might get the most digital foot traffic, you’re also competing with a huge number of other authors and books. Though you might be catering to a smaller pool of customers on other retailers, you might also have better luck gaining a competitive advantage — and grabbing the attention of those readers.
Furthermore, non-Amazon stores (Apple Books, Kobo, B&N, Google Play) are curated in a different way. While Amazon is all about automated algorithms — which can change from one day to another, along with your books’ rankings — these stores are more about human curation. Top visibility spots are curated by merchandising teams (another topic we covered in our marketing newsletter). What this basically means is that, while it generally takes longer (and requires you to publish more books) to get a strong stream of sales from non-Amazon stores, it’s also a much harder position to lose — that is, if you don’t pull your books away and into KDP Select, of course.
4. The ability to hit Bestseller lists (outside of Amazon)
As Nicholas Erik mentions in his helpful post on the topic, the chances of an indie author hitting The New York Times’ Best Sellers list are razor-thin. But other lists, such as the USA Today one, are a lot more within an indie author’s grasp and can be just as much of a boon to a writer’s career.
However, many of these lists — The New York Times and USA Today both included — require that the author is not exclusive to Amazon and is selling their book on at least one other retailer.
Fundamentally, one of the first rules of investing is to not put all your eggs in one basket. If you're exclusive to Amazon, you're entirely at their mercy. If they suddenly change their algorithms and your books stop ranking, you might lose a huge portion of your income overnight.
At the end of the day, the decision to go wide or exclusive with Amazon depends on your marketing plan for your book. Which brings us to…
KDP Select vs. "Going Wide" — which option is right for you? Click To Tweet
Making the call: should you enroll in Amazon KDP Select or not?
Ultimately, the decision on whether you go into KDP Select or distribute wide will be a personal decision. The main factor influencing it is whether you feel okay trusting Amazon 100% with “your babies.”
That said, it's important to also consider factors like genre and your own marketing strategy.
Luckily, the terms of enrolling in KDP Select only last 90 days, so you can rest assured in the knowledge that it’s not a permanent or years-long commitment. However, whatever your decision is, you should try to stick to it as much as possible. While trying KDP Select for 90 days is certainly worth it, you shouldn't be jumping in and out of Select. Going wide is a long-term game, and not only does it take years to build a presence on other stores, marketing strategies and best practices also differ between Select and wide books.
Who should consider KDP Select?
If you answer “yes” to the following questions, you should consider enrolling in KDP Select:
Are you planning on selling only through the Kindle Store?
Does your target market primarily consist of digital readers in the US and the UK?
Does your marketing strategy consist of big promotions bolstered by big ad blasts (as opposed to more of a “slow and steady” effort)?
Do the bestsellers in your genre include a healthy selection of Kindle Unlimited titles?
That last point is very important, and should be a major factor in your decision.
Finding out whether KU is integral to your genre is fairly simple: head to Amazon’s Best Sellers in Kindle Ebooks and narrow it down to just your categories. Go through the top 20 to 100 titles and see what percentage of those books are in KU. If the percentage is high, you might be better off enrolling in KDP Select. For example, at the time of this article’s writing, the top 20 fantasy, science fiction, thriller, romance, and crime fiction books all include over 14 KU titles. (While the top 20 mystery, historical fiction, thriller, and literature and fiction books only contain 12 or fewer KU titles — and self-help, art and photography, and biographies and memoirs contain less than ten.)
Who should consider going wide?
If large parts of your target market are ebook readers outside of the US and UK, you’re publishing your first book, or you’re writing in a genre with few KU titles in its bestsellers list, going wide might be your best bet.
Going wide is good choice for patient authors who are thinking of their career in the long-term. As David Gaughan explains in his comprehensive post on the topic, it’s an option that requires long-term growth marketing strategies, such as:
An up-to-date author website
Growing mailing lists and tested reader magnets
Targeted campaigns (such as Facebook ads)
Permafree or heavily discounted books/series
Going wide is all about building a readership — and hanging onto those readers. This requires more of a slow but steady mindset: you need to regularly communicate with your readers and invest time and energy into researching and executing email marketing strategies in order to hold their attention. Because, while KDP Select might take advantage of algorithms to help bring readers to your book, going wide is all about finding ways to connect readers to your books yourself.
What’s great about this strategy (which David coins the “drip strategy”) is that, if you do it well, it can result in smaller but steadier reader growth and sales from a number of different places — which eventually adds up to a strong stream of income.
This is not to say you can’t — or shouldn’t — put these drip strategies into effect if you’re exclusive with Amazon. But it’s tougher, because you’re at the will of the Amazon algorithm, which has been known to change fairly regularly.
And seeing as your ideal distribution method boils down to your marketing strategy, here are a few final resources to help you make the most of your book launch.
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With all of this in mind, remember that whether you decide to go with KDP Select or open publishing, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. If you use KDP Select’s Countdown Deals of Free Promotions but don’t spend any time advertising your promotions, they won’t lead to much exposure — the whole point of these tools.
If you decide to forgo the increased visibility that can come with Kindle Unlimited,make sure you spend time getting acquainted with the aggregators out there or developing various book marketing strategies — or else the benefits of going wide will end up falling flat.
We hope this post has been helpful in considering the pros of cons of KDP Select vs. going wide, and that you feel more confident in leveraging the route you choose for your book’s success.
Are you enrolled in KDP Select or considering it? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the comments below!
You might think you know how a romance story goes. Boy meets girl. Boys fails girl. Boy gets girl. Seems simple enough, right?
Not so fast. The landscape of romance is extremely rich and diverse, with many branches of subgenres and subcategories. And, though that elusive Happily Ever After is a staple in romance, how the couple gets there is a fascinatingly different story in each subgenre.
This post will break all of the romance subgenres down for you — and give you some extra tips on how to find the one that’s the perfect match for you as a writer. So if you’re ready to see all of the various ways that the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly, let’s begin.
Everything you wanted to know about romance subgenres — and more! Click To Tweet
A brief overview of the genre
If you picture the romance genre as an ice cream shop, you might imagine the subgenres to be the flavors: depending on personal preferences, a customer might gravitate towards the darker (paranormal romance) or the more velvety (erotica).
However, before you even get to that stage, you’ll have to make a couple of bigger decisions, such as whether or not you’d like soft-serve or regular ice cream. Likewise, before we get into nitty-gritty of romance subgenres, you should understand the broader divisions of the genre: age group and category.
By age group
Age is by far the most well-known way to categorize a genre. In romance, there are three broad age bands that will decide a writer’s target audience:
Young Adult: Generally meant for readers between the ages of 12-18, YA romance novels deal directly with the issues that young adults grapple with: first love, how to come of age, tumultuous family relationships, sexuality, self-love, and self-respect.
New Adult: A relatively new genre that has exploded in the last decade, New Adult describes the group of romance readers between the ages of 18-29 (or people just coming into adulthood). As such, it tends to explore themes of identity, independence, sexuality, and education and career choices.
Adult: For people above the age of 30. Adult romance fiction will bear all of your classic romance trademarks: heartbreak, love, and sex.
Like apples in the eye, romance subgenres are universal to each of these age bands! For example, you’ll find historical romance in both young adult and adult romance books. What will diverge, however, are the characters, themes, and likely the tone of the story.
Another popular subset in romance is that of category romances and single-title romances.
Category romances are essentially series romances, like those published by Harlequin. These books are generally on the short side and stick around a word count of 55,000. Each book in the line will have an identity of its own, whether that’s based on character, setting, or prose. Meanwhile, single-title romances are longer and are frequently stand-alone novels — though they might be part of a trilogy or connect with other books in the author’s universe.
Generally, romance writers don’t hop between these subsets of romance. Authors who do cross age groups or categories tend to rely on pen names. (This is due in large part to author branding. If you’d like to learn more about this, head over to this course on Book Marketing 101).
What are the romance subgenres?
Now that you have a better idea of the broader divisions in the genre, it’s time to dive headfirst into the subgenres that define romance.
Don’t be fooled by the swoons that are associated with this subgenre: writing historical romance requires rigorous research to perfect characters living in a time that is not our own. That said, this subgenre has bounced in the past decade, as Outlander fever has swept over the land. More to the point, historical romance is a modern trend.
Rating: PG-13 to R Gateway novel to historical romance: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon More examples: Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins, Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn, Once a Soldier by Mary Jo Putney, To Love a Dark Lord by Anne Stuart
As the saying goes, there’s no better time for love than the here and now. With that in mind, let’s let contemporary romance step up to the plate: widely-read throughout the world, it’s the largest subgenre in the world of romance novels.
“Contemporary romance” denotes novels that take place in the same period as it was written by the author. Today, this subgenre generally encompasses stories set after the 1970s. Because contemporary romance deals directly with modern problems, themes, and society, you’ll find a degree of realism here that won’t be as apparent in other subgenres.
Rating: PG-13 to R Gateway novel to contemporary romance: Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin More examples: Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, Kiss an Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, Vision in White by Nora Roberts
What are the six major romance subgenres? Find out in this guide Click To Tweet
If you were under the impression that erotic romance is just sex, think again. In an erotic romance, the sex is designed to show the development of a romantic relationship. (This differs from erotica, which uses explicit sex to explore an individual character’s sexual journey).
In fact, the sexual interaction in an erotic romance is such an integral part of the progression of the relationship that its removal would damage the plot. However, the presence of sex does not detract from other story elements: this subgenre is generally characterized by well-developed characters, absorbing plots, and, yes, strong sexual content.
Rating: X Gateway novel to erotic romance: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James More examples: Bared to You by Sylvia Day, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by A.N. Roquelaure, Sweet Addiction by Maya Banks
Vampires, werewolves, oh my! If there’s a sexy supernatural creature in the novel, it probably belongs to the rising subgenre of paranormal romance. In this subgenre, otherworldly characters (such as ghosts, angels, pixies, or the ever-popular vampires and werewolves) populate the world and will probably play a big role in the romance at the heart of the book.
Writing in this genre will require robust worldbuilding, as the story may play out on another planet, magical or technological. Despite its strong similarities to urban fantasy, what differentiates paranormal romance is its consistent focus on the romantic relationship arc: ultimately, the love story in the novel will always be the priority.
Rating: PG-13 to R Gateway novel to paranormal romance: Year One by J.D. Robb More examples: Fallen by Lauren Kate, Dark Lover by Jessica Bird, Angel’s Blood by Nalini Singh, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Undead and Unwed by Maryanice Davidson
While this subgenre could be seen as a variant of historical romance, most agree that Regency romance is a subgenre unto itself. These stories are set approximately between 1795 and 1837, which is otherwise known as the Regency era of England.
Shorter in length, Regency romances primarily diverge from historical romances in terms of focal point: there’s less weight on the steamy and more of an emphasis on the society, dialogue, and comedy of manners at hand. (Think the drawing room antics that feature in all of Jane Austen’s novels). Still, you’ll be able to count on the romance of the period tugging you in quicker than you can say “Darcy.”
Rating: G to PG-13 Gateway novel to Regency romances: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer More examples: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, Entwined by Emma Jensen, Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh, It Happened One Autumn by Lisa Kleypas, Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
Today, the wild moors of the gothic romance isn’t in vogue anymore. Instead, the romantic suspense novel has replaced it on modern bookshelves. Romance Writers of America defines this subgenre as “romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.”
In other words, the hallmark of a romantic suspense novel is its blend of romance and some sort of intrigue, which might constitute a plot that involves drugs, murder, or a kidnapping. Suspense, as you might expect, is included. But the core of the novel must be the relationship arc, and the romance element can’t be overshadowed for the novel to count as romantic suspense.
Rating: PG to R Gateway novel to romantic suspense: Over the Edge by Suzanne Brockmann More examples: Into the Firestorm by Kat Martin, Twisted Shadows by Patricia Potter, No Place to Run by Maya Banks, Law and Disorder by Heather Graham, The Protector by Donna Grant
What’s next after you find the perfect match?
Keep in mind that while this post captures the major subgenres in romance, it is by no means a definitive list. Romance is a genre that is continuously developing, changing, and deepening. Nestled within each of these subgenres are even more branches of subcategories, including medical, LGBT, workplace, and western romance.
The good news is that there is a lot of great existing materials to explore, wherever you look. Now that you have a better idea of the landscape of the genre and what might pique your taste, it’s time for you to read voraciously within your chosen subgenre. While you’re going about this, it wouldn’t hurt to notice certain patterns about characters and settings. See what themes your favorite romance authors tackle. Get a feel for the tropes, so that you know how best to wield them — or subvert them.
For some more help before you start writing your book, check out the other posts in our series on writing romance. If you’d like a headstart on:
“And they lived happily ever after.” This line alone should give you an idea that this article is talking about the romance genre. And while a Happily Ever After is really a non-optional feature of the genre, authors can choose to incorporate romance tropes to provide readers with instantly recognizable markers that help them immediately relate to the love story at hand.
Tropes are plot devices, characters, images, or themes that are incorporated so frequently in a genre that they’re seen as conventional. “Trope” is often seen as a dirty word, because it feels interchangeable with the word “cliché.” And while authors shouldn’t simply duplicate story formulas that have proven popular, incorporating tropes can provide a signal to readers about what kind of book they’re dealing with. At their core, tropes are really just things that are familiar. And people enjoy the familiar.
So if you’re an aspiring romance writer, do yourself a favor by getting acquainted with the popular romance tropes out there. It will help you get an idea of what romance readers already like, and will help you write stories that feel refreshing and new. You can start with this list!
10 of the most popular romance tropes — and how to make them new again Click To Tweet
11 of the most popular romance tropes
1) The ‘Trapped in an Elevator’
This trope has a number of popular variations: the “have to spend a night in a cabin,” the “stuck in a car in a blizzard,” the “trapped overnight in the office,” etc. The point is two people who likely barely know each other (or aren’t very fond of one another) are forced together in a relatively enclosed space. They have to rely one on another to get through the experience, come to appreciate one another, and eventually fall in love.
(Bonus points if the place where they're staying has only one bed which they begrudgingly agree to share!)
Example: In the 1934 romantic comedy film, It Happened One Night (you probably know it from this hitchhiking scene), Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are forced to share a hotel room with twin beds (which was just as scandalous as sharing the same bed back in the day). They hang a sheet between the two beds to create privacy, but the night remains intimate nevertheless.
Maybe the first iconic instance of 'Trapped in an Elevator' (image: Columbia Pictures)
2) The ‘Love Triangle’
Charlie and Jim love Diane. Or maybe Diane loves Jim, and Jim loves Charlie, and Charlie loves Diane. Either way, three’s a crowd in this romance trope, and someone, if not everyone, is going to end up getting hurt.
Example: In The Hunger Games, Peeta and Gale both love Katniss. (Bonus points to Suzanne Collins for incorporating the Fake Relationship when Katniss and Peeta pretend to be married).
3) The ‘Fake Relationship’
For one reason or another, two people must pretend to be in a relationship. This real-life exercise in method acting eventually becomes more real than either of them had expected and they fall in love. Typically, once their “arrangements” ends, they will part ways, thinking there is no hope for a real relationship to blossom… until one — or both — of them declare their true feelings.
Example: In To All the Boys I've Loved Before, high-schooler Lara Jean is mortified to learn that her mash notes have been delivered to the boys she's crushed on over the years. When one of these crushes confronts her about his letter, she deflects his questions by lying about being in a relationship with a fellow classmate. Peter, himself going through a breakup, agrees to go along with the ruse for Lara’s sake.
If you didn't take a selfie, did your fake relationship even happen? (image: Netflix)
4) The ‘Enemies Become Lovers’
We’ll get to the whole “love at first sight” trope a little later, but first let’s talk about hate at first sight. Two characters meet and immediately dislike each other, perhaps due to opposing views or often because of a misunderstanding. Through the course of the story, this dislike will become more entrenched until some sort of event (perhaps a Trapped in an Elevator situation) will force them to look at one another in a different light. The characters will likely try to deny their softening feelings until they become impossible to deny.
Example: Unsurprisingly, this trope features in Sally Thorne’s novel The Hating Game. Lucy and Joshua, both executive assistants to co-CEOs of a publishing company, can’t stand one another. When they compete for the same promotion, the tension between them reaches boiling point. Which is also when they start to realize that all that tension is masking another kind of feeling...
5) The ‘Belated Love Epiphany’
As Joni Mitchell sings in "Big Yellow Taxi" — "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it’s gone?" That’s the whole idea behind the popular Belated Love Epiphany: the protagonist loses, or is at risk of losing, someone they overlooked. And only in their absence does the protagonist begin to realize what the other character meant to them.
(Bonus points: the epiphany leads the protagonist to run through an airport, train station, or similar in order to stop the other character leaving by declaring their love).
Example: In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins makes a bet that he can turn Eliza Doolittle “into a lady” with six months of elocution lessons. He wins the bet but loses Eliza, having only regarded her as a means to an end. Only once she's gone does he realize that he had "grown accustomed to her face.”
The rain in Spain falls mainly in the 'Belated Love Epiphany' (image: Warner Bros.)
6) The ‘Friends to Lovers’
Two childhood friends go through the trials and tribulations of adolescence together, counting on one another. Fast forward to their adult lives: they haven’t spoken in decades but think of one another every so often. Brought back together for some reason, they reignite their friendship. For a while, they may see each other as just friends, but ultimately realize that — despite all the years apart — they were meant to be together.
Example: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park begins with young Fanny going to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle. Once there, she becomes best friends with her cousin Edmund. As they grow up together, Fanny falls in love with Edmund; a fact she fiercely conceals, as Edmund makes it clear he does not feel the same. Eventually, Fanny is sent away and Edmund very nearly marries the wrong woman. Years later, the two are reunited, and Edmund sees what was in front of him all along (making this example also a Belated Love Epiphany).
Fanny Price sure is happy the 'Friends to Lovers' trope exists (image: Miramax Films )
7) The ‘I’m Actually a Secret Royal/Billionaire’
Members of the monarchy — they’re just like us, eh! Or at least, that’s the case with this romance trope. A royal figure or billionaire is tired of being in the public light. They just want to be treated as a normal person for a while, so they adopt a disguise or go somewhere they won’t be recognized. Then they meet someone who doesn’t give them the preferential treatment they’re used to. In fact, this new person likely treats them with casual disregard. This intrigues the secret royal/billionaire, who looks to get to know the other character better. The two form a relationship which blows up when the unsuspecting character finds out their love’s true identity, and feels betrayed by the lie. But then they get over it, one way or another, and the two end up together.
Example: Played to a T in The Prince and Me. Edvard is Denmark’s Crown Prince. When he sees a commercial showing American coeds lifting up their shirts for the camera, Edvard decides he wants to flee his life of royal responsibilities to attend the University of Wisconsin college (charming). There he meets Paige, a pre-med student who, initially, is not a fan of Edvard. The two eventually develop a relationship at the coffee shop they both work at, and romance ensues. When Paige discovers Edvard’s true identity, she leaves him. But the two eventually reconcile and end up pledging to be together.
8) The ‘Destined To Be Together’
While a lot of these examples of romance tropes have to do with two people slowly realizing their feelings for one another, the Destined To Be Together involves couples who know right from the start that they are in love. Their intense immediate bond is what maintains their resolve that they’re meant to be together while the universe, typically, conspires to separate them.
Example: In The Princess Bride, Westley is a farmhand to Buttercup and her family. As children, they fall in love. Westley goes off in pursuit of riches so that he can marry Buttercup and provide for her. When Buttercup receives news that leads her to believe Westley has died, she agrees to a proposal by Prince Humperdink. But Westley is alive and well, and comes back for Buttercup, leading the pair on a journey to fight for their one true love.
Destined to be together? As you wish (image: 20th Century Fox)
9) The 'Second Chance at Love'
This romance trope can play out in a number of ways. Perhaps a couple breaks up only to reunite decades later. Maybe they have been deeply hurt in the past, and have spent years avoiding any kind of romantic relationship. Now they will meet and learn to give love another chance. This is a hopeful trope that readers enjoy because it enforces the theme that “it’s never too late.”
Example: In Nora Roberts’ Birthright, Callie is an archaeologist called to work at a site where five-thousand year-old human bones have been found. As is her ex-husband Jake, with whom she had a passionate marriage that eventually disintegrated due to lack of communication and trust. Now, forced to work together again, they are confronted by their old problems and are forced to acknowledge that they still love one another.
10) The ‘Forbidden Love’
The forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, right? This romance trope involves two people who are desperately in love but are forced apart — either by their families, their culture, or geographical distance. Whatever the case, something is preventing them from being together. You could also call this the “Star-Crossed Lovers” trope, as the term “star-crossed” means that destiny has ruled something cannot be.
Example: Because the trope could also be called the “Romeo and Juliet” for how much the two are associated, we’ll go with a different example. In The Notebook, Noah and Allie fall in love from the get-go when they meet as teenagers. After a summer solidifying their soulmate status, Allie’s family moves away, separating the two. Her parents do not believe working class Noah is the right fit for upper class Allie, so her mother hides all the letters Noah sends, breaking Allie’s heart and forcing her to move on. Until… well, we all remember the kiss that won MTV’s Best Kiss award, right? (This is also an example of a ‘Second Chance at Love’ trope).
Star-crossed kissers (image: New Line Cinema)
11) The 'You’ve Changed'
Instead of following two people on their path to love love, this kind of story starts out with two people who are already in love, and likely married or in a committed relationship. One of the people in the pair ends up getting a new job or falling in with a new crowd of friends that changes them in some way, perhaps by altering their values or priorities. Maybe their new situation is simply eating up all their time so that they are no longer as dedicated to the relationship. Their significant other will make their feelings known, and eventually leave, when the relationship continues to disintegrate. This will cause the protagonist to realize that despite their high-flying career or flashy friends, their life is empty without their significant other, and they go back to their old ways, eventually convincing the other person to give them another chance.
Example: In the movie adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea gets a job as a personal assistant to a powerful fashion magazine editor. She sees this job as a stepping stone to a full-fledged career as a journalist, and therefore gives it everything she’s got. The job begins to consume her and change her values, until her boyfriend Alex no longer recognizes her and he leaves. Only when she quits her job and gets back in touch with her roots do they end up back together.
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How to make romance tropes feel new
Alright, now you’ve got an idea of the common conventions of romance, you can get started on putting your own spin on them. If you need a little extra help breathing new life into classic romance tropes, you can check out this detailed section of our post on fantasy tropes that walks authors through three trope-bending techniques. Here’s two examples:
Deconstruction. Embrace a trop in order to encourage discussion about that trope. For example, in Madame Bovary, the titular character spends all her time reading romance novels, and bases her actions and decisions on the hope that it will turn her own life into the fairytales she reads. Spoiler: there is no Happily Ever After.
Subversion. Give readers the sense that a trope is playing out as expected, only to defy their expectations when it unfolds in a different manner. Example: In Angels by Marian Keyes, the heroine rushes to the airport to declare love to her estranged husband (playing out the Belated Love Epiphany trope). She is stopped by security guards and returns home, sans husband. When she walks into her house, he is there waiting for her.
Finally, you can embrace tropes with the reassurance you’re still telling a unique story by paying attention to the details and specificity within your story. As writer and humorist John Hodgman remarks, “Specificity is the soul of narrative.”
Develop unique characters, write meet-cutes that resonate with the theme of your story, pepper your narrative arc with conflict and tension that feel real. Most of all, pay attention to the love story you’re writing, and work on developing that in a way that draws readers in and encourages emotional investment. Finally, evaluate whether you’re using a trope simply because you know readers like it, or because it adds value to your story. There’s nothing wrong with including elements you know readers love, so long as it enhances the story in one way or another.
Do you have any favorite romance tropes that you either enjoy reading or writing? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!