Why Tropes Dominate Romance Novel Marketing
Romance is the single biggest genre published in the entire fiction market, and serves as a great customer segmentation example. A primary way the industry segments customers in marketing romance is by individual “tropes.” This practice is ubiquitous in romance novel marketing, whether among publishers, or independent content creators. Why?
What Is A Trope?
By “trope” I mean a kind of rhetorical shorthand for talking about recognizable plot trends in stories (and by “plot” I mean the sequence of events which happens in a story.) Thus, if you recognize some plot point occurring in multiple stories, you can reasonably call it a “trope.”
Examples of commonly identified tropes in modern romance novels include, but are not limited to:
- “enemies to lovers”
- “second chance”
- “fake dating”
- “love triangle”
- “forbidden love”
One might argue, like Sonia Jarmula, that the classic romance novel Pride and Prejudice, contains the “enemies to lovers” trope, insofar as the protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, initially despise each other before they eventually end up in love.
Similarly, one might argue that another one of Austen’s classics, Persuasion, contains the “second chance” trope, because its heroine, Anne Elliot, first rejects Captain Wentworth as a husband, before the two finally end up years later happily married at the novel’s end.
Funnily enough, we get the English word “trope” from a Greek word referring to “twists” and “turns.” So, if it helps, you can imagine “tropes” as recognizable twists and turns in plots.
Trope Customer Segmentation Example: What Makes Them Useful For Marketing Romance Novels?
In practice, the readers of romance novels are often segmented by marketers of romance novels according to customers’ particular interests in specific tropes. This “trope first” marketing approach solves a number of related problems for publishers, writers, and readers.
One problem is not unique to romance. Naturally, many want to know why we like the stories we do, either to experience more stories they will like, or market stories to the people who will love them. Focusing on “tropes” can simplify the task of diagnosing why people like certain stories. After all, it’s much harder to identify and prioritize the reasons why you like a story than it is to summarize key twists and turns of its plot. As a result, talking about key tropes is an easily grasped way to analyze why stories can move us: why we love some, and despise others.
At the same time, it’s arguably the case that tropes matter more in romance than other genres.
Romances, like tragedies, typically don’t create dramatic tension and excite readers with the plot by framing the ending of the story as truly unknown. In both romances and tragedies, the outcome is known: in one, love will end happily ever after; in the tragedy, things will end… tragically. The predictability of the end is not why these genres of stories excite us.
As a result, the usual sources of dramatic tension in romances, and tragedies, come from how the story will twist and turn in unexpected ways, while still arriving at its inevitable conclusion. What matters is the journey, not the destination. Truly, what happens along the way, not the end.
In other words, the twists and turns of the plot away from the inevitable end are what is most exciting in a romance, or tragedy. In short, the tropes are of necessary importance in a romance. Given this, it is appropriate that romance novel marketing often segments customers with tropes. These twists and turns of plot are, in fact, an essential component of any romance. Thus, it’s no exaggeration to say that skillful use of tropes is required in any good romance, in a way that is much less important to other genres, where the outcome of the story is framed as unknown.
In sum, focusing on tropes solves multiple problems for romance publishers, writers, and readers. It gives everyone an easily understood way to diagnose why they like what they like, while centering discussion on something that is uniquely crucial to the romance genre. As a result, customers’ interests in specific “tropes” is a natural way to segment and market to them.
Trope Customer Segmentation Example: What Makes Them Unhelpful for Marketing Romance Novels?
Unfortunately, sometimes the easiest things to measure are not truly what matters. Which is why a “trope first” mindset among readers or marketers of romance novels can be deeply problematic.
One problem is theoretical, but still has notable consequences. In so far as “tropes” are sequences of events in a plot we think follow patterns, “tropes” are by definition, a supremely vague and unclear kind of imaginary category. Which all but guarantees that everyone will struggle to agree on what stories contain which kind of tropes, but, much worse, that there will be perpetual disagreement about which tropes even exist or matter most.
In practice, this means fixating on “tropes” doesn’t tell us as much about stories and why we like them as we might think they do. Furthermore, unless we know how a particular person defines the scope of a certain trope, we don’t really even know what they mean when referring to it. Thus, only the most vague descriptions of a “trope” can be easily and reliably understood by many, which necessarily limits how useful tropes are in helping us think about or market stories.
Still, there is a much worse, far more pressing, and fundamentally practical problem with fixating discussions about romance novels and their marketing on tropes.
In truth, we love stories for much more than being a mere collection of tropes. I’d venture, we likely love them more for their characters. We feel most deeply for the fictional people, not the tropes which occur in their stories. Tropes are the effects of memorable characters, not the causes. Thus, we will often be disappointed if we imagine that tropes alone can show us why we love stories, much less which stories would best be marketed to any given segment of customers.
After all, readers presumably don’t love Austen’s classics, like Pride and Prejudice, or Persuasion, because one has an “enemies to lovers” trope, and the other a “second chance” trope. Rather, what inspires a love for Austen are, I imagine: her protagonists themselves, the writing that make us admire their virtues, lament their vices, empathize with their motives, root for them. And, that says nothing of how Austen expresses themes still of deep relevance for today’s lovers: whoever we are, our relationship desires remain subject to societal norms and fate’s whims.
Ultimately, tropes are merely one part of what makes stories what they are. Frankly, tropes are of less importance relative to all the other parts of a story, romance or not. Because, the mere presence of tropes alone cannot substitute for everything else in a good story, even if the use of tropes arguably matter much more in romances relative to genres with less predefined endings.
Ultimately, my point is that overestimating the importance of tropes inspires a problematic over-reliance on them. One that makes for worse romances. In other words, we should not hyper fixate on tropes because this will harm:
- writers’ ability to write excellent stories
- readers’ ability to learn why they love what they do
- marketers’ ability to sell novels that satisfy customers.
In short, the most effective way to learn why we love certain stories, or to market romances to others, necessarily involves a more comprehensive strategy than a “trope first” mindset alone.
Trope Customer Segmentation Example: Why This Romance Novel Marketing Trend Will Likely Continue
Ultimately, despite the issues I raise, I suspect tropes will likely continue to dominate conversations about romance and the marketing of romance novels.
Tropes can’t fully and convincingly explain why we love the stories we do, but they do provide an easily grasped tool that is uniquely helpful for thinking about why we love certain romances. For that reason, romance readers and marketers are not likely to ignore tropes any time soon.
Thus, anyone looking to better understand their own taste in romances, or market to certain segments of consumers in the romance novel industry, would do well to pay attention to tropes, without overestimating their importance relative to everything else that truly makes stories work.