BY Pranika Nayyar
BY Pranika Nayyar
As contemporary romance novels dominate mainstream Book-Tok we ask the question, what is so captivating about a good love story?
Romance has been a bestselling genre for decades, saturating non-Western media including telenovela’s, Kdrama’s and Bollywood cinema as intensely as Western media (magical Taylor Swift songs, pleasant Hollywood films based on Nicholas Sparks novels and a plethora of admittedly one-dimensional but deliciously binge-worthy Netflix rom-coms). The sustained cultural dominance of and enthusiasm for this genre proves that all of us, whether we identify as hopeless romantics or not, are always eager to settle in for some heartfelt romance.
As an avid consumer of all sappy and sentimental media and one of UNSWeetened’s editors for 2022, I’m going to be discussing and ranking the four most popular romance tropes.
THE LOVE TRIANGLE
We begin with Number 4, the LOVE TRIANGLE.
Before you sharpen any proverbial pitchforks, let me assure you, I know that this is by far the most notorious trope on this list and I agree with almost all debates against it. Yes, it’s usually insufferable. There’s almost always a blatantly obvious Option 1 and a vague, uninteresting Option 2 so we can all foresee who the protagonist picks at the end. In fact, we’re usually all rooting for the first option because the second hasn’t been explored well enough in the text to actually tug on our concern or heartstrings.
We find ourselves harshly critiquing the protagonist for their indecision because we aren’t given any valid reasons for it. Furthermore, the love triangle is often done injustice and ends up feeling like meaningful plot filler, especially when indecision consumes the entire plot and doesn’t contribute to purposeful character development. Twilight failed the trope; we could all see that Bella was never going to end up with anyone besides Edward (my apologies to the werewolf, but he did nickname her daughter after another obnoxious mythical monster).
I can empathise with your distaste, but I uphold that when done right, the love triangle is a trope that highlights significant internal conflicts within each of the characters. It reaches a satisfying conclusion by doing justice to all three characters, furthering their individual development in a logical way that makes sense for their story arc and within the larger plot. This trope can serve us with agonising tension, hurt, pining and a genuinely compelling argument for all parties caught in the triangle.
The Hunger Games trilogy excelled with this trope as both Peeta and Gale had complex and challenging individualities to offer and both made logical sense for Katniss in their respective glories. Katniss deciding to be with Peeta was symbolic of her rejection of vengeance and her desire for tenderness and compassion after facing the tragedies of the war. Her decision indicated the end of a gratifying character arc and gifted us Everlark shippers with the wholesome content we were pining for the entire trilogy.
Jane the Virgin (2014-2019)
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
STAR CROSSED LOVERS / FORBIDDEN LOVE
Moving on to Number 3, the STAR CROSSED LOVERS / FORBIDDEN LOVE
We’re all familiar with Jack and Rose (Titanic, 1997) and Romeo and Juliet (another young Leonardo DiCaprio led film! And the legendary Shakespeare play, of course). They shouldn’t be together because of family rivalry or social standing or another set of tragic societal implications on what love should be and who it should be between, but they fall for each other anyhow. It’s difficult and dramatic, scandalous and oftentimes secretive as they struggle to maintain their love. While most media that capitalises upon this trope unfortunately does so alongside Insta-love, composers are still able to exploit endless pining between characters due to the unfavourable circumstances the trope demands.
While this trope can provide us with a sweet glimpse of adversity overcome and happy endings galore like In the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, it usually ends in immense tragedy and loss for one if not both of the characters like in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s repertoire of Bollywood films that employ this trope (recommendations below!). Done well, this trope can highlight oppressive structures and meaningfully critique them, all while being an ode to the resilience of love and capturing audiences in an endless paradox of entertainment and heart ache.
Ram Leela (2013)
Bajiro Mastani (2015)
Business Proposal (2022)
ENEMIES TO LOVERS
Here’s where it gets tricky, Number 2 with ENEMIES TO LOVERS
Book-Tok’s current enemies to lovers obsessions include the Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood and the Trouble with Hating You by Sajni Patel, but are they doing it right? This trope has completely saturated almost the whole contemporary and fantasy romance novel market right now, and I understand why. This trope can be scandalous and steamy, but is also brimming with the slow burn and mutual pining material that all of our hearts crave. We want the sexual tension and playful friction that emerges from conflicts between characters just as much as we want the cathartic release of that tension when their real underlying feelings are validated and expressed.
As a sub-trope of enemies to lovers, I need to acknowledge the tantalising tension that an academic rivals to lovers narrative can create. This is my personal favourite, although you can definitely chalk that up to the fact that I am a queer nerd who perceives healthy academic rivalry between two people as inherently laced with an electric (and occasionally homoerotic) undercurrent.
Enemies to lovers can seem like a futile trope because many times it is used ineffectively; the foundation of distaste between characters is baseless or illogical or the disagreeable flaws of the characters are not reconciled and just brushed over upon their union, thus transforming the trope into a plain Insta-love that denies audiences of legitimate complexity and satisfaction. What we yearn for is the slow and tender portrayal of these characters beginning to empathise with each other, compliment each other’s weaknesses with their strengths and build a believable and meaningful connection despite their initial objections before engaging romantically.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
The Proposal (2009)
FRIENDS TO LOVERS
It’s finally time for our Number 1, the classic FRIENDS TO LOVERS
This is a guaranteed romance favourite, and its highly praised reputation is warranted. We love this trope partially because we secretly crave it for ourselves, and partially because it showcases slow burn in all its torturous glory. There is fear and reluctance and mutual pining, all the wholesome emotionally charged content anybody could ask for.
It’s also one of the most realistic tropes because it renders a very human portrayal of love, depicting platonic ties growing to become deep and complex romantic feelings over a long period that could even encapsulate several years. Seeing how the partnership grows alongside the characters to involve romantic explorations of love is a journey that we embark on with the characters, often rooting for them long before they begin to realise their romantic interest.
Some of the best friends to lovers texts are queer, including my personal favourites, the Heartstopper graphic novels by Alice Oseman and Aristotle and Dante discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. While also capable of falling into the shallow trappings of Insta-love, this trope is ranked the highest because when done justice, the slow burn and mutual pining are unparalleled at garnering our emotional investment.
Successfully done, the friends to lovers trope constructs an interesting and nuanced narrative that examines how the evolving dynamics between two people over time can become a flawed but healthy romantic partnership.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998)
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Love, Rosie (2014)
Yona of the Dawn (2014)
Pranika is an editor at the UNSWeetened Literary Journal.
Teresa is a designer at the UNSWeetened Literary Journal.