In a recent DBSA podcast, Jane Litte from Dear Author and I answered listener mail, including one message from a reader named Jennifer who was trying to figure out how it happened that she had two very separate reading experiences with a single book. The first time she read Fifty Shades of Grey, she was absorbed and transfixed by the story. But after reading negative reviews of the book, she went back and read it again, and that time noticed the grammatical errors and phrase repetition other readers had complained about. For Jennifer, the emotional connection she had with the characters was so strong that she felt the book had been good—but then she was questioning her own definition of "good" when she noticed the errors in her second examination of the same book.

(Girl, I have so been there.)

As Jane and I answered her question about how to define "good" objectively and subjectively, Jane mentioned was that there are some tropes that just work for you as a reader, and you're going to be drawn to those types of books. I agree. Not only is it a good idea to learn what it is that you like as a reader, but it's an empowering thing to do. Once you learn what tropes, characters and types of romance you enjoy, you can go find more of them, and find yourself reading a whole pile of books that leave you with Good Book Noise. (Good Book Noise is the noise readers make when someone mentions a book they love. It's somewhere between a gasp and a sigh and is most often followed by the words, "Oh, I LOVE that book.")

Tropes are, to define them broadly, repeating elements. The horribly addictive website (no, seriously, don't click on the link, or you'll lose six hours of your productivity) TV Tropes explains the difference between a trope and a cliche: "Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means 'stereotyped and trite.' In other words, dull and uninteresting." So, for example, familiar conventions in romance might include virgin widows, wounded heroes healed by the power of the heroine's magic hoo-hah, or the ever-popular Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who, once you've learned to recognize, will show up every-freaking-where.

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Romance tropes can become cliches in the hands of a writer who uses the familiar character or element to create a shorthand for the reader's comprehension. Instead of showing the development of a relationship, for example, the book may insert two familiar characters (Brooding hero! Innocent iconoclastic period-inappropriate heroine with bookish tendencies! Add water and bake for 20 minutes!) and build the story more on the reader's familiarity with those two conventions instead of creating dynamic characters and complex emotional scenes for those two familiar people.

 E.M. Forster defined "flat characters" and "round characters" in his book Aspects of the Novel, explaining that flat characters don't change much in the course of the story, and don't surprise the reader. Round characters change, experience conflict and often do surprise the reader. So, to employ Forster's definition, a trope used poorly can become a cliched flat character. But a familiar trope employed in an innovative fashion becomes a round character that surprises and engages the reader. Tropes in and of themselves are not bad, but it's important for fans of romance, I think, to recognize them when they show up (which they will) and, most importantly, to learn which ones they love most.

Romance takes a good amount of snide derision for being "formulaic" or "all the same," which is utter craphooey. There is a structure to romance, just as there is to any good piece of fiction that's satisfying to read, and there are familiar elements that are usually employed, but that does not mean the books are all the same–any romance reader could tell you that much. A brooding, misunderstood duke can turn into two very different characters, depending on the writer who deploys him in a story. That is why tropes are useful things for readers, especially romance readers. Familiarity does not always breed contempt in our literary circle, because learning what types of conflicts and what kinds of characters are most intriguing to us allows us to learn what kind of books we want to read. And, as you know, there are a LOT of romances to choose from!

Homework time! What are your favorite tropes in romance? What familiar elements do you gravitate towards every time? In my next column, I'm going to discuss my favorite tropes, and why I adore them. In the meantime, I would love to hear your favorites! Share, share!

Many thanks to Aislinn Kearns for this topic idea.

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned towards a book.