The more I study shōjo manga, the more interested I’ve become in romance tropes. Based on about a month of observation throughout about two dozen fandoms on AO3, here are my notes on the sort of stories that get hundreds of kudos within the first day of being posted. I’m not judging, just observing:
(1) Ideally, one should be writing for a popular pairing in a popular entertainment franchise.
Even more ideally, the writer should also have a huge following on Tumblr because of their artwork. I actually think that the single most effective thing you can do to improve the reception of your writing is to develop your skill in visual art, but writing for a popular pairing definitely helps.
(2) The story needs to be at least 3,000 words, and 4,500 words is ideal.
The most effective structural balance seems to be 800 to 1,000 words of setup, 1,500 to 2,500 words of erotica, and maybe around 500 words of postcoital conversation. If an author can consistently put out a 4,500 word chapter of a slow burn novel every week (or, in a best-case scenario, twice a week), then the story has the potential to get massive numbers of hits and kudos, but intense sexual tension still needs to be incorporated every four chapters or so.
(3) The male lead needs to be scary.
If he’s murdered people, that’s good. If he’s murdered entire geographical populations of people, that’s even better. The idea is that he’s misunderstood and really a gentle person, but that he will only show this side of himself to his female love interest.
(4) The male lead needs to hate himself.
“I’m a monster,” he needs to think. “I’m a terrible, terrible monster, and no one will ever love me.” This is the cue for the heroine to step in and heal him with amazing therapeutic sex. She is special because her hidden depths allow her to see past all the murder. Basically, this is a way to flatter the reader, who also possesses hidden depths and is able to love the male character despite the fact that he’s scary.
(5) Both the male and female lead need to have tragic pasts.
Even if one or both parties haven’t been abused or mistreated in canon, they still need to bond and express vulnerability by revealing their secret trauma to one another. This creates feelings of mutual understanding and sympathy that pave the way for sexytimes.
(6) One or both parties need to feel intense guilt about their intimacy.
“No, I shouldn’t” and “No, we shouldn’t” are common phrases. One party needs to either convince or coerce the other party into a sexual situation. The “I’m a terrible monster” trope ties directly into this, especially if the male partner gets a bit angsty or violent. The more dubious the consent, the better. Obviously this is not a good model for relationships in the real world, but it’s precisely because it’s fiction that things can get a little rough and kinky without anyone getting hurt.
Again, I’m not judging, just observing. It’s easy to look at some of these tropes and pass them off as simple self-imposed misogyny, but I really don’t think that’s what’s going on in a lot of the fanfic I’ve read. Based on the quality of the writing, I also don’t think most of these authors are young and inexperienced. Obviously this is a very shallow summary of these narrative patterns, and I’m interested in conducting a more detail-oriented and nuanced study.