Have you ever been looking for a book to read and tried to determine based on the description or reviews whether there is sex on the page? It can be difficult, because everyone uses different language to describe what I will refer to here as “heat level.” And then there are the tropes! What words do you need to know to find the type of romance that you want to read? What makes a story friends-to-lovers vs second chance, or marriage of convenience vs fake relationship? What do different romance terms mean?
I’m here to help.
Arranged in order of little-to-no heat to all the heat…
Romances with no sex at all are often called “clean” or “sweet,” and I hate both of these terms. If a sexless romance novel is clean, does that mean sex is dirty? I reject that notion wholesale. If a sexless romance novel is sweet, does that mean sex is sour? I reject that one as well. There is nothing wrong with a romance having no sex in it, therefore there is nothing wrong with saying a romance novel has no sex in it and just leaving it at that.
Note: Most “inspirational” romances fall under this category; these are typically Christian romances and the most likely to use “sweet” as their descriptor.
My preferred description for romance novels with sex that happens off the page, but definitely happens, is “closed door.” Having sex behind a closed door is a totally normal thing to do, and describing a book like The Proposal (which is very sexy but contains no actual sex on the page) that way is entirely accurate and lets readers know exactly what to expect.
Other terms that may be used are fade to black, off the page, gentle, and private. In some cases, it is ambiguous whether sex happens.
This is subjective and the line between a three-alarm fire and a four-alarm fire is blurry at best. That said, these are the books where the sex happens on the page but the descriptions are minimal. For some people, this category would mostly include euphemistic descriptions, while for others it would be sex scenes that are more mechanical in description.
Have you ever been reading a romance novel and found yourself extremely hot and bothered? Yeah. These are the sex scenes that, whatever style may do it for you, are extremely sexy and explicit. As already mentioned, the line between these and the previous category is extremely blurred. Your explicit scene may be my perfunctory explanation of the mechanics of sex, and vice versa, but these do tend to have more description.
Other terms that may be used: spicy, hot, HAWT, steamy, juicy, bow chica wowow.
Most romance novels utilize at least one of these tropes, and oftentimes multiple tropes are mashed together to create new and intriguing plot lines for our hapless heroes. This extremely non-exhaustive list (there are probably hundreds!) is arranged alphabetically.
I’ll ease you in slowly: Lizzie and Darcy. While Pride and Prejudice is not structured like a modern romance novel, it does fit the bill.
“I told my family I have a girlfriend and now they expect me to bring her to cousin Rita’s wedding!” Guess what’s going to happen. Go on, guess.
“We have to be in very close proximity and whoops our hands keep touching.” This one is limited pretty much only by the author’s imagination.
Subcategory: Only One Bed
This subcategory is really only important because it is THE BEST ROMANCE TROPE THERE IS. Other subcategories include road trip, work assignment, and snowed in.
“We are FRIENDS and that friendship is TOO IMPORTANT TO MESS WITH, I am definitely not having any PANTS FEELINGS.” Okay. You let me know how that works out for you.
Subcategory: Childhood Friends
I debated whether this was a subcategory of friends-to-lovers or if it should count as second-chance, and the fact is that some stories fit both, but not all childhood friends are former lovers. Either way, this one usually involves meeting as adults after not having seen each other for several years. (Surprise! Your playmate got hot.)
Oh, you sweet summer children. You really thought you could get it on without catching feelings, didn’t you? This one pairs beautifully with almost every single other trope there is.
“Oh no, I love Gale AND Peeta!” (The Hunger Games is not a romance novel, but that is a love triangle.)
He needs a wife to inherit his family estate; she needs a husband to escape a worse fiancé; they need spouses for tax reasons. More common in historical, this one pretty much always goes the same way (guess what). Sort of a subcategory of the fake relationship, this works in its own way.
It ain’t fiction, just a natural fact…
This differs from the love triangle in that the protagonist(s) don’t have to choose between prospective lovers, though they do have to communicate like whoa.
No, I don’t know why royalty is a whole thing. Until recently, this trope mostly appeared in historical romance, but now it’s everywhere. I’m not complaining.
They used to be together. Something happened. Now they are older and maybe wiser? And circumstances are such that they can pick things up again, if only there weren’t some miscommunication in the way.
Often (but not always) a subcategory of second-chance romance, this one can be fairly easily divided into “secretly pregnant right now” and “secretly had your baby, surprise, there is an actual human!”
On the one hand, it would be weird if one of my friends were to date my sister (not the least because my sister is married), but on the other hand, it’s really none of my business? But the folks in these novels think it’s their business, and they have rules. Rules which are definitely getting broken.