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What Is Second Chance Romance?

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Second chance romances are the true high wire acts of the romance genre. By definition, they follow a relationship that dissolved at some point in the past, and new circumstances are giving that love another chance to blossom. Has the ground underneath that relationship undergone renewal and restoration, or are we talking about a scorched earth situation? Therein lies the tension!

I personally love a good second chance romance. I appreciate romances where people know each other well. These are the books where characters have a deep and storied history, some of it truly painful. And I live for the moments in these stories that are heart-breakingly romantic. To me, there is little more romantic than knowing something might blow up in your face — because it already did once! — and having the faith to give it another go nonetheless. Because of that past heartache, I think second chance romances are best for people who like romances with a lot of angst. I’m sure there are some good second chance romantic comedies, but these stories work best when the looming past gets serious consideration. So what are the elements of the best second chance romances? Let’s have a deeper look.

What is Second Chance Romance?

So what exactly counts as the second chance romance trope? Does a one-night stand in the past that comes back into a person’s life count? To me, it can, if that one encounter truly had some weight to it. And I think some time needs to have passed. A one-night stand whom a character meets again soon after their fateful encounter is a continuation of a single relationship, if I’m asked to split hairs. Those I’d label “one night to forever.”

What about childhood sweethearts or teenage lovers who come back together as adults? Again, people will differ with their opinions, but young people can deal with very real issues that may take until adulthood to sort out, so I’m willing to take those early relationships as seriously as the characters do.

Where I’d draw the line are the books where people did not mutually understand themselves to be in a romantic relationship. For example, there may have been some romantic tension or one-sided feelings in the past, but there was never a relationship to break up. For me, those might be better categorized with terms like unrequited love or friends-to-lovers.

What Makes a Good Second Chance Romance?

For me, an incredibly important element of a second chance romance is the right amount of backstory, with a true sense of the past love. The inclusion backstory really contributes to the degree of difficulty in writing this kind of romance. Given how some people hate prologues in their romance, being judicious in the past storytelling while avoiding infodumps that get boring is the needle to thread.

Speaking of prologues, some authors may be able to deliver a prologue that efficiently brings us up to speed with what brought people together and what tore them apart. The issue with a prologue is that we may understand the circumstances but not get a deep feeling of the love. Some authors deliver backstory doled out over time, and I generally find this more effective. It does have the effect that the book may be keeping secrets from the reader rather than the characters. It can be annoying when characters dance around but never name some Big Thing. But when it’s done well, I’m reading breathlessly, aching to know where it all went wrong.

The Good Old Days and the Bright Future

I really want to get a glimpse into those halcyon days of yore. I really want to feel like these people had it, and let it slip through their fingers somehow. Characters tearing themselves apart with lingering feelings of love (and perhaps lust!) against their better judgment are my favorite! The characters put up walls to protect themselves from that past pain and we get to watch them crumble.

The other element of a successful second chance romance is the believability of the happily ever after. These people meant to stay broken up, so what changed? The best second chance romances give readers real evidence that the change is personal and not just circumstantial. The characters in this romance had to dig deep to see their part in the initial failure of the relationship. And we want to see how they’ve changed. That gives readers faith that things really will work out for the best. Because we’ve likely all known some toxic on-again, off-again couples in real life, the kind where folks need to either do some serious introspection or cut ties. They might have main character energy, but it’s not happily ever after energy.

When Do Second Chance Romances Fall Flat?

Not all romance readers seek out the second chance trope, and I get it. For one, some of the fun of reading romance is in witnessing that spark of an early relationship, and that’s not going to be the primary focus of these stories that detail the reignition of a spark.

Where I see the most complaints is in the reason for breaking up. I think people often bring their personal biases to the fore especially strongly when reading romance, which leads to the out-of-hand dismissal of some tropes (and wow, there’s so much to unpack there!). I’m all for authors alienating some readers in favor of a bold and provocative premise, but some reconciliations are going to be impossible for people to stomach.

For example, many readers are very sensitive to infidelity in romance, so I think a writer is going to have a hard time bringing readers back around to root for a couple in which one person was unfaithful. The act simply crosses an unforgivable line for lots of people. But any time the behavior of one or both parties is too cruel or callous to ever come back from, readers may reject the happy ending.

The Best Second Chance Romance Books

Now that we’ve talked through this trope, let’s look at some books using it to its full advantage. I aimed to show a variety of the kinds of past relationships that show up in second chance romances.

private arrangements cover

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas

If you like high-angst historical romance, you simply must read Sherry Thomas’s backlist. This one focuses on the marriage of Lord and Lady Tremaine, AKA Camden and Gigi. They seem to have a perfectly respectable marriage to outsiders. In fact, they live on separate continents because past betrayals forced them apart. These two really did a number on each other, and yet they really love each other, so it takes a master storyteller like Sherry Thomas to patch things up between the two of them.

Before I Let Go cover

Before I Let Go by Kennedy Ryan

This book may be the GOAT of second chance romances. Yasmen and Josiah have never really been able to achieve any distance after their divorce. They have kids and a business together, so their lives are destined to be deeply entwined. This book is so, so emotional. Between the palpable love and chemistry between the two of them, the careful attention to the stories of the whole family, and a past heartbreak that both Yasmen and Josiah take accountability for, this book will shatter you and put you back together even better than new. It’s a force to be reckoned with.

Cover of All the Right Notes by Dominic Lim best romance books summer 2023

All the Right Notes by Dominic Lim

Here’s an example of a second chance romance that reunites people who had a relationship in high school. Quito and Emmett met in high school through music. Twenty years later, Quito’s father wants him to reconnect with Emmett for a charity performance. But Emmett’s a celebrity, while Quito is still struggling to make his Broadway dreams a reality. The story flashes back and forth between the past and the present in a slow burning, cathartic story.

Kiss Her Once for Me Book Cover

Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun

This book is on the more fun side of second chance romances because that past relationship was a short encounter. If you like capital-M Mess, this is a great pick! Ellie gets engaged to Andrew for marriage of convenience reasons, as you do in romance. When the two go back to see his family during the holidays, Ellie meets Andrew’s sister Jack. But Ellie already knows Jack. They shared a magical Christmas Eve the year before, and this Christmas might give them another shot at real love.

If you want to be even more of a romance expert, get the scoop on romance subgenres and tropes with some of our other guides:

What is a Marriage of Convenience in Romance?

What is Fast Burn Romance?

What is a Closed Door Romance?