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Examining the Six Stages of Enemies to Lovers Stories

Romance is easily the most popular genre right now. With so many different relationship tropes present in these stories, it's hard to pick which one might be best for your narrative. One undeniable fan favorite is the enemies-to-lovers trope. It's been popularized in fiction and even fanfiction. What's better than watching as two people who initially despise each other end up falling for each other right before our eyes? Not much!

When they're willing to sacrifice their own lives for each other? Even better!

What's unique about the enemies-to-lovers trope is that it can successfully work in any romantic or non-romantic subgenre. From contemporary young adult romance stories like Michelle Quach's Not Here to Be Liked to Leigh Bardugo's fantasy fiction novel Six of Crows, enemies-to-lovers relationships steal the show. Why is this? What makes this dynamic so engaging for readers, and what can you do to ensure your own enemies-to-lovers story will succeed? We're so glad you asked!

Who are your lovers?

Your love interests are the most important part of your story, so it's crucial to spend some time establishing their respective backgrounds. Why do they initially dislike each other? This is the biggest question you want to ask yourself before you begin writing. Establishing this background will ensure that you write believable character relationships, both enemies and lovers, from start to finish. Here are some things for you to consider:

  • Establish identity: As we mentioned above, the enemies-to-lovers trope will work in pretty much any kind of story, so this gives you plenty of options for what kind of story you want to write and how you shape your characters. Perhaps you want to write a fantasy romance where one of your characters is a knight in shining armor protecting his kingdom from a warrior princess from a neighboring empire. Or perhaps you want to experiment with a contemporary office romance, and your protagonists are coworkers competing for the same promotion. Whichever identities you choose for your protagonists, you must ensure they make sense for establishing your chosen conflict.
  • Conflicting – sometimes completely opposite – values: Characters with opposing values can be challenging because it may seem like there is absolutely no way they can get over their differences. Take a witch and a witch hunter, for example. Their very identities conflict, so obviously their values are completely at odds. How on earth would these two characters overcome their hatred for each other and become lovers? Well, that's your job as a writer to figure out! In fact, the more their values differ, the more gratifying it is for readers when they ultimately get together in the end. We love when the seemingly impossible becomes possible.
  • The hate cannot be unforgivable: There is a fine line between enemies to lovers and bullies or abusers to lovers. One is full of mounting tension and long-standing animosity, and the others are full of unjustified mistreatment and potential Stockholm Syndrome. But how do you make this distinction in your own writing? It's best to avoid using murder, torture, kidnapping, bullying, and other forms of abuse as the source of the hatred. This leads to an implausible romantic scenario. You don't want to promote or perpetuate unhealthy relationship dynamics. To create a good enemies-to-lovers arc, there needs to be the…
  • Potential to get along: There's something that makes them hate each other so much it may seem like they'll never overcome those obstacles to be a couple, and yet they do. This is because the origin of the hatred isn't so objectionable that they'll never be able to forgive each other and move on. So, what kinds of things lead to their animosity? We'll explore that soon. Another dimension to explore is the characters' subtle similarities—well, subtle to them, but obvious to readers! We can see how much they have in common even if they don't, and that's what gives them the potential to get along.

Now that you've got your characters, it's time to put them into that enemies-to-lovers arc. This isn't something that should come easily. If it does, then you might be rushing your story and leaving little room for character and plot development. Readers don't want to see enemies on one page and then lovers on the next. There needs to be a natural progression, so let's discuss how to accomplish writing that narrative.

The stages of the enemies to lovers trope

To avoid falling into a rushed romance where your enemies become lovers within a few pages, you can follow this outline we've created to establish a sensible timeline for your characters to fall in love. After all, you don't want to deprive your readers of all that delicious tension and development.

1. Making an enemy

male and female colleagues staring each other down in an office setting
Contemporary enemies-to-lovers romance stories may feature academic and professional enemies. Photo by Deagreez.

As the trope suggests, your characters are going to start out as enemies. That's kind of the whole point, but what makes them enemies? We've told you what kinds of background you should avoid – kidnapping, murder, abuse, bullying – but, aside from establishing your characters' identities, we haven't discussed what kinds of background you might think of including in your story. Here are a few dynamics you may consider writing in your story:

  • Academic/workplace rivals: This is a subset of the enemies-to-lovers trope because it specifies the enemies as academic rivals. Maybe they're the top two students fighting it out for valedictorian, or maybe they're both campaigning to be class president. Or maybe they're employees fighting for the favor of their boss.
  • War/battle: This is one of the most common and popular backgrounds for this trope. It makes establishing the protagonists as enemies easy because you can place them on different sides of a war. Maybe they're royals from warring countries, or maybe they're soldiers trying to survive amidst violence and conflicting feelings. Either way, this backdrop makes it easy to create characters with differing perspectives.
  • Other external forces: Perhaps your characters despise each other because that's what they've been taught to do by their families or friends. Everyone around them is telling them to dislike the other, so they do, no questions asked. This can also lead to issues such as miscommunication and misunderstanding, both of which are fertile ground for plot development.

2. The clash

a man and a woman stare at each other while typing on their computers
Your enemies will come face-to-face in some kind of conflict. This can range from a battle to a partner project. Photo by Fizkes.

In the beginning stages of your story, you want your enemies to encounter each other, if they haven't been in contact from the very beginning of the story. There needs to be some inciting incident that makes them interact with each other. After all, it's totally possible to have an enemies story between two characters who have never met, but it's impossible for this to shift to a love story if the characters never interact. Here are some possible encounters you may consider:

  • Partners for a project: This can work in an academic or corporate setting and forces your characters to work together on something they find important to their identities. Readers love the forced-proximity trope, especially when the two characters can't stand each other.
  • Meeting on the battlefield: What's better than a clash between enemies on the battlefield? How about the aftermath? What happens after they meet in battle? Do they get separated from their respective troops, leaving them lost and alone together? Are they both presumed dead? Does one character kidnap the other to use them as leverage for negotiations? There are endless options to explore depending on your narrative. For example, the stakes in a post-battle war story may be higher than those present in a contemporary school rivalry story.
  • Undercover mission: Maybe your enemies are both spies and they're assigned an undercover mission. They must work together for the greater good, even if it kills them.
  • Need each other to survive: This could relate to the aftermath of enemies meeting on the battlefield or another dangerous scenario. What happens when your enemies find themselves alone with nobody else to rely on for survival but each other? Fireworks (and probably an argument or twenty)!

3. A shift in the air

male and female work colleagues smile while working together on an assignment
In this stage, your enemies will realize there is more to each other than meets the eye. They will begin to respect each other. Photo by Bnenin.

Your enemies have come together and are starting to develop respect for one other. This is an important step in the process because while enemies harbor feelings of animosity for each other, lovers need to feel mutual admiration and approval. Be sure you give your characters a chance to see another side of each other. Maybe one cared for the other while they were sick, or maybe one of the characters went hunting for food to provide for them while they were lost in the woods together.

We have discussed wanting to avoid an immediate shift from enemies to lovers. What comes between those two stages? Friendship, of course! A friendship stage, even a brief one, is necessary for a successful enemies-to-lovers story because it allows for a natural progression to take place. Arguing turns into banter, and snide comments turn into playful jabs meant to poke fun at one another. It's certainly not a smooth ride, but it highlights the potential for your enemies to become something much more, giving your reader something to look forward to in the coming pages.

4. Being vulnerable

a man and woman clasp hands
Stage 4 has your characters expressing their innermost feelings to each other. This show of vulnerability will lead to trust. Photo by Kittiphan.

It is no easy feat to express your inner doubts and worries to a friend or family member – it is even more difficult to show this kind of vulnerability to someone you consider an enemy. What if they use your feelings against you? There is risk in this, but it only adds to the development of the romance.

It's time for your enemies to have "the talk." A meaningful conversation about fears, hopes, and dreams can go a long way in making your enemies more receptive to each other. Fighting through their resistance to bond in some way shows the potential for them to be lovers because they can finally establish some common ground.

This is the moment where your enemies realize, hey, maybe we're not so different after all. And the readers will think, seriously? That's what we've been saying all along! The similarities should be subtle so that the characters don't immediately recognize them, yet it's obvious to the readers.

This is also a stage where you want to ramp up the tension between your characters. Tension is arguably the most essential feature to include in an enemies-to-lovers story because it emphasizes the characters' emotions and foreshadows the inevitable character development and relationship progression. The three key types of tension to include are:

  • Hateful tension: This one is obvious, given you're writing a story about enemies falling in love. Be sure not to forget where the characters originated and what started their hate-filled relationship. Even though they're working towards friendship (and something more), it's hard to quickly forget old feelings.
  • Inner tension: Just as with any character you write, your protagonists should have their own inner turmoil. In this instance, maybe your characters are beating themselves up for becoming friendly with their enemy. Maybe they feel like they're betraying themselves, their family, or their country by engaging with them. They may feel guilt and confusion – even hatred – towards their enemy, because of their burgeoning feelings.
  • Sexual/romantic tension: We can't forget the lovers part of this story! It's inevitable for your protagonists to develop feelings for each other, though they are loath to initially admit it to themselves. Maybe your characters sneak furtive glances at each other when the other isn't looking (though they certainly feel the gaze). This type of tension is also characterized by the most resistance. Who wants to admit their greatest enemy is attractive?

5. Losing for love

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In this stage, your characters will prove their dependability and trustworthiness to one another through their actions. Photo by Vitaliymateha.

They've become somewhat friendly; they've been a bit vulnerable with each other. Now what? The moment has come for one or both of your characters to sacrifice something for the other. This entails doing something to put themselves at risk to prove themselves to their potential lovers. Maybe one character acts as the bait and get kidnapped by enemy forces so the other character can escape, or maybe one character puts themself in danger to protect the one they've come to love.

This step is all about the characters proving to each other that they are dependable and trustworthy. They may have developed some kind of friendship and exchanged personal information, but that doesn't mean there is trust present, which is one of the most important factors in a romantic relationship. The readers trust the characters (most of the time), but they need to ultimately trust one another.

6. Lovers at last

man and woman lean into a kiss with the sun shining in their faces
After enduring external osbtacles and inner conflicts, your enemies have officially becomes lovers. Photo by Strelciuc.

This is the moment we've all been waiting for! Enemies have finally become lovers. Your characters have overcome their differences and are now on the same team. They've forgiven each other for past mistakes and are working towards a better, more cohesive future together.

Who wouldn't swoon over someone who was willing to sacrifice themselves for another person? We certainly would (and have)! All the tension, conflict, vulnerability, doubts, and fears have all been worth it for the characters to have their happy ending. That's one of the greatest parts about enemies to lovers – the trope itself implies a satisfying resolution.

The romantic resolution

Your protagonists have successfully made the shift from enemies to lovers. Wahoo! Your characters should have experienced their own personal growth and development. Instead of focusing on their own biases and feelings, they've come to understand and appreciate the thoughts and feelings of their partner.

Now what? That's entirely up to you to decide. Although your characters got their own romantic happy ending, maybe your story didn't wrap up with a pretty little bow. Maybe this is just the beginning of their romantic story. And maybe it'll take more than one book for them to get their happily ever after. Either way, we can't wait to see where it leads!

Header photo by Goodluz.

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