The Romance Conflict

I write romance novels. I love them, read them, talk about them, recommend them (I also love the people who write them. A better, more supportive group of writers does not exist on this planet). And I write them. Oddly enough, the biggest issue I have with writing romance novels is the romance part of it. Funny, isn’t it? No, I’m not laughing either.

I understand the basics of what makes a romance between two people occur. There’s a spark of interest, spark is fanned, people fall in love. You um, need a little bit more than that to have a story. How do they meet? What causes the spark? Lots of questions to answer before the story will be any good. Another aspect I find critical is to determine why THESE two people and not two other people? What makes them right for each other and in turn, will make the reader believe they’ll be together forever? That’s a whole other post in itself.

The big area I have trouble with is conflict. In genre novels, especially romance, the core of the story comes from conflict. No one reads a romance novel and wonders how the book is going to end, which is why we read them in all their wonderful forms. But HOW the characters get to their happily ever after is what leaves us biting our nails. Stuff happens and pulls the characters apart. We see no way for this to be reconciled and then BAM! The conflict is resolved and we breathe a sigh of relief.

Remember, we’re talking about the romance conflict. In genre fiction, you have external and internal goals, motivation, and conflict. I’ve settled on the idea that the internal GMC is essentially the romance piece of it – because that’s where romance happens: internally. In the heart and mind. Side note – I use romance to mean love because honestly, in a romance novel, it’s interchangeable. In real life, yes, you can have a romance without falling in love and vice versa. But not in romance novels.

So the conflict is what’s keeping our characters from either falling in love or if they are in love, what keeping them from their happily ever after. The “rules” of romance writing say the conflict has to be believable. As a reader, I agree. I don’t like conflict which can be easily resolved with a conversation or is based on a misunderstanding (“That woman you saw me with is my sister”). I’m also not a huge fan of the deception conflict, where one of the characters is in disguise or lies about who they are, because I really don’t think it’s believable that the other person would forgive them unless it’s really, really well motivated. That leaves us with conflict of circumstance or character.

Circumstance is great if done well, like in my favorite Julia Quinn book An Offer from A Gentleman. If you haven’t read it, GO READ IT NOW, and come back. The heroine is of questionable birth and the hero is a Bridgerton. Regency England being what it was, the hero is convinced they can’t marry because of their circumstances. Now that’s a conflict which is not easily resolved. I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t read it but I love how Ms. Quinn did it.

Conflict of character is the other one I like. It’s where your characters have opposing viewpoints or moral compasses which don’t align well. This is where I think true romantic conflict can shine but I have trouble with figuring out how to put the characters in opposition without making one or both of them unlikable or a criminal. Not that you can’t have that. I’m just not good enough to pull that off. Yet. So I read this great article by Theresa Stevens, the publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, called Opening Guideposts. She mentioned something that made me stop and think for days.

I’ll quote it here: For the romantic conflict to have maximum impact, make sure the reader understands something about the heroine’s essential romantic posture. We all hold to beliefs about love which may or may not be true. You might think of these as akin to character themes, but with a specific romance slant: Lily believes she can’t have both a career and a marriage, or Jenna believes the only real love is love at first sight, or Bree believes men are only good for one thing.

Wow. I think I have these “love beliefs” built into my characters but I never thought about them as the major source of the romantic conflict. Stevens is talking here about the opening scene of your book, but shouldn’t this one-sentence romantic posture pretty much drive the story? (BTW, is anyone else really itching to write Bree’s story? My brain went in a hundred directions with that one…) I had an epiphany with this and it’s going to change how I plot from now on. Also, go read the entire article. It’s awesome.

Your turn: how do you incorporate romantic conflict into your story? Are there other types of romance conflict I didn’t cover?

11 thoughts on “The Romance Conflict

    • Ha! See, that is so not where my mind went. I was thinking they were only good for changing the oil in your car… 🙂 Thanks for stopping by! Glad you liked the post.

  1. I love that quote about love beliefs. I know that when I was dating my husband (back in the Stone Age — we’ve been married since 1997) I would find myself pushing him away because I had a deep-seated belief that happiness did not exist and that if things seemed too good they were destined to fail. It sounds silly to me now after all these years happily married, but it was a significant conflict for me at the time. I kept wanting to just hurry up and end the relationship sooner rather than be hurt later.

    I agree about romance writers, too. They’re great! It took me a very long time to admit to myself that romance is not the genre I want to write, because the people are so fantastic.

    • Thanks for stopping by Deana! So happy this resonated with you. Your real life conflict doesn’t sound silly at all – it’s actually very believable and exactly what I think Stevens meant about love beliefs. I’m totally stealing it for a future book! I’m sorry to hear you’ve left the ranks of romance writers. What genre snapped you up?

      • I never pictured myself writing fantasy, but I’m working on a novel based on an ancient epic that has big battles and magical creatures. Go figure.

      • That’s what I loved growing up – fantasy. Maybe I’ll join you in the never pictured myself category one day. Good luck with it! I hope it’s every bit as cool as it sounds. 🙂

  2. I think you’ve got to look at each characters core beliefs and make his opposing number force him or her to face that ultimate challenge. Michael Hague said it best for me-“I will do anything you want except “?” and then you make your character face “?” preferably provided by his heroine. And conflict can also change as a book progresses and if you are very clever, the conflict that your characters ‘think’ is their main sticking point isn’t actually the real conflict after all…

    • Hmm. I’d like to be clever. 🙂 I’ll have to think on how to make the conflict different than the one they actually thought they had. Also, I like the “anything you want except” method. I just have a hard time with it because the “except” I usually think of is nothing short of reprehensible. Must start thinking in terms of “except get married” or “except fall in love”. That would work, right? Thanks for stopping by Kate. You’re made of awesome.

  3. Pingback: Big Black Moment « The Heart of the Universe

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