Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Genre Talk: Conflict in Romance

Romance. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Whether comedy or drama, whether he's getting her or she's getting him, that's the basic format, but not all three components have to be involved in the novel. Boy met girl and lost her before your novel started, and the story now is about getting her back. Or, boy meets girl, and spends the entire novel "getting" her, with an implied happily-ever-after. Maybe boy loses girl, which, 350 pages later, we discover was for the best, and happily ever after means they both recognize they weren't meant to be.

But a story that jumps from "boy meets girl" to "happily ever after" isn't much of a story. As with every novel, romance needs conflict--plausible, realistic conflict. Leigh Michaels, on page 63 of her book On Writing Romance: How to craft a novel that sells, lists what conflict isn't:
  • Fighting, arguing, or disagreeing.
  • A delay that prevents progress (which is only an incident, not conflict).
  • Failure to communicate.
  • The trouble-causing interference of another person.
  • A main character's unwillingness to admit that the other person is attractive.
Tension caused by any of these listed is artificial and won't endure throughout the novel--it's not conflict, that which threatens the characters' relationship.

The conflict in romance comes from several sources:
  • Character/personality differences--from something simple, like he's a morning bird and she's a night owl, to something more complicated, like she's a lady of the evening and he's a man of the cloth.
  • Situational problems--maybe she's dying, maybe he's married, maybe she lives on the east coast and he lives on the west.
  • Conflicting goals--he wants to tear the building down and create a parking garage, but she wants to save the neighborhood hangout. She wants her client to have a bigger slice of the pie than his client, he wants to cut her client out entirely.
  • Conflicting motives--he wants to feed the hungry, she wants a photo-op. She wants to convert the natives, he wants to sell them cheap trinkets.
  • Conflicting backstories--she had a fairy-tale childhood, he lived on the streets. He graduated college with honors, she has a third-grade education.
Whatever the conflict, it must be plausible and realistic. Whether it's insurmountable depends on how you picture the end of your story. If you're aiming for "happily ever after," the conflict must be resolved in a forever-love way. If you're aiming for bittersweet, you have two alternatives: the relationship didn't work and both characters are happy with it, or the source of the conflict--death, for instance--makes a happy ending impossible.

So, we've got the basic components and the different conflict sources--now we can mix and match. Where do you want to start your story? Boy gets girl back? What separated them to begin with? Maybe he needed to grow up (conflict based on character), and now that he has, he's ready to prove his worthiness. Maybe she was transferred to Tokyo (conflict based on situation) and he finds her there.

What if you want the boy to lose his girl? By the time the story begins, they're already a couple. Maybe she's comfortable with surburbia and he's got his eye set on a mansion (conflict based on conflicting goals). Maybe they get thrown together to work on the same project--he's more take-charge and bossy than she realized from their home life, and their conflicting personalities drive them apart.

Wherever you start your story, however many components of the format you want to include, be certain you have a conflict that is realistic and plausible.
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  1. goodness, that sounds a lot like real life, to me,,,reckon? Hope things have been going well for you. glenn

  2. Things we kind of know, but it is good to hear them stated out loud. Thanks, Linda!

  3. Hey, Glenn, thanks for dropping by. Yeah, real life--that's the point. :D

    @Lynnette--I certainly hope this helps someone.

  4. I agree with everything in this post, except "fighting, arguing and disagreeing" isn't conflict? How did Michaels get that? Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of all kinds of romance stories (mostly movies) that have the romantic leads fighting for at least the first half of the story.

  5. Katie--I tried to read a book recently where the two MCs were arguing for no reason other than the author's need to create tension. It was artificial, contrived, and useless, and made worse by the hero's "attraction" to the heroine. The author wrote that the hero found the heroine endearing and charming, but what the author showed was page after page of her bickering over the silliest things.

    Arguing frequently stems from one of the conflict sources and isn't a conflict in itself. In romance, if the hero and heroine argue all the time for no apparent reason, the reader will wonder why they're together in the first place. With one of the conflict sources, the reader will want to know how they overcome their differences and settle their arguments.

    Does that help?

  6. Ah, I gotcha. "Arguing frequently stems from one of the conflict sources and isn't a conflict in itself." Excellent point.

  7. Bookmarking this--I know my two MC's need more conflict! (And not just the passing, piddly argument type.) Thanks for the tips. :)

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Keaghan. Glad I could help!

  9. Thank you for pointing out that the inane "come here, come here, come here, get away, get away, get away" stuff is not real conflict but filler.

    I have noticed the older I get, the less patience I have for that sort of thing. I also adopted a policy that if I'm not wooed in the first 50 pages, I'm closing the book. I won't get that time back and I don't have that much to waste.

    Thanks for this article.

  10. Susan, I'm with you. I have very little patience for poorly crafted books these days. Thanks for the comment.

  11. What's your opinion on sexual orientation as conflict? What would that fall under?

  12. Sexual orientation could definitely be a conflict for a romance, as long as the issue affects the two lovers. That's the point of a romance: it's between the two lovers. Subplots could involve disapproving parents, heterosexual spouses, conservatives bosses, spiritual conflict with God, but the romance is about the two involved.

  13. I just found your blog through another potential author who is subscribed to you. This was very informative as I am nearly done with a romantic suspense. Thanks for the advice! I look forward to whats to come on your blog.

  14. Thanks for joining us, Stephanie. I hope you find our blog informative and helpful.