Secrets of romantic conflict
Published: December 29, 2004
|Romance is a massive market, with thousands of developing writers struggling to crack it. Those who succeed know how to create and resolve romantic conflict to sustain suspense.|
Romance literature tells us that love is the most powerful force in our lives. A story that does not convey this message is not a romance, although it may contain a romantic subplot.
Even romances that end unhappily, like Casablanca and Bridges of Madison County, show readers how love can help one achieve personal growth. In the best romances, this powerful love-message is inseparable from story conflict and suspense.
|What is romantic conflict?|
In a romance, falling in love creates problems for both hero and heroine, but ultimately love's power provides the solution. During their romantic journey, characters must experience both internal and external conflict as they struggle to achieve their goals.
Internal conflict is the result of a character's wanting two incompatible things. A hero wants love, yet fears being vulnerable. A heroine must keep a secret, although her moral code demands honesty.
In my novel Hidden Memories, my heroine Abby has a secret. Her daughter Trish was conceived with Ryan, a stranger she met when she was in shock after her husband's death. Abby knows she should be honest about her daughter's real father, but fears the consequences of telling the truth. She wants to be an honest person, but she wants to hide the truth. Because she can't have both, she struggles inwardly.
If your characters don't experience internal conflict, you're telling the reader that the issues in this story aren't important enough to worry about. Internal conflict is essential, but external conflict generates excitement. If your hero and heroine don't experience external threats to their goals, they'll spend the book agonizing about the internal struggle and your reader will become impatient. External conflict occurs when characters struggle with each other over opposing goals. When characters with opposing goals have transactions with each other, conflict moves out in the open, becoming visible to readers and other characters.
Whenever a character experiencing internal conflict acts in response to that struggle, it becomes externalized and may create conflict with other characters. Abby's internal conflict, when she acts on it, has the potential to affect Ryan, her daughter, her daughter's grandfather, and her parents.
In Chapter 1, Abby tries to hide when she recognizes Ryan across a crowded room. He could expose her secret and throw her life into turmoil. Even before Abby makes the first move in her struggle with this hero, she's fighting with her conscience, Ryan's right to know his child, and her desire to avoid exposure. When Ryan recognizes Abby, his attempt to learn all he can about her threatens to expose her secret even more. She fears he'll learn she has a daughter and realize he's the father. Abby's frightened response to the external conflict generates intensifying internal conflict.
In your novel, external conflict should always intensify the internal conflict.
Ryan wants to know why Abby disappeared after their brief affair. Once he learns she's had his child, he wants to form a strong relationship with his daughter. Because Abby wants to maintain the fiction that Trish is her dead husband's daughter, she can't let him have what he wants. Their opposing goals create both internal and external conflict.
Every step in the external struggle between Ryan and Abby makes Abby's internal conflict worse. Because of her internal conflict, when the external conflict begins, her reactions are instinctive, not logical. Characters experiencing heightened internal conflict often behave irrationally.
Abby is under stress, attacked from outside by Ryan, from inside by her own conscience. She tries to hide, to pretend, to evade. Ryan becomes suspicious. Abby's mother, who likes Ryan, makes things worse when she tries some matchmaking. As Abby and Ryan fall in love, both internal and external conflict skyrocket.
With strong internal conflict and strong interlinking external conflict, the stakes rise. The reader fears it won't work out for these characters. Will Abby drive Ryan away with her inability to live openly with the truth? Will Ryan become angry and leave? The more uncertainty readers feel over the outcome, the more satisfied they will be when hero and heroine come together in the end.
As your story progresses, the conflict must change and develop. Your hero and heroine must have trouble getting what they want, they must worry about it, doubting whether their relationship can work. For good reasons, they must offend one another. We all commit offenses against people we love because we're tired, worried, or afraid we're not loved as much as we love. Those are valid emotional reasons arising from our internal conflicts. They generate transactions that are part of external conflict.
In a love story, the conflict eventually develops to make the reader ask: "Do hero and heroine care enough about each other to make the necessary compromises? Can they trust each other enough to reveal their inner selves and commit to a believable, lasting relationship?
|How to create conflict|
Conflict is created when goals meet obstacles. To create conflict, first give your character an important goal, then have someone oppose that goal.
Every strong desire has its corresponding fear. If you combine your character's goal to a fear, you'll achieve a high level of internal conflict when things begin to go wrong. Abby's goal of keeping her secret is attached to her fear of what will happen if the truth becomes known. Her late husband was a famous artist, and although he destroyed Abby's sense of self, the world believed their marriage was idyllic. Now, however, if the truth is exposed, both Abby and her daughter will suffer.
Strong goals conceal strong fears. By the time Ryan discovers Abby's lie, they are struggling with their own new relationship. The external conflict issues have grown. They are in conflict over Ryan's desire to be acknowledged as Trish's father, Abby's fear of committing to another disastrous relationship, and his insistence that they marry and become a family.
To create conflict in your story, give your character a goal, then ask yourself what fear hides behind that goal. The more powerful the fear, the higher the level of conflict. If your hero's goal is financial power, why is money so important to him? What does he fear? Did he live in severe poverty as a child? Perhaps he vowed never to be poor again. If he fears poverty, intensify the fear by making it personal. Perhaps his baby brother had a disease requiring expensive medical care. The hero worked a paper route, mowed lawns, and dug ditches for extra money, but it wasn't enough. The brother died.
This hero has a deep emotional fear that someone he loves will suffer again, and he won't be able to provide enough. With this fear behind his drive to achieve wealth, any threat to his financial security will create strong internal conflict. If this hero must choose between money and the woman he loves, all his fears about poverty will be aroused, and he'll be thrown into severe conflict. If he chooses money, he'll lose his love and the joy in life. If he chooses love, he'll lose the money and may be unable to keep his love safe. Unless your story is a tragedy, the hero will have to win the battle against his demons and choose love. His struggle will involve pain, suffering, and sacrifice.
|From conflict to resolution|
A good story begins by putting forth a story question in the reader's mind. In a romance novel, the story question is usually, "Will heroine and hero overcome the obstacles to love--their conflict issues--and find happiness?"
In Hidden Memories, Abby's opening conflict arises from her internal struggle between honesty and fear. As the story progresses, the conflict changes and develops. When Ryan discovers Trish is his daughter, he wants Abby to marry him so that they can be a family, but she believes their marriage would be a disaster. Abby and Ryan still struggle over their daughter's identity, but a new element has been added: Abby's fear of the pain she risks if she surrenders to her growing love for Ryan and agrees to marry him.
As your story progresses, new problems should continue to emerge as the romantic conflict moves through several stages: beginning, middle, black moment, and ending. Ideally, the beginning of your story will create suspense and curiosity in your reader by showing or hinting at internal or external conflict. If you didn't put conflict in the first page of your manuscript, try beginning the story at a different point.
Here are a few examples from the opening paragraphs of my own stories:
It couldn't be him!
Abby had dreamed him in nightmares, dreams suppressed and almost forgotten. A man's head and shoulders glimpsed across a room . . .
--from Hidden Memories
Eight hours was too long. She should have walked right up to Connar and faced him this morning at the exhibition. "Let's talk," she should have said.
--from Yesterday's Vows
"We may have to turn back!" the pilot shouted over the engine noise.
"Can't you give it a try?" Sarah squinted to see through the windscreen and wished herself back in her Vancouver office.
--from Nothing Less Than Love
If you begin your story by tossing your characters into strong conflict--with themselves, each other, or circumstances--you'll be off to a good start. As your story progresses, your characters should face a series of problems that create increasing conflict, thus forcing them to wrestle with the real issue. A satisfying novel pits characters against overwhelming odds, then leaves them to struggle through disaster after disaster until victory is won.
Heroine and hero may have a wonderful time on a date. They may laugh, make love, even get married, but despite their ultimate victories, the problems keep coming until happiness seems impossible. The harder you make life for your characters, the better your readers will like the book. Until you reach the final scene, every transaction must present new problems, or new developments to old problems. Forget everything you ever learned about being nice to people. To be a good storyteller, you must treat your characters terribly, throwing their worst fears in their faces.
In a satisfying romance, the suspense between hero and heroine culminates in a black moment when all seems lost. To be powerful, the black moment must emerge from the personality and fears of your characters, and it must be deeply related to the conflict issue. The more powerful your moment, the more satisfying the resolution.
It is only after the black moment, when hero and heroine realize that they've lost each other, that they can experience the full strength of their love. In the aftermath of the black moment, hero and heroine each realize that their relationship matters more than the convictions they held so rigidly. After this realization, they are willing to make the necessary sacrifice to achieve their happy ending.
Panicked by Ryan's demands for marriage and her own fears, Abby finally succeeds in driving Ryan away, only to realize how bleak life will be without the man she loves. If the conflict is based on your characters' fears and personal history, the sacrifice must be related. The hero who fears poverty must sacrifice the illusion that money can prevent personal loss. Abby, who fears exposure, must embrace truth and risk herself.
To achieve a happy ending, lovers must always sacrifice their need to protect themselves against abandonment. They must allow themselves to become vulnerable, to risk broken hearts and grief, before they can win the prize of true intimacy.
It is only at the end of the romance novel, when hero and heroine make their sacrifices and emerge victorious over the conflicts that threaten their future, that the reader's suspense is ended with the satisfying answer to the story question.
Can this couple overcome the obstacles to love and find a happy ending?
Yes, they can, but it isn't easy.
Vanessa Grant has successfully published 27 romance novels and Writing Romance, a critically acclaimed guide for romance writers. She has more than 10 million books in print in 15 languages. Living in British Columbia, she now divides her time between writing, traveling, lecturing, and her family.
The article first appeared in the May 1999 issue of The Writer.