Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Creating Conflict in Romance

A novelist's body of work is an evolution. I've never heard of anyone who's gotten it perfect the first time, but you can correct me if I'm wrong in the comments.

The only two novels I've written so far were a hot. mess. in their first draft forms, probably aided by the fact that I wrote extremely out of order and then had to backtrack when I learned important things 75% of the way through. :) 

But 100% of the time, these major changes were due to conflict issues. I've learned that much. As I'm getting into my third manuscript, I've been doing a little research up front to see if the process will be different for me this time. Maybe a little, um, faster. 

A really sweet writer friend whose work I adore sent me the book On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels (Writer's Digest Books). Here's what I've learned---because friends don't let friends' romance novels suffer where conflict is concerned.

Let's start from the very basics. There are two kinds of conflict: long-term + short-term

  • The short-term conflict (external conflict) usually occurs at the beginning of the story. It's the initial disagreement or problem between the hero and the heroine. This can be shared between the characters or two separate problems that are somehow related. 
  • The long-term conflict (internal conflict) relates to issues in the hero/heroine's personality or past that make it seem like they could never end up together at the end of the story. It's best to have specific, concrete reasons these internal issues exist. (The bigger the irony, the more delicious the clash!)

So how can you create conflict that doesn't feel weak or contrived? 

  • According to Leigh Michaels' list, legitimate conflict ISN'T solely about fighting, a delay in progress toward the characters' goal, a simple communication fail that could be solved with a decent conversation, interference by someone else, or unwillingness to admit attraction. 
  • The short-term conflict should highlight or exacerbate the long-term conflict, contribute to character complexity, and entangle the hero and heroine together while showing why they don't belong together. It's not a series of separate calamities or problematic events. What happens to the characters should always have some significance in revealing something about them and advancing the plot. 
  • In reality, when there's strong conflict between two individuals, more than likely they will avoid each other at all costs. So there must be legitimate reasons the hero and heroine have to interact in proximity with one another; the strength of their reason to stick together must correspond to the strength of the conflict.
  • It's important for the conflict to be strong enough to persist throughout the duration of the story, but to still be salvageable in time for a believable conclusion. If one character's long-term problem is really difficult, the other's may need to be more easily resolved. 
As I sat down to learn more about conflict, I realized there's no way to cover every base and include examples in a succinct blog post. It's kind of a complex subject, ironically. So this is just a basic introduction to conflict with more posts likely to follow as I explore. But I'll leave you with one practical recommendation, the first place I started when evaluating how to amp up the conflict between my hero and heroine: 

What are your best tips for brainstorming compelling conflict? What are some examples of long-term vs. short-term conflict you've found in your favorite novels? If you're having an issue developing conflict in your current WIP, let's brainstorm in the comments.

PS: If you haven't entered the giveaway on my website yet, I'm giving away a $25 gift card + a copy of Katherine Reay's award-winning Dear Mr. Knightley, its anticipated follow-up, Lizzy & Jane, and other goodies! You can enter here, too! And when you're finished with the books, we can talk about their conflict 'til we're blue in the face :)

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Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who enjoys stories of grace in the beautiful mess. She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and received the Genesis Award in 2013 (Contemporary) and 2014 (Romance). Her work is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie here:

Twitter - @LaurieTomlinson


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Laurie, I loved this post. Having recently completed the first draft of my first romance novel, I can use these tips. Working the romance aspect into she story is tricky! And I'm certain my hero and heroine need more conflict. I so appreciate these tips! :)

Jeanne Takenkaa said...

OH, I just saw the comment question. :) A few of my favorite things . . . . .

1. Pumpkin spice lattés on a chilly fall day
2. Watching snow fall when I'm inside my warm home, cinnamon scented candle adding soft light and scents to the kitchen
3. Fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies.

There are more, but these are a few. ;)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

So so good!! I LOVE great romantic conflict but I loathe drama for the sake of drama. I think this is why I tend to write not only suspense but also very strong heroines. The self-doubters, the poor me's, the self-saboteurs in light of weak conflict makes me crazy. Then again, sometimes the conflict is so overdone you are just like "Enough already! We get it, it's impossible for them to be together but we KNOW they will so let's get a move on." ;) End rant. But really, I think it has to be a good balance. The right kind of tension for the right characters in their unique situation. It's all about believability for me. A layering the conflict in very carefully. Dang, I'm so ready to get back into writing mode. sighs....

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Awesome article, Laurie. I don't write romance personally, but the thing about the internal and external conflicts holds true across genres. You need both, and they have to tie together so the story feels cohesive. Reading this gives me a lot of admiration for my romance-writer friends - it's quite the balancing act to juggle that push-pull between characters. Who woulda thought this writing thing could be so complicated, huh? :)

Laurie Tomlinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Jeanne - I love ALL of those things, too!

@Amy - Your kind of tension is my kind of tension! No weak, martyr heroes or heroines for us!

@Karen - Thank you, dear! It's definitely a balance that takes time to get right :)

JessKeller said...

For me a lot of my story conflict comes from putting the characters in situations where they'll fail at their greatest competencies and sit back and see how they react. Tear them down in small situations and have the other be privy to it and likewise. We don't like to be seen failing, and neither do our characters. :)

Modestly Vintage said...

1. Books..& lots of them.
2. Boy Meets World re-runs.
3. Writing.
4. Lots of coffee.
5. Thanksgiving & Christmas...which are quickly approaching.