Conflict is the life blood of the romance novel.
Are you sure, Cara? I thought it was all about two people falling in
Well, yes… But two people falling in love won’t stretch to 90,000 words. It
wouldn’t even come close to 50,000 words. Plus, it’s kind of boring.
Sure, seeing two people who are obviously in love is cute. It warms the
heart, makes you say ‘awwwww!’ under your breath. But other people in love are
essentially boring. They agree with each other all the time. They have
cute/nauseating nicknames for one another. And all they wan’t to do is hang out
with each other.
Great for them. Not so great for someone on the outside looking in. And in
the case of romantic fiction, the person on the outside looking in is your
You can’t afford to bore your reader.
The way to not bore your reader is to make it hard for your hero and heroine
to fall in love. Put obstacles in their way. Make the universe conspire against
them. Make them their own worst enemies.
In other words: create conflict.
To my mind, there are three essential steps to creating killer conflict. Tick
these off, and you’ll be on your way to making it almost impossible for them to
Step 1: understand their goals and motivations, and where they clash
Understanding your characters’ goals and motivations is the first step in
building conflict, both external and internal. Once you do understand them, you
then need to search for the points at which they clash – these points are where
conflict will flourish most easily.
An example always helps. Let’s say your heroine is an environmental activist.
She lives in a rural community, close to her extended family, and works on a
small organic farm. She volunteers for just about every cause that crosses her
path, and is passionate about living a sustainable lifestyle.
Our hero is a lawyer from the city who’s travelled to the heroine’s small
town to secure a land deal he’s been working on for months. Geological reports
show there’s high quality coal in the region, and his client has applied for
permits to explore. He drives a fast car, dresses in expensive suits and lives
on pre-packaged meals eaten in front of his wide screen TV – at least, that’s
when he’s at home. Most nights he’s working late as he climbs the corporate
So what conflicts can you see here? Our heroine is motivated by sustainable
living, a simple lifestyle and preserving the status quo. In comes our hero,
who’s motivated by achieving the impossible, the latest status symbols and
economic progress. What do you think will happen when these two meet?
Step 2: Layer it up
To make really strong, enduring conflict that will last the whole novel, you
need to layer it up. Above I briefly mentioned the idea of external and internal
conflict; you need to have both of these to make a really strong story.
External conflict is what’s imposed by the outside world. So in our example
book, the external conflict is created by the mining company wanting to explore
in our heroine’s backyard.
Internal conflict is what comes from the characters themselves, and it’s
internal conflict that you really need to focus on when crafting (or editing)
your novel. Internal conflict is driven by your characters’ beliefs, desires and
needs, their history and previous life experiences, and is the real meat of the
Just with the brief character sketches I’ve drawn above, I can see a number
of internal conflicts. For example:
- country girl vs city boy
- her large family vs his solo lifestyle
- their respective views on money
- their ideas of community
And that’s just based on the few lines above. If you delve into your
characters’ past, you’ll find age-old wounds that are still impacting the
present day; disfunctional relationships, absentee parents and best-friend
betrayals are all grist for the internal conflict mill.
Step 3: Keep it real, play fair and move forward
You need to make sure your conflict is realistic. Ideally, conflict should be
strong enough to make the reader worry about whether or not the hero and heroine
are actually going to get together. And we want the reader to worry – that’s
what keeps them turning the pages.
However, there’s a risk you go too far, and end up with characters who just
seem to hate each other, all the way through the book. In this situation, the
conflict isn’t resolved – the hero and heroine just suddenly decide they like
one another, and that’s it.
Hmmmm. Unconvincing conflict resolution results in books being thrown at the
wall. To avoid this, we need to:
Keep it real
When we start getting to know our characters, it can be tempting to load the
conflict on thick. One of my early heroines was an orphan who’s only remaining
relative had been murdered; she’d been abused by a previous boyfriend and now
her career was hanging by a thread thanks to a git of a boss.
Too much. All of that past trauma gives our heroine way too many issues to be
dealt with in the space of a novel. Just one of those past incidents is enough
to set the basis for some great conflict, so don’t weigh your characters down
with too many past issues.
Playing fair is all about making sure your characters have some redeeming
features. Your hero can be as mean as satan, but there has to be some glimmer of
light, some crack in the armour that makes his relationship with the heroine
Think about Rochester (Jane Eyre). He’s gruff, unyielding, miserable… but he
has taken Adele under his wing. For Jane (and for the reader), this is a hint at
what lies beneath.
You need to keep your characters moving forward through their conflicts.
Progress is important in a novel; without it, we just end up with two characters
going round in circles over pointless arguments. If you’ve layered your
conflicts up nicely, it should be easy enough to expose the next conflict as
each one is resolved – think of it as peeling an onion!
Keeping it real was brought home to me when I watched The Proposal.
This movie features Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, and the basic conflict is
a marriage of convenience. There’s some layering as the heroine travels to
Alaska with the hero to meet his family and has to endure a weekend away from
her normal, safe city life.
So far, so good. However, all the hero and heroine did was argue, snap and
humiliate one another. Half way through, I’d yet to find a single redeeming
feature in either of them, the hero was weighed down by too many family
conflicts to keep track of, and they were having the same argument over and over
It got turned off. There was just no way I could see the conflict being
resolved convincingly. I had a horrible sense that the director was just going
to manufacture a scene where they’d suddenly see each other with fresh eyes,
layer some appropriate music over the top, and wham – they’re in love!
I don’t think so.
The key thing to remember with conflict is that it has to seem natural, not
forced – and its resolution also has to feel natural to the reader. Without
natural-seeming conflict, your book might just get thrown at the wall.
And you wouldn’t want that, would you?