Damn Good Romances III – Romantic Conflict

This post is part of a series.

Part 1: Damn Good Romances
Part II: Romantic Tension
Part III: Romantic Conflict
Part IV: Emotional Intensity
Part V: Heart-Stopping Moments
Part VI: Uncertainty of Outcome
Part VII: Moment of Ultimate Vulnerability
Part VIII: Happy Ever After…For Now

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Romantic Conflict

Romantic Conflict is perhaps one of the most misunderstood functions of a romance novel.  It gets misused by writers and critics.

But when it is used well…wow!  Then you’ve got a romance on your hands that you can’t put down because you simply have to find out how it all turns out.

Because “conflict” sounds like arguing, stress, people at loggerheads, you might be forgiven for thinking that romantic conflict is when the hero and heroine are standing toe-to-toe, going at it over some minor or even imagined slight.  Actually, that’s more a function of romantic tension than anything else, as I pointed out in the last post.

But I suspect many new writers and readers may mistakenly think that aguments, misunderstandings, shouting, and negative confrontations between the hero and the heroine constitute romantic conflict, and that’s why so many romance novels feature high stress scenes like this.  Perhaps this is where the Big Misunderstanding plot originated?

Believe it or not, you can have a hero and heroine perfectly in synch with each other, even madly in love and sublimely getting along, and still have a plot that is highly charged on the romantic conflict meter.

Romeo & Juliet - Leonard di Caprio & Clare Danes

The perfect example:  Romeo and Juliet.  They never had a moment of negativity between them.  They were in love almost from moment one.  Yet that classic plot is still incredibly high in romantic conflict and I’ll explain why in a moment.

So what is Romantic Conflict, if it isn’t characters arguing?

The simplest way to define it is to ask a question.  Romantic Conflict is what is keeping the hero(es) and heroine apart.

What’s stopping them from committing to each other?

As you can see, that question is a fundamental plot and character question, not a petty, “You didn’t put the seat down!…Again!” type of question.  It really digs into the heart of the story.

Can you see why, if romantic conflict is constructed properly, the romance turns into such a humdinger?

It is also why Big Misunderstanding plots are not really strong on romantic conflict, even though they’re favourites that keep turning up, even on the virtual shelves these days.  I suspect they’re more sentimental favourites these days, but writers have to work extra hard to make the story pay off for the reader, because when the hero and heroine can resolve their differences simply by talking to each other, Big Misunderstandings become somewhat strained and superficial when they’re dragged on too long.

If romantic conflict is what is keeping the hero and heroine apart, I’m sure you can already see, thinking about your favourite romance novels, that there are all sorts of things that can keep a couple/group apart.

Generally, a writer focuses on two different types:  external and internal.

External conflict is anything that comes from outsides the hero and heroine.  Forbidding families, interferring friends, lack of money, countries, politics, religion, crime, spies, wars, kings, enemy action, you name it.   Here is where all the conflict for Romeo and Juliet lay.  The two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, were feuding and would have forbidden the pair to be together, period, finito.  That was the sum total of their conflict, and Shakespeare built a classic story that has lasted centuries around this purely external conflict.

Ladyhawke - Rutger Hauer & Michelle Pfeiffer

However, purely external conflict is exceedingly rare these days.  You might find the odd historical romance where the lovers are utterly in love and the world forbids them to be together.  Also, paranormal romance is another genre where such parirings could be forbidden or impossible.  A really good example of that forbidden love is the movie Ladyhawke.

However, the contemporary romance and contemporary circumstances rarely provide stiatuions where anyone would be unable to overcome barriers to love for long.  And if a hero wasn’t determined enough to find a way…how much value as a romance novel hero is he, really?  Romance heroes are supposed to be ardent, determined, and somewhat superhuman.  Love conquers all, even in contemporary romances.  That’s part of the romance novel’s charm.  So a really powerful romance novel needs something more than a family’s wrath to keep a pair apart, these days.

That something is internal conflict.  Internal conflict is just what it sounds like.  It’s barriers and conflict emerging from inside the hero’s and heroine’s own minds and hearts.

The range of reasons and conflicts are endless.  Think of any of your keeper novels.  Pick one.  And ask yourself “What kept them apart?”  You’ll quickly build up your own list of reasons and internal conflicts as you work through your keeper novels and memorable romances.

The art and craft of romance writing is in selecting really strong, realistic internal conflicts for both the hero and the heroine.

There are also external conflicts that can be added to the mix — yes, we’re not done yet!  Family feuds and arranged marriages are not longer barriers to happy love matches in our romance novels anymore — except in historical novels — but even in historical romances, the better ones have strong internal conflicts as well.  But external conflicts are still around and still provide lots of grease to the romance novel mill.

The external conflict that we love to adore these days has changed significantly.  What keeps the hero and heroine apart can be so much fun to write and and read:  military thrillers, paranormal suspense, vampires, urban fantasy, romantic suspense…and the sub-genre plotlines that go along with our romance novels are added to the romantic conflict in a way that makes the romance hum and zing — as far as we, the reader, is concerned.

Even erotic romance adds to the romantic conflict, if the author knows what they’re doing.  The sexual storyline is a perfect opportunity to add to the romantic conflict by introducting more conflict, more tension, more reasons to keep the couple apart romantically, even as they’re twined together between the sheets.   Lora Leigh is a perfect example:  Her couples are always dealing with a sexual issue before the HEA moment.  Often it’s something the hero is demanding of the heroine — anal sex, or an extreme form of BDSM — that they must work through before love is possible.

Can you see, now, how powerful and all-encompassing romantic conflict can be?

Next:  Emotional Intensity

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