Part of my job as an assistant editor at Entangled Publishing is helping my boss (the wonderful Stacy) go through the slush pile. As a company that predominantly publishes romance books (or books with a very strong romantic subplot) I’m always surprised at the biggest and most common issue I see in submissions:
Lack of romantic conflict.
It doesn’t matter if you have lovable characters, if you have no conflict in a romance, you have a problem. I’ve gotten quite a few questions on this topic recently, so I thought we’d dive into that a little today.
What is romantic conflict?
Romantic conflict is what’s keeping your love interests from getting together and living their happily ever after. It’s the thing they have to overcome in order to ride off into the sunset.
Romantic conflict can be both internal and external. In fact, the strongest love stories typically have a mix of both types. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the internal conflict keeping Darcy and Elizabeth apart is his rudeness toward her, and Elizabeth’s preconceived bad opinion of Darcy before they’ve even met. These two things may seem small, but they carry a lot of weight to the characters throughout the book. Elizabeth is also not looking for a man or husband, when the majority of women around her are. Throughout the book, several more things happen that reinforce their early internal conflicts, keeping it strong. Such as Darcy convincing his best friend not to marry Elizabeth’s sister.
Several external conflicts in the book work to keep Darcy and Elizabeth apart as well. When Wickham is introduced, he tells Elizabeth lies about Darcy. Because of the meetings Elizabeth has already had with Darcy, she believes Wickham without much hesitation. There’s also Elizabeth’s family–specifically her mother–who pushed her daughters at any eligible man, including Darcy, regardless of how her daughters felt. Darcy refers to her family as having a “lack of propriety,” which was a huge deal in that time.
Why is romantic conflict important?
Simply put, if you don’t have romantic conflict, readers are going to have a hard time feeling invested in the love story. People read books–including romances–to not only be entertained, but to also see characters overcome obstacles. Readers want to see characters defy odds to be together. If there’s nothing for the characters to overcome in order to be together, then the romance feels flat and will leave your readers unsatisfied.
Making strong romantic conflict
Not all conflict is strong conflict.
One popular conflict to use is the “misunderstanding” or “mistaken identity.” Both work wonderfully when paired with more. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, if Elizabeth hadn’t met Darcy before meeting Wickham, would she have believed Wickham’s lies about him so quickly? If she hadn’t had previous interactions with Darcy, that lie/misunderstanding would’ve been cleared up in one conversation.
In the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping, the heroine–Lucy–is mistaken as the fiancee of a man in a coma. Over the course of the movie, she falls in love with the man’s older brother. The romantic conflict, the thing keeping them apart, is strong on its own on his end. He has a close relationship with his family and won’t do that to his brother. So what’s keeping Lucy from telling the truth? At first, it’s because she doesn’t know how to, and the fact that the family’s grandmother has a weak heart scares her. But it develops into something more. Lucy doesn’t have any family, and she’s drawn to the closeness of the Callahans. She doesn’t want to give up the relationship she forms with them over the course of the movie.
Both Pride and Prejudice and While You Were Sleeping create strong romances by adding layers to the characters, and by using a few different conflicts instead of just one.
In some romances, the conflict is woven so tightly into the plot conflict that it acts as the romantic conflict too. In The Hunger Games, the thing keeping Katniss and Peeta apart is the Game. It’s the fact that to survive, the other one has to die. That’s a very strong conflict all on its own.
Make it realistic
The goal and conflict must always matter to the protagonist.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s dislike of Darcy (conflict) matters to her because he wounded her pride the night they met. His insult most likely had an even deeper impact because her own mother referred to Elizabeth as “plain.” Because this matters to Elizabeth in such a deep way, it can easily matter to the reader. If it didn’t matter to Elizabeth, it wouldn’t matter to the reader.
In While You Were Sleeping, the conflict Lucy is caught in is choosing between marrying Peter (the man from the coma) and finally having a family, or admitting her feelings to Peter’s older brother, and risk losing the caring family, and the love of her life.
Make it realistic. Make it matter.
If you’re looking for ways to strengthen your romantic conflict, check out Colleen Houck’s blog post that has over 80 romantic conflict ideas.
If you have questions, or have a topic you’d like to see discussed on my blog, feel free to leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter!