As a romance acquisitions editor, I find that one of the biggest problems writers struggle with is creating a believable conflict, or series of conflicts, that will sustain the novel its entire length. Conflict is the core of any work of fiction—it’s what makes your readers care what will happen next.
In romance, everyone already knows how the book is going to end (happily ever after), so there is no tension over the outcome; the tension (and the page turning) must come from some other source. At least some part of the conflict must be between the hero and the heroine. No romance reader wants to read about how the plucky heroine met the strong, sexy hero and they realized they were right for each other and everything was awesome once they got rid of those pesky cattle rustlers. That might make an interesting story, but it is not a romance.
A romance must have something (a conflict!) that keeps the hero and the heroine apart. And what keeps the reader turning pages is wondering how on earth you’re going to get them to overcome that obstacle and reach the happily ever after. Use these three key questions to achieve just that.
What do your characters want, and how does it bring them into conflict?
In romance, your two main characters must have internal goals and external goals that they’re trying to reach. If you can bring your characters’ goals into conflict, and thus the hero and heroine into conflict, you have a good chance of creating believable tension that will keep your readers engaged.
Suppose Greta has always loved her grandmother’s quilts, which remind her of her grandmother’s house, the only place she ever felt safe and loved. She has the internal goal, perhaps never explicitly stated, but certainly implied, of finding a way to feel safe and loved again.
For her character to be powerfully motivated through the story, Greta’s internal goal will need to drive her external goal that will lay the foundation for the plot. Suppose she learns that the old general store on Main Street has finally come up for sale, and she realizes that she can buy it to start a quilt shop. She’ll be able to share all that’s wonderful about quilts—especially the love that goes into them—plus, owning her own business will help her feel more secure, because she’ll be in charge of her own career. She can already imagine her cozy future, surrounded by things her grandmother once loved so deeply. The quilt shop becomes the external goal that can help her reach her internal goal.
Of course, it can’t be easy: She must have obstacles to reaching this goal. Suppose Hank also wants to buy the building, to house the hobby store he’s always wanted to run. His internal goal is to feel connected, and the one time he felt that way was when his dad, who died very young, used to build model ships with him. This need is amplified by the fact that he’s been feeling more disconnected than ever these days because he’s newly divorced from his cheating ex-wife—and doesn’t know if he can ever really trust anyone again.
With this rich backstory, he already has lots of internal conflict beneath the surface when his internal goal of feeling connected becomes an external goal of wanting to start a hobby shop—and brings him into direct conflict with Greta.
The pair vies for the property. Each is emotionally invested in his or her external goal because it is a reflection of his or her internal goal. Each step of the way, being thwarted causes them both not just mere frustration, but real emotional pain. That is the key to conflict in romance: It must have a deep emotional source, even when the story is lighthearted.
As the author, you need to recognize from the start that for Hank and Greta to resolve the conflict between them (their external conflict) they must each resolve that internal conflict first. Greta may eventually realize that she doesn’t need to always feel safe—she is strong enough to weather whatever storms may come, because the conflict with Hank has shown her this is true. Hank must learn to trust again in order to feel connectedness, and perhaps he realizes that despite their conflict, Greta has never lied to him or let him down, and so he learns to trust her. When they fall in love and realize they can both get what they want, they open the Main Street Hobby and Quilt Shop. Ta-da! A believable conflict and a satisfying resolution.
What’s at risk if your characters don’t reach their goals?
This has to matter. Make the consequence big. Your hero will lose his job or your heroine, her freedom. A character racing just to win a $20 bet doesn’t have much in jeopardy. However, she does if the bet is the external manifestation of something hugely important to the character—for example, proving that she is not a failure. Suppose LouAnn’s awful ex-boyfriend says, “I bet you $20 you can’t get a job by the end of summer,” and she takes that challenge. It’s not the money that’s really at risk.
In romance, when you have two main characters trying to reach their goals, their competing goals must be of similar importance. Make sure your reader cares about both of them succeeding.
Your characters should be working toward something important and meaningful—saving the ranch, winning the election, bringing the bad guys to justice.
Suppose you have a story where the Greek shipping magnate spearheads a hostile takeover of the financially imperiled business that the spunky heroine is trying to save. Are we expected to believe that once he does her
out of a job and destroys her dreams, she’ll fall in love with him?
Her goal—saving the business—is meaningful and we can sympathize with it. But what about his? He has to have a sympathetic reason for wanting to take over the heroine’s company. One way to accomplish this is to give him a misguided external goal based on an internal goal—for example, suppose all he wants is to make his father proud of him, and so he follows in his father’s footsteps by launching hostile takeovers of vulnerable companies. Readers can sympathize with his internal goal while disliking his external goal. And then the conflict can be resolved when he realizes that his father was proud of him all along, or that his father will never be proud of him but that’s OK, or whatever will serve to help him meet his internal goal—and free him to confess the admiration that he’s been developing for our spunky heroine.
Remember, it’s romance. Readers have to love your hero, just as they have to respect your heroine.
Do your characters take realistic steps toward those goals?
As your plot unfolds scene by scene, be sure your characters respond and react in ways that readers will understand. If your hero meets the heroine on Page 1, is promising his undying love on Page 2, and tries to prove it by stalking her as she goes about town on Page 3, he’s not going to come across as a roguish charmer readers will root for. Make things unfold naturally and logically.
If you still find your characters acting in unbelievable or unsympathetic ways, the problem may be that your characters’ goals are too small, trivial or contrived. We’ve all read some form of frivolous conflict along the lines of, “Sorry, I don’t date blue-eyed men.” If the conflict relies on a misunderstood email, or some malicious third party interfering with the couple’s road to happiness, or could be cleared up if the heroine would just ask one nine-word question, it isn’t believable for very long.
It isn’t enough to set up a believable conflict in your story; you also have to resolve it. A conflict, however believable, is not successful if it does not end in a way that satisfies the reader.
That does not mean the resolution should be predictable. The resolution should not rely on divine intervention, the wise third party who sets everyone straight, or the clock striking midnight. The conflict must be resolved by a change that occurs in each character that sets them on the path of mutual love and cooperation. Think of it like focusing a camera; the characters are muddled, and must reach clarity in order to reach their happily ever after. For example, Hank and Greta realize that their goals are not mutually exclusive—they can join forces, and reach their goals together.
By making sure your two main characters have a believable conflict, you’ll keep readers turning the pages to the end.
Do you yearn to write a romantic story? If so, you need to know what sets romance writing apart from other types of fiction. This course explores why romance is the same, yet different.