Romance’s Missing Piece: Conflict

A question that frequently comes up with authors I edit is this: I love these characters and they are speaking to me, but something is missing. I’m not sure what it is but I know I’m stuck.

When the whisper of the muse goes silent, you may have a very basic problem: no–or not enough–conflict.

A novel is much more than a story. A story can be simple and sweet, right? Beginning, middle, and end. What you did over the weekend can be a story. “A funny thing happened to me on the/in the_____________ ” (fill in the blank) is a story.

We tell and hear stories all day, every day. But a novel is a very different form of story. A romance novel in particular is a story, but in a romance novel (any sub-genre) the characters’ problems are resolved by love.

If you’re stuck writing your romance novel, evaluate your characters and what exactly their problems are.

Example: Main Character #1 (woman, man, shifter, paranormal creature) meets Main Character #2 (another woman, man, shifter, paranormal creature) and they ostensibly fall in love, or at least experience some version of love (Happy For Now, Happy Ever After).

Whether you’re writing a woman meeting a woman, a man meeting woman, a woman meeting a bear-shifter, any combination of those, or even multiple combinations of those, what drives a romance novel is the love story between the main characters.

So you, as the author, need to know the characters inside and out. Background, values, eye color, trauma, hopes, insecurities. Figuring this out is not just an idle exercise to pass the time. (We have social media for that…) Each piece that comes together to make a character whole is critical to telling a thorough, engaged love story. Why?

Because after the meet-cute, the characters will get together. But something, and possibly many things, are going to keep them apart. Those things, whether there are one, two, ten, internal/external or a combination, make up the conflict.

Conflict, simply stated, is all the aspects of a character that prevent that character from finding or keeping the love that is central to the romance novel.

If you’re stuck fitting the pieces of your story together, ask yourself these questions. (In fact, I recommend even if you’re a pantser, write these down!)

Question 1: What is keeping Character #1 from loving Character #2?

Question 2: What is keeping Character #2 from loving Character #1?

Question 3: How are their issues going to be resolved so they can find love?

The key formula for a successful romance is plot (what happens to the characters); conflict (what stops the characters from moving forward through the plot); the story arc (a series of dramatic decisions or events that allow the obstacles to be worked out or worked through); and ultimately the resolution (the HEA or HFN).

You may have the plot worked out to the finest detail. But if the characters skip merrily through the pages, you’re probably missing a key element of the romance novel: the conflict. The fighting for and working toward the love is absolutely key and if you don’t have the conflict and how to resolve it worked out, you may find yourself stuck.

Think of your favorite romance novels or even rom-com films. In one sentence, who is the first main character? Who is the love interest/second main character? What keeps them apart? How do they end up working through whatever is keeping them apart so they ultimately end up together? Analyzing a piece of work that is familiar but not yours can be helpful to show you exactly what is missing in your own writing.

More food for thought! Does the conflict need to be equally weighted for each character? Did Bella have the same depth of resistance to love that Edward did? Definitely not. One character’s conflict/obstacles/issues can absolutely drive the plot forward, but if there is not some resistance or some concern within/from the other main character, it might be difficult for the reader to connect with both characters or to fully engage in the struggle they must undertake to find their true love story.

You may have a great story, unique characters, an original setting, and an engaging premise, but if you don’t have sufficient conflict, there won’t be a fully developed love story to tell!

puzzle pieces which form a heart

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