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Conflicted About Conflict?
by Anne Marble

Return to Writing Romance · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Many authors are conflicted about conflict. We're told that stories must have conflict, but we're rarely told why, or what conflict means.

When I took a fiction writing class in college, the teacher stressed the importance of conflict. One of our first assignments was to turn in a story with conflict. I turned in a mystery story that, although it was about eight pages long, managed to include at least three murders, and possibly another death as well. The teacher was a fan of Virginia Review magazine rather than murder mysteries, and I think he was always taken aback by my stories. My stories were often over-the-top. We were reading Flannery O'Connor. I was turning in stories about murders and bloody battles. No doubt the professor was tearing his hair out.

Ironically, my best story for the class didn't have murders or battle scenes. Yet it had just as much conflict as the murder mystery and the bloody battle. How? Because it was about people struggling for something. The heroine in this story was a peacemaker who was trying to prevent an impending war. Although there were no physical fights in that story, there was plenty of conflict. I learned that stories didn't have to contain about swinging swords or flying bullets to be interesting. The murder mystery I wrote for my first assignment was nowhere as interesting as the peacemaker story because readers didn't know who these characters were and why they should care. The peackemaker story had interesting characters -- interesting enough to make readers care about the conflict.

A lot of writers make the same mistake I did. When they first hear about putting conflict in their stories, they envision adding chase scenes or fist fights. However, conflict can hinge on something as basic as two people in love arguing about their future together. Just like real life. Also, just as my murder mystery managed to be both silly and dull, a story where the readers don't care about the characters is going to fall flat, no matter how many bullets fly past them.

When you took English class, you probably learned about the different types of conflict -- man against man, man against nature, man against himself, etc. Yet what did those lists tell you about conflict, besides the fact that the people who wrote those lists didn't realize some stories are about women? Those lists don't tell you why conflict is important to your story or where it comes from.

In simplest terms, conflict is important to a story because without conflict, there is no tension, no reason to keep reading and find out what happens. Conflict stems from the fact that your characters' lives aren't perfect. Like you, they don't have everything they want. Even if they found everything they thought they wanted, they would probably realize there was something missing. Characters have to try to attain something -- not necessarily wealth. Your main characters have to take risks to set things right. Other characters -- or circumstances -- have to get in their way.

Conflict has a special place in romance novels because romances have something that other novels don't have -- a strong emphasis on the relationship between a man and a woman. In a way, they don't just have one main character, they have two main characters. While most writers only have to worry about strengthening the conflict for one main character, you have to juggle the conflicts for the two characters. This is because the crux of the romance novel is the relationship between these main characters. It isn't just a subplot, it's the main plot. In the best romances, this relationship is intense. However, this also means that if the hero and heroine are always at odds, your readers could throw the book against the wall in frustration.

There are two basic types of conflict -- external conflict and internal conflict. How the conflict affects the relationship of the hero and heroine is up to you -- and probably reflects the type of book you like to read. Your entire conflict could center on a conflict within their relationship. If your favorite romances are those where the plot hinges on a problem the couple must work out, such as Linda Howard's Sarah's Child, this might be the type of story you will be happiest writing. Or your conflict could center on outside forces that affect what goes on in their lives. If you hate romances where the hero and heroine are constantly at odds, then you will probably be happier writing a romance where the hero and heroine start out on the same side and work together to accomplish a goal.

Internal Conflict

Although this may change, most romances still emphasize internal conflict between the hero and the heroine s their main conflict. Internal conflict comes about when the personalities -- and goals -- of the hero and heroine clash. For example, the heroine owns a quaint bed and breakfast, and the hero is the entrepreneur who wants to buy up the property and turn it into a strip mall. Or the heroine is a model from the big city who takes a job on a ranch, and the hero is the cowboy who thinks all models from the big city are too delicate to adapt to ranch life.

If your story centers on internal conflict, then strong characterizations are vital to your story. You must have a strongly drawn hero and heroine, or those characters won't be enough to carry the book. If the characters fight all the time, readers need to know why, or they will throw the book down in disgust. On the other hand, if you present them with characters who have believe internal baggage, then you can make the readers believe that they can't get along yet. And all that lovely internal conflict will pay off.

Centering a romance novel on an internal conflict poses a unique set of challenges. The biggest danger is writing yet another example of what some people call the "I hate you, let's go to bed" plot. The characters are angry with each other, but the author wants them to have love scenes, so one of two things can happen. Either they can start to get along just long enough to have sex and then start fighting once it's over, or they can have sex even though they hate each other. While hero and heroine may walk away from these encounters with a smile of satisfaction, the readers are rarely satisfied.

Another potential pitfall is the risk of ending up with a big misunderstanding plot. This type of plot was common in the past, but readers are much less patient with it today. However, sometimes the big misunderstanding is the only way to keep the conflict going in this kind of story. The trick is persuading your readers that your characters would act this way.

But don't let those problems scare you away. You can write an internal conflict story without ending up with the infamous "I hate you, let's go to bed" story. Real people do have conflicts about their relationships. Apply that to your novel. If you want to use internal conflicts, make those conflicts realistic instead of falling back on the old standbys. For example, instead of a hero who makes huge assumptions, how about a hero who is reluctant to commit because he feels he's not good enough for the heroine? Or how about a heroine who is afraid of marriage because her parents had a rocky marriage? Heck, why not put both of them in the same story. Now that spells conflict.

Also, just because a story is centered on internal conflict, that doesn't mean the hero and heroine have to hate each other. A wonderful example of this type of story is Mary Balogh's Regency novel, Lord Carew's Bride. The hero and heroine, Samantha and Hartley, become friends even before she learns that he has a title. She is drawn to Hartley because she feels safe with him -- she has been burned in love before. Even after they marry, her feelings are confused because she isn't sure why she really married Hartley. They face a major obstacle when Hartley realizes what her true feelings are. There is no big understanding on his part -- he is instead sad and disappointed. It is realistic conflict between the hero and heroine, and thus more poignant.

Some people call this type of conflict "intra-character conflict." If you want examples of well reviewed romances about intra-character conflicts, go to the Special Title Listing at http://www.likesbooks.com/conflict.html.

External Conflict

External conflict can be anything from a hostile takeover to a murder to a war, with plenty in between. In today's market, the most obvious examples of romances with a strong emphasis on external conflict can be found in romantic suspense novels. However, other examples exist, such as Regency historicals where the hero and heroine work together to unveil a French spy.

Of course, putting conflict in a story doesn't mean you have to put in fight scenes, car chases, and murders. Your external conflict could just as easily be a plot about the hero and heroine banding together to save a park from developers or opening a restaurant together. Or it could involve a hero and heroine who are working together to help save a historical landmark in a small town.

Just as romances centering on an internal conflict require strong characters, a romance featuring an external conflict must have a strong plot. Of course, if you're writing a mystery, the mystery must be hard to solve and believable, and the hero and heroine should approach the mystery with intelligence. Most of all, the readers shouldn't be able to figure out the killer on page three. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) Still, let's say you'd rather not write a mystery. You'd rather write the story about the hero and heroine opening a restaurant together. The obstacles they face must be just as interesting (and seemingly insurmountable) to the reader. For example, what if their chef quits on opening night and then the local restaurant critic gives them a bad review? On top of that, just when they really need the business, a huge blizzard hits the town... Phew! That plot can be just as full of twists and turns as a mystery.

As with writing romances about internal conflict, there are some problems when writing a romance centering on an external conflict. Sometimes, the external conflict takes over the story and overshadows the love story. That can be fatal in a romance. At other times, the external conflict isn't strong enough to hold up the story, so the story seems fluffy and flimsy. Also, in some of these books, the external conflict doesn't seem matched to the hero and heroine. This results in external conflicts that don't seem relevant to those particular characters, even as the couple risks their lives to achieve a goal. In those books, I can't figure out why they ended up in this plot instead of some other couple. Most important of all, if the hero and heroine get along too easily, then the romance itself may fall flat. If that happens, no amount of chase scenes and shoot-outs will save the story.

Another problem is that sometimes, external conflicts seem "tacked on" or extraneous. I have a theory that suspense subplots have taken the place of the "big misunderstanding" plots that used to be so popular. In the past, when authors needed to spice up the conflict, they made the hero and heroine get into a silly fight. Now, they throw in a murder or a spy subplot.

If you want examples of well-reviewed romances with external conflicts, go to the Special Title Listing at http://www.likesbooks.com/conflict.html.

Mixing the Types of Conflict

Keep in mind that most stories will contain both types of conflict. The best stories grow from the characters and how they respond to the things that happen to them. I don't know about you, but if I was forced to help a handsome millionaire cop solve a murder, I'd bump into lots of internal conflict along the way.

Though it was a great example of an "internal conflict" romance, Mary Balogh's Lord Carew's Bride had more than just the internal conflict between Samantha and Hartley. There was also a blast from the past -- the villainous Lionel Kersey, the man Samantha had once loved, came back into the story. His appearance not only drove the plot further but also threatened the relationship between the hero and heroine.

In Barbara Dawson Smith's Her Secret Affair, the heroine, Isabel, is looking for her mother's murderer. There's a catch -- her mother was a notorious madam. Isabel blackmails the hero, Justin, into helping her. So external conflict drives the plot. However, this story would have fallen flat except for the fact that Isabel and Justin were both burdened by internal baggage. Her mother was a madam, his father was a womanizer, and ironically, both were well suited to each other because of the way they reacted to their scandalous parents.

Her Secret Affair is not only a good example of a story that combined both types of conflict. It's also a great example of a story where the external conflict was relevant to both the hero and the heroine. Isabel wanted to find out who killed her mother. Justin wanted to keep her from revealing intimate details about his father's escapades. Whatever type of conflict you choose to emphasize, the best stories come about when you make it matter to your characters. If it matters to them, then the reader will care.

Find Out More...

Conflict - Victoria Grossack

Conflict and Resolution in the Romance Novel - Linda Shertzer

Copyright © 2004 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.


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