Secrets of Romantic Conflict
“Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” (Robert McKee)
In the best romances, love’s power to achieve personal growth is inseparable from story conflict and suspense. This is true even in stories ending with the lovers apart. The characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, James Cameron’s Titanic, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, and John Green’s The Fault in our Stars all demonstrate love’s power to achieve personal growth.
What is romantic conflict?
Conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. It may be internal (conflict with oneself) or external (conflict with others, with the environment, or with the supernatural).
In a romance, falling in love creates problems for both hero and heroine, but ultimately love’s power provides the solution. During their romantic journey, the lovers must experience both internal and external conflict as they struggle to achieve their goals.
Internal conflict is the result of a character’s wanting two incompatible things. They may want love, yet fear being vulnerable. They may need to keep a secret, although their moral code demands honesty.
In my novel Hidden Memories, my heroine Abby’s daughter was conceived with Ryan, a stranger she met while in shock after her husband’s death. Abby knows she should be honest about her daughter’s biological father but fears the consequences of telling the truth.
Internal conflict is essential to create meaningful, character-driven stories. The author whose characters don’t experience internal conflict is telling the reader that the issues in this story aren’t important enough to worry about.
External conflict generates excitement. If your lovers don’t experience external threats to their goals, they’ll spend the book agonizing about the internal struggle and they will fail to experience personal growth.
External conflict occurs when characters with opposing goals have transactions with each other, bringing the conflict into the open, visible to both readers and other characters.
Whenever a character experiencing internal conflict acts in response to that struggle, it becomes externalized and may create conflict with other characters.
When Abby spots Ryan across a crowded room, she panics because he could expose her secret and throw her life into turmoil. Her internal conflict has the potential to affect her daughter Trish, Trish’s biological father Ryan, and Abby’s parents.
Even before Abby makes the first overt move in her struggle with Ryan, she’s fighting with her conscience.
When Ryan recognizes Abby, the one-night-stand he’s never forgotten, he wants to learn all he can about this woman, but Abby resists, fearing Ryan will uncover her secret. Abby’s frightened response heats up the external conflict and intensifies her fear of exposure.
Abby is under stress, attacked from outside by Ryan, and from inside by her own conscience. While she tries to hide, to evade, and to pretend, Ryan becomes more suspicious and Abby’s mother complicates the situation by trying some matchmaking.
With strong internal conflict and interlinking external conflict, the stakes rise and the reader fears it won’t work out for these characters. Will Abby drive Ryan away with her inability to live openly with the truth? Will Ryan become frustrated and leave?
The more uncertainty readers feel over the outcome, the more satisfied they will be when the hero and heroine come together in the end.
In a strong, character-driven story, both internal and external conflict must change and develop. Your lovers must have trouble getting what they want, they must worry about it, doubting whether their relationship can work for valid emotional reasons.
In a love story, the conflict eventually develops to make the reader ask: “Do these lovers care enough about each other to make the necessary compromises? Can they trust each other enough to reveal their inner selves and commit to a believable, lasting relationship?
How to create conflict
Conflict is created when goals meet obstacles. To create conflict, give your character a strong goal, then create opposition to that goal. Combining your character’s goal with a fear you will achieve a high level of internal conflict when things begin to go wrong.
Abby’s goal of keeping her secret is driven by her fear of what will happen if the truth becomes known. Her late husband was a famous artist, and although he attacked Abby’s sense of self, the world believed their marriage was idyllic. Now, however, if the truth is exposed, both Abby and her daughter will suffer.
Strong goals conceal strong fears.
To create conflict in your story, give your character a goal, then ask yourself what fear hides behind that goal. The more powerful the fear, the higher the level As your story progresses, some issues should be resolved while new problems continue to emerge. The romantic conflict moves through several stages: beginning, middle, black moment, and ending.
Ideally, the beginning of your story will create suspense and curiosity. If you didn’t hint at potential conflict in the first page of your manuscript, try beginning the story at a different point.
In a satisfying romance, the suspense between the lovers culminates in a black moment when all seems lost. To be powerful, the black moment must emerge from the personality and fears of your characters, and it must be deeply related to the conflict issue. The more powerful your black moment, the more satisfying the resolution.
It is only after the black moment, when hero and heroine realize that they’ve lost each other, that they can experience the full strength of their love. In the aftermath of the black moment, hero and heroine each realize that their relationship matters more than the convictions they held so rigidly. After this realization, both lovers are willing to make the necessary sacrifice to achieve their happy ending.
In Hidden Memories, panicked by Ryan’s demands for marriage and her own fears, Abby finally succeeds in driving Ryan away, only to realize how bleak life is without the man she loves. Abby, who fears exposure, finally embraces truth for love.
To achieve a happy ending, lovers must sacrifice their need to protect themselves against abandonment. They must allow themselves to become vulnerable, to risk broken hearts and grief, before they can win the prize of true intimacy, ending the reader’s suspense with the satisfying answer to the story question: Can these lovers overcome the obstacles to love and find a happy ending?
Yes, they can, but it isn’t easy.