“It’s the conflict in every scene that throws me for a loop. What about romance? Yes, there needs to be conflict or it’s boring, but if it’s all conflict, I can’t buy them having a HEA. Doesn’t there need to be some parts where they are in accord? What about after the Big Bad Thing has happened? I would think the character needs to react, to process the loss, before he/she can think what to do next, especially if it is a major loss. And if the scene begins when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict stops, when does the reader get a breather?
“I understand the definition of conflict, but … Man, I can’t even come up with a coherent question. How about – How do you use conflict? Especially the more subtle ways.”
Conflict in general is pretty simple. Conflict in romance plots is not. So let’s start with conflict in general.
Your protagonist (let’s call her “she” for this discussion) has a concrete physical goal she must attain or she will die a literal or figurative death, cease to be the person she wants to be.
Your antagonist (let’s call him “he” for this discussion) has a concrete physical goal he must attain or he will die a literal or figurative death, cease to be the person he wants to be.
The pursuit of these goals brings your protagonist and antagonist into direct conflict because neither can achieve his or her goal without blocking and thus defeating the other.
That blocking and reblocking each other makes the tension rise as each has to fight harder and stronger to win, culminating in a satisfying conclusion in which one completely defeats the other, destroying the loser either literally or figuratively, and giving the reader catharsis after the intense build of the plot.
And then there’s the romance plot (not conflict, we’ll get to that next):
The romance plot has a protagonist and an antagonist (or vice versa) who are drawn together and who, during the course of their story, move through the physical and emotional stages of falling in love, foreshadowing that their love is not just infatuation but is in fact, a deep, true, mature love that will last through time. Over the course of the story, they change as people so they can connect, learning to compromise and forming a bond at the end that will keep them together, safe and supportive of each other, forever.
Now comes the hard part, taking the romance plot and giving it conflict, because the two plots are antithetical to each other.
That is, a good conflict has the protagonist destroying the antagonist completely (or vice versa). A good romance plot ends in compromise with both protagonist and antagonist safe, happy, and bonded. Trying to navigate the space in between causes most of the problems in romance writing, including the big two, the Big Misunderstanding and the Soft Climax. The Big Misunderstanding happens when the conflict between the two lovers is a mistake (“Oh, she’s your sister? And I was so jealous!”) so it can be solved by one honest conversation. The Big Misunderstanding is a Huge Mistake in writing romance because it means that the lovers have lousy communication skills and that one or both of them is dumb as a rock, neither of which bodes well for long term relationship success. The Soft Climax is exactly what all of you with dirty minds is thinking: there’s no big payoff at the end because there’s no absolute defeat and victory. It’s the reason romance writing often gets slammed as having lousy plotting; it’s not the plotting, it’s the weak endings (especially the weak endings that are followed by epilogues that shows the hero and heroine have reproduced, thereby cementing their love because everybody knows that children make a relationship easier and are a true indicator of mature love, and oh my god, don’t ever do that).
So the problem becomes how to get the lovers’ growth and compromise in a story with a satisfying climax. I have two suggestions, although there are probably other solutions.
1. Marry the romance plot to a conflict plot that has the big climax, defeating a Big Bad. Don’t run the plots parallel to each other, interweave them so that the romance fuels the conflict plot, and the conflict plot fuels the romance. That is, make the romance something that complicates life for the antagonist, making it harder for him to reach his goals. Then make the backlash from the antagonist something that endangers the romance, creating stress which spurs adrenalin which makes it easier for people to fall in love. So the love story drives the conflict story, and the conflict story drives the love story and you can’t separate the two of them. Almost all of romantic suspense takes this approach, although some are more successful than others at integrating the two plots. How to Steal a Milion is a romance with a caper subplot, but Red is a suspense plot with a romantic subplot. That is, the romance between Nicole and Simon in How to Steal A Million is primary, complicated and driven by their attempts to steal the statue, but the romance between Sarah and Frank in Red is a complication in the main plot to bring down the mastermind behind the killings. Both stories need both plots; the emphasis of the story determines which plot will be the main plot and which will be the complication. Fairly often in this kind of plot, the two are almost equal in importance. It doesn’t matter, the key is that you get both the compromise and bonding of the love story with the catharsis of total victory and defeat in climax of the conflict plot.
2. Merge the conflict plot and the romance plot by making the total defeat of one of the lovers a victory for both. The gold standard in this one is Moonstruck, one of the most brilliant romance plots ever written. Our protagonist is Loretta, a practical woman whose goal is a safe secure life with a man she understands completely but does not love, Johnny. Our antagonist is Ronny, Johnny’s brother, a bitter and broken man who meets Loretta when she comes to tell him that she’s marrying his brother, has a screaming argument with her, and is transformed in the moment to a man desperately in love. Loretta’s goal is a safe life with Johnny and she’s sticking to it; Ronny’s goal is a passionate future with Loretta and he’s not giving up. There is no Big Misunderstanding, they each know exactly what’s going on. The conflict comes in that Loretta can’t get the future she wants if she falls in love with Ronny, and Ronny can’t get the future he needs if Loretta stays practical and marries his brother. One of them has to completely defeat the other. In the end, Ronny destroys Loretta entirely, transforming her into a free and passionate woman who is crazy in love with a man who’s crazy in love with her. Because we love Loretta so much, we’re rooting for Ronny to destroy the safe shell she’s built around herself. So we get Loretta emerging from a closet at the end, reborn and happy because she’s lost everything. That’s great romance plotting. It’s also hard as hell to write but hey, nobody forced you to take this gig. (For an example of an absolute failure of this plot, see You’ve Got Mail; I am convinced that Kathleen woke up one morning, realized what Joe had done to her dreams, and smothered him with her pillow.)
If you’re talking about conflict at the scene level, remember that conflict doesn’t mean that every scene is a huge fight. Conflict is a struggle; you can have conflict in a calm, rational discussion about where to have dinner. Since the courtship phase of a romance is all about negotiation, learning to understand each other’s wants, needs, flaws, fears, and joys and then finding a safe ground on which to meet in the middle, your negotiation scenes will have conflict because it’s about two people starting from different places. The scenes you want to avoid are scenes where people just exchange information, the dreaded Chat, or scenes where the characters do something that causes no change in plot or character, like the Great Sex scene where the earth moves but the plot doesn’t. Those are going to be the parts people skip.
Conflict in romance is tricky to bring off, you have to be smart about it, but since it’s inherent in the negotiations people need to make to bond, and since stress is a big adrenalin booster, conflict can intensify the romance and make it more believable while moving the story events along. Embrace the problem; it’ll make your story stronger.
ETA: The conflict we’re talking about is external. External conflict is the only kind of conflict that moves plot. Internal conflict can demonstrate character growth but very rarely causes it. Forget internal conflict for now, think event on the page or screen, not sittin’ and thinkin’.
Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.