Romantic Conflict

This was written at least ten years ago, but it is still highly relevant even in today’s market — if not more so!  — t.

Conflict is just one of the many elements that go into building emotional intensity in the romance novel.

Café cruising

Pretend you’ve just sat down at your favorite Starbucks, the corner table, where you can watch the world go by.

On the table to your left is a couple.  She’s drop dead gorgeous, he’s a serious contender for sexiest man alive.  They’re laughing, chatting, staring into each other’s eyes.  It’s obvious to the whole world they’re in love.  They stare at each other just a little longer than necessary, they’re oblivious to anyone else, they’re murmuring sweet nothings into each other’s ears….

Your gaze moves onto a table to your right.  Actually, your entire attention is ripped over to that table, for the pair on this table are having a sit-down, stand-up fight.  They’re almost shouting.  He throws an insult at her, she gives him a comeback that makes the wallpaper curl.  He tries again, she spits back…

This is a lot more interesting than the lovebirds on the first table, right?  A ding-dong battle of wills and wits is going to capture your attention no matter what.  So you watch the exchanges for a while, fascinated.  The verbal ball bounces back and forth faster than a tennis match, and just as energetically, but after a while it becomes a little monotonous, and the whole argument thing begins to pall….

That’s when you notice the couple at the middle table.  They’re not arguing, but they’re not cooing to each other, either.  In fact, this is kind of interesting.  They’re discussing something, but you’re not quite sure what.  You only know that it’s something of gut wrenching importance to them both, because she looks like she’s about to burst into tears, or faint.  And he’s running his hand through his hair.  His face looks like he’s just been told he’s got three months to live, and he’s trying to convince her it’s the same as three years.  He’s a little desperate too — his hand next to his coffee cup is clenched so tight the knuckles are white.

They’re talking in low, intense voices, and there’s hard dollops of silence in between.  She is systematically tearing a paper napkin into tiny pieces….

Okay, which table is going to hold your attention the longest?  Which table is going to make you want to know what is going on?

The middle table, of course.

Romantic conflict

If you haven’t already figured it out, this café scenario is a metaphor for romance novels.  From the very birth of romance novels it was established that happy couples make dead boring reading.  Conflict, then, is vital to making your book interesting.  But the type of conflict is critical.

As you saw above, surface conflict such as endless arguments might hold your reader’s attention for a brief while.  However, arguments like this can’t be sustained for a whole book, and a series of arguments run the risk of boring the reader, or making them wonder if the couple should ever get together at all!  And if your hero and heroine argue like any other normal couple, they’ll lose sight of the initial issue almost at once, and the argument will descend to a battle over superficial, trivial and almost totally unrelated issues.

To sustain interest for the length of a book, you need something much more complex.  So what was it about the middle table that hooked you?  Think about it….

…yes, it’s that phrase you’re starting to get really familiar with:  Emotional intensity.

An emotional storm results from a conflict of issues that are of deep, critical and overriding importance to both parties.  And for romance, that conflict is what keeps the couple apart.

A romance novel is about a developing relationship, and the events that prevent the relationship from reaching its natural conclusion:  The latter is romantic conflict.

It is very easy to figure out what the conflict is in a romance.  You answer a simple question:

What is stopping the hero and heroine from declaring their love for each other?

The answer to this question is what makes the conflict for the novel.

In all fiction there are two types of conflict, and a combination of the two:

External conflict

Romances that have only external elements keeping the hero and heroine apart are fairly rare these days.  You have to go back to days of yore when self-determination and independence was scarce, and even then, modern readers would have a hard time trying to understand why the heroine and heroine don’t just strike out for themselves.

A classic example of purely external conflict is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The only things keeping Romeo and Juliet apart are the feud between the Capulets and Montagues, and Juliet’s parents’ arrangements for her marriage to Paris.  Romeo seals their doom when he kills Juliet’s brother, Tybalt, in a sword fight.  Because this is a tragedy, the pair are unable to find their way out of their dilemma.

At no time in the story do they doubt their love for each other, or feel any reluctance to be together.  They have no moral qualms or personal crises.  Romeo, for instance, doesn’t have a burning ambition to be the best swordsman in all of Italy, which requires him to travel to Rome to study.  It is other events and outside circumstances keeping them apart.

Internal conflict

On the other hand, if you had wanted to change Romeo and Juliet so that the conflict was internal, then Romeo would have been torn between his love for Juliet, and his need to prove his prowess as a swordsman in Rome.  And Juliet, perhaps, would have had a desperate need to retire from life to a convent, and help the poor and needy, which is in sharp competition with her growing love for Romeo.

Of course, all the external conflict would be removed — it must be removed, or it weakens the internal conflict. So:  The families are no longer feuding, Juliet’s parents don’t arrange her marriage with Paris — in fact they might even be encouraging her relationship with Romeo, as the best catch in Verona, which just adds pressure to her dilemma.

It changes the story a lot, doesn’t it?  And maybe, you might find it more interesting, because suddenly, there is angst, and worry.  In other words, there are deep, personally relevant emotional issues for the couple that get in the way of their relationship.

Internal conflict isn’t something that can be solved simply by escaping it, as Romeo and Juliet attempt to do in the classic version.  Wherever your character goes, he brings his troubles along with him.  If his needs and wants, his beliefs, his values, are strong, deep ones, then he isn’t simply going to choose to ignore them just so he can have the love of his life.  He is going to struggle, and struggle hard.

This is the reason why purely external conflict stories are hard to find these days.  Their last stand would be in action/adventure movies – but even there, audiences have become more demanding, cand action heroes are beginning to have internal qualms and dilemmas, now.  Even James Bond, the quintessential externally-beset character, is beginning to grow a conscience.

Certainly, you won’t find pure external conflict in a romance, for it doesn’t provide the intensity that internal conflict can bring to a story.  External conflict just isn’t as emotionally satisfying as a well-resolved internal conflict.

A close to perfect modern example of a purely internal conflict story is the movie Pretty Woman.  What was keeping them apart?  Edward’s desire to avoid “complications”, and his history of being burnt and scorned by those he loved.  Vivien’s need to “have it all”, the prince on a white charger  who she dreams of rescuing her from her sidewalk beat.  There were no people telling them they shouldn’t be together, no external elements trying to keep them apart.  It was their own wants, needs, and dreams that were preventing them from declaring their love.

Combining the two.

Of course, you can up the stakes by combining both internal and external conflicts to keep the hero and heroine apart.  Many romances do – especially the longer romances.  Short contemporaries really only have room to explore one well-developed set of internal conflicts, and for the really short ones, maybe the conflict is with only one of the characters.  (Harlequin/Mills & Boon’s Presents and Romance imprints specialize in these single conflict stories, as many of their books are single point of view – the heroine’s.)

However, longer length books allows the author to bring more external elements into play.  Hence the popularity of action/adventure, historical and suspense elements, and social issues:  They give the author access to external situations and props that will keep the hero and heroine at odds, or at the very least, compound their problems.  It’s hard to remain stubborn in the face of civil wars, bad guys with guns, lawsuits, adamant parents, or wicked stepmothers.

To fall back upon a classic romance for an example, yet again, consider Gone with the Wind (GWTW).  This book is in some ways the ancestor of the modern romance.  Now, when the story is such a well known one, and the pattern of romantic conflict well known and understood, it’s hard to remember that the book broke new ground when it was published in 1937.  Nobody had ever read anything quite like it, and it was an instant hit.

GWTW has both internal and external conflict. The external is supplied by the civil war and the chaos, shattering and reconstruction of society it created, and also by the social mores of the time, which put the brakes on many of Scarlett’s excesses (or drove them underground). They also restricted Rhett’s actions to a degree, too.

While the external conflicts moved and changed across the immense storyboard of the book, the internal conflicts drove the central engine of the story:  Scarlett’s were two-fold: She thought she loved Ashley, and when that passion began to fade and change she took on a new, more genuine cause:  to save Tara.  Both were obsessions, and both prevented her from seeing Rhett for the caring man he was.  Rhett’s internal conflicts were related to Scarlett’s – while she was too immature and obsessive to understand true love he could not reveal himself.  Later, when she finally did understand, it was too late – she had put him through too many kinds of hell for him to be able try any more.

Internal conflict is closely bound up with the crafting of your characters, and their main traits and motivations.  The character’s main trait will generally provide the basis for the inner conflict.  When we study character next week, we will be looking at ways to pick the best trait to intensify the inner conflict, and how to back it up with powerful motives.

Well known wall-thumpers

This talk of romantic conflict always reminds me of a type of romance book I despise:  “Keyhole plots”.   I haven’t read one for a while, so maybe they are dying a well-deserved death.  However, they deserve a mention, even if it is posthumous.

Keyhole plots are not really plots, or conflicts, at all.  The scenario always runs this way:  The heroine (usually) hears, or overhears (hence “keyhole” – she heard it through the keyhole), or is told by a malicious third party something absolutely shocking about the hero.  “He fathered my secret baby”.   Sometimes she even witnesses the hero in a compromising position, and adds two and two together (invariably coming up with five!).

The heroine instantly goes into decline, refuses to speak to the hero, who is at first bewildered, then angry.  They don’t talk to each other for the rest of the book except to snipe at each other with stinging comments, and the odd shot across the bows.  In the last few pages of the book, she tells him she knows the terrible secret.  He shakes his head:  “You silly thing!  That was just a lie Venetia told you because she knows I love you, and she was jealous and wanted to keep us apart.”  And they fall into each other’s arms.


To start with, why on earth the hero loves a woman who could jump to such terrible conclusions about him is beyond me.  And more relevant:  The reader is going to wonder what sort of relationship these two are ever going to have if they can’t sit down for five minutes and sort out the misunderstanding.  The author is in danger of destroying the happy-ever-after myth.

There are all sorts of variations on the keyhole plot, and many of them are well written, but they are all ultimately unsatisfying.

The litmus test for a keyhole plot is this:  If the conflict you have devised (or that you’re reading) could be solved if only the heroine and hero sat down for five minutes and spoke frankly to each other, (or screamed at each other) you know you have a keyhole plot on your hands – no matter how sophisticated the plotting.

A good strong conflict is one that can’t be solved with a simple conversation, even when both characters are speaking frankly and honestly.  This is what raises the stakes, and makes the final resolution of the conflict most satisfying.


Your story — The litmus test in practice

If you have a story on the go, or have an idea for a story, sit down now and figure out what the conflict of your story is.


  • The external conflict (if any)
  • The internal conflict
  • Whether the conflict is focused on just one person, or both of your major characters have problems to deal with.
  • If you (gulp) have a keyhole plot.

Write the conflict out as succinctly as possible, and share it with a writing buddy or group.

The feedback you should offer to others, and expect yourself, is not where your conflict is weak — as you’ve probably figured that out yourself when you wrote it down.  On the other hand, this is an opportunity for everyone to brainstorm with you, and suggest ways the conflict could be strengthened.

Brainstorming can be enormous fun.  It is also a way of by-passing your personal clichés, as everyone else will suggest ideas that may never have occurred to you.

Rules for brainstorming:

  • There’s no such thing as a stupid idea
  • Quantity is better than quality – it gives the author plenty to mix and match, and pick and choose from.
  • The more brains the better.
Scroll to Top