Let’s Agree about Conflict

HEA=Happy Ever After, MC=main character, MS=manuscript

If you ask a reader what they need to get out of a romance, you’ll probably hear “A Happy Ever After, duh,” accompanied by a menacing look in case you were even thinking about screwing with that. They might also offer variations on ‘love’, ‘kindness’, ‘communication’, ‘consent’, and other good things.

Ask a romance writer what they need to put into a romance, and they’ll probably say, “Conflict.”

Back in the day when I edited for Mills & Boon, we had to do a form for each book we put forward at the editorial meeting. Basic details, synopsis, tropes/themes, and conflict. The ‘Conflict’ section came at the top of the text section, in bold. And if you couldn’t identify what the conflict was, or it looked lacklustre on page, woe betide you.

However, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what conflict is and means. Let’s do a spot of digging.

For a start, ‘conflict’ can be a misleading term for what we’re discussing. The word evokes big rows, enemies to lovers, prickling hostility. I have a sneaking suspicion that this limited interpretation of ‘conflict’ is why the third-act argument is such an overused (and unloved) device: the author thinks Oh God, they’re getting on so well, but I need conflict, and often shoehorns it in against the grain of the story.  

Prickling hostility can be great. I adore a good ‘enemies to lovers’ story where the MCs are justifiably spitting furious. I don’t adore a story where they are put in opposition for no particular reason other than the supposed necessity of conflict.

I think we’d often be better off using ‘obstacle’. Because what we’re talking about here is, fundamentally, the things that keep our MCs from their HEA. Those obstacles may be internal (“I was hurt before and don’t want to love again”), external (“the criminal gang is trying to kill me so this isn’t a good time for a bonk”) or both (“I have been offered a great job 1000 miles away, how do I balance love and career?”). They can be hostile (“This bastard is trying to tear down my cupcake café to build a mall!”) or the opposite (“I have to give up the love of my life because I am a sparkly vampire and may cause them harm.”).

It is perfectly possible to write a terrific romance where the MCs never clash with one another, even in a small way. But even the lowest-angst, most comfort-blanket read has obstacles, things that get in the MCs’ way individually or as a couple. Where they struggle and how they deal with it is the engine that drives the plot, shows character in action, and lets the relationship develop.

So the question for the romance writer is:

What are the obstacles, internal and external, that complicate, slow, or threaten the relationship?

I can’t tell you how many slush MSS I slung in the reject heap because of the lack of obstacles. Again, this doesn’t mean ‘they didn’t have rows’. It means that the author didn’t dig into the difficulties, the problems, the insecurities, the practical or emotional issues getting in our lovers’ way. If we don’t feel those things exist or matter, we don’t get the payoff when they’re overcome.

Don’t forget the overcoming bit. We do need to come out at the end with a feeling that they’ve worked their way through or around the obstacles, and that they’ll be able to do so in the future. Overloading a book with conflict, or not dealing with it once raised, can make that hard to believe.

What sort of things may be obstacles?

We often think of conflict at plot level. MC1 doesn’t want children and MC2 has four. MC1 didn’t tell MC2 about their secret baby. MC1 is a policeman and 2 is an assassin, or a thief, or an activist who believes that the justice system is fascist and corrupt. MC1 is a princess, a werewolf, the boss, or all three (which would be cool). MC1 wants to shut down 2’s family mall to build a cupcake empire. MC1 is 2’s best friend’s little sister. You know the score.

But there’s a lot more obstacles than the obvious headliners.

Power imbalance is a big one. Where there’s any sort of difference between the characters there’s probably some sort of power imbalance, which can lead to uncertainty, insecurity, misunderstanding, resentment. Obvious areas for power imbalance are gender-related (including in queer relationships), and disparities in wealth, health, professional status, class, sexual experience, age, perceived attractiveness, perceived value as a person. It’s always worth thinking about these.

(For an entire book about power imbalance–across age, wealth, education, status, sexual experience, and class–Alexis Hall’s For Real traces a relationship between an older, authoritative, wealthy sub and a young, less secure, broke dom. It’s a masterclass in power imbalances going both ways, and the complexities of how they shift and seesaw.)

Differing moral standards can be a massive obstacle. Is it OK to lie/hide the truth from someone? For how long? About what issues? How far does family matter? If duties clash—family, career, partner—which do you prioritise? Did one MC do things which the other considers objectively bad? Which is more important, personal fulfilment or personal responsibility?

Obstacles don’t have to be huge or dramatic. We all know the relatively trivial issues on which relationships stub their toes occasionally. If MC1 comes home from work after a bad day and MC2 doesn’t offer sympathy, that can feel like the end of the world. If it matters to the character, it should matter to the reader.

Important: Characters can have serious issues without them being obstacles to the relationship. There’s very little more powerfully romantic than a MC who meets, e.g., their lover’s health issues or personal insecurities with kindness, help, and understanding. What could be an obstacle but isn’t matters just as much as what is. Both those things help define the relationship.

(I just read this excellent review of the wonderful Take a Hint Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert. The last two paras perfectly encapsulate how this book, and indeed the entire glorious Brown Sisters series, actively choose what things won’t be treated as obstacles in the story/relationship, and why that’s so important.)

Obstacles in action

Let’s take Will and Kim from my Will Darling Adventures: a couple who have so many obstacles, it takes them three books to get to their HEA. A few of those, and how they react:

  • Kim is rich, Will is not. A prickly topic for Will, but something he can accept, since Kim handles it with care.
  • Kim is upper class, Will is working class. For Will, veers back and forth from discomfort to resentment to catastrophe. For Kim, something he wishes Will would get over (until said catastrophe).
  • Kim is engaged. Explained quickly and then disregarded.
  • Kim is a rotten weasel liar. Massive relationship-breaking issue.
  • Will kills people. Mostly handwaved.
  • Will isn’t very good at talking about his feelings. Oh boy.

All these issues and more come up across the series, some as ongoing across the three books, some once, some intermittently. The progress of the relationship is shown in the way they handle, listen, accept, put down boundaries, change. (They also have to deal with an entire criminal conspiracy, but that’s not important right now.)

Note: I could have done all this differently. I could have had the wealth disparity be a running sore between them. I could have made Will unconcerned by class, or Kim far more concerned by it. I could have Will take a much more laissez-faire approach to the fact that a rotten weasel liar told him lies: well, he’s a secret agent so he would, right? But perhaps Kim’s engagement might have been a dealbreaker to Will’s conventional principles. What if Kim was horrified by Will’s penchant for violence? And so on.

All of those decisions could have worked. All of them would have led to the characters developing and reacting differently. And since plot is character in action, we’d have ended up with completely different books.

Let me add: I struggled with book 3, Subtle Blood (as chronicled here). The point at which I finally got a grip on it was when I realised that I’d missed a huge obstacle. Specifically, I had let Will get away with his insistence that he was basically fine, that he was coping with his experiences in the war, that he didn’t really need to talk about it. Wrong. Once I delved into that, and realised it was standing in the way of the deep emotional commitment we needed, the book came together. If I’d let that obstacle go unaddressed, the final relationship wouldn’t have anything like the same heft.

The art of fiction is, in many respects, finding where it hurts and then prodding at it.

Obstacles mean options!

If you aren’t sure about your story, focusing on the obstacles can be a great tactic to lever your way in.

Right now I’m planning my Doomsday Books duo. I know book 1 is going to star Joss Doomsday (smuggler) and Gareth Inglis (gentleman). Joss is clear in my mind and I’m waiting impatiently to get him on page. But I don’t quite know Gareth yet, and I’m still havering on the plot.

So here’s a simple ‘obstacles’ question: Joss is a smuggler. Is Gareth OK with that? Yes/No

If yes, is it simply not a big deal for him, in which case we’ll be looking for something else to drive the plot? Does he actively want to be involved—say, he needs Joss to smuggle something for him, and that’s what brings them together? Is he a gentleman villain scheming to take over the Romney Marsh smuggling racket himself, in which case it’s Georgian gang warfare and a cracking enemies to lovers set-up?

If no, is this a moral difference, to be discussed as part of a growing mutual understanding between two people of different backgrounds? Or is it adversarial? Is Gareth is a magistrate on a personal crusade to stamp out smuggling, who fully intends to see Joss hang?

You can probably think of half a dozen different ways this book might go, based on that single potential obstacle. We could be looking at anything from a frothy caper comedy to a raging angst-fest here, depending on how I answer the question. (I don’t know yet. We’ll find out in due course.)

***

Character creates obstacles; obstacles drive the plot. Obstacles—what they are, how the characters react to them separately and together, what matters and what doesn’t—are the heart of romance, just as grit is the heart of the pearl. Find them, and you’ve probably found your book.


Get your bucketloads of obstacles in the Will Darling Adventures, all out now!

#1 Slippery Creatures

#2 The Sugared Game

#3) Subtle Blood

15 replies
  1. Big K
    Big K says:

    Your complete understanding of this is why I love your books. Saving your latest for my vacation- thank you in advance for hours of entertainment!

    Reply
  2. Meyer
    Meyer says:

    I stopped reading “For Real” several times because it was chockfull of red flags for me – plot-wise and character-wise – and it is truly a master class in showing how the two MCs overcome those red flags to make a believable HEA, and how Alexis Hall sets up a massive potential dumpster fire and actually pulls it off.
    I haven’t read “Subtle Blood” yet but since my favorite books of yours all feature varieties of Kim and Will’s troubles (like “A Seditious Affair”, “Think of England” or “The Magpie Lord”), I never doubted you would really bring the goods even when I thought in “The Sugared Game” that I wasn’t sure these two could make it work. Thank you for these writing blog posts, I find them endlessly insightful into the process and at least from my side: I’m sorry it’s sometimes such a hard thing to go through but I will always gladly wait for you to figure it out because every book you write is worth waiting for.

    Reply
  3. chacha1
    chacha1 says:

    “The art of fiction is, in many respects, finding where it hurts and then prodding at it.” A pungent distillation that I should scribble across the top of my monitor.

    I really like re-framing ‘conflict’ as ‘obstacle’ because of course you’re right. I’ve seen SO MANY 3rd-act Black Moments that have obviously been shoehorned in because somebody said ‘there’s not enough conflict.’ They come out of nowhere and they’re resolved via a little light groveling (or hand-waving, or – annoyingly – by one character simply giving in to get along. Ugh.).

    ‘For Real’ deals with subject matter I would never have thought I would like. I’ve read it now three … four? … times and am sure I’ll find more to love about it the next time I read it.

    Before ‘Subtle Blood’ landed I occupied myself with the Character Bleed trilogy by K.L. Noone. That’s a case of three books about two guys who … don’t fight, really. Their interpersonal conflict is very low. But the *obstacles* are a whole ‘nother story. Very / less famous. Critically acclaimed / dismissed. Bit young / self-described as ‘aging.’ (Both MCs are actors, so the action hero at 38 has cause to consider himself approaching the top of the hill, if not yet over it.) Then there’s the younger man’s largely-unaddressed and easily-triggered trauma. The older man has to a) understand it; b) respect it; c) learn to accommodate it; d) help his lover find ways to begin healing from it. That’s not a ‘conflict’ to anyone who’s not a dick, but it’s a hell of an obstacle.

    Those MCs caught me as quickly and thoroughly as your Lord Crane + Stephen, or Will + Kim, or the leads of the Amberlough Dossier. I don’t want books about people pointlessly arguing. I want books about people sorting things out.

    btw I was tickled to see DS and Bill again, and to hear about Jimmy, but I missed Archie. Also I would happily read 20 or so books about Will, Kim, et al.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Those sound great, will check out!

      “I don’t want books about people pointlessly arguing. I want books about people sorting things out.”–Completely agree. The emotional heft of conflict is so much greater when you feel that they have good reason to clash *but* that they don’t want to.

      Reply
  4. Julie Winklepleck
    Julie Winklepleck says:

    Thanks for all the love for Alexis Hall’s For Real, one of my favorite books! That said, Silas and Dominic are my OTP. Thanks for writing, for pushing through the obstacles and sharing them with us.

    Reply
  5. Ananda
    Ananda says:

    Congratulations on the success of this latest trilogy!! Not blowing smoke up anything, but your books are a joy to read, and your blog posts are pure gold and like going to creative writing school for free. Thank you!!!!!

    Reply
  6. Rosanna Leo
    Rosanna Leo says:

    Thanks so much for writing this and exploring this topic. I’ve been struggling with establishing the obstacles for my newest book, and this gave me food for thought.

    Reply
  7. Gail
    Gail says:

    Really enjoyed this insight into writing a good romance. I loved the Magpie Lord series and Alexis Hall is also a fav of mine.

    Reply

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