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!
#3) Subtle Blood