I wrote a while ago about conflict in romance. My main point was that ‘conflict’ doesn’t have to mean ‘argument’. The MCs can be in deep conflict with a situation or third party, or even profound disagreement with each other, without ever raising their voices or even having an angry feeling. This set-up can produce some of the most heart-wrenching romances precisely because the conflict isn’t about argument or clashing.
Which is great. But today, we’re forgetting about lovers who are star-crossed, and concentrating on ones who are just plain cross. Let’s talk about blazing rows!
I love a good blazing row in a romance. People in a temper blurt out truths or, even worse, real subjective feelings and resentments that Calm Them would never have voiced. They say things that are grossly unfair and just accurate enough to get under the skin and stick there; things that hurt, and have to be apologised for and discussed. This can be a fantastic way to raise the stakes of a story, put a whacking obstacle in our lovers’ path, and dig right into the heart of the problems.
That’s argument done right. Done wrong, it’s one of the quickest ways to get readers to hurl the book across the room. You can torpedo your entire book with a badly done argument, for reasons we’ll cover.
Before we start, it’s as well to note that a well-written blazing row is liable to be raw, stressful, and even potentially painful for many readers. Some people may consider that a MC who raises their voice in anger is abusive. There is certainly no compulsory requirement for a romance to contain an argument, and if your story doesn’t need one, don’t have one. A lot of people will actively seek that out.
With that said, and assuming you’re going for Full Metal Racket, let’s start with the obvious ways to do this badly.
Insert Row Here: the third act break-up
We’ve all seen this one. The synopsis or “beat list” or whatever demands that there should be a row, so the author writes a row. All too often, this is done to provoke the dreaded Third Act Break-Up. Eyeroll emoji.
Two problems with that. First, a good blazing row needs to come from somewhere. Hurt; fear; a sense that the other person is treating you badly; a deep-seated resentment. These are very real emotions, but they are not positive ones, and if your couple feel like that about one another even temporarily, you’ll need to put in the work to show us how they fix it. Do it in the third act of a romance, and you’ve got a mountain to climb for a plausible HEA. You will have to persuade the reader that these difficult issues—very often coming down to lack of trust—can be resolved, and you’ve only got a couple of chapters to do it.
(Here I observe that Adriana Herrera’s American Love Story has two characters who have a lot of very big, serious arguments which are deeply rooted in their characters and situations, and the book ends with them together in couples therapy. It’s absolutely spot on: they clearly have a shedload more work to do on their relationship, and we’re left believing they’re both profoundly committed to making it happen. It’s a lot more convincing than a glib declaration of love would have been.)
This brings us to the alternative problem, when the author doesn’t dig into deep-rooted issues, but instead goes for that old favourite, the completely manufactured nonsense row. Extra points if it could have been resolved in two lines with basic communication.
“I saw you kissing a man on the street! I will never speak to you again and have blocked you on all channels to prevent you explaining yourself!”
[three chapters later]
“Oh, it was your brother, my bad.”
The thing about blazing rows is, they are not the pinnacle of good human behaviour. When we argue, we are all liable to display anger, resentment, defensiveness, lashing out, irrationality, spite. I am bang alongside realistic characters who behave badly on occasion and say things they regret—up to a point. The tricky part is judging that point.
For me, a blazing row has an in vino veritas quality: people lose their inhibitions temporarily and speak their truth (which is not the same as the truth, or indeed their only truth). It’s a moment for the character to be their authentically worst self. But think carefully how bad that worst self should be. There are countless m/f romances where the hero is provoked by rage into misogynist slurs, for example, and as far as I’m concerned, that hero can get in the bin immediately because he’s shown his true colours.
It’s not necessary. You can work up a fantastic row based on someone’s actions, and what those actions reveal/imply about their character. Specificity is what you want, not some generic insult, and especially not a personal one, still less a slur. I love swearing as much as the next foul-mouthed Brit, but if ever there’s a time to watch your swearing, it’s in a blazing row.
Let’s say the heroine’s father owns a dinosaur-meat company that’s planning a takeover of the hero’s cupcake factory. She doesn’t tell the hero because she knows he’ll want nothing to do with her. When he finds out, well into their love affair, he incorrectly concludes that she was manipulating him to fish for information about cupcake production methods. (What, I could totally write this.)
If the enraged hero calls the heroine a bitch, the reader’s misogyny klaxon may well go off. If he uses sexual insults (slut, etc), that’s a level of intended insult and misogynist attitude that many readers will find repugnant. And on a technical level it will completely muddy the waters, because I’m now siding with the heroine even if she behaved appallingly, plus I hope his cupcake factory gets bulldozed.
Whereas suppose he calls her a conniving shit? Well, the reader will have to admit he’s got a point. If his angry language is accurate and specific, the reader can sympathise with his sense of betrayal as well as the heroine’s hurt at his misjudgement. The focus of the argument stays where it should be, on what someone actually did wrong. It remains an argument, not a tirade of abuse. And if you want to keep the reader on side with the eventual HEA, that makes a difference.
To put it another way: if you call me a bitch, that merely tells me something about you. If you call me a conniving shit, there’s a chance you’ve nailed something about me.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
So what does a good blazing row look like?
It’s based at the root in character. A useful tip is to consider a character’s deep fears or hurts, and attack them there, because that’s what triggers the defensive reaction and the uncontrolled emotion. If an MC is used to being overlooked or ignored by their family, it will hurt disproportionately from their lover.
Specific and accurate language is by far the most effective. I’m not a fan of manufactured conflict and especially not the type where one person doesn’t say what they’re angry about (at least on the surface).
That said, remember the surface reason for the row may well not be what (or all) the row is actually about. In my Will Darling Adventures, there are multiple rows based on Kim Secretan telling lies to his lover Will. Actually (and this is what I mean about rows being based in character), the problem is that Will is in unacknowledged love with Kim but feels on the back foot with Kim’s poise and superior class status, none of which he’d admit at gunpoint. “Why are you lying to me?” is a proxy for “Why can’t I be an equal and a partner?” which is not a conversation Will is ready to have. With that as the hidden emotional motor, the surface arguments about Kim being a conniving shit speed along nicely.
See both sides. It’s entirely possible that both participants in the row have a point, or a sincerely held belief (character again). Even if one has flagrantly wronged the other, they surely have a justification of why they needed to do it. The author needs to hold both those conflicting realities in mind in order to make the reader believe in the argument. AKA: the character needs to believe what they’re saying, even if only at the second they say it.
And, here’s the big one for me: Don’t lose sight of the other emotions. If you’re well into the relationship, a blazing row isn’t just angry. It’s hurtful (I love this person, why did she say that?) and scary (Christ, are we breaking up?) and there might be a frightening sense of things running out of control. Convey those and the reader will very much feel the argument.
Example time! I am going to include a long quote from one of my books, and I expect many of my readers will already have guessed which scene this is going to be. It’s from Flight of Magpies, the third of a same-couple trilogy, and it’s in chapter 5 of 13 because it needed a lot of dealing with. There are various stressors on the lovers which I won’t bother to detail, but, looking at the points above:
- Character. Stephen is torn between his love life and his duties, and terrified of failing at either. Crane is very much in love with him and finding it increasingly hurtful that he might come second in Stephen’s mind. Stephen feels his life is running out of his control; Crane verges on controlling. Stephen has very definitely let Crane down. All of this comes together as we kick off.
- Specific language. Two whole pages before we degenerate into vulgar abuse! Go me. Note that many of the flying accusations aren’t entirely accurate or fair, but all have a grain of truth to make them hurt.
- Surface reasons: The passage is stuffed with ‘em, several of them pointed up as such. But this is actually about the fact that Stephen’s life is out of control and he’s terrified. He’s failing and flailing. Crane spells that out to him, and Stephen’s defensive response is to lash out, and that’s what’s really happening here.
- Both sides: Stephen really is letting people down. Crane really is excessively demanding of someone who’s at breaking point. They both need the other to do better.
- Other emotions: This is a big old row, one to which we’ve been building for a couple of chapters and indeed three books, but it’s rooted in love and fear for one another, even if those emotions aren’t coming out in a very therapist-approved manner.
Have a look and see what you’d do better:
“God damn you, Stephen.” Crane pushed himself to his feet so hard the chair toppled backwards. “When are you going to stop lying to me?”
“That was months ago,” Stephen protested. “I thought I’d get her. I put the word out among the justiciary—”
“Which has done precisely how much good?”
“Well, what should I have done?” Stephen demanded, jumping up in turn. “You know blasted well I can’t let the Council know you’re a source. I don’t trust them. I don’t trust practitioners, and nor should you.”
“Not on the evidence of this conversation, certainly.”
Stephen’s cheeks flamed. “That’s not fair. I was trying to protect you.”
“By lying to me. Again.”
“What good would it have done to tell you?” Stephen’s voice was rising. “Make you sick with worry, for what? I was going to go after her—”
“But you didn’t,” Crane said icily. “Because you were busy. With your job.”
Stephen apparently couldn’t find anything to say to that. Crane felt the anger pulsing savagely through him and made no effort at all to hold it back. He had been so fucking patient, he had put up with so much, let the twisting little bastard rule him in every way imaginable, but this was one more kick in the teeth than any man could stand. “I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”
“Well, what would you have done if I’d said anything?” Stephen demanded. “What do you imagine you can do? Do you really think your money, or your personal killer, would be any use against a practitioner who wanted you dead?”
“We’ll never know. Because I haven’t had the chance. Is this what being short is like?”
“Having your loved ones treat you like a fucking child.”
“Don’t give me that,” Stephen said savagely. “I am trying my best to do everything I have to do—”
“And it’s not good enough. You’re not doing all these things, and nor is anyone else.”
“You haven’t got the ring back,” Crane said over him. “You’ve done nothing to help Miss Saint. There’s this murderer you’re supposed to be catching, Lady Bruton to deal with, let alone fitting me into your demanding schedule—”
“No, you stop it. Stop lying to me, and stop clutching on to every job that comes your way as if you’re the only man in the bloody world who can do anything.”
“Well, I’m quite sure you can find someone else to suck you off,” Stephen snarled. His face was patched red and white with angry misery. “You seemed to be doing a damned good job of that earlier.”
“What? Oh, go to the devil. I turned him down.”
“Your restraint is amazing. Congratulations. What a pity Mr. Merrick doesn’t have the same self-control.”
That transparent effort to change the subject made Crane angrier than anything yet, far too angry to prevent himself rising to the bait. “Don’t even start. We talked about that.”
“No, you talked about it. You told me that it was perfectly reasonable for your manservant to prey on my student, and I listened to you—”
“Prey?” Crane repeated furiously.
“Oh, whatever you choose to call it. The fact is, she’s miserable, inexperienced and lonely. It’s amazingly easy to be seduced when you feel that way.”
“What did that mean?” Crane demanded, startled by how much it hurt. “Are you talking about us? What the fuck did that mean?”
Stephen looked slightly shocked by his own words. He hesitated for a second, then shook his head violently, taking refuge in anger. “I don’t have time for this.”
“You don’t have time for us?”
“I don’t have time to argue about what Mr. Merrick could possibly do that you wouldn’t defend, or who I’m supposed to let down out of the wide range of people who want something from me. I’m going.” He marched to the door, pushing past Crane. “Going to do some of those things that I haven’t done yet because I don’t work hard enough.”
“Oh, for— That is the precise opposite of what I was trying to point out to you.”
“Thank you for the insight.” Stephen stalked out of the room, into the hallway.
Crane thumped a furious fist against the wall. He had rarely wanted to hit anyone so much, the bloody stupid obstinate lying little shit, and the unhappiness boiling off Stephen’s set shoulders made everything ten times worse.
Stephen was shoving his feet into his boots. Crane stalked into the hall after him. “Stop this, for Christ’s sake. Have some sense.”
“Stop telling me what to do, blast you!” Stephen wrenched the front door open.
“Fine!” Crane shouted, exasperated beyond bearing. “Fine. Fuck off, then, fuck you, and fuck your ancestors.”
“And yours!” Stephen shouted back, and slammed the door behind him.
I have only one more thing to add, which is: If you make the mess, clean it up. A big argument needs a resolution. Not just an apology, or even a grovel, but the MCs realising where they went wrong, looking at what the problem was, and unpicking it so that we can believe it won’t fester. Even, that next time it comes up, they’ll behave differently because they’ve learned something.
It is very tempting to resolve a row by adding a dramatic event, where the MCs have to set aside their anger in order to cooperate on something bigger. I do this a lot because, frankly, it’s fun.
Hart stared into Robin’s face. “Why are you staying? Why haven’t you gone?”
“That was an argument. This is a crisis. When we’ve dealt with the crisis, we’ll go back to the argument.”(The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, on sale through March!)
But if you use this, don’t handwave the argument away with “When I saw you in the hospital, I realised none of that mattered.” If it mattered enough to have a blazing row about, it needs resolving. Otherwise both characters and readers will remain unsatisfied, and in a romance novel, that just won’t do.
Thanks to Kathleen Jennings for the spur to write this!