Conflict in Romance Plots

Heart Bomb HiRes copy 2 Conflict in romance can be difficult because good relationships rest on compromise, and compromise makes a terrible end to a climactic battle.

There are many ways to create conflict in romance, but the two simplest approaches are the lovers-against-an-outside antagonist (the easy way) and the lovers-as-antagonists (the hard way).

The easy way is to give one of your lovers the main plot with an outside antagonist, and the other lover the major subplot with the same antagonist.  Their separate battles with the same character will pull them into each other’s stories, and the pressure from the antagonist will create stress and adrenalin, both spurs to falling in love, until they work together (another spur to love) to destroy the antagonist utterly at the climax.

Romance Common Antagonist

The harder way is to make one of the lovers the protagonist and the other the antagonist.  This is difficult because a satisfying climax leaves one character the winner and the other the loser, completely defeated and destroyed.  That’s a bad start to a permanent relationship.  The work around is a protagonist or antagonist who will be better off for losing: she’s stuck in a stale or inauthentic existence that she’s holding onto for safety and her lover’s victory at the end sets her free to live life fully, or she’s locked into a nihilistic world view and her antagonist destroys that worldview so that she can come into the light.

Lovers as Antagonist

Examples:

Lovers Against An Antagonist: The Charade Plot
Reggie’s husband’s just been killed.  Peter is suspiciously around when anything gets dangerous.  Since Peter appears to be the only one actively not trying to kill her, Reggie joins forces with him.
Together they defeat the Big Bad and in so doing fall in love.

charade-beige-dress-black-belt

Lovers As Antagonists: The Moonstruck Plot
Loretta wants a safe, passionless life with Johnny.  Ronnie wants Loretta, passionately. If Loretta wins, Ronnie’s life is destroyed because he’ll never be with his soulmate.  If Ronnie wins, Loretta’s hope for a passionless existence is toast.
Ronnie wins, Loretta loses and gets a much richer, happier life.

moonstruck-clip-01

Romantic conflict is most effective when it tests and strengthens the romance.

TroubleshootingIf your romance plot seems more squishy than sharp, it may be because your conflict is weak or non-existant because you’re trying to make compromise work as a climax instead of putting your lovers through a crucible that will forge a commitment.

For other posts in this unit see The Conflict Unit main post.

25 thoughts on “Conflict in Romance Plots

  1. Jenny, I didn’t get this post in my inbox yesterday. Perhaps others didn’t as well?

    For me the strongest conflict keeping my h/h apart is internal–but are you not talking about that yet? Just external for now?

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    • Huh. No idea why it didn’t go out. I’ll put something on Argh.

      Internal conflict is character arc, so the only romantic internal conflict would be narcissism or dual personality. That is, “Do I love him/her?” is about the character, not about the relationship conflict; the other person isn’t even there.

      Romantic conflict is about working out all the barriers to commitment or at least mutual respect and understanding, so you need two (or more) people for that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So in the Lovers v. Antagonist example, where does the conflict between them come from once they start working together? That’s where I tend to draw out the internal conflicts–the reasons they’re afraid of falling in love with each other (which brings us back to that pesky wound!). So when the forces of evil come bearing down on them, it pings their internal conflicts, causing them to pull a runner at the crisis.

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      • Well, I hate the Wound, so I’m not going to support you on that. It’s almost always contrived and exasperating. “I was hurt before and now I’m afraid to love again.” Get in line, sister. It’s not that it doesn’t happen in real life, it’s that it’s exasperating and negative there, too.
        If they’re so damaged that they pull a runner at the crisis, they’re not ready for a commitment; the crisis (in this kind of conflict) is the point at which that outside antagonist wins and they lose, so it’s the test for their relationship. If they abandon each other, there’s no romance. If they pick themselves up and go out to die together in one last ditch attempt to stop the antagonist (you get to decide what “die” means in your story), then they (and the reader) know they’ll stick together in the future no matter what happens. It foreshadows the mature love in their future, that this isn’t just attraction based on physical, conditional things.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For me, think a good example of romantic conflict is in How to Steal a Million. First off, love how they meet and establish themselves over banter in the kitchen. But also conflict is clear in that she needs to save her dad & he’s supposed to catch him. Good set up. Worked for me:)

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    • My problem with How To Steal A Million is that halfway through, he takes over and she spends the rest of the movie saying, “Brilliant!” and following his orders. I love the movie, but she loses agency halfway through and becomes The Girl.

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      • Interesting. Never saw it that way, lol. Felt partway through that his goal shifted, not hers. But his goal shifted to helping & getting her so in the end they both “win” what they want. Still saw her as strong because ultimately her need drives the story and impacts the resolution. Plus, her role at the museum has impact too so didn’t feel like just The Girl–although there may have been some swooning in that closet, but just chalked that up to romance because really he swoons too:)

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  3. But the crisis is the all is lost moment, right? And it’s not just their goals that die, but their relationship, too. So that proof of maturity comes later–after they’ve dealt with the blows from the crisis and they get their mojo back and come after each other. No?

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    • If the plot is lover vs lover, then yes.
      If the plot is lover vs antagonist, other lover vs same antagonist, no.

      The problem with the romance plot is that it’s antithetical to the classic linear plot with the go-to-hell moment at the crisis. You want the romance tested, but you need to see its arc, so if the lovers give up on it, it damages the relationship arc. It’s not that you can’t do that, it’s that they better have a damn good reason for abandoning each other because otherwise they gave up too easily and the reader isn’t going to buy that they have a future. If they leave because they’re scared of the emotional commitment, they’re not ready to make a commitment, and the crisis is usually at the 3/4 point or later, which is pretty late to still be playing fast and loose with the relationship.

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  4. Michelle in Texas says:

    And the Lovers as Antagonists is the reason I was so dissatisfied with
    You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan lost everything, Tom Hanks, whille adorable, still contributes to her loss.

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  5. Amy Strnad says:

    I know you hate the wound, Jenny. And I agree that it’s usually so poorly executed, with zero nuance and heavy handed writing, that it leaves me screaming in frustration. Or at least flinging my book against the wall. Or hitting the delete button on my Kindle.

    But now that you got me thinking about it . . .

    Isn’t “the wound” what we’re seeing in Moonstruck? Loretta has vowed to live a passionless life. Why? Because her first husband (whom she loved) died. Not only that, she sees how her father’s cheating is hurting her parents (who love each other), a fact that reinforces her notion that Love=Pain. ie another variation of “I was hurt before and now I’m afraid to love again.” Am I looking at that wrong? Or is Moonstruck just an example of “the wound” done right?

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    • The difference is that the Wound isn’t her problem, it’s the identity she’s taken from the Wound. She’s not saying she’s afraid to love again, she’s saying that the world sucks and she wants safely. She’s not refusing to get married, she’s refusing to marry for passion. She has a goal: she wants to marry Johnny and be safe.

      The Wound almost always results in a negative goal: “This happened in the past and therefore I don’t want this to ever happen again so I don’t want this . . .” It becomes something the character whines about. Loretta never says, “I was hurt once and now I’ll never love again.” She says, “I loved my husband and he got hit by a bus, so now I’m playing it safe.”

      Loretta’s mother says basically the same thing because her husband is cheating her her and it hurts her terribly. When Loretta says, “I’m going to marry Johnny,” she says, “Do you love him?” and Loretta says, “No,” her mother says, “Good.” When Loretta tells her she’s going to marry Ronnie, she says, “Do you love him?”, Loretta says, “I love him terrible.” It’s an acknowledgement, not of past hurt, but that love hurts, you have to take the hits to get the good stuff. It really isn’t about a Wound at all.

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      • I think one of the problems with the Wound is that it implies that there’s this One Big Event that shaped the character’s future, which is not the way things work in real life. There are a lot of little events and a couple of big events and then that’s mixed in with the character’s personality . . . The Wound is just too simplistic to make for good characterization.

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      • Amy Strnad says:

        “There are a lot of little events and a couple of big events and then that’s mixed in with the character’s personality. The Wound is just too simplistic to make for good characterization.”

        **THIS. THIS RIGHT HERE.**

        This makes so much sense! All along I thought the difference was in the execution of The Wound, but I think I was just looking at it all wrong. The Wound suggests a character hasn’t healed (hence the term “wound”, I suppose)– who, BTW, might need counseling, not a love interest : ) This kind of character is more likely to be reactive, taking no action, only employing avoidance ie negative goals, no agency. The kind of weak, one dimensional character that drives me freaking nuts.

        And in most of those stories where I THOUGHT I was seeing The Wound and liked the book anyway, I guess I’ve really been seeing “The Scars,” for lack of a better term. A person who HAS healed from their husband’s death (using Moonlighting as an example). Someone who has lived through MULTIPLE life events that have left big scars and little scars along the way–scars that, along with personality, shape their world view and who they are now. A character who is more likely to be proactive, instead of reactive. Someone with positive goals and agency. Someone who is in a place where they are mentally healthy enough to pull off the HEA (or HFN) in a believable way.

        Okay, so my understanding of the term The Wound just underwent a major shift. And maybe it doesn’t fall in line with anyone else’s definition, but it doesn’t matter. Giving them more clearly defined names in my mind (The Wound, singular, versus The Scars, plural) sure will help me look at my own characters with a more finely honed critical eye.

        I can’t thank you enough, Jenny! When I asked the question above I had no idea your answer would lead to such an epiphany. I should have known better, though. Over the past few years, you’ve given me more Ah-Ha moments than I can count!!

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  6. Amy Strnad says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention this very illuminating tidbit from your first response, the one that got the epiphany ball rolling: “The difference is that the Wound isn’t her problem, it’s the identity she’s taken from the Wound.”

    Thanks again!

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  7. Very helpful. I’d just had this discussion last month with my editor over the way I’d written the black moment. She’s tough and reminds me of you. 🙂 She wrote back NO! This makes her look stupid and she is not stupid. So I did a rewrite and she was thrilled. It’s easy to slip into a lot of the wound type of writing in romance but I think it’s the writer’s easy way out. I love my editor in that she makes me dig deeper, try harder.
    Now I’m going to spend time thinking about this:
    The easy way is to give one of your lovers the main plot with an outside antagonist, and the other lover the major subplot with the same antagonist. Their separate battles with the same character will pull them into each other’s stories, and the pressure from the antagonist will create stress and adrenalin, both spurs to falling in love, until they work together (another spur to love) to destroy the antagonist utterly at the climax.

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    • skalb says:

      In this scenario, though, what keeps the lovers apart? If they’re working together against the antagonist, then where’s the romantic tension? If we resolve it too early, it’s not satisfying for readers, so what am I missing? In my books, the couple gets together at the midpoint–they form some kind of commitment–but then their internal conflicts kick in to keep them from committing all the way. At the crisis, both of them face their deepest fears in a head-on collision that kills the relationship.

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      • Well, there’s your problem: their internal conflicts kill the commitment which means they’re not ready for a mature relationship which means you have less than a quarter of the story for them to mature enough to commit.
        Keeping in mind that there are many roads to Oz and you get to write your books any way you want to, and that I am often wrong . . .

        The problem with writing modern romance is that there really aren’t any bars to adult relationships.
        So a lot of writers fall back on the internal conflict and have the lovers sabotage the relationship, which can really infuriate readers. I’ve done this and boy have I heard about it (Anyone But You is really bad with this).

        But if you give one of your lovers a goal that makes absolute sense, and the other lover the goal of destroying that, you have a real conflict. One of the reasons Moonstruck works so well is that Nicholas Cage plays Ronnie as absolutely batshit insane. If he was a Romance Hero, Loretta would have to be out of her mind to turn him down. Instead, he’s a maniac, and you can understand why she says, “Absolutely not.” You sympathize with her. You know she’s gonna lose, but you can see why she fights.

        The outside antagonist, though, works with the romance. Stress makes people fall in love faster (office romances, wartime romances, affairs). Two spurs to infatuation are joy and pain, both emotions evoked by fighting an enemy; when the joy and pain are shared, a bond is built. And working together, making plans together, going into action together, is terrific foreshadowing for how the relationship will mature into commitment.

        Maybe a better way to approach this kind of conflict isn’t to ask what keeps them apart, but what brings them together and keeps them together when things get tough. How do they move from attraction to attachment to commitment? That’s the arc that I think most romance readers want, not the Big Misunderstanding or the I’ve-Been-Hurt-And-I’ll-Never-Love-Again stuff. Sense8’s romances were great at that, all of them fostered and fused by outside antagonists. There’s a post somewhere on Argh where I broke down four of them, and they all had outside antagonists.

        ETA: Here the Sense8 Romance post:

        http://arghink.com/2015/08/sense8-doing-romance-right/

        But repeating again: This is just my take. Obviously you write your stories the way you need to tell them.

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      • And I just reread your comment and saw the “Where’s the romantic tension?”
        There’s always romantic tension in the beginning. People don’t know each other very well, they’re becoming naked both emotionally and physically which is a real risk, they’re trying to protect themselves and be smart while they’re losing their minds . . . it’s impossible to write real romance without tension because falling in love is terrifying. Then you add in an outside antagonist . . .

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  8. Slyvers says:

    Not a writer here. As a reader and movie watcher: I do love to see how people fall in love, the more unlikely maybe the better. But the most satisfying parts are how they work out to stay together. Like The Cinderella Story. Or like Continental Divide. I remember being shocked by the idea that people can love each other in the most complete way by living apart, but honestly that really resonates with me. But back to the point. For me, the more ways people find to be happy and true, the better off I am. I think it takes more imagination, but hey–that’s why you’re writers?

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    • It’s really the secret of romance writing, I think. The conflict is more negotiation, which is why romance plotting is hard because negotiation is weak conflict when it’s done right.
      But if you think of the classic love stories, they’re negotiation. When Harry Met Sally . . ., Desk Set, It Happened One Night, those aren’t people fighting about the romance, those are people in conflict about other things and falling in love as they work those things out. Their ability to negotiate their conflicts works to show how they negotiate their relationship.

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      • Slyvers says:

        It’s more entertaining, thought-provoking AND enriching! What’s your take on Adam’s Rib? I think of it as a love story between two smart, high-powered people. It ended with Adam being “right” when Amanda, protecting Kip from Adam’s [licorice] gun, burst out telling Adam he didn’t have the right to break the law. I’ve been conflicted about this unfinished argument since I first saw it in my teens. Maybe it’s not a love story–it wouldn’t have ended there if it were, right?

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      • Adam’s Rib isn’t a love story in the classic sense because the protagonist and antagonist have been happily married for a long time. There’s no will they or won’t they get together: they clearly love each other and are committed to each other. Their relationship is stressed because they’re caught in a crucible as opposing lawyers in a murder trial, and that stress fractures their marriage for a short time. It’s more of a seven-year-itch/midlife crisis kind of story.

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