Kay: Quiz for Y’All—Romantic Conflict

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I’ve been working through the revision suggestions a development editor gave me for the third book of My Eternal Trilogy, and I’m stumped on one point. She says that there’s no conflict between my two main characters, and I have to write it in there.

She’s right about the first part. My characters have no interpersonal conflict. Trouble, yes. Conflict, no.

I don’t disagree about the importance of conflict, but I’m not convinced that the enormous amount of work I’d need to do to create a conflict between my hero and heroine and then resolve it is necessary or even desirable. Here’s my thinking.

This trilogy has no cliffhangers, but each book progresses the relationship. Book 1: my heroine takes personal leave from her job to move half-way across the country to test her relationship with the hero. Book 2: when my heroine must choose between the hero or the job she’s worked more than a decade to secure, the hero chooses to work remotely for six months in the city of her employment so they can stay together. Book 3: they marry (and stay in the city the heroine must live in for her job).

So by book 3, there’s not a lot of conflict left in the will-they-stay-together/whose-job-is-more-important scenario. The exterior plot drives the action: my heroine, a CIA officer, stashes a Russian defector in their basement after an assassin shoots out the window of the cab they are sitting in and she runs out of options about where she can take him. She and the hero, plus a gaggle of friends, withstand the onslaughts of the increasingly irritable Russian assassin.

The trouble (but not conflict) between the hero and heroine is about their wedding. They’re engaged, but Phoebe wants a long engagement, maybe years long. My hero has agreed, but the families are pressuring them to marry sooner rather than later, and he’s of that same opinion. So there’s stuff around that. There’s been more interpersonal conflict in Books 1 and 2, as they work out their relationship issues. At this point, though, developing a significant conflict would seem to me to be backtracking on the progress they’ve made in the relationship so far.

I cruised my bookshelves, both digital and physical, looking for books in which the interpersonal conflict is minimized, and I found a bunch, mostly which I’d say could be cross-classified as “cozy” or “light” mysteries. I enjoyed those books, and I think my trilogy could be categorized that way, too. My editor works or has worked for Harlequin, so she brings a strong romance editing background to the table. I generally find her advice very helpful, but maybe this one suggestion is not that important in this particular book.

What do you think? If you saw a book that was shelved in the romance department, would you be disappointed if there wasn’t a significant interpersonal conflict? Can you recall any romances where the primary conflict was against an outside force?

8 thoughts on “Kay: Quiz for Y’All—Romantic Conflict

  1. For me, relationship development is most important in romance novels. I’m not interested in external conflict, but I want to know more about the relationship. I don’t know about the progress they went to in book 1 and 2, but even in established relationship conflict can arise. People change so the dynamic changes to. If the man wants one thing about the wedding and the woman another thing, that will create conflict I think. It will test their solidity. For instance, can they communicate as they thought they could? Are they as strong together as they thought? Will one of them get insecure, am I important enough? Are there wounds that rise?
    Anyway, just my thoughts when I read your blog, which I found very interesting by the way 🙂

  2. I feel strongly on this one that you’re right and the editor is wrong 😀 .

    Not to knock Harlequin–it takes considerable skill to write those shorter books–but I believe (have been told by HQ editors in the past) that they don’t have external plots. Or secondary characters. Pets. Or anything that would take the reader’s attention away from the H&H and their relationship. Since a good genre story needs conflict, if you’re writing a book with only a romance plot, by definition the conflict must arise in the romantic relationship. If you’re writing a longer book with an external plot, that doesn’t apply.

    There are lots and lots of excellent books where the main conflict arises from the external plot and the h/h plot is overcoming trouble. Most romantic suspense or adventure stories (h/h on the run from the bad guys), including cozy ones. Many paranormals and urban fantasy. If you’re writing light and feelgood, I think it might even be preferred that the conflict is not between the h/h. And especially if you’re in book 3 of a trilogy and the couple have already worked out many of their problems. It always makes me gnash my teeth when the author throws a spoke in a perfectly credible developing relationship just to add some emotion/angst and string out the romance. It makes me feel manipulated and angry. I do think it’s necessary for the couple’s relationship to arc or change in some way over the course of the book (sounds as though yours does), and bonus points if that change is driven in some way by the events of the big external conflict.

    Good luck with the revisions! Can’t wait to read it 🙂

    • Yay! And thank you. I feel totally left off the hook on this one. I’m especially happy about it because I’m making other fairly extensive and creatively challenging changes. The notion I’d have to devise a romantic conflict out of whole cloth in addition to everything else was pretty daunting. But Harlequin category novels aside, I struggled with, is it a romance? Or is it something else? Because maybe if it’s a romance, that interpersonal conflict should be front and center. But the external plot in this one (in all of them) is so significant that I think the books could be categorized as something else. And then, as you say, the romantic conflict doesn’t have to be as significant. Thanks again!

  3. This is a really interesting question, and not one I’ve given much thought before. So, thinking aloud…

    I agree with you both that conflict between the h/h is indispensable in category romance because it’s the ONLY conflict.

    In the other hand, books I’ve read where the h/h are in lockstep fighting the baddies have sometimes been tedious or even cloying on the romance level. (“I think we should do X.” “Yes, let’s!”)

    It sounds like the “trouble” you’ve mentioned addresses this. A disagreement about the length of the engagement is a natural extension of their previous relationship conflict. And their very different approaches to solving problems, another evolutionary step in their relationship, guarantees you won’t have those effortless agreements that are boring to read.

    And, to your point, this is intended to be a light read, not hardcore suspense.

    It makes sense to me!

    • Thank you, Jeanne! That’s a good point about “trouble” (not meaning the dog 🙂 ) supplying enough of a dynamic that the couple doesn’t become boring, but it gives breathing room to the external plot. And demonstrates how they problem solve now and into the future. Yes, I want these books to be a light read. “Meringue,” as I keep calling them.

  4. I’m not primarily reading for romance, so I can’t address the question from that aspect. I love romantic aspects, and to me, disagreements about the length of a courtship can seem like a pretty damn big deal and conflict.

    Having been through that particular conflict (to a mild extent) in real life, I strongly feel it should be resolved before the wedding date is set. If Phoebe agrees to an earlier wedding date just to prevent arguments, but keeps pushing it back or trying to push it back, that’s just wussy behavior. Plus, I don’t doubt the hero is going to feel unloved or abandoned by these efforts. (I wasn’t quite ready to get married when I did, but a near-miss auto accident on a frozen road clarified my thinking and commitment quite nicely.)

    There is such a thing as not moving a book along quickly enough. I read a contemporary fantasy romance where the couple hadn’t even kissed by the middle of book three, if I remember right. It seems to me that by book three, the hero and heroine should have a good idea about their relationship, and most major conflicts should be ironed out. Unless they’ve been too busy having adventures, in which case, is it romance? Or is it something else with strong romantic elements?

    Maybe, with a meringue book, the conflict should also be just the toasty brown peak of the conflict that has been the theme in the last two books. The final clean-up, if you will. Or, maybe, to fit the metaphor better from the consumption viewpoint, you get down to the buttery crust of the matter. Why is she delaying the wedding? Is she afraid she’s going to lose her identity after marriage? How can he reassure her that she’ll still be able to do her own thing, just be able to come home to a warm, buttery-sweet bed at the end of the week?

    Or does something else convince her? A brush with death? An older agent with grandkids and almost no regrets? Or a brush with death with an older agent with grandkids and almost no regrets, and they are trapped in a funhouse or some other fun setting where they can talk for an hour or so?

    LOL, I don’t know, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out!

  5. I am not in the position you Ladies are in, having never written a book, but I read a lot. Here’s my two cents. I agree that you should not create a conflict just to have a conflict so I don’t like your editor’s advice. However, I also agree with Michaeline and Jeanne-there can be some conflict between H/H – why the delay? Will I lose my identity? For me to pick this up from the masses, I want the action of the external conflict but also the internal dynamic of a developing relationship. And even the best relationships have conflict. The ones that last are in how they deal with it.
    Probably off to look for books 1 and 2. Love you Ladies.

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