Advice from the Archives: Conflict in Romantic Fiction: Getting to the heart of what makes your couples tick

By Julia Williams, Editor

“The path of true love never did run smooth…”

As you’re putting the finishing touches to your entry for this year’s So You Think You Can Write, I’m sure you’ve given a lot of attention to that all important staple of romantic fiction: conflict.

Think Benedick and Beatrice, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O Hara, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy . No self -respecting fictional lovers ever get it on without the odd argument. TV couples are at it too:Carrie and Mr. Big, Rachel and Ross all had us hooked with their on again, off again love affairs. Even real life couples fascinate us, from Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, to Beyonce and Jay Z, we love to see the sparky dynamic of a passionate couple.

Conflict is at the heart of all great romantic fiction. It keeps the tension going and the reader hooked. We want our hero and heroine to reach their happy ever after, but we don’t want our lovers coming together without a few problems along the way. After all if they fall in love on page one you haven’t got much of a story!

There are two types of conflict which you can use as a writer: internal and external.

Internal conflict is the inner obstacles your hero and heroines have to overcome before they can be together, whilst external conflicts come from events beyond their control. Both are useful devices to keep your couple apart, and your readers desperate for that happy ending!

Internal conflict comes from within your characters: it can be caused by past problems such as a partner who has betrayed them, or a rocky divorce, making them wary of a new love. Marrying that with an external conflict — like a vengeful ex, or a secret child one half of the couple knows nothing about — and you have set up obstacles which they must overcome before true love wins the day.

So in your own writing, think about what makes your couple tick.

What has happened in their pasts, to prevent them coming together in the present? What outside influences can work on them to stop them being together?

It’s important to make sure that the dilemmas you give them are believable and feel true for your characters. For example, if your hero has a job offer he can’t refuse pulling him apart from the heroine, weave that particular ambition into the story from the beginning so it seems like a real and credible reason for him leaving her. If the heroine has a family tie that means she can’t be with him (a widowed mother who she feels she can’t leave, maybe), make sure that situation is already set up, so that their problem seems insurmountable until perhaps the mother gives the heroine her blessing.

In a situation like that your couple can make mistakes that drive them apart, or misunderstand one another. Jane Austen does it brilliantly in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth so clumsily she says no. His pride thinks she can’t refuse him, while her prejudices are confirmed as he insults her whole family in the process!

What kind of conflicts can you give your characters to make them fight for their happy ever after? And how are you going to resolve those issues so they get the ending they (and your readers!) deserve?

Do let us know: we’d love to hear from you!

And best of luck!