Conflict in writing romance—what it is…and isn’t

I’m by nature a peaceful person. I don’t like conflict. Which is often a good thing in real life but the kiss of death in writing fiction. My first writing teacher, the wonderful Peggy Moss Fielding, used to scribble “what’s the beef?” on my manuscripts. Her way of asking, “what is the difficulty between these two characters that threatens to keep them apart? What do the characters have at stake and why is it important to them?”

Over the years I’ve learned a bit more about conflict, about what it is and isn’t. I hope these insights will help you writers of romance as you plan your stories. Here are a few things that conflict is not:

Conflict is not two people arguing or fighting about something. Sometimes the deepest anger is expressed by giving the other person “the silent treatment.” Bickering is an expression of conflict, but it is not  in itself the reason for the schism between hero and heroine.

Conflict is not a misunderstanding. Your characters may jump to hasty conclusions, make incorrect assumptions, judge each other in the wrong way, but a failure to communicate is not conflict.

Conflict is not the actions of another character that affect the hero and heroine. A meddlesome aunt, a prankster, the town gossip may very well cause problems, but their actions are not conflict.

The hero or heroine’s refusal to admit the other person is attractive is not conflict. It’s the emotional or experiential baggage beneath their attitude that gets to the heart of conflict.

Conflict is not a separation or a delay in the action. An unexpected trip, an overdue flight, a request from a third character for help with a flat tire is not conflict.

Okay, so what IS conflict? It’s the situation or set of beliefs that present obstacles to the happy ending romance readers expect. Ideally your hero and heroine will each possess a short term and a long -term problem. The short- term problem is the difficulty that brings the hero and heroine together and causes their initial disagreement. It’s the  change  or challenge that is potentially life-changing for your characters. This is sometimes called the external conflict because it’s outside your characters’ control.

If you’re read a lot of romances, and if you are planning to write them, I hope you have—then you are familiar with these well-worn short- term problems:

The hero and heroine have each  inherited half of something–a cattle ranch, a run-down bed and breakfast, a charter fishing operation— and they have very different ideas on what to do with it. For example, one wants to sell and split the profits, the other doesn’t.

The hero and heroine are assigned to work together on a project and disagree on how to proceed.

The hero and heroine both need a place to live and there is only one apartment available.

Or, the hero and heroine don’t actually share the problem but each has something the other needs:  She has inherited the cattle ranch, but he’s the one who knows how to run it. She has the design expertise to finish the shared work assignment, but he knows how to market it.  So they agree to help each other.

In addition to creating a short- term problem for your hero and heroine, you also need the long term problem–the character flaws, the painful past experiences that color your characters’ view of the world and of themselves. Lack of trust, unwillingness to commit, memories of past relationships gone awry are typical long-term problems. In a nutshell, the long term problem for both the hero and heroine is this: what flaw or tendency will make it difficult for the couple to overcome the short term problem and come together?

In the best romance novels the short term and long-term problems are interconnected. But that’s a subject for another post.

Happy writing.


9 thoughts on “Conflict in writing romance—what it is…and isn’t

  1. Catie Rhodes

    This is useful advice, especially the “what conflict is not” section. That’s stuff every writer, romance or not, needs to know. Thanks for sharing.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Donna and Catie, Thanks so much for your kind words. Glad to know this info is helpful. Hope you’ll visit Writer’s Caffeine again.
      Blessings, Dorothy

  2. Jenna Victoria

    Dorothy, this was a succinct and very helpful post — I am right now using a conflict grid to help differentiate and establish key conflicts for my hero and heroine and this clarified a few things for me, thanks!

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