3 conflicts that don’t work (and how to fix them!)
My stance on instalove situations is well known among romance writers, so I probably don’t need to sell you on that opinion today.
You get it. The hero and heroine can’t be on the same page emotionally. They need an interpersonal reason—a personality quirk, competing goals—that keeps them apart. And the next step is where many authors stumble.
Just what exactly is worthy of keeping two people from falling in love? Here are the top answers I see in manuscripts, and why they could be stronger:
1. I’ve sworn off men/women. AKA I’m taking a hiatus, I don’t have time to date, I don’t need anyone in my life. Is it a real emotion? Sure. But it isn’t going to hold up in your story because the first time the hero and heroine find themselves together deliberately, it blows that reasoning out of the water. You don’t have anything to cling to in your quest to make it to shore; the tides of love will simply sweep your story out to sea. Not to mention this conflict is becoming very stale in the marketplace.
Yah, I’ll go there: It’s lazy.
The cure: Give your characters a concrete reason to not trust in a significant other and concentrate on that more than the vague summary of “I don’t want to date.” The last relationship fizzled because he belittled her efforts to get a promotion at her job despite her lack of a college degree, and she’s not going to surrender her hard-won dignity again, especially given the hero is also a white-collar professional like the ex. Perhaps the counselor told him to wait one year after his divorce to start a new relationship, and after watching his little brother drunk and miserable on Christmas Eve because he didn’t follow that advice, your hero is determined to heed it and save himself. Come up with a compelling backstory that gives your characters depth and reasons for their goals that can’t be solved in a single conversation or tossed overboard with a sexy, come hither smile.
2. We work for the same employer. My concern with this one is that the stories rarely outline a consequence for this conflict beyond “someone will get fired,” and even that is becoming a ho-hum threat. Also, it’s often treated as one of those rules on the books, but everyone in the story plays down its significance either with their advice, their reactions, or their own behavior.
The cure: Up the stakes on what happens if one of the characters is fired, and do yourself a favor by not allowing “I’ll have to move,” “I can’t afford it” as the answer. For example, I worked on a manuscript last year where a heroine was afraid to be fired because this was her big opportunity to get ahead in her career. But her career was the restaurant industry in a large metropolis, where in reality there are always openings for someone willing to put in the hours. The answer in this case was to make her a specialist in a particular niche and the store the premiere name for that specialty. We also explored what it took to learn that skill and the emotional satisfaction the heroine found from perfecting it.
Better yet, make the heroine and hero butt heads on the job. The fireworks are bound to fly if she’s sabotaging his marketing plan because the negative consequences will ripple into her department. What if her mentor and corporate champion is someone the hero knows is derailing his promotion? They can’t help but argue and scrap and disagree. And how hot would it get if the heroine is the one denying his success for business reasons he can’t, or won’t, accept? That’s a genuine, interpersonal, emotional conflict!
3. I don’t like cops/jocks/models. Years ago, I hated avocados. And then I tried one and decided it wasn’t bad. Now I eat guacamole at every Mexican restaurant I visit. Big deal, you say? That’s the same progression you just set up for your story. We know they’re going to like each other, so the argument boils down to “you just haven’t tried it yet.” Which is why some authors try to take it a step forward and say the hero or heroine doesn’t want to date a certain type “because I did that once and he was a jerk.”
To which I reply, “I once exploded a Pepsi on my favorite rayon blouse, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never had another Pepsi, more’s the pity.”
The cure: The downfall of the “I hate people in X profession”conflict is that it’s not directed at the hero or heroine personally. It’s a generalization that the other person in the story can blow holes through in two paragraphs. So make it personal! If the heroine is a cop who arrested your best friend for his third DUI, that’s a reason for sparks to fly. If he stepped on your brother’s back on his climb up the ladder to become the Jets’ quarterback on Monday Night Football, you have a reason to want to spit on him.
And when the spit is flying, your story is on its way!