I’d bet money your story lacks emotional conflict

Posted by on Aug 13, 2015

I’d bet money your story lacks emotional conflict

And sometimes I do lose the bet. But overall, if I put $20 down on every manuscript I see, I’d owe Uncle Sam taxes on my winnings at the end of the year.

I’ve puzzled over this lack for years now, and I think the problem starts with the definitions of both conflict and romance. Too many people think of conflict in negative terms: violence, abuse, hatred, fighting. Many of us aren’t wired for confrontation, so we shy from it in our stories, especially romances where the point is just the opposite—we want characters to fall in love.

But the result is a story where she sees him and he’s hot. He sees her and she’s hot. They smile, they say hello. They have a conversation fraught with emotional excitement (and lots of physical distraction) and hope to see each other again. They go out and have a marvelous time. They’re in love and they just know it. This is the guy/gal for them!  And while the world falls apart around them (i.e. what many people label “conflict”), everything between our hero and heroine is moonlight and roses because together they can conquer anything.


Yes, I believe in love at first sight, but only in real life. In books, it’s as boring as cleaning out the dishwasher, and I don’t know how to package that up all nice and pretty. By the time your couple gets naked, the whole book concept earns a “get a room, pal” reaction from readers passing by. Think your manuscript has escaped this fate? If your characters are on the same wavelength, caring about each other, dreamy-eyed and trusting before the last 10 to 15 percent of the book, you risk DNF ratings and reviews that say, “Eh, it was OK.”

However, when you grasp the definitions of conflict and romance, that’s a whole ‘nother book:

Romance: the act of falling in love. Happily ever after (or happily for now) is the end result, not a destination along the way. When they’re in love, the story is over. Romance is about the attraction, the uncertainty, the questioning, the resistance and final surrender. In other words, your characters need to experience emotions beyond “oooh, I’m so lucky.”

Emotional conflict: Each character wants something that contrasts with the other’s goal, or there’s a strong personality difference at play. They come from different backgrounds or they have different political views. They had a dust-up in the past that affects the present. She is an optimist, he’s a skeptic. He was falsely accused of rape once, she is a prosecutor who has never seen an innocent person in the courtroom. When the H/h show these traits in action, it creates a spark of tension, something they have to work out between them to “earn” their happily ever after. (Pssst, a positive goal creates stronger story lines than an “I don’t want X” one, but both work better than no conflict at all.)

If what keeps them apart can be solved in a single conversation, then the element is trouble as opposed to conflict. Ditto if the problem stems from someone else in your relationship. Boss makes you work late every night and you can’t quit because you need the money? That’s trouble. Daddy doesn’t like you and wants to shut you out of his daughter’s life? That’s trouble. Mom is in hospice and your sister won’t help? Yep, trouble. And the big one: your ex returns to slap a custody suit against you/wreck your apartment/spread lies about you to the new BF? Big trouble, but still just trouble.

I edit manuscripts to help authors find that often elusive emotional conflict. You know you’ve found it when the events in the book — the trouble — put pressure right on that conflict and make it hurt. Working through that pain is what bonds characters and creates a romance rather than an infatuation that quickly wears thin.

And then I start losing those bets.



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