Romance. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Whether comedy or drama, whether he’s getting her or she’s getting him, that’s the basic format, but not all three components have to be involved in the novel. Boy met girl and lost her before your novel started, and the story now is about getting her back. Or, boy meets girl, and spends the entire novel “getting” her, with an implied happily-ever-after. Maybe boy loses girl, which, 350 pages later, we discover was for the best, and happily ever after means they both recognize they weren’t meant to be.
But a story that jumps from “boy meets girl” to “happily ever after” isn’t much of a story. As with every novel, romance needs conflict–plausible, realistic conflict. Leigh Michaels, on page 63 of her book On Writing Romance: How to craft a novel that sells, lists what conflict isn’t:
- Fighting, arguing, or disagreeing.
- A delay that prevents progress (which is only an incident, not conflict).
- Failure to communicate.
- The trouble-causing interference of another person.
- A main character’s unwillingness to admit that the other person is attractive.
Tension caused by any of these listed is artificial and won’t endure throughout the novel–it’s not conflict, that which threatens the characters’ relationship.
The conflict in romance comes from several sources:
- Character/personality differences–from something simple, like he’s a morning bird and she’s a night owl, to something more complicated, like she’s a lady of the evening and he’s a man of the cloth.
- Situational problems–maybe she’s dying, maybe he’s married, maybe she lives on the east coast and he lives on the west.
- Conflicting goals–he wants to tear the building down and create a parking garage, but she wants to save the neighborhood hangout. She wants her client to have a bigger slice of the pie than his client, he wants to cut her client out entirely.
- Conflicting motives–he wants to feed the hungry, she wants a photo-op. She wants to convert the natives, he wants to sell them cheap trinkets.
- Conflicting backstories–she had a fairy-tale childhood, he lived on the streets. He graduated college with honors, she has a third-grade education.
Whatever the conflict, it must be plausible and realistic. Whether it’s insurmountable depends on how you picture the end of your story. If you’re aiming for “happily ever after,” the conflict must be resolved in a forever-love way. If you’re aiming for bittersweet, you have two alternatives: the relationship didn’t work and both characters are happy with it, or the source of the conflict–death, for instance–makes a happy ending impossible.
So, we’ve got the basic components and the different conflict sources–now we can mix and match. Where do you want to start your story? Boy gets girl back? What separated them to begin with? Maybe he needed to grow up (conflict based on character), and now that he has, he’s ready to prove his worthiness. Maybe she was transferred to Tokyo (conflict based on situation) and he finds her there.
What if you want the boy to lose his girl? By the time the story begins, they’re already a couple. Maybe she’s comfortable with surburbia and he’s got his eye set on a mansion (conflict based on conflicting goals). Maybe they get thrown together to work on the same project–he’s more take-charge and bossy than she realized from their home life, and their conflicting personalities drive them apart.
Wherever you start your story, however many components of the format you want to include, be certain you have a conflict that is realistic and plausible.