We all know that love is the main ingredient in every great romance. In these stories love overcomes every seemingly impossible obstacle and in the end finally triumphs. We cheer when our hero and heroine eventually come together and live happily ever after, just as we expect they will. Love conquers all is at the heart of romantic novels and anything less won’t satisfy readers. Who can blame them?
But the way to HEA is a long, crooked path strewn with both external and internal obstacles that keep the hero and heroine apart until they resolve their differences at the end. The readers (and writer) suffer right along with the characters as the couple struggles to realize they’re really made for each other. However, if the hero and heroine resolve their differences too soon, they won’t have time to work through the obstacles that stand in their way of real love — and the reader will feel disappointed and cheated that it all happened much too fast.
As we get to know the characters inside and out, we learn to relate to them and empathize with the difficulties that keep them from the mate God has chosen for them. Heroes and heroines have raw wounds deep inside that prevent them from falling in love too easily or too quickly. Sometimes the internal conflicts are even stronger than the external ones. A wonderful story needs plenty of both kinds of conflict. A word of warning: we shouldn’t throw in every single obstacle we can think of. Save some for other stories!
Love draws the hero and heroine together but obstacles drive them apart.
In my novella, The Innkeeper’s Promise, which is part of With this Kiss, the historical collection, a young innkeeper tries to convince her absentee co-owner to keep their failing hotel open and operating despite his determination to make a quick sale. (external conflict) They’re fighting their attraction for each other until they learn that placing their own desires and ambition ahead of their loved one’s wants and needs will cause unhappiness for both of them. (internal conflict). The conflicts blend together in the story.
At the beginning of any romance the hero and heroine should meet in an interesting, and hopefully unique way, often on the first few pages or at least during the first chapter. They feel a pull toward each other. Sometimes they’re attracted by good looks, or they’re impressed by a kind or heroic action that heightens their emotions toward the other person.
Sometimes they’ve met before and have strong, unresolved feelings about something that happened between them in the past. Their feelings might be positive or negative. Sometimes people instantly dislike each other even though they’re strangers. I think the opposite can be true, too.
But there should be a spark of some sort when they meet because we definitely don’t want the hero and heroine to find each other forgettable. They need to stay on each other’s mind even when they’re not together. They’re relationship is the real reason for the story. It took me a long time to figure that out!
After the couple meets, the romance really begins. Then they’re drawn together through attraction and later love, and then they’re wrenched apart because of obstacles in their path. These barriers cause them to stumble and fall.
I’ve noticed in a lot of romance stories the couple is at odds with each other soon after they meet. They start arguing about an issue that’s important to them. The conflict should never center around a trivial matter because the reader won’t feel compelled to continue. Who wants to read about two people disagreeing over which brand of coffee to buy? (Okay, a married couple might bicker over coffee, but not a man and a woman on the brink of a promising love relationship.)
Their sparring should concern something worth fighting about. The environmentalist verses the developer or the vintner verses a crusader for prohibition have strong, differing opinions that they won’t change — at least not until the end after a lot of soul searching and compromising. Start the hero and heroine on two different sides of an issue and find a unique hook that will keep them apart despite their attraction to each other. A strong external conflict will keep the reader turning the pages.
Conflict sounds like the great way to start a story and it often is.
But what if your story doesn’t lend itself to an immediate clash of goals or personalities?
In some romances the couple fall in love right at the start without major barriers to drive them apart. They have fun, discover they share similar values, backgrounds, interests etc. They’re on the fast track toward love and marriage because so many things bring them together.
Many of the couples I’ve known who have had a successful relationship that ended in marriage didn’t face major problems beforehand. They fell head over heels in love and basked in the glow of their romance. The old saying love is blind means just that: the two lovebirds don’t see each other clearly. They gloss over each other’s faults and recognize only virtues.
However, romance without problems to overcome won’t make for a great story. It’ll be downright boring. In a book the hero and heroine can’t be speeding along or the story will end too soon.
At some point they need barriers to slow them down, both external and internal. Their love must be tested and through these difficult situations they’ll grow and develop as characters and learn to deal with the problems that prevent from getting together.
But at what point does this happen? That depends on the story. The writer has to decide when to throw obstacles in the way of the romance.
Personally, I think trouble should erupt or at least be strongly hinted at by the middle of the book. Some writers say smooth sailing can continue nearly to the end. To keep the story interesting the reader must see hints of trouble looming ahead. Those hints need to create enough tension about the future to keep the reader turning pages.
In You’ve Got Mail the hero and heroine fall for each other online without knowing they’re opponents in real life. There’s still tension since they don’t know the entire truth about each other but the viewers do. The audience anticipates fireworks in the future and that keeps them glued to the screen.
Where do you think obstacles should start to disrupt the romance? In the beginning or a little later? Any reason for one preference over the other?
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