How do you keep a relationship story from getting boring? They meet each other. They’re attracted. They fall in love. They live happily ever after. What keeps the reader turning the pages?
As in any good genre fiction, the plot must serve up problems the hero and heroine must overcome. There must be enough happening in the book to keep the reader interested.
Here’s a quote from an article John Irving wrote long ago in Publishers’ Weekly:
"Plot' isn't what compels many novelists to write or some readers to read. But if you choose to write a novel without a plot, I would hope three things for you: that your prose is gorgeous, that your insights into the human condition are inspirational, and that your book is short. I am directing my remarks, of course, to those writers (and readers) of long novels.I’ve taken his advice to heart, and I make sure there’s enough conflict in my story to keep the plot moving along.
Conflicts are divided into internal and external problems.
If you’re writing romantic suspense–you’ve got a whole spectrum of psychotic killers, evil overlords and dangerous wiseguys to threaten your hero and heroine.
But conflict is also essential to a romance without these danger elements.
You might for example write about a heroine who’s an environmentalist, and he’s a slash-and-burn developer.
Or she has a small business that’s in competition with his big hairy conglomerate.
Or what if she’s a homicide cop, and he’s a famous mystery writer who wants to tag along on her cases because he’s writing a female detective?
Those are external problems, but the strongest romances give the reader the emotional impact of gut-wrenching internal conflicts that make it look like these people can’t possibly end up happy together.
Suppose the heroine’s husband was accidentally killed by a cop, and the hero’s the man who shot him? He knows who she is, but he can’t stop himself from falling in love with her. But he’s terrified of what will happen when she finds out who he is. And, of course, she will. How can they possibly overcome that?
Or he’s a detective who’s been hired to find a serial killer, and he thinks it’s her brother. Or he thinks it’s her. He gets to know her because he’s investigating the murder, yet he can’t help falling for her.
Suppose you have a hero whose parents were each married and divorced several times, and he was shuffled around from home to home. Now he’s fallen in love with a woman, but he thinks that his background has made it impossible for him to be a reliable marriage partner.
Those are some conflicts that make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to make a commitment to each other. But during the course of the story, they will have reasons to reevaluate and change.
As you plan your story, you must give your characters life. The readers must like them and identify with them. Yet they must have flaws that make them three-dimensional and human.
One of the best examples of a famous flawed character is Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t even have to tell you the name of the book she’s in. You know. She's so well drawn that we understand her goals and desires--even if we don't like the ways she tries to achieve them, including marrying her sister’s fiancé. We may hate her reasons for marrying, but we understand her need to save her family home.
Then there’s the hero of my novella, Chained, who thinks he’s dead, which makes it difficult for him to imagine an ongoing relationship with the heroine. <g>
In a romance novel, the hero and heroine’s internal problems will make them afraid to reach out for love. And the conflict can’t be easily solved. It must be strong enough to carry through to the end of the novel.
In Mary Kirk’s Embers, the heroine’s been sexually abused by her brother, which makes her afraid to have a physical relationship with anyone–even the man she loves.
In Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, the hero was thrown into a savage boarding school environment, where he was bullied and taunted. Now rich and powerful, he’s vowed never again to let anyone reach him emotionally. Then he falls in love–only he’s too damaged to admit it. I said in one of my previous posts, “Who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?” That’s a question you must consider if you want to keep the reader reading.
How do you think about character conflicts in your own work?