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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bickering is not conflict

Have you ever read a book where the conflict was so weak that it would be resolved if the two characters just sat down and had a conversation? Did you want to toss that book against the wall?

The reason we've all probably felt like this at some point is that sometimes an author will mistake bickering for conflict. But bickering is what a couple of two-year-olds do, not two adults who are attracted to each other but have some genuine obstacle standing in the way of their getting together. This obstacle won't disappear just because the two sit down and talk about it.

Let's look at the following scenarios to illustrate the difference.

Scenario 1 -- Cindy is a prison guard who likes Brad, another guard. But instead of letting him know and opening herself up to possible rejection (she doesn't see herself as pretty or feminine considering her job), she picks arguments with him so he won't guess how she really feels. He argues back, no matter what petty thing they're arguing about, and kicks himself for being attracted to her anyway. This is bickering. If they'd stop and just have an honest conversation, chances are they'd go out and possibly fall in love.

Scenario 2 -- Cindy is still a prison guard, but this time she falls for Jack, a prisoner incarcerated for murder, one he insists he didn't commit. Her attraction to him goes against everything she stands for and could cost her job, her friends and family, possibly even her life if he gets out and she's wrong about him. Jack, who is in fact innocent, understandably isn't too hot on getting close to anyone in a uniform at the moment. This is genuine conflict. Cindy and Jack can talk until they're blue in the face, and the obstacle of Jack's conviction and imprisonment won't go away.

When you're plotting a new story and searching for the true conflict between your hero and heroine, dig deep. Don't go with the first, most obvious "conflict" because this might not be a true conflict at all. It might be just a surface conflict and lead to that annoying bickering. Each time you write down a possible conflict, try to peel it back even more, go down another layer like you're peeling an onion. Keep asking the question "Why?" at each layer. You might be surprised to find a true, very complicated conflict five or six layers down, one that will throw obstacles in the path of your hero's and heroine's happiness together that will make even you, the writer of their story, wonder how in the world they'll ever find a way to be together. But they will in the end. You just have to figure out the winding path that takes them from impossible odds to happily ever after.

So, what are some of the best conflicts you've read in a romance novel? Ones that made you wonder how in the world the author would ever get the hero and heroine together for a happy life together? Were these some of the most satisfying stories you've read because of those deep conflicts?



At 12:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i jsut read unforgetable lady and love the conflict of bodyguard with an alisas and guarding an countess, with nothing in common but attraction, and that was great tension


At 1:38 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Yes, those stories of coming from different worlds, especially when classes were much more separate, are often very interesting and intense.

At 2:11 AM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Trish, that was just brilliant. I judge a lot of writing contests and that bickering = conflict problem is something I see a lot of. Apart from which, bickering gets pretty tired pretty quickly. By the way, the prison guard story sounded great! ;-) The second one, not the first one!

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

I think J.D. Robb's "In Death" books nailed the conflict with Eve & Roarke. And she's managed to sustain the conflict between the two characters even as they grow closer.

This is an excellent lesson, and one Deb Dixon and others have also pointed out. Misundertandings are NOT conflict.

I normally start what minimal plotting I do with a character, his/her goals and inner conflict and then try to find a worthy opponent.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Your example is great, Trish.

Creating conflict instead of bickering is harder than it seems. Another version of this is heroes and heroines keeping secrets from each other.
I worried about that in The Vanishing Viscountess, so I tried to make certain that the secret was well-motivated.

By far my favorite conflict in any of my books was in The Mysterious Miss M, where, in order to support the heroine and her (perhaps his) child, the hero must court and marry someone else. But, as one rejecting editor said, the conflict in this book was not between the hero and heroine, but was external, what the world imposed on them.

This is not too different from your prison guard conflict #2, really. The fact of them being guard and prisoner is external. Now if the guard had had someone close to her murdered and the prisoner had been framed by a guard, it would make the conflict more internal.

This development of conflict is hard.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Diane: I think I may prefer a story where the characters long for each other but external circumstances keep them apart. I think I write those stories. Romeo and Juliet is a classic example of that model. We just watched "Dan in Real Life" and it was also that story. We loved the conflict there, and really wondered how they would get past it, and then all the obstacles sort of dissolved, which was disappointing.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Diane (again): I think that's why you and I both like horrible villains. They're such a handy external-conflict generator, and then you can have a big dramatic resolution by killing 'em. :D So handy.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Yep. And killing off those villains is sooooo much fun!!

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Anna, I've seen the problem in contests too. I think the very surface, bickering type conflicts don't lead a reader to care about whether the hero and heroine get together. But a deep, very real conflict makes the reader root for them even more because they have more to overcome to be together.

Terry, sounds like your method works well. I really need to read the In Death series. I read one and just haven't gotten back to them for some reason. Oh, I know, the hundreds of books sitting here in my TBR. :)

Diane, the secrets thing, like you said, can work but has to be well-motivated. Like any conflict, it needs to be big and a huge stumbling block if found out. You bring up good points about internal and external conflict. That's something I didn't cover, but I try to have both types of conflicts be very strong in my books. So then even if the hero and heroine conquer one, they still have to contend with the other.

Esri, that's another story device I don't like -- when there is conflict, conflict, conflict and then poof, it's gone because the end of the movie or book is closing in. It's like the writer suddenly looked up and went, "Oh, crap! I only have a few pages or minutes left, I have to get these people together for their HEA."

Good point about the villains. It's just part of human nature (most of the time anyway) to root for the good guy and hope the bad guy gets his punishment.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger jo robertson said...

Great post, Trish. I like the succinct way you get at the heart of what constitutes true conflict.

I think good conflict is very hard to write. There's got to be a balance between what's significant enough to create moral dilemma (my favorite type) or physical barriers -- all without being so melodramatic that the readers do eye rolls.

I hate the kind of artifical, out of control conflict that often dominates day-time soap opera.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Trish, this is a great subject. I read a fair number of contest entries that substitute bickering for conflict, and looking back at my early manuscripts reveals that I did the same thing. I've come to think of it as a beginner mistake. I think part of what you point out in Example 2 is that engaging conflict has to hit the characters in a deep, important place, which bickering generally doesn't.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Jo, I agree that there's a delicate balance between giving a couple a significant conflict and not giving them an obstacle so big there's no way they'd get past it in real life. And don't get me started on soaps. Ugh! I know there are lots of soap fans, but I just can't stand them.

Nancy, I think you're right that the bickering thing is a beginner mistake. Like all the other aspects of writing, it takes practice to be able to develop deeper conflicts for characters.

At 12:58 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

When I wrote my first book, it was supposed to be a mystery. I hadn't read many romances and didn't know there was a 'rule' that h/h weren't supposed to like each other (this was pointed out in a recent magazine review of 4 local authors -- the reviewer said, "Unlike the chracters in the other books, Randy and Sarah don't hate each other when they meet).

All I knew was that there was supposed to be something keeping them from getting together. It was all internal conflict. Randy was a cop who never got involved with victims, no matter what. Sarah was determined to prove she didn't need help from anyone in keeping her business alive.

So, for Randy it became a matter of what it would take to push him over his "do it by the book, there's no gray, only black and white" work ethic, and for Sarah, it was how far she'd fall before she'd let someone help her.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Terry, your characters and their story sounds good. I actually think some of the very best conflicts don't involve characters that "hate each other" at the outset. To me, it's often more powerful to have them be attracted but not be able to act on that attraction because of the conflict.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I hadn't read many romances and didn't know there was a 'rule' that h/h weren't supposed to like each other (this was pointed out in a recent magazine review of 4 local authors -- the reviewer said, "Unlike the chracters in the other books, Randy and Sarah don't hate each other when they meet).

Terry, I think you are being tongue-in-cheek about this "rule" but I want to clarify anyway, for anyone who might take you seriously.

A hero and heroine who "hate" each other in the beginning is only ONE type of Romance set-up. And it is one that can work well in a good author's hands.

I've never used it. It is not necessary to use it. There are other set-ups that can work as well.
In Miss M, it was instant attraction and then external conflict.

Sometimes I've used suspicion - In An Improper Wife (after initial attraction) the hero suspects the heroine of taking advantage of his family.

Disappointment - again, initial attraction and then some crushing disappointment.

How about the set up of hero and heroine being friends only and the relationship changes.

There are lots of ways to write a romance!

The only "rule" in my mind, is that the story be about the love story and that the ending be happy, with the hero and heroine together.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Diane -- yes, I had my tongue firmly planted in my cheek when I wrote that (as did, I'm sure, the reviewer when he wrote what he did). The entire article is here.

I had so much fun with Randy & Sarah's conflict I wrote the sequel which will come out May 8th. For a romance, that's not the 'norm' because they've already been through all the standard romance novel "expectations".

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I hate books where the characters bicker. I think that's why I didn't like the movie The War of the Roses. After a while, it's a bit too much.

I dislike misunderstandings just as much if all they require is a conversation to clear up. Now, if there's a conversation and they discovers that there was a misunderstanding, yes, but now that they're on the same page, that's a problem for them, because agreement actually interferes with their goals, it could be interesting.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Rae Ann Parker said...

Thanks for a great explanation of bickering vs. conflict. I'm pretty sure my first manuscript was closer to bickering than a real conflict, which is why it is tucked away forever now.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger flchen1 said...

If written well, bickering can be fun and flirty for a little bit, but then it gets old, as you said. I don't like the shallow conflicts that could be resolved easily with a genuine conversation--those can turn a book into a loser. But it's such a tricky balance as you said--to make it a genuine obstacle without making it insurmountable without an unrealistic "poof, and then a miracle!" kind of resolution.

Gotta run, but will try to remember some I particularly liked...

At 6:05 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Diane is right about there being all kinds of ways to come at conflict in a romance.

Patricia, it's been so long since I've seen War of the Roses, but from what little I remember, I think you're right about it wearing on the nerves after awhile.

Rae Ann, I think we all have some of those "tucked away" manuscripts. :)

flchen1, that "poof, it's a miracle" is annoying, isn't it?

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I agree, the bickering is not fun after a while, just like in real life. who wants to listen to people bicker? not me.

But a dislike in the beginning of a book for logical reasons can ramp up the tension and then playful teasing ensues. SEP's books usually begin with two characters who do not generally like one in Nobody's Baby But Mine after hero finds out she was having his baby and wasn't going to tell him. He's mad! And he deserves to be. And I love that book.

Anyhow...I like those types of romances myself. :)

Love this blog, Trish! Can't wait to read ALL of your books in 2009!!!


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