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Creating Emotional Conflict and Tension in a Romance Novel

The conflict, or tension, between your hero and heroine should always drive your plot. Your novel should also have a certain story-related momentum, but the key factor that keeps your reader turning pages is the progress of the romance, which is driven by the conflict between the hero and heroine.

You can use different techniques and combinations of techniques to create conflict between your hero and heroine. However you craft that conflict, though, one point is key: You need to create a source of emotional conflict and tension for your hero and heroine — something that exists separately from the specifics of the plot, something inside each of them that would create a problem whether they met in Maine or on the moon, though the problem certainly should be exacerbated by their situation.

After you decide where the emotional tension comes from, you can create and complicate it at will. And by manipulating that emotional tension, you're better able to keep your reader involved and happy from start to finish.

Emotional versus intellectual conflict

Without the surrounding context of a plot, the distinction between emotional and intellectual conflict is easy to make, yet writers continually struggle with it in their manuscripts. Simply put, an intellectual conflict is a conflict of ideas, while an emotional conflict is one that grows from feelings.

The temptation to use an intellectual conflict — and even to mistake it for an emotional one — is understandable, because intellectual conflicts are obvious — and everywhere, and many are fascinating. The morning paper and the news are full of debates over important concerns like foreign and domestic policy, the economy, and the environment, and smaller issues, like uniforms in public schools and lawn-watering restrictions.

What makes an intellectual conflict intellectual is the fact that it starts out in the mind. People's feelings about an issue can be very strong, and arguing them into seeing another point of view may be impossible; but even so, every argument has two sides, and intelligent people can make a case for either side. Intellectual conflicts can be interesting, but in the context of a romance novel — where the intent is to engage the reader's heart, not her head — they're counterproductive if they appear front and center.

Emotions, unlike opinions, don't need to have a logical basis and can't be reasoned away. They come from inside and simply are. They're not up for discussion or argument. Your emotions are an intrinsic part of who you are. They're not something you decided on one day after you took a course, read a book, or saw a news special; they come from your genetic makeup, the way you were raised, and your experiences in life and love. They affect how you see yourself, your family and friends, and — maybe most of all — who and how you love.

An emotional example

You can't build every plot completely around the emotional conflict, but every plot needs to highlight that conflict whenever possible. The more complicated your plot is, the more threads you have going on at once; however, emotional tension should underlie everything that's happening. The emotional conflict should always be in the characters' and the readers' minds. Here are a couple of sample heroines and a sample scenario that shows you how to create an emotional conflict for each of them:

  • Heroine 1: Born to a single mother, abandoned to the foster-care system, and shuttled from family to family, she's likely to be self-contained, independent, distrustful, wary of forming close bonds, low in self-esteem, and practically incapable of believing that she deserves love.
  • Heroine 2: Raised in a large, tight-knit family, the only girl among six children, doted on and cherished, encouraged in safe directions but protected — even overprotected — from risk, she's likely to have a bright, open personality and to make friends easily. But she's also likely to doubt her ability to operate independently and fear being smothered by love, especially romantic love.

Intellectually, in a debate over cocktails, these heroines may be identical, but in every way that counts, they're polar opposites and always will be. They approach life in completely different ways. And although both may be wary of love, it's for totally different reasons, which means their emotional hot buttons are different, and they're drawn to and wary of completely different characteristics in men.

Their choices in life are driven by their inner selves, the emotional human beings that they are:

  • Heroine 1 may choose a way of life that lets her remain aloof from others — maybe as a researcher in a high-tech lab or a computer programmer — because that's how she protects her tender emotional core, the part that's always felt abandoned and is afraid to love because she's sure she'll only be abandoned again.
  • Heroine 2 may be busy making her way in the police department, proving to her big, overprotective family (and, not incidentally, herself) that she can go it alone and cut it as a beat cop in a tough neighborhood.

Enter the hero, a police detective working on a case. He shares the same views on politics, religion, and all the rest, so he can't argue with either woman on that score. Like Heroine 1, he was raised in foster care, but he had a younger sister who was raised with him, and from the time he was a little kid, he's been her protector. He joined the force to protect even more people. Plus, when his parents died, he was old enough to remember what being part of a loving family was like, and he wants that again.

Both heroines see a murder take place and need to be put into protective custody until the killer's apprehended, tried, and — with the benefit of their testimonies — sent away for life. One of the heroines lucks out and gets the hero as her watchdog at the safe house. The story plays out differently depending on which heroine the hero is assigned to:

  • Heroine 1: If she gets the hero as her protector, she's going to resent him spending the long hours they're confined together trying to connect with her on the subject of their shared backgrounds, because she doesn't want to bring up all those painful memories. And she certainly doesn't want to find herself hooked on this incredible guy who can — even in her present scary situation — make her laugh, get her talking about everything under the sun, even when she keeps telling herself to shut up, and who's sexy beyond belief, besides.
    For the hero, it makes him nuts that she continues shutting him down and withdrawing just when he thinks he's getting close to her. But even though he knows keeping his heart uninvolved would be smart, he can't help being drawn to her, so much so that he has to remind himself that he's on the job and pull back — just as he's about to kiss her. She feels rejected, all the old hurts of her childhood rise up, and they're on the outs with each other and neither one knows why. This is an emotional conflict created with complex characters and letting them react believably.
  • Heroine 2: If she gets locked away with the hero, she's going to react differently for different reasons. She's going to bridle at his protective side, point out that she's a cop, too, and is more than capable of taking care of herself, and think his fantasy of having a big, happy family would make her crazy, because she'd end up lost in the ruckus, taking care of everyone in that traditionally female way that she's sworn isn't for her.
    He can't believe she doesn't understand the value of family and is fighting to break away from hers. He respects her professional abilities plenty, but in the circumstances, she does need to be protected, and why can't she see that he's just the guy to do it? They keep butting heads, but they're also attracted, challenged, and in no way ready to write each other off.

Plot — the need to lock the hero and heroine together in a safe house — puts them together but doesn't provide the conflict. Plot gives the hero and heroine the opportunity to be in conflict, but the conflict itself is emotional. It comes from within, from a clash between who they are, not what they think.

In any romance novel, the emotional conflict needs to affect the hero and heroine's relationship, to have romantic ramifications, so that they're irresistibly drawn toward each other, while simultaneously feeling that a relationship can't possibly work between them.

Taking care with intellectual conflict

You can use elements of intellectual conflict in your book, too, but you have to be careful. Keep these two tips in mind:

  • Intellectual conflict can never be substituted for emotional conflict.
  • Relate any elements of intellectual conflict to the characters' emotional conflict as much as possible.

To clarify the second bullet point, here's an example: He's a developer; she's an environmentalist. He wants to use a piece of property to build housing; she wants to preserve it to save the rare spotted squirrel. Arguments about the housing needs of people versus the need to preserve the environment ensue. Any reader who's stayed awake long enough to make it to the end finds out that they compromise and build cluster housing on one section of the property and maintain the rest as legally protected woodland. The characters thought their way to a mutually acceptable solution. Everybody wins, and now the two of them can act on their mutual attraction. As a plot, it's an exercise in mental gymnastics and nothing more. The story has no heart.

However, the story could have heart. Maybe the hero's not just an in-it-for-the-money developer but is someone who has a mission: providing reasonably priced housing for people who may otherwise never get to own a nice home in a place where they can raise their families. Perhaps he was raised by a hard-working single mother who barely made the rent on a cheap apartment, and this is his way of giving back to the world in her memory. The heroine was raised in the inner city, and the only time she ever saw the country was on a city-sponsored summer program. She's determined to save a little piece of the wild within spitting distance of the city so less fortunate kids will always have a place they can get away to and meet nature.

This plot isn't the most compelling one on the planet, but at least now it has an emotional component, and you can see how the two types of conflict can work together. This approach — taking an intellectual conflict and adding an emotional element to make it a book — isn't recommended, because it works backward. By the time you start writing, your idea should already be an emotional one, even if it started from an intellectual point.

Internal versus external conflict

Another (and related) way to look at conflict is as internal versus external. Internal conflict comes from the characters themselves; it's whatever they bring to the story, both emotionally and intellectually. External conflict comes from the plot and circumstances, or is created by other characters.

Emotional conflict is always internal. This kind of conflict finds a way to manifest itself whatever the circumstances are. Going back to my example of the heroine from the big family and the protective hero, these two people are going to have issues no matter how or where they meet, simply because of who they are.

An example of external conflict is your hero and heroine arguing over the best way to handle the case. Any two cops — including two men or two women — can do that. You can't substitute external conflicts for internal ones, but you can enhance emotional conflicts by using externals to provide a context that gives your hero and heroine a chance to be together and seemingly at odds against one thing (how to handle the case, in the example above) while what they're really arguing over is something else entirely, in this case his tendency to protect — or overprotect, as she sees it — her.

Your hero and heroine can't spend the entire book talking about their emotional conflicts, otherwise your story ends up reading like a long session at a psychotherapist's office. An external conflict lets your characters talk about something concrete with their emotional issues as a subtext — a subtext that you can clarify by getting into their heads for a point-of-view look at what's going on.

Personal versus situational conflict

One final way to talk about conflict is as personal versus situational. Personal conflicts are conflicts that grow from the innate issues and insecurities that everyone has. You carry around certain feelings inside yourself that are personal to you. In most of your day-to-day relationships, they don't raise their heads, but with the people who matter most, your personal issues are important. Your family and friends — these are the people whose opinions count and who have the ability to make you feel great or horrible. Those people who are close to you matter on a personal level, and with them, your deepest feelings come into play. This situation is the same with your hero and heroine; they can touch each other on the deepest, most personal levels.

A situational conflict arises from place and plot. In the safe-house example, the situational conflict comes from locking the hero and heroine up where they can't get away from each other, which forces them to deal with their internal, emotional issues or else spend the entire book in separate rooms. As with intellectual and external conflicts, situational conflict can work with the key emotional tension your hero and heroine have to deal with, but situational conflict can never substitute for emotional conflict. Situational conflict can provide the hothouse atmosphere where tension can grow, but the novel's deeper issues are always the characters' personal and emotional conflicts.

The best romances are built around a complex emotional conflict that's played out in an equally interesting and tightly connected context — one that forces the characters to deal with each other and their issues.

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