January 22, 2015

Balancing Conflict in Romance Stories

Surfboarder balancing on a wave with text: Balancing Conflict in Romance

Last summer I attended a great presentation at the RWA National conference on the nature of conflict in romance stories. NYT bestselling author Sarah MacLean gave a workshop called “Mastering Conflict,” and I meant to do a post about the workshop but forgot in the chaos of post-conference time.

I was reminded of Sarah’s presentation when one of my commenters asked a great question related to a post last week. In the comments of my post about using characters’ needs and goals to appeal to readers, Sam Blankenburg asked:

“So, in a romance story, does it make sense that the couple’s needs are the same (or very similar) although their goals may be different? …which would make them ideal together, right, because they’d each fulfill the other’s need?”

That’s a great question because it gets to the heart of the balancing game we have to play when writing romance. The characters have to be perfect enough for each other to make a believable couple, but there also has to be enough conflict between them to sustain a story.

In This Corner…Not Enough Conflict

One pitfall in romance writing is so common that it’s been given its own name: The Big Mis—otherwise known as The Big Misunderstanding. We see this pitfall in stories where the only source of conflict between the characters is that they don’t sit down and talk through whatever misunderstanding they have about each other.

We need more conflict keeping the couple apart than just “she thinks he doesn’t like her” and vice versa. At the very least, the story needs tangible reasons these two aren’t simply comparing notes and discovering their true love on page 11. Their families are enemies, their goals are incompatible (developer and environmentalist, etc.), they’re from different “worlds” (noble and commoner, etc.), and so on. They should be antagonists to each other.

In some romance subgenres, readers expect even more conflict. Romantic suspense often includes a physical threat that the hero and heroine* have to avoid. Paranormal romance often includes a threat from a more powerful enemy. Without those elements, stories in those subgenres might feel too light or fluffy for many readers.

* or whatever combination the relationship entails

And in This Corner…Implausible Couples

On the other hand, some stories include so much conflict that we don’t see why these couples are together. Their relationship doesn’t seem to have any basis for existing. Sure, the author might write them a happy ending, but without something to show them as a good couple together, the ending feels forced and unrealistic.

I’ve written before about the elements that make a relationship believable. These elements indicate compatibility in some way: sense of humor, interests, respect, trust, chemistry, communication, etc.

Or as Michael Hauge teaches, characters should fall in love not because the plot needs them to, but because the other character sees their true essence and loves them for who they really are. Without at least some of those elements, readers won’t believe in the Happily For Now, much less the Happily Ever After.

The Balancing Act

So for a great romance story, we have show how these characters are perfect for each other and how they overcome real obstacles to be together, selflessly sacrificing for each other. There are a couple of tricks we can use in our story to make this balancing act come together.

Technique #1: They Fulfill Each Other’s Needs

Getting back to my commenter’s question, Sam came up with one answer already. The key is not so much that the characters have the same (or similar) needs, but that the characters fulfill each other’s needs.

From my earlier post about goals and needs, I linked to a site with a great list of 10 basic human needs:

  • Physical: air, water, food, and sleep
  • Security: shelter, cleanliness, safety, and control over our situation
  • Attention: both to give and to receive, to feel special or noticed
  • Autonomy: independence, control over our life and choices
  • Emotional Intimacy: emotional and physical closeness, acceptance
  • Sense of Belonging: shared perceptions, identification, support
  • Alone Time: opportunity to process thoughts and reflect
  • Achievement: competence, feeling good at something
  • Status: validation, feeling valuable to others
  • Purpose: spiritual needs, search for meaning, understanding, or growth

Many of those needs come into play in a relationship. For example, one character might need a sense of security, and the other might need acceptance (intimacy).

Obviously, these are two very different needs. However, a good relationship is not about the needs being the same, but about whether the other person can deliver. As long as person B could give A acceptance, and person A could give B security, the relationship can work and feel believable.

Tip: This technique can be used to make a relationship work, even with “too much” conflict.

Technique #2: Conflict Is Both the Cause and the Cure

Sarah MacLean’s RWA presentation (link is to the slides of her workshop) dug even deeper into this concept. She talked about how conflict must both drive the hero and heroine together and break them apart.

Whatever the hero and heroine want, the process of getting what they want must involve the other. At the same time, the hero and heroine must be blocking the other’s internal or external desires.

She suggested that we think of what the hero and heroine need, and then think of how the other character is the only one who can deliver that to them. This works even if the characters think they need something other than what they really need.

For example, in one of my stories, the heroine thinks she needs to be noticed (attention), and the conflict that drives the story makes the hero notice her. However, what she really needs is to feel valuable (status) and loved (intimacy), which again, the hero can deliver on some level, but in ways that come with even more conflict baggage. It’s only when they’ve worked past their issues and made sacrifices for each other that her needs are fully met.

Tip: This technique can be used with any situation, too much or too little conflict.

Technique #3: Intimacy and Essence

A character’s essence is who they have the potential to become. Their emotional armor is the mask they wear to prevent others (and sometimes themselves) from seeing what’s real.

In our stories, we can tie intimacy and essence together to show how a couple would be good together no matter how much conflict we throw them into. In other words, even when the conflict looks too impossible to overcome, we can still give the characters (and readers) the motivation to want the relationship to work.

As I talked about in one of my Michael Hauge posts:

  • The characters should become closer (intimacy/love scene/etc.) after they’ve taken an emotional risk—unwittingly showing their essence.
  • The characters should have more conflicts and fights after they’ve retreated behind their armor.

We can use my Romance Planning Beat Sheet to plan these steps forward and back in our plot.

Tip: This technique can be used with any situation, too much or too little conflict.

Some combination of those three techniques should make our couples seem ideal for each other, even when the conflict gets in the way. It’s far better to write a story with seemingly too much conflict than to write a story without enough conflict.

In a romance, we want the couple to have to work for it. It’s by seeing their effort and determination that we’ll really believe that they’ll be able to maintain their happily ever after. *smile*

Do you struggle with writing conflict? Do you usually have too much conflict or not enough? Have you used all these techniques before or just some? Which technique applies best to your stories? Do you have any other tips to share?

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Anne Briggs Buzzini
Anne Briggs Buzzini

I always learn something from your posts! This time the way you explained this let a lot of elements from teachers and books click into place. I will be referring back to this post many times, I can tell.

I see exactly what you are talking about in all the books I love. It’s so much harder to create it myself. Thanks for giving me another game plan.

Julie Glover

I think reading this just solved a dilemma I had in one of my short stories. I had an epiphany on how to rework it! Thank you so much.


I primarily write speculative fiction, where the romance is a component rather than the core of the story, but I do tend to combine multiple goals and conflicts, many of them internal—to the point that, when I describe a story to someone else, I will not infrequently get a response along the lines of “*blink blink* How long did you say that story was, again?”

It’s a lot of complication and internal character focus in what seems like a paucity of words.

Then some folks read my writing and love it. Other readers hate it and think it’s too much or not enough external. *shrug*

I find that considering the goals/actions of various characters helps when I’m having trouble figuring out how they get along (or not), too. MCs, side characters, protagonist vs. antagonist… It’s all useful.

Julie Musil

This is an area I’m constantly working on, so I appreciate the tips. I’ve read books where the couple is just together because they need to be, and I don’t want that to be true for mine. So I must work, work, work at it! Thanks


Good stuff. I’m currently writing a story which doesn’t have much of a romance angle, but the story involves an MC and an alien that have to learn to get along in order to save the day. And it occurred to me that this part of the story’s arc is structurally similar to a romance, so I plan to take cues from the romance genre to make it work. Thanks!

Glynis Jolly

I don’t have a romance going on in the story I’m currently working on but there is a relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. I think your list of needs and the techniques might be helpful with what I want to do with the exchange between them.

Holly Kerr

Thanks for the post! I’m in the middle of writing my first official romance and these tips were great!

Denise D. Young

A really helpful post, Jami. I’ve just started a new story and these are the kinds of questions I’m asking myself as I work on plotting. What keeps the hero and heroine apart? Is the central conflict complex enough to fill the pages of a novel? What complications arise that push the main characters closer together? I’ll definitely be thinking about your post as I plot!


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As always, I come back to your website for answers again and again! Currently taking a class on creating conflict and I was having problems identifying the story goals because it’s a romantic suspense story and I am a pantser, lol.


Jami, re-reading this post is giving me new insights, as I’ve written more of my stories since then, haha.

My favorite point in this post, was the part on fulfilling each other’s needs. In fact, I realize that even though all romance heroes want love (I presume!), what they most want from love could be different. So in my series, I have two heroes for each book, and so far, I have:

Hero A wants safety and security that his partner will never abandon him like his parents did.
Hero B wants emotional connection and warmth
Hero C wants validation of his worth as a person
Hero D wants appreciation
Hero E wants affection, kindness, acceptance, and friendship
Hero F wants loyalty and sincerity

I had to plough into their backstory wounds to find these, haha. But I do love this point about needs and trying to mutually satisfy them. It’s fun when a partner does something that inadvertently makes the other partner feel thwarted in what they want: (E.g. C not believing that he’s worthy and learning to detach himself from others emotionally. D feels unappreciated by C because C seems so unresponsive to and dismissive of D’s efforts to help him.)


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