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Best Strategies for Creating Believable Conflict in Your Romance NOvel
Writing the Important Component of Conflict in Romance Writing
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In the romance genre, it's a given that the primary conflict will be the one between your hero and heroine. It doesn't matter if they're battling demons, solving crimes, hunting for buried treasure, or discussing pleasantries in the ballroom – romantic tension should be the main driving force of your novel.

But this doesn't mean you have to spend all your time discussing their emotions or showing how frustrated the pair of them are at constantly misunderstanding one another. It means that everything else going on in the novel should be developed as a way to increase the romantic tension. For example, searching the universe for alien life forms is fine, as long as the hero and heroine are forced into one another's arms along the way. It's the right combination of external and internal conflict that make a story great.


In this article, you will learn about creating effective and convincing conflict.

ü What are the traditional types of conflict in fiction?

ü How are romance novels different from traditional fiction?

ü How can I use conflict and tension effectively?

Conflict in Traditional Fiction

In works of fiction, there are five recognized types of conflict. These types of conflict always include the protagonist of the story (either the hero or heroine; in romance novels, this often means both of them simultaneously), who is pitted against some outside force. Many novels include several (or all) of these conflicts to create a deeper, more involved plot.

Man vs. Man

This is the type of conflict in which the protagonist battles a villain who is as human as he (or she) is. For example, a rival duke, an angry ex-boyfriend, or a manipulative parent all qualify to play the role of villain. Remember, though, that the conflict does have to be as simple as good versus evil. The conflict that comes from a hero who is fiercely protective of his young daughter can be just as compelling as the "bad guy" trying to kidnap her.

This is a common source of conflict in romance novels, because the options for emotional growth and exploration are high.

Man vs. Self

This type of conflict occurs when the protagonist is battling his or her own past, emotions, and beliefs. A hero who refuses to get married because his parents were supremely unhappy, or a heroine who has to overcome her disgust of burn scars on half of her body before she will allow a man to get close are good examples. They represent conflicts that can only be overcome by battling the personal demons inside all of us.

Romance novels are usually filled with this type of conflict. Part of creating believable characters means giving them unique neuroses and catastrophe-littered histories that must be overcome before love is realized.

Man vs. Nature

This type of conflict is less common in romance novels. It occurs when the protagonist has to struggle for survival out in the elements. While this type of conflict might work in some types of sci-fi, fantasy, or historical romances, it rarely plays a leading role. After all, a heroine's attempt to make it in the woods during a failed camping trip might make for an interesting scene or two, but it can be difficult to base an entire romance novel on it.

Man vs. Society

This type of conflict is another one that works well in romance. Protagonists who flout conventions are a great way to make a romance novel interesting. Some of the best heroes and heroines are unable to find love the traditional way, because they feel something is different about themselves. So when a unique hero or heroine comes knocking, you've got plenty of fodder for love.

It doesn't matter whether you have a bored duke battling ballroom mamas trying to force him into marriage, or a misunderstood hermit who seeks love over the Internet – romance readers love a society outcast.

Man vs. Supernatural

This type of conflict is best used as a way to include action in a romance novel. After all, a protagonist who battles ghosts, demons, vampires, aliens, or werewolves should find plenty to do during the space of 90,000 words – especially if the love interest falls into one of those categories.

The only hitch is using too much of Man vs. Supernatural to make a story compelling for romance novel readers. You want to make your story compelling without being filled with gimmicks and clichés.

Conflict vs. Tension

Conflict within the structure of your plot is what gives your story its backbone. It is what your characters watch build up during the rising action, what comes to a head during the climax, and what is resolved as the story comes to a close. In this way, conflict is sort of like a maypole; it stands in the middle of the crowd, and all the characters dance around it.

However, one of the most important components of a romance novel is tension between the hero and heroine. In this case, tension means anything that keeps the hero and heroine from hitting that happy ending. It is different from conflict in that it exists on a more subtle level. After all, you can resolve the conflict (save the universe, free the girl from an evil guardian, win the Viking war) without the hero and heroine getting together in the end.

Tension in a romance novel is almost always emotionally-based. It can only be resolved by love triumphing in the end. It is usually more subtle in the way it works within the framework of the novel.

Consider the following plot line:

Hero X and Heroine S work together at a bank. Heroine S is the boss of Hero X, so a relationship is a definite no-no. Hero X uncovers a plot to rob the bank – masterminded by none other than the nasty ex-husband Heroine S inadvertently fed information to during their brief and unhappy marriage. Hero X brings the evidence to Heroine S, but she doesn't believe him. Only when the ex-husband suddenly reappears in her life does Heroine S start to turn to Hero X to help her stop the bank robbery -- and the effect her ex-husband has on her life.

The obvious conflict in this story is the bank robbery. The ex-husband is the "villain," and Hero X and Heroine S must work together to stop him from robbing the bank and possibly jeopardizing her career.

The tension in this story is less concrete – and wholly up to you.

  • Is Heroine S still recovering from an unhappy relationship, making her unwilling to trust any man ever again?
  • Is Heroine S drawn to Hero X, but so set in her analytical ways that she refuses to make an exception to date an employee?
  • Was a potential relationship between Heroine S and Hero X about to get hot and heavy when she shot him down by not believing the evidence of the robbery, leaving Hero X nursing some pretty big wounds?
  • Is it a combination of all the above?

What's great about tension is that it operates on so many levels and in so many places. There's no reason why you can't add several different types of tension all at once.

However, it can also be difficult to really define and refine tension, since it doesn't always have a single answer or solution. If you're having difficulty spotting your story's tension, or creating enough to keep the relationship between the hero and heroine exciting, you might need to take a break from writing to examine your plot:

  1. What is the main conflict? Using the five traditional conflict types, determine what the primary core of the story is and write it out.
  2. Do you have secondary conflicts? Are you using Man vs. Man and Man vs. Society? Identify which one is the most important, and list any others in descending order of importance.
  3. Are some of your secondary conflicts actually tensions? For example, many Man vs. Self conflicts are actually types of tension that move the relationship along.
  4. What other factors are at play in your story? What is really keeping the hero and heroine apart – emotionally and morally?
  5. How will everything come together in the end? Do you plan on resolving all the conflicts and all the tensions in one giant scene, or will there need to be resolutions in more than one area?

Once you have a better grasp of your different conflicts and where they are headed, you'll actually end up with a much more solid plot. You should also find it easier to keep the writing momentum going, since there are subplots and twists to be addressed at every angle.

Just make sure that any tensions are resolved before you end the book. No one likes to have emotions or issues just hanging there at the end (unless, of course, you're planning that sequel).

Sex and Love Scenes

For some writers, the sex scenes are the best part of the job. For others, it's a constant struggle to find the right words – words that convey the emotions and sensations of sex without sounding like every other love scene ever written.

As with most parts of romance writing, writing a good sex scene is all about practice and remaining true to your genre. You have to know what's acceptable for the type of book you're writing, as well as what readers expect. You also have to know how to walk the fine line between beautiful, scandalous, and downright cliché.


In this section, you will learn about writing convincing sex scenes.

ü What is expected and acceptable for the romance genres?

ü How can I build sexual tension?

ü What is purple prose, and how should I use it?

ü What point-of-view should I use?

ü What makes a sex scene great?

Know Your Genre

The amount of time you devote to the sex scenes in your romance novel depends primarily on what genre or series title you're writing for.

For example, in Christian and inspirational titles, sex is rarely mentioned unless it's a quick cut-off scene when the (married) couple heads off to bed for the night. Embraces tend to be chaste, and kisses lean more to the sweet side than the passionate side.

In erotica and the "steamier" series titles, sex between at least the hero and heroine is a must, and many publishers are looking for scenes that really push the limits (which often means multiple partners, group encounters, male-on-male or female-on-female sex, bondage, fetishes, and other adventurous activities). However, most publishers of erotica – including the big names like Ellora's Cave – would be the first to tell you that what they publish is not pornography. All sex scenes need to contribute to the plot and developing relationship in some way, and the real focus needs to be on emotional growth and exploration. In this way, the sex is used as a vehicle for the larger story.

Other genres walk the line between the inspirational and erotic categories, and most of the mainstream romance authors recognized today do include sex scenes in their books. In most cases, the first one doesn't occur until about halfway into the novel, and it is almost always the result of a building tension between the hero and heroine. It is typically the most graphic sex scene in the entire book. Several additional sex scenes may follow, but there tends to be less of a focus on the descriptive passages and more on how those sexual interactions are contributing to the relationship.

Of course, sex isn't required – even if you're writing historicals or contemporaries. Many publishers and lines are categorized as "sweet" or "mild" romances. These will "close the door" on the amorous couple. They typically either leave the sex out, or they let the hero and heroine have a little privacy until the warm afterglow.

If you know ahead of time which line or publisher you'll be targeting, you should study up on what other authors are doing and what the requirements are. Even though sex scenes are something that can be cut back or expanded on by your editor, many publishers are looking for writers who know just how to add enough spice without going overboard.

Writing Sex Scenes Effectively

Writing good sex scenes is about more than the 20 or so pages you'll devote to describing the scene, the mood music, the act, and the post-coital bliss. In fact, good sex scenes start at the very first page and don't stop until the final sentence. That's because in romance novels, as in real life, really good sex is often based on a chemistry that begins at the first meeting and builds up over time through seemingly innocent interactions.

In romance writing, this is known as sexual tension. It can start with a dropped glove, witty banter over cocktails, or an awkward moment in the rain. It can be as simple as a touch on the small of the back or more aggressive, like a stolen kiss in a dark corner. It creates awareness between the hero and heroine that each of them must explore both when they are together and when they are apart.

Building this tension might be one of the most difficult things about romance writing. You don't want to go overboard, or the novel starts to get repetitive. But too little, and the romance doesn't crackle like it's meant to. In order to get the most out of your characters and their relationship, you will need to:

  • Play with description. Instead of being the narrator and telling your readers how the heroine feels about the hero (or vice versa), let them do it. How does the heroine feel about him? Read her thoughts while she's in the shower. How does the hero describe her to his friends? Drop in on him at a bar while he uncomfortably tries to explain why he hasn't "sealed the deal" yet. By providing different types of viewpoints, you should be able to provide variability and entice your readers.

  • Build anticipation. Don't make the sex too easy. Maybe he's dropping sexual innuendos left and right, but she's too shy to acknowledge them. Maybe she's hiding in his closet wearing nothing but stilettos and bunny ears, but his mother dropped by to pick up his laundry. When one character is ready to start the sexual relationship, you can draw the promise of sex out further by allowing another character to stop it dead in its tracks.

  • Let them be human. When you're in the heroine's point-of-view, give your hero a really calm and cool exterior. When you're in the hero's point-of-view, tell us how he's really feeling about the prospect of sex. (Is he nervous? Is he out of practice? Is he debating buying a Barry White CD but afraid it will make him look like an idiot?) Making your characters realistic will help your readers to connect.

Technical Elements of Writing Sex Scenes

By the time you've built up enough sexual tension, you (and your characters) should be more than ready to get into the actual sex scene. Do what you have to do to get yourself in the mood, and have fun with it. If you need to drink a glass of wine and turn down the lights and play some Barry White of your own, do it. If you'd prefer to write the rest of the novel first and backtrack to the sex scenes, do it. It's your novel, after all.

Of course, you'll also need to be prepared for the writing aspect of sex scenes. Some of the issues that trip up first-time novelists include:

Purple Prose

Purple prose is the flowery language used to describe sex and the sex organs made popular in the 1970s and 80s. Phrases like "throbbing member," "every fiber of her being," and "the center of her womanhood" all fall under the category. They're euphemisms meant to add delicacy to the scene while still making sure the readers know what's going on.

While you'd be hard-pressed to find a novel published today that doesn't rely on purple prose to some extent, most writers try to balance it out with the actual terminologies and slang associated with sex. Too much purple prose can get corny and leave readers feeling flat. Too little purple prose, and you've got an erotic novel whether you wanted one or not. In fact, many erotica guidelines specifically state that they don't want any purple prose at all.

Of course, it can be difficult to try and come up with another name for anatomical parts that hasn't been used or overdone. Many writers get around this by focusing more on the emotions and feelings during sex than the exact physical mechanics.


Using humor during sex scenes can be a great way to infuse a little fun into your novel. A hero who cracks a joke about his dog watching from the foot of the bed, or a heroine who falls on the floor in a seduction gone wrong, can be a fun way to depict your characters as real human beings.

Be careful, though, not to take the humor too far. You want the sex scene to show an emotional shift in the relationship. If things get too comical, you might not be getting the desired effect.

Exaggerated Awareness

This is when you use extra detail to explain the hero's or heroine's state of mind during sex. Because so many sex scenes are more than 20 pages long, reading about sex can often take longer than the real deal. This is due in large part to the amount of time dedicated to each sensation: exactly what his breath feels like on her neck; exactly how close to tears the hero is by the time he's done. In real life, these sorts of sensations typically last only a second or two before the participants move on to the next ones. In romance novels, we can spend pages discussing them.

While exaggerated awareness can be great for showing internal thoughts and really heating up a scene, don't take them too far. They're already exaggerated, and too much will cause your readers to suspend belief.


If you've been switching your hero's and heroine's points-of-view each chapter, you have to remain true to that plan even during a sex scene. If you've been giving them each a scene, transitioning at pivotal points in the plot, you have to remain true to that, too. Although you may want to hear from them both during that first explosive sex scene, it can be really difficult to effectively share the scene.

You can get around this by giving one character the point-of-view during sex, and the other character some thoughts once it's over and the other party has fallen asleep. Just try not to do the same scene exactly the same twice, since much of the sizzle will be gone the second time around.

Making Sex Satisfactory

It rarely happens in a romance novel that the sex between the hero and heroine doesn't result in earth-shattering pleasure. Virgins have been known to enjoy multiple orgasms despite the pain associated with their first-time exploration into sex. Heroes who have spent years playing the field find an emotional completion they never thought possible. Readers often expect these types of reactions and have no problems with them.

While fun to read about, though, these situations aren't always realistic. If you're trying for true realism, you might want to give your virgin pain that precludes her reaching orgasm. Your hero might just roll over and fall asleep, only to leave before the next morning's awkward meeting.

Regardless of what you choose to do with the characters, however, there is one person you can't leave unsatisfied: your reader.

If you want to skip the rosy glow of perfect sex the first time around, make sure the hero and heroine make up for it later. Few people are willing to reconcile themselves to a relationship that never has that sizzle we're all looking for in love.

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