California Dreamin’ 2017 Conference Part 10

Conflict by Sarah MacLean

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Sarah MacLean is a sweet and talented human being. I know this because she uses the outrageous puns devised by her husband as the titles for her books. And because, at the California Readin’ event, to every reader who told her they loved her writing, she replied, “You’re very kind.” I was the security red shirt volunteer near her table and I had fun with her and listening to her and her fans. #careergoals for sure.

Sarah spoke on Conflict, an absolute necessity for Romance writers. Basically, we write about two people falling in love against insurmountable odds. Or, stuff happens while two idiots fall in love. The odds are the things that make the book breathless. The ticking clock, the secret uncovered, the surprise baby and so on.


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Much cuter in person!  But this photo is adorable.


The goal is simple. We want them to get together. Conflict lives in the “but”. Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park gave a speech on the subject at an NYU writing seminar. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle could have been happy in the town, reading books, taking care of her father. BUT! No conflict existed until she got to the castle. Linda Howard said, “If your hero is a firefighter, your heroine better be an arsonist”. Or her son or her brother or sister; you get the idea.

No matter what you hear or read, we love tropes. Why? Tropes work because the conflict is innate. Entangled encouraged three or more tropes per story. If there’s no conflict, readers ask themselves “What’s the point?” Every bit of conflict should drive the hero and heroine together. (It works for M/M or F/F)

External conflict is the stuff that happens. Forces that are outside the MMC & FMC drive the story by throwing them together and keep them from being on a smooth road to that HEA. Make clear what they think they want vs. what they should or actually want. The hero thinks he’s in love with the sexy rich daughter of his boss, then he meets the klutzy, wild-haired office assistant who can’t afford to get her flat tire replaced.

External conflict also ups the stakes. Ask yourself, what about this external conflict keeps the hero and heroine falling in love or from falling in love. The rich woman treats people poorly, but he’s almost engaged to her. The office assistant is kind and generous, willing to work late with him to get an important project completed.

Internal Conflict comes with the characters. Look for their deepest wounds or fears. What makes them broken? The thing that forces them to hide their true selves. Check Michael Hauge’s speech from 2016 RWA National Conference, if you got the recordings. These are still available for RWA members, by the way.

In the romance, the wound must be healed by the love of the other character. Ultimately, it would lead to the black moment, when the character’s baggage is revisited. They cannot see a way around the pile in front of them.

All this has to be going on at the same time. Use layering of conflict, internal and external, to keep the story immediate. Think of how this is done in Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, Nobody’s Baby But Mine. The best stories deftly layer internal and external conflict to keep the pages turning. Secret Baby is a plot device. Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Remember, every resolution of conflict is actually a way to further complications. Especially sex. The first time you have sex with a person, it’s weird, the emotions are weird, the future is weird. Sex should complicate things. If they can talk it out, it’s not a big enough conflict. Readers are going to get tired of 350 pages of one misunderstanding.

Write into risk. What scene are you afraid to create? If you are avoiding a conversation between the MCs, write it and see what other conflict comes up. The first page sells your book, the first chapter keeps them reading.

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What does the hero want most in life? In order to get it, the heroine has to be pulled into the story, blocking the desire. Read The Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean. Eventually, show that the hero actually needs love, her love. The hero’s willingness to sacrifice his initial desires for love is the key to the breathless resolution of all conflict.

This works, as stated above, with two heroes or two heroines. An M/M novel won the Rita last year. It’s the best book of 2016. For Real by Alexis Hall. That’s a step in the right direction.

Common conflict pitfalls: Instalove, Misunderstanding, Too Stupid to Live, Not enough external/internal conflict. These are not always bad things. Look for the book, “Priest” by Sierra Simone. It’s an instalove story with lots of conflict, because the hero is, you guessed it, a priest. Pamela Palmer‘s Feral Warriors series is another example.

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Torture your characters. “Think of the worst thing that can happen. Do that,” suggests author Carrie Ryan. Use your characters fears against them. Scare them into action. Lob a grenade, create another obstacle. Face your fears. Don’t pull your punches. Put it all in. Learn to master conflict and layer the internal and external reasons for conflict.

And don’t ever give up writing. Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Sunday.

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