The Secret to Writing a Great Romance Plot

Okay for those of you who have read my other articles this shall come as no surprise. The secret is….wait for it…stakes and conflict!

Alright, go ahead and quit reading. You can go about the rest of your day now.

JK

But actually, conflict and stakes are the lifeblood to any great story, from sci-fi to romance and beyond. While we could have a broad conversation about stakes, conflict and of course the holy grail…tension, I’d like to focus on the niche of romance.

The thing about romance is that conflict poses a unique issue to romance writers that is different from other genres. While in most other genres the goal of the writer is to make things as difficult as possible and build in as many obstacles to your characters success as you can, romance writers must instead balance a tricky dance of creating conflict that keeps the two would-be lovers apart, but also not too far apart because hello we gotta get our HEA or HFN by the end (happily ever after or happy for now). This means that while yes we need to build in barriers and reasons for why the love interest and the MC cannot be together, these reasons also can’t be deal breakers. We still need to root for them to end up together, right?

Therein lies the problem for many romance writers. How do we perform such a tricky balancing act? Many romance writers opt for the less conflict option in which the two love interests are constrained by misunderstandings and a lack of communication, rather than any real underpinnings of conflict. This unfortunately is unsatisfying to the reader because misunderstandings/miscommunications are not real conflicts. Anything that can quickly be resolved with a conversation, is not real conflict. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that any and all misunderstanding are “bad,” but that they should not be too heavily relied on for the source of conflict. There must be a real undercurrent of problems to be solved. The trick to this is one character must do something (intentionally or unintentionally) that hurts the other character.

On the other hand, many romance writers don’t want to go all in and have one character do something heinous to the other in which the reader is no longer rooting for them to be together.

So how can we balance this?

  1. Two-pronged conflict

This rule applies to all good stories, but I shall break it down in the context of romance. A two-pronged conflict is a conflict in which there is both an internal force and an external force keeping the character from what they want. In romancelandia this means that there must be both external (aka real, physical, tangible) and internal (mental, emotional, spiritual) obstacles keeping the love interests from being together. External obstacles could be a disapproving parents, physical distance, someone has a gf or bf, etc. And internal obstacles could be a fear of getting hurt, insecurity, trauma, etc.

A great love story will have both. And usually as soon as one is cleared up, the next one will take center stage and sustain the tension. For example it is common for two love interests to break down the phsyical barrier somewhere around the midpoint in which they will share a kiss, sleep together, etc. But in order for the tension to be sustained until the end, there must be a deep, still unresolved, conflict keeping the two characters apart.

Which brings me to my second tip…

2. Add in new conflicts as soon as one is resolved

In order to maintain tension and stakes, as soon as one conflict is resolved, a new one should be introduced. For example, lets say two reluctant lovers have finally thrown caution to the wind and slept together. In order to maintain the tension a new conflict must arise, otherwise the rest of the book is going to be pretty boring. Perhaps one of them discovers a terrible secret about the other, or finds out the other person lied. This is a great way of reestablishing the divide between two characters and keeping the stakes high. Which leads me to my third tip:

3. Sustain tension

Sustaining tension is critical to keeping your readers interested and engaged. Without tension there is little reason for a reader to keep going. While your main conflicts might still be yet to be resolved, this doens’t automatically mean that the story is sustaining tension. Tension is sustained via the reader hoping, wondering and worry how/whether everything will work out. If the reader is left with the impression that everything will be just fine and there’s nothing for them to really worry about, they might as well but the book down and call it a day. But what keeps them reading is the tension that something is still unresolved, and as a reader I am so invested in the story that I simply must keep reading to make sure that something is resolved. In the case of a romance, romantic tension is key.

Romantic tension is the push and pull of two characters, the undergird of “will they won’t they” that keeps me turning the page. It’s that desperation for two character to “just kiss already!” And it is crucial to the satisfaction of readers. Tension is also plagued with doubt. If I know that characters A and B both like each other then I’m not going to be super worried about whether they end up together, however if I’m plagued with doubt as to character B’s true feelings for character A, well then now I have romantic tension. An air of mystery is critical to sustaining romantic tension in which we don’t know what the other person is thinking/feeling and what the consequences will be. Which brings to be my final tip:

4. The love interests MUST have conflict between each other

But Romeo and Juliet….I don’t care. Shakespeare is the exception not the rule. In order to sustain romantic tension there must be some kind of conflict between the two characters. While star crossed lovers who are pitted against another external force makes for a great conflict, there must also be some form of conflict between the two love interests. Why? Because it adds depth and stakes. Perhaps they start out as enemies. Perhaps character A hurts character B? Perhaps there is a betrayal. Any of the above are great examples of interpersonal conflict between characters which will add a depth and richness to their relationship dynamic, as well as the ever important stakes. As I said above, doubt is a critical player in conflict and sustaining tension. Conflict between characters is also an awesome opportunity for character development and to show us how two characters deal with interpersonal conflict. The best way to get a reader to root for two people to be together is to plant seeds of doubt that happily ever after is not a sure thing…

Closing thoughts,

So there you have it. The secret to a great romance plot is a heaping pile of conflict that keeps the two love interests apart up until the very end with increased stakes, sustained tension and a healthy dose of interpersonal conflict.

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Heather McBreen

Heather McBreen

Reading is how we explore our world and writing is how we inhabit it. On a journey to becoming a published novelist. Women’s fiction, rom coms, historical fic.