Saturday, February 11, 2012

Romantic Subplots Part 3: Equal and Opposite Forces

In the gripping new novel by Melanie Crouse, all Abby really wants is to fall in love and get married. 

There's this guy at church--they've been friends since they were young, but she never really thought about him that way before. Lately though, the way he's been looking at her makes her feel all bubbly inside, and she can't stop thinking about him. His name is Jake. Isn't that a gorgeous name? She starts doodling it on random papers at the office, and finally gets up the nerve to ask him on a date. 

As Abby gets to know Jake better, she realizes he is just as amazing as she always thought he was. They seem to have all the same views on important subjects. After several weeks of dating, he asks her to marry him and they live happily ever after. Ta da!! Instant bestseller, no?


Welcome to Rule #3: A story without internal and external conflict isn't really a story at all. To make a love story sizzle, forces should combine to keep your characters apart, BUT other forces should combine to compel them to be together. 

Authors have to be sadists. So, instead of blissful romance, Abby and Jake get this:

Abby's sister Katie has been missing for weeks. The police won't help her, her parents won't even mention Kate's name, and Kate's old friends are completely ignoring Abby. Finally, Abby decides to take matters into her own hands. Before Kate disappeared, she had started attending this church down on Fifth Street, and Katie hopes she can find the answer there. Instead she finds even more secrets, and every one of them seem to lead her to Jake, the spoiled, rich kid in her Calculus class--the one who used to torment her in high school...

Poor Abby and Jake. 

There are two types of conflict in a love story, and they should play off each other like a ricocheting bullet.

Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is the emotional baggage the characters bring to the story. It's the walls and scars, prejudices and value systems, and even the dreams built up from their backstory. It's the causes they fight for and their crazy phobias.
“The boy never cried again, and he never forgot what he'd learned: that to love is to destroy, and to be loved is to be the one destroyed.”  (Jace Wayland, City of Bones, by: Cassandra Clare)
"I keep trying," he said with great sadness, "But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now." (Howl Jenkins, Howl's Moving Castle, Dianna Wynne Jones)
External Conflict
External conflict refers to the circumstances your characters find themselves in, especially ones that force them to confront their internal issues. The more forces you've got working on your characters, the more believable your love story will be.
"I know I announced to the entire track team that your bikini top came off, but most girls would just get over that, not call upon magical forces to toss somebody back into the Middle Ages." (Tristan, My Fair Godmother by: Janette Rallison) 
"Ron," said Hermione in a dignified voice, dipping the point of her quill into her ink pot, "you are the most insensitive wart I have ever had the misfortune to meet." (Hemione Granger, Order of the Pheonix by: JK Rowling)
The push and the pull
In my pretend story about Abby and Jake, any reader will be looking for the answers to two questions: What happened to Kate? and Do Jake and Abby ever get together? The first question is by far the most important, and so Jake and Abby's story becomes a subplot.

There are lots of things keeping Jake and Abby apart--Abby thinks Jake is a spoiled, rich kid. He used to make her life miserable. In fact, he still does, she's just gotten better at not letting it bother her. Jake knows that Abby is the only person he's ever wanted, but his family life is such a dangerous mess that he constantly pushes her away to keep her safe. Basically, these are the forces that keep them apart.

We know that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless there is an opposing force. So unless there is an opposing force, Abby and Jake aren't going to get together. Luckily, there are plenty of opposing forces pushing them together. They have Calculus class together. This particular class meets 4 days a week. Jake is a whiz at Calculus, and although Abby has straight A's in every other subject, this is her second time taking Calculus because she just doesn't get it. Even more important, all the secrets about Kate lead her to Jake. And Jake, for all his wanting to push Abby away, can't make himself push her away permanently. These are the forces that are keeping them together.

Some more examples from books: 
Forces keeping people apart:
1. A curse has changed her in some way (Howl's Moving Castle)
2. He's not rich or respectable enough for her family.(Persuasion)
3. She's pretending to be a boy. (The Lioness Quartet)
4. She thinks she's his sister.(The City of Ashes)
5. The bad guys will hurt her if they know he loves her.(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
6. She's pretending to be royalty.(The Book of A Thousand Days)
7. He is going to be put to death (The Perilous Gard)

Forces keeping people together
1. He kidnapped her, and now they are travelling across the desert together. (Girl of Fire and Thorns)
2. They work together (All's Fair in Love, War and High School)
3. He just can't stay away (unfortunately, this one is very popular. Pick your own book.
4. Her sister is ill and they are forced to stay in the same house until she gets better.(Pride and Prejudice)
5. They are working on the same air-ship.(Behemoth)
6. They are both stuck in the middle ages until he becomes a prince. (My Fair Godmother)
7. They are on the same sport's team. (Harry Potter)

Can you think of more romantic forces in books or movies?
Then, just mix and match, and you've got yourself a story.

Helpful Links:
Romantic Subplots part 2


  1. I like how you break down the internal and external conflicts. It's a spot-on analysis of most of the novels I've read, but I often get really frustrated with the internal conflicts. I feel like authors pump up all these issues beyond believability (especially the "I'm too dangerous for you" trope) just to add drama. Yet as I try my own hand at romance I see how challenging it is to create conflict without melodrama.

    That's one of the reasons I like romantic plotlines that don't culminate in answering the "Will they or won't they?" question. I like when the characters get together and then more complications arise as the relationship unfolds.

    Great post! I'm struggling with all these issues right now, so your course in romance is timely :)

  2. I know what you mean. Maybe that's why my favorite romances end up being like Howl and Sophie--light on the romance, heavy on the fun. The internal conflicts are important, IMO, but the character can't be having the same internal struggles on page 179 that he was having on page one. And certainly not the same ones in book 3. (Can you name the book I'm thinking of right now???)

    That's why I struggle with television shows too. The characters end up being so blatantly self-destructive just to keep the storyline going that I eventually lose interest. That's why I really loved Chuck. It was so fun to watch the relationships grow and evolve.

  3. Awesome post as always, Melanie. I'm really enjoying this series. :)

    I like a little internal conflict. People are complex and tend to bring a lot of baggage into relationships in real life, and putting yourself out there when you're not sure how the other person feels is really, really scary. At least it was for me.

    I think it is good for romance in fiction to reflect that. Show how hard it is to be truly vulnerable with someone and how hard it is to give up some freedom and sense of independence which you really have to give up in order to meld your life with someone else's.

    I love romance. I love my real life romance I had and still have with my husband, but let's not forget the real heartache comes with it.

  4. Melanie, I think I have a guess which book you mean ;)

    MaryAnn, I didn't mean to sound like I don't like internal conflict. It's definitely an important factor in all relationships - real and fictional. I get frustrated when I see it oversimplified or otherwise not done very well, but I don't question that it still needs to be there.

  5. These are very useful tips! As a guy, it's obviously a little difficult to know what women are going to want to read, so I'll definitely be keeping this stuff in mind.

  6. I think the fear of love is what makes a good romance really work. Like MaryAnn said, it's scary to be open to that kind of pain, and the fear makes the story compelling.

    I love this series, Melanie, Well done.

  7. I love this series. You are so insightful.

  8. Definitely loving this series too, because my next novel really needs a romantic subplot. :D

    Extra points for using Howl's Moving Castle, btw. One of my favorite romances too.

    I think that internal conflict can be much more captivating. If you just have external conflict, there's no opportunity for the romance to grow and change, and fewer opportunites for the characters to do the same. I love stories in which characters grow and change together.

  9. Oh, and one of my other favorite lines from a romantic subplot is also Diana Wynne Jones, from The Merlin Conspiracy:

    "That was the unexpected trouble with love affairs, I thought as I made more coffee. You can fancy a girl like mad, but more than just the look of her comes into it. You find yourself having to allow for her personality too. At five-thirty in the morning."

  10. I haven't read that one Sabrina! Thanks for the tip.


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.