If William Shakespeare had submitted the first act and a synopsis of Romeo and Juliet to Harlequin (Mills & Boon) for publication, he would have had it rejected out of hand. (I always knew there was a reason I don’t like this play.) You see, it’s the conflict. Or rather, it’s the lack of the type of conflict absolutely essential in a romance.
You might be thinking, hang on a minute, there’s loads of conflict in Romeo and Juliet. What about the whole Montague/Capulet thing? There’s people fighting and stabbing each other all over the place. It’s true Shakespeare racks up the conflict brilliantly in the play, but the conflict is external conflict and not the internal conflict which characterises a successful romantic novel.
External conflict is something which prevents the hero and heroine being together that is outside their control. If you took away the trouble between the Montagues and the Capulets, there would be absolutely nothing to stop Romeo and Juliet getting together. It’s an external conflict which has nothing to do with them.
So, what is internal conflict? This type of conflict stems from something in a character’s past, or a flaw in a character, or a character’s whole belief system, which makes it appear impossible they’ll ever get together with the person they love. Some brief examples could be (off the top of my head, so these might be a bit flimsy):
- Everyone the heroine ever loved has died and she just doesn’t want to risk loving again
- The hero is a vegetarian and animal rights’ campagner and the heroine is MD of a multi-national veal export business and proud of it
- The heroine has a wild past and has done time for stealing from the hero’s best friend. She’s turned her life around but the hero doesn’t trust her an inch
Romeo and Juliet could run away from the situation preventing them being together, but there’s no running away from an internal conflict. Everywhere you go, it just goes with you.
Sustaining believable internal conflict throughout the course of a book is incredibly difficult for a writer to do well. I know this only too well as I’ve been wrestling with the conflict in the book I’m writing at the moment, The Cowboy Romance. How do you find something in a modern-day setting that will keep a single, attractive and fascinating hero and heroine who are both of sound mind apart realistically until the final happy end? I recently took down some of the romance novels on my bookshelf – novels which succeed brilliantly in the use of internal conflict – and reread them to see if the conflict in these novels can be translated to a contemporary setting. Here’s what I found:
- Cotillion, by Georgette Heyer. This book is one of my favourites of Georgette Heyer’s. She’s a great historical romance writer – well-paced plots, witty dialogue, charming heroines and dashing heroes. In this novel, the conflict stems from the fact that the heroine, Kitty, must marry one of her cantankerous guardians’ great-nephews in order to gain a dowry. The inventive Kitty counters with a sham engagement to the hero, but ends up falling in love. How can she marry him now, when he thinks she’s doing it for the money?
Would the conflict work in a contemporary romance? Today even upper-class women can work for a living. A modern-day Kitty would say OK, stuff your dowry, I’ve got a job anyway and I don’t have to marry any of these boneheads if I don’t choose. Verdict: No
- North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. The conflict in this great novel is more complicated than I have room for here, but basically it involves class. The heroine, Margaret Hale, is middle-class and from the affluent south. She moves to live in the ugly northern industrial town of Milton, where she meets the hero, local mill-owner John Thornton. As an educated middle-class liberal she objects to his treatment of his employees. He thinks she’s stuck-up and for all her book-learning she has no idea about life and what running a factory involves. The sparks decidedly fly. A great romance and great piece of social history.
Would the conflict work in a contemporary romance? Sadly, there is still a class divide in Britain and the economic division between north and south has if anything got worse in recent years. Verdict: Yes
- The Paradise (not a novel, but a BBC series based on Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames) I haven’t read the Zola novel yet but can’t wait to do so, because if it’s anything like the BBC series I’ll be rivetted! The heroine, Denise, takes a position in ladieswear in John Moray’s department store (The Paradise of the title). Moray is highly ambitious and The Paradise and the people who work in it are his life’s work – until he meets Denise. Earlier he’d been beguiled into proposing to the scheming Katherine Glendenning, however, and her father, a Lord, owns the freehold to Moray’s store and the entire street. The wily Glendening holds the freehold over Moray like a sword of Damocles. Moray must choose between his store or giving up his dreams to marry the woman he loves. (By the way, there were other shenanigans in the series besides this conflict, and it was gripping from start to end.)
Would the conflict work in a contemporary romance? I’m no lawyer, but there are surely laws in the UK today which would prevent Lord Glendenning harrassing and evicting an innocent store-holder. so I’m going to go with Verdict: No. A modern-day Moray would be able to call off his engagement with no strings.
So, just a few examples of novels where the path of true love has been nail-biting. I’m ALWAYS looking for new books to read, so if anyone has enjoyed a romance with plenty of conflict recently, please let me know in the comments. It’s always great to hear from you!