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Ah, conflict. How I loathe and avoid you.
I’m the youngest of three children, the only girl, and I seem to have been born missing whatever gland it is that makes one want to pick fights. I am a peace-maker by nature and birth order, and nothing unsettles me more than the idea of having to fight with anyone about anything, ever.
And yet, in order to write books that are more interesting than wallpaper-hanging instructions, I find myself constantly throwing my characters into situations of intense conflict.
Those poor little characters. It’s for their own good.
When I first began to write fiction, I didn’t understand about conflict yet. I was reading a lot of category romance, particularly Harlequin Blaze, and I had this idea, I think, that the conflict aspects of the novels were trumped-up and silly. I wasn’t going to write that
sort of book. I was going to write some other type, with less trumped-up, silly stuff in it.
So I wrote my first novel manuscript, and it was grand. I worked really hard at it. I learned a lot of useful things. I loved that book, I really did. When I had something close to a final version, I put it on my Kindle and took it on vacation with me. I opened it up at my mother-in-law’s house and started reading…and a horrifying thing happened.
I got bored, reading my own book.
This is bad. This is, like, writerly death.
That’s the point at which it became clear to me that I needed to learn more about conflict—how to write it, how to sustain it, how to do it well so it doesn’t seem trumped-up and silly, but it does
keep readers flipping pages.
I think we have this sense, as romance readers and budding romance writers, that romance novels are “about” the romance—that they are love stories about interesting people, and the reason we enjoy reading them so much is that we enjoy being immersed in the slow, unfurling development of romantic love.
I’m here to tell you that that’s bullshit. I wish it were true, but here is the actual truth: the slow, unfurling development of romantic love is horribly, painfully, unremittingly boring.
I’m sorry I just said that, but I had to.
I know it sounds like sacrilege, but it’s true, I swear. I wrote a manuscript like that, and I’ve seen a bunch of them written by other people, too. The hero and heroine meet. They like each other. They’re sexually attracted to one another. They fall in love. Excuse me while I get a cup of warm milk, some warm flannel pants, and a blankie. I’m not going to remain awake longer than thirty seconds reading this book.
To be interesting, a romance novel requires conflict. The good news is, “conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean fisticuffs, or even arguments that feel trumped-up. Conflict means, very simply, “making your characters want something they can’t have” and then “putting them in situations that force them to deal with it.” Your heroine can want a 1982 Volkswagen Fox for all I care. As long as you give me compelling reasons to root for her finding one—and then continually deny it to her—I will keep reading, and I will think things like, Go, heroine! Get that Fox! I know you can do it!
As readers, we think we know what we want, but we’re wrong. What we really want is denial and disappointment. In order for the triumphant resolution of a novel to be so satisfying that it makes us weep, the characters have to suffer first. They have to suffer bad.
But the other good news about conflict is that this suffering can take a million and one forms. And—this is the best part, for me—it can take place almost entirely in the characters’ heads. Sure, bad guys with guns are fun, but I’ll take a wounded heroine with a penchant for bad boys and a shaky sense of self-worth over a gang of ninjas any day.
Hmm. In fact, I may have recently written such a heroine. Here’s Cath, the protagonist of my June release, About Last Night
. Having just been kissed stupid by a man she barely knows (his name is Nev, but she doesn’t know that yet, so she calls him by the nickname she’s given him, “City”), and having then eaten the bacon sandwich he made her, Cath is now arguing with herself about what she ought to do next:
Maybe it was the hangover, but it was the best sandwich she’d ever had. Or maybe it was City. He moved around his tiny kitchen like he knew what he was doing, and he’d fussed over the sandwich for a long time.
Beyond asking her how she liked her tea, though, he didn’t say a word, and that was fine with Cath. She wasn’t sure what social script applied when you’d passed out on someone, woken up in their bed, and then immediately thereafter come very close to mating with them on a table. The best strategy would no doubt have been flight, but she’d needed the sandwich.
The food gave her necessary fuel, and it also provided time to regroup. Bad Cath and Good Cath were duking it out in her head, and she was having trouble keeping her wires from crossing.
Good Cath was screechy, slightly hysterical: What do you think you’re doing? Sex on a table with a stranger? You don’t do that anymore! Hell, you didn’t even do that before. Knock it off. Put your clothes on. Go home. It’s still possible to turn this into a blip! It’s not too late, but you’re cutting it close, missy.
Bad Cath, by contrast, practically purred with lust: That man can kiss, Mary Catherine. What could it hurt to do it again? You’re already here. You made your mistake. What’s the big deal if you make it a little bigger? And speaking of big, did you notice the way City felt pressing between your legs? Yeah. That. You’re going to walk out on that? Don’t kid a kidder, babe.
What could she do but feed her stomach and try to drown out the voices?
Plus, it wasn’t like she could simply flee the scene. She was only half dressed. At least she knew where her clothes were now. She’d spotted them drying on a rack in the corner as soon as she walked into the kitchen. City must have put them through the wash for her, but he, like so many of his backward countrymen, didn’t have a dryer.
He could deny being nice all day long, but the guy was definitely a Boy Scout. A Boy Scout who kissed like a Hell’s Angel. Not that she’d ever kissed a Hell’s Angel. And not that anyone had ever kissed her quite like City just had. Zero to sixty in three-point-four seconds. The man knew how to ring her bell.
But she was done with the bell ringing, right? Right. New Cath didn’t sleep with strange men on studio tables. New Cath said, “Thanks a bunch,” got dressed, and clomped on home.
Do that, New Cath instructed. Do that right now.
See? Conflict. It’s not so difficult. But it sure livens things up, doesn’t it?
About Last Night, coming from Loveswept (Random House), June 11, 2012!
About Last Night Description:
Sure, opposites attract, but in this sexy, smart eBook original romance from Ruthie Knox, they positively combust! When a buttoned-up banker falls for a bad girl, “about last night” is just the beginning.
Cath Talarico knows a mistake when she makes it, and God knows she’s made her share. So many, in fact, that this Chicago girl knows London is her last, best shot at starting over. But bad habits are hard to break, and soon Cath finds herself back where she has vowed never to go . . . in the bed of a man who is all kinds of wrong: too rich, too classy, too uptight for a free-spirited troublemaker like her.
Nev Chamberlain feels trapped and miserable in his family’s banking empire. But beneath his pinstripes is an artist and bohemian struggling to break free and lose control. Mary Catherine — even her name turns him on — with her tattoos, her secrets, and her gamine, sex-starved body, unleashes all kinds of fantasies.
When blue blood mixes with bad blood, can a couple that is definitely wrong for each other ever be perfectly right? And with a little luck and a lot of love, can they make last night last a lifetime?
Preorder/order links — only $2.99, releases June 11
Ruthie Knox figured out how to walk and read at the same time in the second grade, and she hasn’t looked up since. She spent her formative years hiding romance novels in her bedroom closet to avoid the merciless teasing of her brothers and imagining scenarios in which someone who looked remarkably like Daniel Day Lewis recognized her well-hidden sex appeal and rescued her from middle-class Midwestern obscurity. After graduating from Grinnell College with an English and history double major, she earned a Ph.D. in modern British history that she’s put to remarkably little use.
These days, she writes contemporary romance in which witty, down-to- earth characters find each other irresistible in their pajamas, though she freely admits this has yet to happen to her. Perhaps she needs more exciting pajamas. Her debut novel, Ride with Me
, came out with Loveswept (Random House) in February.
What kind of conflict do you like in your romances?
Love/Hate relationships? Friends to Lovers? Villians/Suspense?
One lucky commenter will receive an About Last Night ebook. Winner will be selected using random.org on 6/11.
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