Romance Pet Peeves: Separation As Conflict


I recently read a book that really bugged me, and after mulling it over I’ve figured out why. I decided to make a blog post about it, and that spawned an idea for a semi-regular  blog series about my romance pet peeves. It is February, after all!

Today’s culprit: separating the romantic couple in order to create conflict.

First, let me define terms and explain what I mean.

Conflict is (obviously) important. Conflict is the fuel in the engine of story. What I should perhaps say is “Separation As False Conflict.” Because if conflict can be resolved easily (by having a conversation, or just getting the characters back in the same room), it’s false. Real conflict arises from character choices, and is always messy and forces the characters to make more difficult choices to resolve it (and should spawn more conflict).

Separation is also a key stage of the romantic arc. It isn’t always physical, but it is important that there be at least an emotional separation between the characters as they go into their black moments. This kind of separation, like true conflict, arises from within the characters and is motivated by their actions and choices. That’s not the kind of separation I’m talking about in my pet peeve.

The kind of separation I’m talking about is when the plot interferes with the characters. Something external happens that rips a happy couple apart, usually repeatedly. I find this most often happens in non-romance books with a romantic subplot, because the author doesn’t understand how to write romantic conflict. They think that whenever their couple is together, things must/will be blissful and “boring.” So in order to shake things up, they craft circumstances that take the couple apart. Depending on the genre, this often means that the woman is kidnapped or harmed, or in other stories, has to stay behind to be protected while the man goes off to save the world.

In other types of stories, one or both characters do stupid things or make stupid choices that cause the separation. This is, at least, character-driven, but still feels like a cop-out to me because they are usually out of character choices. When you break a character to create conflict (or humor–that happens all of the time), you lose a little bit of your reader’s trust. And since this is the sort of well that writers seem to return to often, eventually all trust is gone.

Character-breaking conflict is also common in romantic triangles and will-they-or-won’t-they situations. It’s annoying in a single title, but series writers love these not-quite-romance premises, and that means they have to find reasons to keep the romance from coming to completion over a long period of time. The reasons get more and more elaborate, far-fetched, and out of character, until I just want to scream. I have stopped reading (and watching) several series for this reason. I have to assume that the authors just don’t understand how to (or deliberately choose not to) write conflict when their romantic couple is actually together. Which is odd, because these stories also often revolve around a team or group, and there is never any trouble writing about friendship/colleague conflicts.

Romance shouldn’t be any different. What I like to see are couples working through their problems in unison. Facing danger as a team, because being united makes them stronger. There can still be tons of conflict, both external and internal, while you keep your romantic pair together. Sure, separation every once in a while is good, too, just to mix things up. But the bulk of the time, I want to see them side by side. Don’t just tell me they’re in love. Show me why they make sense as a couple. Make me believe in their relationship and their importance to each other.

A series that doesn’t fall into the separation trap is the In Death series, by JD Robb/Nora Roberts. Not surprisingly, Nora Roberts understands how to write romantic conflict. Eve and Roarke are a team, and aside from a few issues in the beginning when they were first learning to trust each other, they have been a rock-solid pair for the entire series (unless something really crazy happened in the last 4 or 5 books–I’m a little behind). The times when they are separated evolve from absolutely true character flaws, and as much as things hurt, they are always able to work through the problems by coming together, trusting, and loving each other. It can be done!

I’ll once again recommend Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat for anyone looking to add romantic subplots to their non-romance fiction. Keep your characters together, and use her beats for their conflict. You’ll be surprised how much external story conflict this gives rise to!

To sum up: if you’re forced to pull your characters apart because you can’t create conflict when they’re together, then you’re missing out on an opportunity for great individual and group/romantic character growth. Dig deeper into the characters, and figure out how to up the tension while they’re together. Don’t take the easy way out!

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