Posted On July 26, 2017 by Print This Post

Conflict: Avoid the easy route – by Julie Sturgeon

Please welcome first-time Visiting Professor Julie Sturgeon.

I always applaud authors who get the fact that a romance story in particular needs an internal conflict— a personal clash, a personality disagreement, opposite goals— to fuel the emotional journey.

I often compare conflict to a driving vacation: What moves the vehicle? And here’s where someone always says tires, which is half the answer. Those tires can’t get you far without pressure in them.

But not just any old hot air will do for a novel.

Yet too many times authors center their romantic conflict on the idea that one, or both, of the characters have sworn off love/dating/interacting with the opposite sex. My first objection is always a practical one. If your sorority sister or tennis partner or that favorite family member you’d take a bullet for said to you that they will no longer eat or breathe or pay their bills, you’d swoop into intervention mode faster than a hawk on a chicken. Needing people is a basic in life, and to shun an entire gender is fodder for the counselor’s couch.

But, of course, you didn’t mean to take it to that level. Your character has only rejected the kind of person you’re pairing them up with on your pages, and it’s for a really, really good reason, like an office romance cost her a promotion and the cash she needed to rescue a shelter dog. Fair enough. So your couple meets and boom! Animosity and chemistry sparks and lots of “I shouldn’t … but I did” fireworks. To overcome this “I hate men/women” objection, someone is showing a character a good time, a reliable friendship, a great gesture to convince the shy member that they are off route with their preconceptions.

And as a development editor, I’m going to shove a tracking chart under your nose that shows a string of positive events and emotions taking place in the middle of your book. There’s no pacing, no anticipation, no air in your tires to roll this story forward now.

Once again, you are stranded by the side of the road.

At this juncture, it’s more than just the rubber meeting asphalt that’s causing your breakdown. Remember that definition of interpersonal conflict, the part about conflicting goals? In this situation, all of your pistons in the engine aren’t firing either. See, if one character doesn’t want to date or commit or care, that automatically means the other person’s goal or mission is to refute that, and thus you have Bridget busting hump to fix Michael’s attitude, which he’s rejecting. That makes Michael a self-centered, ungrateful jackwad to a chunk of female readers—unfortunately, the same group that leaves reviews at Amazon and Goodreads.

Or, as an alternative plot map, Michael says, “Wow! I do like this.” And you basically wrote the adult version of Green Eggs and Ham.

Reverse the order so that Bridget holds off Michael’s sweetest efforts and your female audience will howl about how this heroine was cold to their man, even if he’s a serial killer. Email me; I’ll send you links to those reviews, too.

So why is the “count me out, Cupid” trope so popular? It looks easy on the surface, and that’s its biggest trap. As a development editor, it’s my job to help you avoid this pitfall by using this conflict as an accessory, a side or rearview mirror, if you will, in interiority moments. You want this heartache to become a private matter between the character and the reader, a bonding moment that sends a title straight to the keeper shelf.

And in the meantime, you need to add a plot that features two goals at odds with one another or two lifestyles that don’t mesh. If, for instance, Bridget has a calling to work in a Doctors Without Borders situation, but Michael’s father was just admitted to a long-term facility, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, figuring out how to construct a meaningful HEA from that conflict will require both parties to sacrifice, to change, to re-evaluate. The fact that Bridget has never had a successful relationship in her past is icing on the cake as to why she has a hard time accepting solutions to the dilemma … but it’s not what prevents her and Michael from meeting and driving off into the sunset together the next day.

Goal conflicts require more planning (or procrastination while pantsing), but the result is a romance novel that readers can’t put down.

Happy trails!

What is the stickiest interpersonal conflict you have written?


Bio: Julie Sturgeon is currently the imprint manager and a development editor at Crimson Romance, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. She has more than twenty-five years experience in journalism and magazine writing/editing. Her biggest claims to fame are her annual snarky Christmas letters, the fact that she learned she won the Writer’s Digest contest while on the john, and a video of her in candy-striped bibs, screaming when Indiana University upset the Kentucky Wildcats.

You can connect with Julie on Twitter @CEOEditor1, on Facebook at CEOEditor, and follow the two posts a year at her Tough Talk blog at

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13 Responses to “Conflict: Avoid the easy route – by Julie Sturgeon”

  1. Great post, Julie. I really enjoyed it.

    You asked about the biggest conflict we’ve ever written. I think my most emotionally-charged situation was when a guy whose sister’s killer was up for parole was interested in a woman whose family’s law firm was representing him.

    I think the more tension is in the potential relationship, the more fun it is to both write and read. You’ve given us a lot of excellent advice today. Thanks.

    Posted by Staci Troilo | July 26, 2017, 9:45 am
  2. I ALWAYS bookmark conflict posts, and this one is really helpful. The importance of escalating conflict is something I understand in theory, but it’s also something I don’t always successfully pull off. Thanks so much for your explanations and suggestions!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 26, 2017, 11:12 am
  3. Well, that’s a lightbulb moment. =) I never thought of it that way…most of my heroines want nothing to do with men EVER AGAIN! lol….and now I know why I struggle so hard with the plot.

    Thanks for the insight!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | July 26, 2017, 2:57 pm
  4. I’m so glad to have read this post even though it stresses me out because I’ve done exactly what you said to not do. Ugh! Fortunately I’m early in the process and can build in some more conflict. Thanks for sharing your insights and expertise!

    Posted by Cat | July 27, 2017, 12:16 pm
    • It will work out just fine. Once you find that new internal conflict, you’ll have so much fun writing the story!

      Posted by Julie Sturgeon, imprint manager, Crimson Romance | July 31, 2017, 1:27 pm
      • Thank you for the encouragement, Julie! Quick question, though. Can the heroine swear off a certain type of guy (e.g. a charismatic guy she fears is a player) because of past experience? The hero, of course, is just that kind of guy…
        Or is that still not enough of a conflict? It’s not a full-length novel, so I wonder if that makes a difference.

        Posted by Cat | July 31, 2017, 8:40 pm
        • I think it makes a good reason for her to be reluctant to compromise on the main interpersonal conflict … or, said another way, it’s a why behind a wary personality trait.

          But to hang the whole thing on that still leaves you with a more “been there, read that” kind of story overall. It’s applying a general rule to a specific guy, when it’s more interesting to have a specific reason not to click immediately with a specific person.

          Posted by Julie Sturgeon, imprint manager, Crimson Romance | July 31, 2017, 11:05 pm
  5. Thank you so much, Julie! This makes so much sense and helps me focus my thinking. I know I’m not the cost to say this, but it is so much harder to come up with a compelling storyline than I thought!!

    Posted by Cat | August 2, 2017, 4:37 pm
  6. *first* not *cost*!

    Posted by Cat | August 2, 2017, 4:37 pm
  7. Fantastic explanation of the “count me out, Cupid” trap and internal conflict. Thank you!

    Posted by Rachel | August 4, 2017, 4:25 pm

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