Conflict: Writing Upmarket Romance

Relationships starts with expectations, ends with clarification, and in between lays... quarrels and conflicts. ~Kajol Badyani
I have never been one to look for conflict--well, not in my personal life.  I don't necessarily avoid conflict, but I don't run towards it either.  I kind of look at conflict as a conduit to getting the truth out of people when they're feeling too polite to say what they really mean.  Or do what they really want to do.  So, I don't avoid it... I simply know when to use it to my advantage.  Jeez, that doesn't make me sound like a sociopath at all.😵  

When it comes to writing romance, or anything really... I say the more conflict the better.  But I hate when I'm reading what has the potential to be a great story and before I've even gotten through the first chapter, I already know what the plot is going to be.  I know exactly what the conflicts are, how they are resolved, and what the "oh my god, I didn't see that coming" moments will be.  I get it.  Really, I do!

Romance novels follow certain tropes and plot structure designed to get the hero and/or heroine to their HEA.  I know all that, but as a writer who enjoys the struggle; the hardwon battle to prove the couple actually deserves the right to the all-too-elusive-happily-ever-after.  Every word written with the intention of bringing deeper levels of conflict to their story needs to make the characters earn it.

Romance + More involved, complicated, deeper conflict = Upmarket Romance:
  1. Romance readers are loyal to their favorite tropes but are willing to try something new.
  2. The publishing industry doesn't like to stray too far away from "the formula".
  3. Finding an audience and market for upmarket style conflict in romance may prove difficult.
Let's consider the top ten most popular tropes according to Romance Writers of America and think about the basic formula and conflict presented in novels using any of them:

I have read hundreds of romances centered on these tropes, and I rather enjoy them.  But after a while, they all seem to be pretty much the same.  Different characters, settings, dialogue...kinda, but essentially, they all have the same sets of conflict, resolution, oh my gosh moments, and then the not-so-well-earned HEA.  I'm not knocking the tried and true approach to writing romance; however, like all other aspects of society, there has to be evolution. Growth.  It's time for romance to evolve into Pulitzer and Nobel winning, upmarket literature.

The basic plot structure of the romance novel, regardless of the trope, can be summed in seven to ten steps.  Turns out I could do it in only eight.  I used the same hero's journey plot structure I taught my ninth graders years ago while teaching Homer's, The Oddessy.  Check out my infographic on my Pinterest page.

It's time for more evolved conflicts, less formulaic structure, less reliance on tropes, and more reliance on outstanding writing and storytelling in romance novels.  Conflict pushing the characters so close to the edge, not even the writer knows if they'll make it back to the center. The type of conflict that'll have the reader laying out in her underwear, wet hair and bare feet because she's so caught up in what's happening with her latest romance read.  
How can romance writers stay within the confines of acceptable plot structure and well-loved tropes, while pushing the creative envelope with unexpected and intentional conflict? We can't!  We have to color outside the lines and move our genre into a different space altogether.

Resolving the conflict of boring conflict

Let's use the basic trope; I'll go with the sassy heroine.  In honor of Pam Godwin's Deliverer, and her leading lady, Liv who kicks ass and asks for names later. 💪👩 I freaking love her!

Conventional Romance:

  • Cameron and Blakely are going to struggle against their mutual attraction
  • They end up working out together
  • Eventually, their lips somehow collide and they're in love
  • Some other conflict comes up; another girl, relocation, secret revealed...
  • They walk away, reluctantly. 
  • One of them gets in trouble and reaches out to the other.
  • They discover they can't live without each other... yada-yada-yada.

Upmarket Romance:

  • Blakely is more than a little sassy, she's a woman who can literally kick some ass.
  • Then we have several subplots introduced in the beginning.
  • Cameron and her deceased brother
  • Why open her gym in the same neighborhood as Cameron's if she didn't want to see him again?
  • He killed her brother in an MMA fight, WTF?!
  • Business and personal conflicts impact on the romance that develops
  • What's eating the sassy heroine, you know--other than the sexy hero 😄?
  • This story that may or may not end in a will be hard-earned if it does.
The second story will have the conventional romance market salivating over Cameron and rooting for Blakely to kick his ass and then bed him afterward. And it will also appeal to the upmarket audience who, according to book editor Robb Grindstaff's blog, are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes.

Anyway. I'm challenging all romance writers, myselef included to endeavor to write novels able to stand up to the literary upmarket crowd, while keeping the readers who are loyal to all things romance, just as happy.

Remember, writing is a journey and sometimes the Universe sprinkles her enchantments along your path to guide you on your way.  Be sure to stay present, I'd hate for you to miss out on the enchanted moments of your life.  Until next time; be brave, be beautiful, and be enchanting.



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