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How to Write Nontoxic Conflict in Romance December 23, 2020

At the time I'm drafting this blog post, there are ten days left in 2020. Though these past few years have highlighted some of the worst in humanity, we've also seen encouraging growth. Previously untouchable men who abused their power over young girls, like Hollywood producers and Olympic team doctors, are finally facing the consequences. Addressing systemic racism in law enforcement is a long overdue national effort. After decades of mostly white, exclusively straight protagonists in books and movies, we can now see African kings as inspiring superheroes, lesbian relationships in heartwarming Christmas movies, and modern Muslim heroines lighting up the pages of bestselling romcoms.

But we still think rape is exciting.

The much anticipated Netflix show Bridgerton, premiering December 25, is based on a series of novels Julia Quinn wrote about twenty years ago. In the first installment, The Duke and I, the heroine Daphne wants children, but her husband Simon doesn't. After a big fight over the issue, Simon gets drunk and falls asleep. Daphne rapes him. He wakes up and begs her to stop, but she forces him to ejaculate inside her.

Romance fans in 2020 assumed the writers of the show would take this controversial scene out. But according to critics who previewed it, like Aja Romano at Vox, the "deeply disturbing" rape scene is still there. For added fun, the character of Simon is played by a Black actor and Daphne by a white one.

An American production team of dozens couldn't possibly have filmed a scene of a white woman forcing herself on a Black man without one person raising a hand to say, "Maybe this isn't a great idea." The Bridgerton show-runners must have discussed how upset people would be. Yet they decided to go ahead and keep it in.

Why? I'd guess for the same reasons I still see marital rape portrayed as darkly erotic in books published this year:

  • Because it's "realistic for the time period."
  • Because it's "necessary to the plot."
  • Because the writers think there's no other way to generate dramatic conflict.

First, as I've said many times before, anything created in 2020 is for an audience living in 2020. It doesn't matter what was acceptable or commonly overlooked in 1820. This is a sumptuous costume drama premiering on Christmas Day, not a history lesson. The message will be that marital rape is fine and dandy today.

Second, the only time a problematic element is unavoidable is when the story is about that element. Including racist epithets in a novel, for example, would be necessary only in a story about the harmful effects of racism. Characters don't need to toss slurs around just to show how gritty or flawed they are. You can show flaws in many different ways that don't offend and personally attack a significant portion of readers.

Employing rape as a plot device to generate conflict is also firmly in the category of Gratuitous and Unnecessary. If you need two characters to fight and separate, there are always many potential triggers to choose from. In the case of Bridgerton, the main couple already had a big conflict straining their marriage from day one: the issue of having kids. Expanding on that, the rape scene could be easily omitted without affecting the plot at all.

The original plot: Daphne wants babies and Simon doesn't. Daphne rapes Simon. Simon leaves Daphne. A month later Daphne finds out she's pregnant. The couple reconciles.

A rape-free plot: Daphne wants babies and Simon doesn't. Daphne attempts to seduce Simon into agreeing to make babies. Simon feels used and unloved, gets angry, and leaves Daphne. A month later Daphne finds out she's pregnant anyway, because they had a lot of sex before that night and "pulling out" is a highly unreliable method of birth control. Simon is upset but knows he has to take responsibility. The couple reconciles.

Avoiding problematic content is quite easy, because humans are messy and fragile. We get hurt and angry over many things. But from the sheer number of books and shows that still use rape as a plot device, or rely on abusive behavior and silly miscommunications to drive lovers apart, it seems many writers don't know where to find sources of conflict that aren't toxic.

Find realistic conflicts in real life.

The best place to find ideas for conflict is the same place you can find inspiration for anything else in fiction: your own experiences in real life.

Think about what ruffles your own feathers, and what has led to distressing arguments with loved ones in the past. Here are some things real couples with healthy relationships fight about all the time:

  • Money. One person wants to spend it on things, but the other wants to save it or spend it on different things.
  • Marriage. To one person it's important, but to the other it's a stupid piece of paper or a terrifying commitment.
  • How to spend free time. One person likes hanging out with friends the other doesn't click with. Or one enjoys a hobby that bores the other.
  • Big life changes. One wants to move to another city while the other wants to stay put. Or one wants to start a new career, but the other is afraid of losing income and benefits.

Common conflicts might not seem melodramatic enough for a romance. They're not shocking like rape scenes. They're not soul-crushing like outrageous misunderstandings, sudden betrayals, or secrets with tragic consequences. But you don't need Big Trauma for Big Drama.

Another romance coming out on Christmas this year is Sylvie's Love. I added it to my Amazon watchlist immediately after seeing this trailer.

Now tell me your heart didn't break for those two when he asked her to come to Paris, and she answered softly, "I'm afraid I can't." No epic meltdowns. No snarling insults or resounding slaps across the face. Neither is withholding critical information from the other for illogical reasons. He simply has his own dreams, and she has hers, and the two aren't compatible.

From decades of toxic romances, people have learned that characters have "chemistry" when they're at each other's throats. When a gangster threatens a woman's life, it's "sizzling sexual tension." When two attractive people cruelly belittle each other, that's "witty banter." The most popular romance novels have titles like The Hating Game. The snippets authors share online to tantalize new readers portray knife-wielding assassins growling seductive lines like, "I don't know if I want to kiss you or kill you."

Verbal abuse somehow became the standard of "chemistry" in fiction, and that's both worrisome and ineffective. What I see in the trailer for Sylvie's Love is genuine chemistry: two people who are happiest in each other's company. Since narrative tension comes from the distance between a character's current state and perfect peace & happiness, a quiet breakup between two nice people in love can be as earth-shattering as an epic revelation of secrets and treachery.

In crafting conflicts for romance that touch audiences, the key is that the issues feel real and deeply important to the characters. You don't need violent high-stakes plots full of bomb threats by criminal masterminds and car chases with terrorists, like in thrillers. Or operatic drama full of royal scandals, assassination plots and incest, like in epic fantasy. Fighting over hobbies is honestly enough.

Let's illustrate some different types of conflicts with a theoretical contemporary romance between Xander, a hot paramedic, and Yolanda, a hot pastry chef juggling her exhausting job at a grocery-store bakery with her studies for an online MBA.

Variation 1: The Toxic New Adult Couple

Xander is a macho alpha with a tragic loss in his past whose defensive arrogance intrigues Yolanda. Yolanda is a damaged victim of abuse, but Xander teaches her sex can be pleasurable. After a whirlwind romance that consists mostly of brooding, alcohol, and copulating against walls, one accuses the other of cheating. They scream the most hurtful things they can think of, then have more explosive sex. They break up, miss each other terribly, and get back together.

This is a retrograde pattern I don't see in print anymore, thankfully. But it's enormously popular in self-published romances and erotica online, because that's what young writers learned is a riveting story during the heyday of Fifty Shades of Grey and Beautiful Disaster. Let's stop it, please. In 2020 arrogant jerks aren't a romantic ideal, and the traumatized victim/virgin who blooms and shivers under the jerk's masterful fingers is just insulting.

Variation 2: The Uncommunicative Couple

Yolanda is afraid of committing to a serious relationship because three years ago she had a miscarriage, and her fiance left her when she needed him most. Instead of talking to Xander about it, she pushes him away whenever she feels like she's falling for him.

For his part, Xander resents Yolanda's hot/cold behavior and cagey excuses for fleeing after sex: she has to be at the bakery early in the morning, she has assignments due for her classes, and so on. But he doesn't want to seem selfish or unsupportive, so he doesn't say anything either.

The resentments build up until a big climax of tears and recriminations. They break up, miss each other terribly, and get back together.

This annoying pattern is very common in print and everywhere else. Characters go out of their way to avoid addressing issues that could be easily resolved in one conversation, because then how would you draw out the conflict and keep the lovers apart until the end?

In real life, people regularly address issues head on and still can't resolve them. If talking about a problem fixes it instantly, it wasn't a real problem to begin with. For a couple that truly belongs together, a breakup-worthy problem is when one person wants one thing, and the other person wants a different thing, and the two things can't coexist. We have so many of those situations to choose from, there's no need to keep the source of conflict a closely guarded secret for two thirds of the story.

Variation 3: The Idiot Ball Couple

Xander and Yolanda develop a solid relationship with no abuse, no artificial secrets, and no miscommunications about what each person wants and expects.

Then when Xander's brother teases him about Yolanda, Xander suddenly regresses to adolescence out of nowhere. He stupidly says Yolanda is just a fling, and he wouldn't seriously date a woman like her. Yolanda overhears and furiously retorts that's a relief, because she'd never fall for a man like him either. She storms out. They don't talk for a whole month while they miss each other terribly.

Then friends conspire to invite them to the same bar at the same time, and they suddenly grow up again and confess their love.

This isn't just a flimsy conflict, it's a nonexistent one that leaves audiences rolling eyes and scratching heads. Do otherwise mature adults sometimes act like thirteen-year-olds in real life? Yes, but they regret it instantly and hug it out within one hour, not a month of dragged-out drama.

If characters have to pass the Idiot Ball to each other to justify the end-of-act-two breakup, the story needs fundamental work. A real conflict needs to be introduced early and explored in multiple ways before the breakup point.

Variation N: The Otherwise Healthy Couple with Insurmountable Issues

Xander falls hard for Yolanda and knows she's "the one." He brings up marriage and how much he's always wanted to be a dad. He tells Yolanda he wants to have kids soon because his parents are older, and he wants his children to have memories of their Grandma and Grandpa.

Yolanda also falls hard for Xander, but her priority right now is finishing her degree and opening her own bakery. She tells him she can't even think about getting married for another five years, because establishing a small business is a huge financial risk and an all-in commitment. She'll be working every waking moment from 3 am to 8 pm, and she won't have the time or headspace to be a bride and mom too.

When Xander's mother has a health scare, he feels he can't wait five or more years to start a family, but he also doesn't want to stand in the way of Yolanda's dreams. Yolanda feels guilty for prioritizing her career over Xander, but she's afraid if she married him now, she'd have regrets and always wonder "what if?" They both make the difficult decision to part ways.

Now the problem with an actual problem like this is, how do you resolve it? If people are simply holding the Idiot Ball, that's easy. If they were dodging a conversation for 150 pages and the issue evaporates after a good cry, that's super easy.

Finding a solution to a real problem is hard. One or both people are going to have to give something up. Some possibilities:

  1. After a conversation with his mother, Xander reevaluates how important it is to find a new partner who wants to have kids right away vs. waiting a bit to spend the rest of his life with the woman he already loves. He decides to mentor boys in the community for now and support Yolanda while she starts her bakery, because she's worth it.
  2. Yolanda thinks hard about why she's so determined to start her own business. She discovers, as hinted earlier through her frustration with her MBA studies, that she doesn't want to be an entrepreneur. The stress of making money is destroying her love of making beautiful cakes. She leaves her unsatisfying job at the grocery store to work for an established baker she admires, and she shows up on Xander's doorstep with cupcakes in his favorite flavor.
  3. Both of the above.

You don't need Big Drama for interest.

I know some people will read the above synopsis and say, "That sounds boring." Stories about healthy relationships are not as inherently exciting as stories about toxic ones. Simply thinking about a scene of a drunk bad boy pinning a fragile virgin down on a bed as she struggles, or a beautiful gentlewoman slapping a rakish duke with all her strength, triggers a natural stress response. Some people misinterpret the adrenaline as sexual arousal. Many translate it into "compelling page-turner."

But when I see romance readers getting excited over new books, they're not enthused by the promise of a high-concept conflict with secrets and intrigue. They're enticed by the promise of falling in love in their imaginations, because in real life most people only get to do that once or twice. The excitement of this theoretical romance between Xander and Yolanda comes from the dizzy rush of attraction when they meet, the giddy terror when one works up the courage to pursue the other, the explosion of sensations when they kiss for the first time, the nail-biting worry when they argue over marriage, and the heartbreak when these two people who clearly belong together are forced to part ways.

A "healthy relationship" doesn't mean a "conflict-free relationship." A couple could claim they've never argued about anything only if they've never talked about anything. It's impossible for two unique individuals to blend their lives together and never ever get mad at each other, never do anything they have to apologize for, and never have to give up anything they want. There are so many non-problematic ways to strain a fictional relationship, there's really no excuse for one partner to ever physically, sexually, or verbally assault the other.

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