Conflict & Adhesive — Two Vital Components of Romance

by Lydia Sharp

Two arms chained together

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Lydia Sharp.

Any story with a romance plot–either as the main plot or a strong secondary plot–has an especially unique challenge. The two love interests must overcome obstacles that threaten to tear them apart, while at the same time drawing them closer together. This enables relationship growth, and it’s a delicious juxtaposition that makes romance novels so popular with readers. How will these two people, against all odds, reach their happily ever after?

Applying an adhesive element to the two main characters at the outset of the story forces them together, and then adding regular doses of conflict that pull them apart, creates a sense of “one step forward, two steps back” that keeps readers turning pages. Just when it seems their love has made progress in some area, something tugs it apart again. This push/pull increases in intensity until the characters reach the momentous climax where they must go above and beyond anything they’ve done up to that point, determined to be with each other no matter what.

Conflict is a familiar term among writers, but what exactly is an adhesive?

What Is Adhesive?

An adhesive story element is something that forces things, or characters, to stick to each other. It is often external in nature. In romance, it is what keeps the two love interests in close proximity, forcing them to face the challenges of the plot’s conflicts together, before their romantic feelings even come into play. This can be any number of situations, and much of it depends on the story’s genre and mood.

In a contemporary romance, for example, a business owner may be in need of a personal assistant with a specific skill set. He hires a woman in dire need of the salary he’s offering. They both need this arrangement (and both have hidden agendas that come to light later) so it keeps them stuck together even when conflicts arise. One of those conflicts could very well be that they start developing feelings for each other–having a romantic and/or sexual relationship with your employer is usually a pretty big no-no. Neither one of them will back out of this easily, though. The adhesive is too strong.

A good adhesive involves the characters’ needs. If it doesn’t, the reader will wonder why one or both of the characters don’t just walk away when difficulties arise.

Effective Conflicts

Effective story conflicts are a combination of internal and external obstacles. The antagonist in a romance is whatever repeatedly keeps the two characters apart, either physically or emotionally or both. It can be a physical person or thing, or a situation, or a mindset, or a scarred character’s sour past, etc. This is the main thing they each need to overcome to reach their happily ever after.

But to keep a reader turning pages, the conflict must constantly shift, heighten, and intensify. This is done by adding new obstacles to the main conflict at regular intervals throughout the story that ping-pong between internal and external problems. All of these minor, supporting conflicts must somehow relate to the main conflict and the adhesive.

A conflict cannot be stagnant from beginning to end. It cannot be the same conflict “on repeat”, rehashed over and over again through different scenarios. Repetition of the same conflict does not convey an ever-worsening situation. It is that feeling of ever-intensifying dread and “how can they possibly overcome this?” that keeps a reader reading. The stakes must continually be raised, and the pressure from the antagonist continually increased, until the story reaches its peak at the climax.

The basics of why conflict and adhesive work so well in romance can be applied to any other genre or story type, although each requires a slightly different approach.

How would you apply the above points to your own work-in-progress?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Cannon June 11, 2013 at 9:58 pm

I love the idea of Adhesive. Such a great visual term for an element we all need in our plot.

Chris Cannon
Going Down In Flames-January 2014
Entangled Digiteen

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PSKarr June 19, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Thanks for sharing this. It is very informative, and I never quite thought of a plot that way. But I would rather have a spontaneous plot than one that follows a set template, or applies theoretical principles.
Read PSKarr´s last article ..Review: Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits by Mary Jane Hathaway

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Benison O'Reilly October 20, 2013 at 1:13 pm

A belated comment on what a helpful article this is. The novel I’m writing is women’s fiction but it has a strong romantic element and this piece helped to clarify that I’m heading along the right track. I’ve read bucketloads on plot and structure but it’s often written by thriller/scifi/crime authors and it can be hard to directly extrapolate their advice to the book I’m writing.

With respect to the previous comment: humans are hardwired to expect certain things from their fiction, perhaps particularly romance. You can ignore advice about plot if you like but it’s unlikely you’ll find a ready audience for your work unless you meet readers’ expectations.

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