I went back to a comfort re-read because I’m in the middle of edits and revisions and my whole world is pretty much a festooned garland of those colorful track changes bubbles (I even looked for them in a cookbook yesterday – a printed one – eel!). I love comfort re-reads, books I can sink into knowing how much I’ll enjoy them, and knowing that even the third, or fourth, or fifth time, they’ll work for me.
This weekend my comfort re-read is Instant Attraction by Jill Shalvis, and it still works. Oh, boy howdy, do I love this book. And as I read each chapter, I guess because I have revisions and structure on my mind, I started to notice how each chapter features an obstacle – most of the time a completely understandable, believable one – that prevents the hero and heroine from getting it on.
Sometimes it’s an external obstacle, like a new group of tourists (the hero’s family runs an adventure vacation company) that need to be taken out on a hike or a ski trip. Sometimes it’s an internal obstacle, like the hero, Cameron, feeling that he’s a terrible person if he takes advantage of Katie, the heroine, because they are both recovering from personal and psychological trauma. Sometimes it’s just timing or bad luck, but the kick is blocked more often than not as they head to the goal line.
I’m fascinated by this because one of the difficult elements of contemporary romance is that there aren’t often obstacles, really, to a modern heroine and hero having sex when they want to, even if it’s the wrong timing for the story’s tension. Nora Roberts has had many a heroine or hero hook up in horizontal way with nothing more than the explanation, “I wanted to.” Which makes sense – provided the sex makes things more complicated, which, in a romance, it always does. In romance novels, the old “Get it out of my system” trick NEVER works. You think characters would know that by now.
Also, many older contemporary romances I’ve read rely on class differences to block the hero or heroine – and while this theme continues to play out in secretary/boss romances (which give me the mighty squicks) I don’t read it as often today. Ditto the strange legal shenanigans where in someone is compelled to marry someone else in order to inherit something big and sparkly and worth a lot of money. Such wills don’t exist, to my knowledge. A will might be able to, in some places, compel someone to live on a property in order to inherit it, but a will cannot compel someone to marry someone else. (Lawyers and Recovering Lawyers in Romanceland, feel free to correct me if I’m talking out my ass on that one.)
There’s a lot of conflicts that don’t exist as much any more – but there are some that just work so well for me when the characters’ motivations support the conflict. Off the top of my head, here are some common contemporary obstacles I’ve encountered recently.
His job or her job: In Something About You by Julie James, and several other books where one party is a law enforcement officer or an attorney or in a position that’s bound by a very specific code of conduct, that code can create some tension because a character wants to do something but cannot even move an inch toward action. But that conflict will go away eventually – or one person will break the rules and face the consequences (with a smile because likely they had some hot happy sex).
Internal tension: “I’m not good enough for her,” “She’s out of my league,” “She matters so I must guard my tender, squishy insides – no, my OTHER tender squishy insides,” etc. I admit to being a total sucker for this type of conflict, particularly when it’s done right, and the character growth helps alleviate the feelings of unworthiness, but never the desire to demonstrate how much that character values the other.
Uh, Oh. Someone Was a Douchenugget: In the past, things went bad. Has that character changed enough to be trusted? I enjoy this plot, but sometimes the past crimes are not really bad enough to warrant holding a grudge for so long, while other times the things the hero did in the past are so heinous, when they’re finally revealed it can damage the reader’s perception of the hero or heroine. Toni Blake’s bad boy hero in Whisper Falls was a pretty good balance: he was once in a terribly violent biker gang, and not the friendly kind, either. He has crimes in his past that he still struggles with – but the fact that he struggles makes his character seem more real.
Family feud: their families hate each other – cue the Capulets for thumb-biting. This tension works but only up to a point because the hero and heroine look like they can’t stand up for themselves if they don’t eventually defend one another and their relationship to their families. It creates tension but sustained too long it can diminish the hero and heroine for not having a backbone enough to stand up for one another – and I have a hard time believing in a Happily Ever After if the characters don’t have one another’s backs in crucial moments.
I’m Not Who You Think I Am: She posed as a hotty mchot hot on Facebook, and now he’s going to find out that she’s just a regular woman with regular woman parts. Uh oh! While that’s not a plot I’d jump to read, the pretending-to-be-someone-else plot can be effective – so long as the pretender doesn’t so completely humiliate and confuse the other protagonist that both are diminished in the reader’s estimation. There has to be a pretty good reason for that mysterious mysteriousness, really, or else someone looks hurt, ridiculous, alarmist, or just plain nuts.
Someone Is Trying to Get Me/Us: Then the book becomes much like romantic suspense, and some antagonist must be defeated. This is not my favorite.
What contemporary romance conflicts do you love – and which do you try to avoid? Are there contemporary conflicts that really seem crazy to you, or are there some that ring so true you’re compelled to read from the cover copy alone?
And, most importantly, have you been compelled to marry someone due to a will and testament?