Contemporary Conflicts

Book Cover 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?


Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Andee says:

    First off:

    Uh, Oh. Someone Was a Douchenugget

    This made me laugh and laugh.  Secondly, I usually think the conflicts that beset contempo would be romances are pretty weak.  That being said, the awkward transition from friends to lovers is a meme I can get behind.  Unless it’s used in conjunction with either “Uh, Oh. Someone Was A Douchenugget” or “I’ll Just Get This Out Of My System”  in which case I usually end up glossing over important plot points and skipping to the sex.

  2. 2
    Tina C. says:

    I read a lot of romantic-suspense, so I do like some combo of “his or her job” and “someone is after us”.  Internal conflict is okay if, as you said, it’s done well and it doesn’t gone on forever and ever.  I love the “we’ve been great friends for years and I don’t want to lose that with my sudden (or long-hidden) lust” conflict, too.  My absolute LEAST favorite (aka, “Oh for GAWD’S sake already!!”) is the Big Misunderstanding.  Any conflict that could be solved by one simple conversation drives me up the freaking wall.

  3. 3
    Diva says:

    Douchenugget? Harrrrr that was a laugh I really needed this morning!

    I totally want to read this book now.

    My least fave is the Misunderstanding which would require only a simple rational conversation rather than chapters of emo angsty angst.  I want to shake the paperback till the silliness falls out. As opposed to wanting to shake Outlander till Jamie falls out for a VERY DIFFERENT REASON.

  4. 4
    Carol says:

    @diva LOL. Yes to the shaking of the angst and to the Outlander. Mmm Jamie *swoon*

  5. 5
    Alex says:

    I’m quite partial to a bit of angst personally, as long as it’s done well and not based on something stupid.  (This is probably influenced by the fact that I’ve just discovered and devoured the entire Troubleshooters series and adore the whole Sam/Alyssa thing).  Anyway, I really like “internal tension” – it can lead to some amazingly romantic moments.

    I don’t like the No Communication Except During Sex obstacle.  The Misunderstanding can be extremely tedious too but the communication thing seems to go hand in hand with emotionally stunted and dull Alpha heroes and I just want to smack them.  Why have a relationship with someone that never talks?!

  6. 6
    JenD says:

    Believability is huge for me, especially in contemporary romances. If love is more powerful than anything else- then why would we need to make a weak and easily transparent world for it to conquer? If we truly think that love is that one great binding tie- then that love should be able to stand up to anything we throw at it, even realistic pains and troubles.

    A story where the H/H are kept apart because of a simple misunderstanding that most adults in this day and age could figure out? When love wins in that situation- it cheapens it to me. Show me where love won when real money issues were tackled, someone got very ill, deep and raw emotions are tackled and personal growth is found. Those stories of love winning are what reverberate with me and keep me coming back for more.

  7. 7
    Lynn M says:

    I’m a fan of forbidden attraction, for example, the heroine is in love with her husband’s brother and vice versa but they can’t act on it (great movie example: Brothers). Or when you get into the paranormal genres, some kind of inter-species thing that is taboo. What I really love is a romance wherein if the heroine and hero do hook up, very bad things will happen and thus they simply must stay away from each other. Think Buffy and Angel.

  8. 8
    Chelsea says:

    I guess this falls under “internal conflict”, but I like my heroes and heroines in contemporary romance to be psycologically tortured. She was raped as a teenager, he has PTSD, she has daddy issues, he’s a widower, she once suffered the mother of all bad break ups. I really get into watching them come to terms with each other’s baggage, grow together, and become just a little more healed through their relationship.

  9. 9
    SKapusniak says:

    Internal tension is the one that puts me off.  Family feuds tend just to make me want to throw the families against the wall (tho’ not necessarily the book).

    I like ‘We don’t have time for this! We have to save the city/launch the rocketship/find the puppies/get my sister through her wedding/rescue survivors from the burning building/get our best friends to *talk* to each other/gather in the harvest before the weather turns’.  Right relationship, wrong moment; this gives them plenty of opportunities to practice being each other’s rock which is always the most romantic thing ever.

  10. 10
    Jan says:

    Ooh I like the Right Relationship, Wrong Moment as well!
    I also really like the Responsibilities Get In The Way when done well. You know, the kind of hero whose sister dies, and he takes care (or tries to) of her kids even though he has no experience. Or the one who looks after his mother when his father dies. Or the one who takes over the family ranch – even though he hates it and always wanted to be an astronaut – because his family needs his help. Basically a variant of His Job or Her Job, but with family.

    But I think I like all tropes that have to do with family conflicts (good or bad conflicts), because you can learn so much about the hero/heroine by reading about their other relations.

    Also, family walking in is always funny :D

  11. 11
    Jennifer says:

    My favorite conflict is the “we have an ugly past because . . .”  I separate this from someone was a “douchenugget,” although they can easily be related.  I like the hero and heroine to have a past that fell apart either high school sweathearts or he was the bad boy/she was the good girl (or switched) or whatever happened years and years and years ago.  Those memories stick with you and get messed up and altered until his memory is very different from her memory and they have to get over that too.

  12. 12
    Jayne says:

    My favorite conflict is when the hero dude can’t do it with virgins because his crazy girlfriend got pregnant and offed herself, and also the heroine is in love with another dude with a proclivity for threesomes.

    Just kidding.

    I don’t read as much contemporary romance, and I tend to like my smutty books like I like my coffee – dark, hot, and filled with werewolves.

    That said, my least favorite contemporary convention EVER is the convenient marriage/marriage agreement plot. If it looks like My Best Friend’s Wedding, I’m headed in the other direction.

  13. 13
    Dragoness Eclectic says:

    I’m not too up on contemporary romances (read more historicals and modern fantasy, such as P. C. Cast), but do they ever use the very real issue of cultural differences?  He’s an “all-American” man, she’s part of a very traditional family of recent Indian/Iranian/Egyptian immigrants, for example?  (Or she’s a WASP American GI, he’s a sexy Iraqi she met on deployment)

  14. 14
    TracyS says:

    As others have mentioned, the Big Misunderstanding that goes on and on and could be solved with a simple conversation is my LEAST favorite conflict.  Especially ones where people haven’t discussed the issue for YEARS!! I think that is because I am a talker (ask my long suffering hubby) and I cannot imagine not wanting to talk out a conflict and GET.IT.OVER.WITH.ALREADY!  If I let a conflict go for more than a few hours, that’s something around here! LOL

    One of my very favorites is the friends to lovers. I love the idea that they already know so much about each other and have taken years to fall in love.

    I also am a sucker for the “I don’t deserve him/her” theme. Watching someone awaken to their worth is just such a wonderful thing for me!

  15. 15
    Hannah says:

    I’ll take just about any plot as long as the characters’ actions are believable and the chemistry is strong. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the Big Misunderstanding that could have been solved with a short non-angsty conversation plot.

  16. 16
    LEW says:

    I love romantic suspense, so I go for the “someone is after us” plot line.  For me, it’s one of the few plot lines that doesn’t annoy me.  All the other internal struggle, mind-games bullshit just makes me want to bitchslap people.

  17. 17
    Nikki S says:

    I can’t deal with any kind of pregnancy conflict. You know,
    1. OMG you make babies from doing that?
    2. Desperate Woman & The Ticking Clock
    3. Secret Baby/Love child
    4. “Hey, I know we did it without protection but I seriously thought my uterine warriors would defeat your invading sperm – damn, screwed by my ovaries again.”
    5. Oh YAY! We’re pregnant – that fixes everything – your psychosis my psychosis, we can be one big happy family. 
    6. Hmm – she is being stubborn/doesn’t want to be with me. Perhaps if I get her pregnant….
    6. Pregnancy as a way to move plot forward (“we just did the dirty so now we must get married because you will probably be pregnant from my awesome invading sperm”).

    Etc. etc.

    I understand that when foolin’ around pregnancy is always a risk/chance and so I admire the attempts (sometimes) to include that in the plot if only for the realism of the idea. AT the same time – I rarely RARELY have read a book yet that pulls off the pregnancy scheme/conflict/dilemma (in any form – even those not listed above) well. When a child/fetus whatever becomes a pawn in a plot line I sort of say, “really, you couldn’t think of anything else?”

    I will give Lisa Kleypas’s book Smooth Talking Stranger a nod, however, for turning the stereotype on its end.

  18. 18
    Sharon says:

    I also prefer an element of suspense in my contemporary romances, so I’m okay with those scenarios, although I do not like anything involving “Special Forces”, “Navy Seals” (dated one, he was abusive, rude, and a cheater, so…) or any fictional secret evil-fighting entity. I prefer romances featuring ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances/situations.

    Wills, secret babies, bogus misunderstandings, cheated-with-my-best-friend—anything your average cocker spaniel wouldn’t buy for two seconds—are all huge turn-offs for me.

  19. 19
    Ben P says:

    Another classic:

    We Are In A Small Town And The Small Townfolk Frown Upon Cohabitation And Pre-Marital Knocking Of Boots (If you’re female. It’s OK if you’re a man though. Which would lead you to expect lots of illegal-in-some-states sex yet the men are all staunchly hetero. Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.)

    Or the variant:

    I Am A Solo Parent And Therefore Shall Never, Ever, Ever Get Laid Again Coz I Have To Set A Good Example For My Child. (Ignoring The Fact Not Getting All Hysterical And Melodramatic And Dealing WIth Your Shit Like A Mature Adult Would Probably Be A Better Role Model. And your child is like 12 years old and probably knows more about sex than you do.)

    Having said that, the Douchenugget (classic!) + Big Misunderstainding due to epic fail communication skills has the two best candidates for the Asshet Award For Total Superfluousness. Or somesuch.

  20. 20
    Ben P says:

    PS: I LOVE the spurious wills concocted by old men on Peyote, secret babies, must-do-right-by-u-coz-my-pwnz-ur-ovaries marriages and the reeeaally cheezy stuff.

    It’s like watching Vampire Diaries or Rambo films. You know you shouldn’t, but you just have to…

  21. 21
    Jacqui C says:

    In romance novels, the old “Get it out of my system” trick NEVER works. You think characters would know that by now

    This made me burst out laughing.  Think I’ve read too many categories recently in which the characters seem to blithely assume this and of course it doesn’t work…  hee hee.

    I love the conflict created by some past trauma.  Kleypas’ Blue-Eyed Devil is one of my favourite contemporaries of all time.  Also loved the issues faced by the hero and heroine in Whisper Falls (her illness, the dangerous, illegal things he did in his past). 

    And I like romantic suspense, if it’s done well and the identity of the villain is not too obvious or caricatured.

    Love the conflicts in some of the m/m romance I’ve read recently—eg. Promises by Marie Sexton, or Not Knowing Jack.

  22. 22
    Carin says:

    I’m really a fan of low conflict contemprary romance.  I’ve been reading (well, listening) my way through Nora Roberts’ latest bride quartet, and 3 books in, I keep thinking “This should be boring…”  but it’s not!  I’m totally hooked.  They’re not making an overly big deal out of little things, it’s just about watching the relationship unfold and how they deal with issues.

    I’m also a fan of “We thought this would be casual, but oh noes!  Now I feel lurve!” and the happy confusion that comes from that.

    I’m also a fan of the his/her job set up. 

    I like the “we don’t like each other but we’re forced to spend time together”.  Sarah Mayberry’s “Home for the Holidays” was a good example of the main characters getting off on the wrong foot and really disliking each other.  Seeing them come around was awesome!

    What I don’t like… I’m not a fan of rom suspense.  I just can’t suspend disbelief.  Because, seriously, if bad guys are coming after me, all be all about whimpering in the corner under a blanket in the fetal postion.  Sex on the stairs while listening to someone break into my house?  Not happening.

    As with pretty much everyone else, I have no patience for the big misunderstanding/supersecretsecret that could be solved with a simple conversation.  However, I LOVE reading stories that set up like a big misunderstanding/secret, but quickly take a turn for the better when that simple conversation actually occurs, and things get much more interesting based on everyone’s reaction to that conversation.  Now that’s good times!

  23. 23
    Sarah W says:

    I think my favorites stories are mostly “Friends to Lovers plus Rotten Timing.” 

    Enemies to Lovers can be a good one, too—-as long as obvious friendship links the two phases, not just lust.  This one can skate way too close to Stupid Misunderstanding, though.

    But I also agree with Ben P : cliched trainwrecks can be fun to read, sometimes.

  24. 24
    LEW says:

    Sarah W writes:

    But I also agree with Ben P : cliched trainwrecks can be fun to read, sometimes.

    I think this is why Diana Palmer books are my guilty pleasure.

  25. 25
    Chelsea says:

    @Nikki S—what bugs the hell out of me is when a pregnancy is thrown in at the end for no damn reason. I call this the “happily pregnant after” ending. I realize for some readers this is like icing on the happy ending cake, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

  26. 26
    Anony Miss says:

    Oooh, good topic. Here I go!

    (clears throat)


    (not to be confused with prancing off with a Hoff)

    (clears throat again)


    Pant, pant. Almost out of myself.

    (clears throat for last time)

    IT’S ONE THING TO BUY IT IN A HISTORICAL ROMANCE, WHEN ALL YOU WEALTHY LORDS AND CHITS DIDN’T EXPECT TO MARRY FOR LOVE, BUT ALL THIS “I promised myself never to get close to a man / woman / goat again, so I’ll ignore the fact I love you and just put it down to lust which I clearly will get over any darn second now” GARBAGE IN A CONTEMPORARY, WHEN CONTEMPORARY PEOPLE ARE SURROUNDED BY BILLIONS OF DOLLARS OF MERCHANDISING PROMOTING TRUE LOVE (to say nothing of romance novels) – BAH!

    Okay. Okay. I’m done.

    Where would I be without capslock?

  27. 27
    Anna Piranha says:

    I married my husband because I was compelled (by looooove) to provide him with insurance. . . but no inheritance, alas.

  28. 28
    Ben P says:

    In defence of the “SHAG + OOPS = Pregnancy” plot where they forget contraception: It happens.

    My mother’s a public health nurse. Hell, my mother taught my sex education class (Watching my mother putting a condom on a large dildo in front of my entire class while I hid in the row with my girlfriend is not an experience I would ever care to repeat. That’s just some wierd shit and my brain ain’t made to cope with it.)

    I grew up with the “always use a condom” lecture. I was an intelligent 2ß-something guy. I had an intelligent girlfriend. But we just had to get it on. In fact, the urge to make the beast with two backs was so urgent we forgot the contraception-thing.
    Shag + Oops = Pregnant girlfriend.

    It happens.

  29. 29
    Nikki S says:

    @Chelsea – I KNOW! I meant to add the “happily pregnant after” but forgot. I hate that ending or “quick fix” most especially

  30. 30
    LizW65 says:

    Add me to the growing number who are fed up with the Big Misunderstanding that could be resolved in five minutes if the characters would just communicate with each other.

    I also dislike the “Guy I shagged when I was fifteen blows into town twenty years later, and guess what?  I’m still hot for his bod!” scenario, which always feels terribly contrived to me (and the guy in question is usually portrayed as a borderline stalker jerkass WAY too in love with his own lovely self.)

    And maybe this is the wrong thread to bring it up, but I’m sick sick SICK of rakes.  They don’t reform, people, especially not for impossibly naive virgins barely out of the schoolroom.  In real life, they’re more likely to end up embittered, substance-abusing, clapped-up asshats with multiple divorces and restraining orders, but hey, I guess a lot of women must fantasize about bedding their very own Charlie Sheen, given the vast numbers of these stories out there, so who am I to rain on their parade?

    I DO enjoy the “friends to lovers” storyline, which has a more organic, real feeling to me, as well as the “No time for love; we have to save the world first” one.  Actually, a lot of it depends on the quality of the writing; a good writer can make even the most contrived, cliched situation riveting, and a less competent one can ruin the most original-sounding idea.

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