Ya Gotta Have Conflict or There's no Romance

Once my wise and brilliant agent told me that I needed to take one of my characters in the draft of a novel I had sent to her and “shake him until he fizzes over like a bottle of soda.” Or maybe she wanted to shake me that way… Either way, message taken. No conflict, no story. Quiet conflict… probably not good enough either. It’s a tough market out there, missy. Start shaking.

Truth is, the stories we like to read the best usually have the most conflict – layers of it. When I teach creative writing to high school students, we talk about this a lot because it’s something they intuitively understand but generally not something they’ve thought about analytically. So we talk about building those layers – how to intertwine internal and external conflict in a way that amps up the stakes for your characters and compels readers to turn those pages. Often it’s the first time students begin thinking about characters as ‘real’ people – when I ask them to ask themselves: What does my character want? Why? How am I going to keep it from him? Or when I say okay, you’ve set your character on a runaway train… but why? Why that train? Why that character? What are stakes? Why have you created this specific situation for this specific character?

For Anne in the Dreaming Anastasia series, conflict arrives in many forms. Anne begins the series dissatisfied with her life. This is not surfacely obvious to her, but nonetheless true. Her family – as continues to be the case throughout the series – is in disarray: They have not rebounded - nor will they - from the death of Anne’s brother of cancer two years earlier; they are quieter, disconnected, secretive. In some ways, I designed this as a contemporary mirror to the Romanovs, to Alexandra’s intense fears for her son’s Alexei’s health. Were it not for that, she might never have come under the thrall of evil Rasputin and history might have gone differently. I wanted the same for the Michaelson family – and also on a large scale. As they peel back the mystery and realize the consequences of choices and events, we begin to understand how various tragedies have impacted them.

Anne smacks into Ethan – both literally and metaphorically and emotionally. Her contemporary presence conflicts with his old-timey sensibilities. Anne’s newly developed powers require her to keep secrets from her family. More conflict. Anne realizes that her choices can save or destroy lives. Conflict. The bad guy – Viktor – has a familial connection. Conflict. Later: Which boy – safe Ben or not so safe Ethan? Conflict. Enter Baba Yaga’s forest with an unknown set of rules. Conflict. Best friends in peril. Conflict. Should I fall in love with someone who has such a mysterious, and lengthy, past? Conflict. What do I put first – myself or my obligations? Particularly when it comes to Anne loving Ethan, this is the case. She knows he is her one true love. But will she take the leap and risk all there is to risk? Conflict. Juicy, wonderful conflict. Editor Leah and I are very excited for readers to see how it all works out for Anne and Ethan in Again and Again when it releases from Sourcebooks in Fall 2012.


  1. Great post, and so true. Even if you sometimes feel kind of cruel for making your characters go through so much! :)

  2. Great post! Also, I'm glad to learn that I'll be seeing Anne and (hot) Ethan again!


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