by Cindy Rizzo, author of queer YA and Sapphic romance
It's not that I even like reading books that are all sweetness and light, where there's no conflict and no tension. I once read a romance where there was no conflict at all under the 92% mark and I thought that was strange. I kept reading this love story waiting and waiting for a shoe to drop, and wondering if perhaps the author had the reader wait too long for something to happen.
In romance, the central tension is the how and when the two main characters will come together for their obligatory Happy Ever After (or Happy for Now, if you prefer). That tension is fueled by conflict, either the kind that is external, as in the enemies-to-lovers trope or the sudden appearance of an Ex who threatens the hoped-for coupling. Or the conflict is internal, such as getting past trauma or the death of a beloved spouse/partner.
In queer Young Adult fiction, conflict can come from agonizing over the reactions of one's family or peers or even those of one's faith community. Faith can also fuel internal conflict where the main character fears going against everything they've been taught to believe. As society in the US and elsewhere becomes more accepting of same-sex relationships--to the extent that coming out to one's family and peers is less fraught--YA books often turn to faith as a source of tension. We see this in books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Her Name in the Sky, Gravity and Tools of the Devil, to name a few. I've written a bit more about faith in YA here.
For me as an author, the need to insert conflict in my books is itself a conflict. I know conflict and tension are necessary to keep the reader engaged and turning pages. It's coming up with the actual plot that introduces and resolves the conflict that is hard for me.
Some of this is about not being great at plotting. I love writing characters and their settings, even developing their relationships with others, whether romantic, friendship or otherwise. But, in the words of an old TV ad, "What's the story, Jerry?" Yeah, that's where I get stuck. What's the story?
I'm midway through writing my fifth book and I'm still no better at it than I was with the first. Yes, in the end, the books do include a story with conflict and tension, but it's not until I'm sitting in the chair at the keyboard (or if I'm lucky, when I'm in the shower or lying in bed at night) that the events of the story come to me. I've tried to follow The Hero's Journey framework. I've tried real and virtual sticky notes. I've tried all the tools. But I just can't force the conflict or the story. It comes when it comes.
In The Split trilogy that begins with my book The Papercutter, released in June, tension builds as the white supremist, Christian-dominated government of the God Fearing States begins to make life harder for the Orthodox Jews who have settled in this conservative country after the US split in two. That's the main conflict of the series--how this community can resist and survive. As things get more dangerous, it's likely that people, even beloved characters, will die. Writing about death and grief is new to me, but these are essential plot points in a trilogy about triumphing over evil.
So maybe it's good that I'm in the midst of writing a series that by it's actual definition demands conflict. It may be the best method for someone like me who's been conflict-shy in my other writing. Pushing myself to write this imagined "what would happen if the US split into two countries" alternative reality will hopefully help me overcome my main writing hurdle--in order to write a really good story, I must find peace with conflict.