romance arc, I noticed most of us seem to follow that arc on instinct. We start out with two friendly/neutral/hostile people and follow a natural progression until at the end of the book they've come together and sorted out their baggage (or at least this book's baggage). The important thing, as Jana replied to me, is the believability of that progression.
But at the same time, we have to think of tension, and keeping the reader through until that very last page. Natural progression can't just be first kiss, first night together, marriage, the end, so we stick in problems, set-backs, character issues, all sorts of conflict to prevent each moment of progress from simply erasing a plot concern and resolving something before we're halfway done.
Those of us who dabble in varying degrees of romance, I think we have good instincts for the overall pacing, what we want to happen when. It's the hazards that can pose a problem. I'm talking about artifice. We know we need to keep the story going, and this is the way things should go, but sometimes we just don't know how to do that. What we stick in doesn't ring true.
Artifice is, in short, anything that creates a roundabout explanation to explain a Why. Why can't they just get together now? Why didn't she just tell him about the abortion and get beyond it? Why didn't he kiss her when he had the chance and knew she wanted him to? The longer it takes to answer these questions, the more Whys that answer produces, the more likely the real answer is, "I wanted to keep the story going."
And readers see through this every single time. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of their lives.
The topic came up during the SRWs retreat weekend, and from everything I heard, I found problems of artifice often boil down to three* things.
Motivation: The character's reason for doing/not doing something hinges on a flimsy excuse, an elaborate justification, or some other faulty motivation. Rather than creating a struggle we empathize with, the character becomes less likable (selfish, weak, arrogant, too stupid to live) and we get fed up. If we can understand and accept with the motivation, we can empathize with the decision even if we don't agree.
The Fix -- Find a new motivation. Explore your character and really learn what makes them tick. Nine times out of ten, there's already something there waiting to be found that can justify that action without requiring multiple sentences to explain, or inducing fridge logic in your reader. Maybe it's not just that he's angry she left him at the altar. Maybe it's because every single relationship since then has been fraught with mistrust after that betrayal, and she's the cause of all that.
Emotion: You know in your gut this is right, the scene should flow this way, but when it's all said and done, you've spent two pages of internal monologue afterward narrating the heroine's reasons for why it was such a bad thing and it still doesn't seem convincing. If the emotion is off, if say you wrote the scene passionate but it should have been conflicted, the characters won't react right and the outcome you know should be there may come about forced. The reader should be able to intuit the reason for something without need to justify it or explain it.
The Fix -- Bring new emotion to the scene. Like motivation, the solution is lurking in the character, especially if you feel the moment is ultimately right. This comes down to execution, rather than content. If I may use a WIP of Helena's as an example, she shared at the retreat a lovely dilemma concerning a crucial note never received, and we talked about the reasons for the oversight. If the character was angry she might have thrown the envelope aside in haste. Distraught, she might have stopped reading before the end and not noticed more inside. Heartsick, she'd search every inch of that message for some explanation. With the right emotion we can understand why the crucial bit of information never turned up. Others might raise questions or force explanations.
Into the Fire: Of course, sometimes it isn't just the approach to a scene that creates artifice. Sometimes it's the whole damn scene. It's the blatant misunderstanding that drags on the whole second act, or the unnecessary cancer subplot that crops up after the real plot's already been resolved. It's the kiss or the sex scene that doesn't happen just because we don't want it to happen. And the whole thing wastes so much time, in the moment and after, to justify, you'd be better off just doing it. We don't buy it at all.
The Fix -- Seriously, do it. Let them have sex, or kiss, or reveal the terrible secret. I promise you, you'll find more problems. Things are never simple and resolved and then that's it. Every progression in a relationship opens up new issues to deal with, new levels of trust and vulnerability that may be tested at any moment. Take your characters out of the frying pan and into the fire. If you can't figure out how, look at motivation and emotion, and see what you can work with after the scene.
*Danger Will Robinson! If you're still stuck, and long-winded exposition and/or attempts to distract from the problem via kittens and gunfights aren't working, then the problem may go deeper than just the immediate scene. Novella length conflict just won't stretch into a 100k format. The characters need more issues, completely different motivations, more subplots affecting their decisions, or may just need a different format altogether. It may even be these characters aren't the ones right for each other. As Jana said yesterday, the pair can't just be good for each other, they each have to be the only one right for the other.
How do you keep the conflict going in your romance arc? What other causes of artificial conflict would you identify? Or just share an example of artifice you've encountered (in your own work or others, no need to name names), or a situation that could have felt forced that the creator handled well.