Second Chances

That evening, Paul arrived, flowers in hand, scrubbed and clean. Clearly he was going the extra mile. I told you he was a nice guy.

I met him at the door to my apartment, and as we stood there in the doorway awkwardly, I had a serious moment of doubt. What was he going to think of me? Oh well, he was here now, so I had better at least let him in. Maybe I could just pour some wine and drop the whole idea, just spend a relaxing evening, watching a movie or something.

No, that wasn’t going to work. The basic problem still existed, still needed to be solved, and besides, I had dumped this guy once already. Either we tried something different or the whole exercise was pointless. Going on as we did before was not an option for me.

Well, the wine was still a good idea. I was pretty nervous.

“Hi.”

He smiled broadly. “Hi. I, um, brought you these.” He handed me the flowers. I smiled and opened the door wider, ushering him into the living room of my tiny Queen Anne apartment. I nodded over at the bottle on the dining table.

“Pour us each a glass while I get these into some water.”

I pulled a vase out of a kitchen cabinet, filled it with water, cut the ends of the stems, and put the flowers into the vase. When I turned around, Paul had gotten the cork out of the pinot noir and was just pouring the second glass.

“We should let these breathe a little first,” he said.

I picked up one of the glasses and took a healthy swig. Paul just looked at me.

“What? The rest of it will breathe. I needed that now.”

“Are you ok, Olivia?”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, you just seem a little edgy.”

I took a second drink from my glass and looked him in the eye. How the hell was I supposed to do this? Well, only one way to find out if it was going to work.

“Come with me,” I said, then pointed at the bottle. “And bring that.”

Paul picked up the bottle and followed me into the bedroom. Now he was drinking from his glass, too.

“Um, Olivia? Are we even going to talk about, you know, the other night?”

I couldn’t quite meet his eye, so I just started unbuttoning my blouse. His eyes went wide and he opened his mouth but no further words came out. Having sort of thought this through earlier, although whatever plan I’d had was already shot to hell, I wasn’t wearing a bra. When I got the last button undone, I hesitated a moment, though why was beyond me. I mean, it wasn’t like we hadn’t already done it. He had definitely seen me naked before. Why was I so nervous now?

Before I could back out of it, I pulled the blouse open wide and slipped it off my shoulders. Paul’s gaze was firmly on my breasts now, the wine bottle in one hand and glass in the other all but forgotten. I blushed again, the heat spreading across the tops of my breasts, up my neck and onto my face, but I don’t think he even noticed. Moving quickly, nothing especially seductive about it, I shimmied out of my skirt and tugged my panties down. I stepped out of my heels, which frankly I had only put on for greeting him — I don’t usually bother wearing shoes inside the apartment — and stood there before him, naked as the day I was born, blushing even brighter red.

He didn’t say anything. His mouth was still open, and I wasn’t sure if he was shocked or excited. He was definitely surprised. I reached for my glass again and finished it off, then took the bottle from him, refilled my glass, and set the bottle on the nightstand.

“Well?” I said. “Are you just going to stand there?”

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Romantic Conflict

I think it may have been Tolkien who wrote “Adventure is something nasty happening to someone else far away,” though admittedly I am having trouble sourcing this quote today.

As an aside, I did find a similar quote attributed to David Niven: “Adventure. Ah yes. That’s someone else having a very rough go of it very far away. My idea of adventure is carrying a pint of bitters from one smoke-filled room to the next.” (http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/0743498747/0743498747___6.htm)

Of course, what either of these quotes implies is that while we enjoy reading about adventure (or watching it on film), it may not be something we necessarily want to have happen to us. For all the interest in adventure tourism, or active sports and pastimes, true adventure implies an element of peril not sought for its own sake, but rather risked or endured, perhaps unwillingly, on the way to something else far more desirable.

In other words, adventure is conflict. Most of us seek to reduce conflict in our own lives, but in fiction, without conflict there isn’t much of a story. A group of characters sitting around having the time of their lives may sound like a lot of fun, but it isn’t very interesting to read about.

That means our protagonist is that someone else, and for the story to be interesting, she must have a very rough go of it. Nasty things must befall her, and then she must overcome them, gain strength through adversity, and return to her ordinary world wiser than before, having won the grand prize.

Herein lies the author’s conflict. We spend so much time with our protagonists, our main or lead characters, our heroes and heroines, that it is easy to identify with them. They are the children of our imagination. We grow to love them as we love ourselves, or as we love our best friends, and who would wish nastiness upon their best friend?

Yet we must, for the sake of the other children of our imagination, the stories themselves. We must array armies of conflict against our heroine, in all their serried ranks, and she must lose at least a few battles — though she can win one now and then, too — before ultimately emerging victorious. It’s painful to do, but our heroine must suffer — for the sake of art, of course.

So what does conflict look like in a romance, then? No one is swinging swords at our heroine (unless, perhaps, we are writing a paranormal fantasy romance), nor shooting bullets at her (or are we writing romantic suspense?). The grand prize she seeks, though she may not know it at first, is love. The barriers she must overcome on her quest for this prize are emotional more than physical.

There will be external conflict. She is not the only one seeking the hero’s heart.  She has a rival, one who may stop at nothing to steal the hero away from her. Perhaps her family, or the hero’s family, or workplace rules or societal politics, dictate that they should not be together. Perhaps the hero is, at first, simply uninterested, or he lives in a different world, moves in different circles, such that their paths would not cross in the normal state of affairs.

There will also be internal conflict. The heroine, or hero, or both, may have been hurt before, such that they now avoid entanglements, or they may inwardly consider themselves somehow unworthy of love, or of each other, not realizing at first how far from the truth this sentiment may be. The heroine will harbor some dark secret, some shadow from her past that she has struggled — and failed — to overcome, and just when things finally seem to be on a perfect trajectory, it will rear its ugly head to dash all hopes.

Naturally, she will ultimately triumph, defeating her inner demons and outer rivals, and win the hero’s heart for all eternity, as classic romantic tropes dictate, living happily ever after.

Or will she?

Romance is full of conflict, and in this we find a truth for both fiction and reality.