What stands in the way of your hero and heroine falling in love at the end of Chapter 1? To make the romance satisfying for the reader, you must not only make the conflict believable, but make it substantial enough to carry the book.
The romantic conflict is probably the most important conflict in a romance novel. In most novels, the major conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart will be introduced in the first chapter. This issue will follow the characters through the course of the story — sometimes appearing resolvable, sometimes not — and will reappear even stronger in the Dark Moment of the book. While the main romantic conflict will drive most of the story, it is common that a book will have more than just one romantic conflict. In most novels, the hero and heroine will have their personal reasons for not wanting to fall in love, or for not wanting to fall in love with each other. It's important to know which conflict carries the book, and make sure secondary conflicts are set up and resolved in a way that it doesn't lessen the story flow.
In most romance novels, both the hero and heroine will have their own romantic conflicts. However, one is generally the driving conflict of the story. The smaller conflicts are generally resolved earlier in the book and the character with the lesser conflict will accept the relationship and emotionally commit before the other.
If you read a lot of romance novels, you probably have discovered that most romantic conflicts are internally motivated, meaning they stem from some emotional baggage from either a character's childhood or from a past romantic relationship. It is also common for the internal conflict of your characters to be directly related to the romantic conflict.
The best way to discover your hero's and heroine's romantic conflicts is to ask the characters two questions:
Why haven't you already fallen in love and married the person of your dreams?
What was the reason your other relationships failed?
The pat answer of, “I just haven't met the person of my dreams” isn't going to work. Why? Because if that's the only reason this person hasn't fallen in love, then you have no problems/conflict to introduce into the new relationship. And remember, no conflict equals no story. Often, this type of answer masks the real truth — be your characters' psychologist and probe deeper. Why does your character only date “safe” romantic partners, the kind who aren't likely to engage his emotions? Is he afraid of being hurt?
If the answer is, “I've just been too busy in my career to date,” then consider why your character has put his career before his own personal life and happiness. Does he suffer from low self-esteem and believe that without a solid career, he has no worth? In other words, dig deeper until you find ways, emotional ways, to create his romantic conflict from his internal motivations.
Once you define your characters' romantic conflicts, look back at the character sketches and see if you have given your hero and heroine the proper motivation to develop these types of romantic conflicts. It's okay if you need to go back to the drawing board and add or change some facts so your characters develop naturally into who you need them to be. Remember, it is the motivation that will make the conflict believable.
Just because most romantic conflicts are internally motivated doesn't mean the external issues don't come into play. External conflicts can and do play a part in keeping the hero and heroine together or apart, depending on what the plot requires. They can also keep them from confessing their love for each other sooner. For example, if your hero and heroine are being chased by a drug lord who is trying to kill them, they may be forced to stay together for protection, and it's also obvious that these two people will have little time to work through their personal differences.
Nevertheless, in a romance, it's important that what prevents your characters from making that leap into love is more than just external forces. It's wise to remember that love is a matter of the heart, and not about the events, even dramatic events. So make sure the final resolution of the romantic conflict comes from inside your characters and not from the events.
A book should not feel compartmentalized. While scenes may focus on events and cover certain internal elements more than others, all scenes and chapters should involve the story's main theme of romance. As the story unfolds, the scene conflicts should be a blend of the external and the internal complications.
The key to making a romantic conflict carry through the book is linking the plot to the romantic conflict. In other words, whatever is happening externally in the plot should somehow reinforce what's going on internally in your characters' hearts and minds. Think of the plot as a journey where your characters face obstacles that help them confront their inner demons and conflicts.
What if your heroine's romantic conflict is fear of loving because she has lost everyone she has loved? Just as she is about to conquer her demons and admit her love for the hero, something happens that threatens the hero's life, which reinforces the heroine's fear.