So how do you know if the thing keeping the h/h apart is strong enough to carry the plot through the whole novel? What if the heroine married the hero’s best friend when the hero was in love with her, not the friend. She’s regretted making the wrong choice, and he’s furious she married the wrong friend. If circumstances bring them together a few years after the husband is killed in a freak accident, would their thoughts about one another be enough to sustain the “push-you-apart” stuff?
A conflict is strong enough to carry the plot through the whole novel when it takes the characters the novel’s length in words or chapters to resolve the issues that are keeping them apart.
In essence, a story begins with a conflict…with something that is keeping the hero and heroine apart. When that thing and the secondary things that relate to it are resolved and the characters have made peace, forgiven, achieved personal growth sufficient to allow them to have simultaneous and lasting deep physical intimacy and deep emotional intimacy (basic description of romantic love) and they commit to each other then the story is over. Sometimes it takes two or three pages to achieve satisfactory resolution of the conflict in a short story. In a longer short story it might take significantly more words. In a novel it takes more.
The difference between short stories and novels then is the depth of the conflict…which is in a sense not so much what the conflict itself is…but how difficult the characters find it to resolve. This depends upon the individual characters and what they will have to do to overcome the conflict. In your example, it depends somewhat on how the hero feels about being cast aside for the friend who got the girl. It depends somewhat on why the heroine chose wrongly the first time and what traumas she’s suffered because of it. If she was abused in the relationship with the man she chose to marry instead of the hero she may have her own healing to do before she will be able to truly enter into a romantic relationship in a way that allows the relationship to flourish.
In looking for conflict to support the story I would start by laying out the ways in which the heroine choosing someone other than the hero sets them apart and what feelings (on both sides) are involved. I would look at what damage the wrong choice did to the heroine. Did she suffer because of the bad decision? Was she abused? Neglected? Made to feel less than? How did the heroine choosing the other man impact the hero? What damage did her choice do to him? Did it make him less trusting? Did it make him angry?
In laying out these things you can see the big conflict–the heroine chose the wrong man. Now the hero and heroine are thrown back together. They still care deeply about each other but there is a lot separating them. She’s been lied to and cheated on by the man she chose, her self-esteem took a nose-dive because of his mental abuse and manipulation. The hero has become distrustful and angry not willing to give the heroine the chance to make amends. He’s been deeply hurt and doesn’t want to open himself to being hurt. A part of him wants to punish her for her bad decision. He views himself as the primary victim in the situation…doesn’t see her as a victim who has already paid for her bad decision.
These characters have the big picture conflict that she chose the wrong man. But they also have all of the baggage that comes from that one bad decision. They will have to get through all of the baggage…grow as people…in order to begin to forgive each other and themselves.
I would look at laying the book out showing what the conflicts are. How will you show that she has low self-esteem? How will you show that she was cheated on? How will you show that she suffered mental abuse and manipulation? How will you show the scars of these things on her psyche? How will you show the reader that she can’t achieve her happy ending until these issues are addressed? These things are plotted into the first third or so of your book. You will also need to look at the hero. He is distrustful and angry, not willing to give the heroine the chance to make amends. He’s been hurt and doesn’t want to open himself to being hurt. A part of him also wants to punish her. Where and how will you show these things? You’ll generally need them plotted into the first third or so of the book as this is your opening. It’s the starting point for these characters and defines for the reader what needs to change for them to achieve their happy ever after.
Once you know what the hero and heroine each have to overcome then you think about what it is going to take to bridge the gap. What experiences does the heroine need to have in order for her to begin to trust the hero? Herself? What builds her self-esteem to the point that she can enter a relationship as a fully functioning partner in it? What about the hero and his baggage? At what point does he decide his anger isn’t serving him and decide to let it go? What damage has he done to the heroine and the potential of their relationship before he gets to that point? When does he realize that she’s already paid for her bad decision? What does he need to see from the heroine in order to begin to trust her again? What experiences can you craft to bring these characters together and give them the experiences they need to begin to come together? This roughly takes up the second third or so of the book.
Just when it seems that the hero and heroine are on the right track, they are trusting each other, they are building on their physical and emotional intimacy and they are beginning to think of committing to each other–beginning to believe that they could be happy together in a happy ever after kind of way, something happens that shakes the foundation. Often times there is a secret that was kept past its sell by date…but there are other things that can cause this type of shaking of the foundation of the relationship. It is best if the thing that shakes the foundation stems from and is part of the initial conflict the characters entered the story with or is a secondary issue that flows directly from it…as you don’t want to bring in another issue here. This is more like the dragon that has been quietly snoozing in the corner but now stirs and fully wakes. This is the chance to turn the original conflict and bring it back for one more showdown. At first it looks like the characters will fail and they will lose their happy ever after. The characters at this point usually revert to their earlier thinking about each other. When he finds out she kept an important secret he might again feel betrayed. He might again feel angry. She might again feel stupid, worthless, dumb. At this point the characters go to their separate corners and regroup. They realize that their love for each other is stronger and more important than the issue that kept them apart. One of them, usually the one most responsible for the dark moment approaches the other. They confess that their love for each other is more important than the conflict. They forgive and commit to each other and you arrive at the happy ending. This takes about the last 1/3 of the book.
In determining whether a conflict is strong enough to support a whole book you have to look at how long it will take to establish the conflict and the secondary conflicts that flow from it. You’ll have to look at the conflict and what growth overcoming it will require of the two characters. Then you need to consider how many different experiences the characters will need to complete the character growth that they need to have in order to overcome the conflict and the bits of baggage that come with the conflict. If the conflict doesn’t seem strong enough add more baggage that stems from the original conflict.
This is really how I would judge it. A short story doesn’t need a conflict that is as big or as multi-faceted as a longer novel. Longer novels tend to have deeper conflicts which impact the characters in more ways so that the characters have more to overcome…but you still generally want most if not all of your conflict to originate with the big conflict that they originally face. If you find you have to bring in new issues…make up things for them to fight about…then your conflict is not strong enough…or else you are not dealing with it deeply enough.