Fifty Shades of Grey was entertaining in its horribleness. But Fifty Shades Darker is so vanilla. There just isn’t any conflict to keep me turning the pages, and there is no story without conflict.
Let’s talk about motivation.
A story is about a protagonist REALLY, REALLY wanting something. She will spend the entire story trying and failing to get it, no matter if the story lasts one book or six seasons of television. Maybe she wants to win a big legal case, to be free from a totalitarian government, to find the map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. She’ll keep trying to get it until the very end when she finally does, or gets what she really needed all along.
Every protagonist needs an antagonist. The antagonist is the person or thing standing in her way. It doesn’t have to be a person. It could be the character sabotaging herself, a pair of velociraptors, or a big ass volcano. It doesn’t have to be a Freddy Kruger type. It could be someone the protagonist loves. Like maybe, his future wife, who keeps on sleeping with his best friend?
Anastasia Steele’s motivation – what she really, really wants – is the mercurial 27-year-old millionaire Christian Grey, CEO Grey Enterprises Holding, Inc. And the antagonist – the person or thing standing in her way – is Christian Grey. Love breeds conflict, so this should be easy, right?
What is the conflict in Fifty Shades Darker?
The conflict is…hmm. Let me think about this.
Okay, at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, (Spoilers) Christian beats Ana really hard with a belt and she leaves him because he beat her really hard with a belt. She still loves him, but a BDSM relationship isn’t for her. Therefore, the conflict is that Ana loves Christian, but she can’t be with him. Except, she’s back in bed with him a couple of chapters later.
So, the conflict is that she loves him, but he only wants her for sex? No, a few chapters later, when she’s asking him for permission to go on a work trip to New York City, he says:
“I love you, Anastasia. I will do everything in my power to protect you. I cannot imagine my life without you.”
Okay, then, the conflict is that they’re in love, but he still wants a kind of relationship she can’t give him. Except…at the very beginning, before he even admits he loves her:
He strokes his chin, deep in thought. “Anastasia, I want to start again. Do the vanilla thing and then maybe, once you trust me more and I trust you to be honest and to communicate with me, we could move on and do some of the things that I like to do.”
Okay – early on, Christian gets word that one of his former submissives has gone crazy, obtained a concealed weapons permit (as you do), and is coming after Ana. Oh, but, wait. That plot line is wrapped up fairly quickly, when the sub breaks into Ana’s apartment. Somehow.
Maybe the conflict is that the sub has gone crazy because Christian didn’t want her, so Ana can see what happens to women when Christian leave them. Then again, Ana and Christian were not in a dom/sub relationship. And then there’s this:
He gazes at me, revealing his fear and anguish again. He swallows. “There is one thing you can do.”
“What?” I snap.
“Marry me,” he whispers.
What I think EL James thinks is the major conflict, is that Ana doesn’t believe she’s good enough for Christian. Except when she does. And when he’s telling her over and over that he’s not good enough for her. And she says yes to his proposal because he almost dies in a helicopter crash, and it makes her realize that they’re made for each other.
Recalling his close call with Charlie Tango yesterday, I shudder at the thought and tears pool in my eyes. If anything ever happened to him—I love him so. My tears run unchecked down my cheeks. So many sides of Christian—his sweet, gentle persona and his rugged, I can- do-what-I-fucking-well-like-to-you-and-you’ll-come-like-a-train Dominant side—his fifty shades—all of him. All spectacular. All mine. And I’m aware we don’t know each other well, and we have a mountain of issues to overcome, but I know for each other, we will—and we’ll have a lifetime to do it.
In a normal book, the words following this would be THE END. But Fifty Shades Darker ends 26 pages later, with another proposal, and this:
“Oh, Christian,” I sob, suddenly overwhelmed with joy, and I join him on my knees, my fingers fisting in his hair as I kiss him, kiss him with all my heart and soul. Kiss this beautiful man, who loves me as I love him; and as he wraps his arms around me, his hands moving to my hair, his mouth on mine. I know deep down I will always be his, and he will always be mine. We’ve come so far together, we have so far to go, but we are made for each other. We are meant to be.
No! She’s already had this realization and they’ve already decided to get married! This is why the book is boring. Whatever tension there is gets undercut. She couldn’t even get the happily-ever-after right.
How can we amplify the conflict?
- Ana leaves Christian at the end of book 1, but they’re back together right away at the beginning of book 2. Either don’t make them break up at all, or amplify the conflict by keeping them apart longer. He has abandonment issues, and he’s an asshole, and he is such a stalker her bought the small publishing house she works for. They should suffer for a while, maybe she even flirts with her creepy friend Jose?
- Christian gets her to agree to be his girlfriend again when he promises they can have a vanilla relationship without any kinky fuckery. I think it’s supposed to be stressful for him, but he seems okay with everything. Amplify the conflict by making him struggle. Maybe he doesn’t want to have sex anymore, maybe he’s really bad at doing it normcore style. What if he started lashing out at Ana in other ways, at other people? That’s the only thing either of them have ever known, it shouldn’t be simple. In fact, this should be the main source of conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist.
- The whole storyline with the ex-sub is really stupid and over quickly, because she’s a nutjob and he has no interest in her. Ana gets all jealous when he gives the ex-sub a bath, but she’s a dim bulb. She had a gun! There’s another subplot with the woman who introduced Christian to the BDSM lifestyle. Christian is friendly with her, and even though he calls her his only friend, he’s always pissed with her. Amplify the conflict by combining the two characters. They represent the same thing to Ana, his power over women and her possible future. Maybe Christian is still attached to this woman, maybe he is tempted to go back to the lifestyle. Neither woman is even a threat in Fifty Shades Darker.
- Christian proposes to Ana twice. Amplify the tension by not having him propose until the end. If he’s proposing marriage, then why bother worrying about the integrity of their relationship? Once, at the very end, after Christian realizes he wants to be the submissive to Ana’s dominant (or whatever they decide), then they can have their happily-ever-after.
In a romance, the plot is typically girls meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. The story is all about girl loses boy, not girl gets boy and sometimes he hits her but its okay because he’s tortured and isn’t he gloriously naked and hot and all problems can be solved with sex now watch my inner goddess do backflips holy crap wow!!!