This post was originally titled, “Master List of Romantic Conflicts,” but it really contains big ideas for entire plots. Of course, to write an engrossing love story–whether it’s a straight-up romance, or a subplot in a different kind of book or movie–it has to have strong conflict. Like Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Obstacles give your characters the chance to change and grow as people, and to prove how much they really do love each other. It also gives them interesting things to do. Depending on your story, it may cause sadness, terror, or hilarity before they reach their Happy Ever After. Or in the case of Romeo and Juliet, their bloody, pointless demise. Unless you’re writing a tragedy like that, your story may give your readers inspiration for overcoming difficulties in their own lives, even if their struggles are completely different.
Obviously the possibilities here are endless. I’ve used pronouns randomly, and any of these plot starters can work for any pairing.
Even if you don’t use something from here, it may make you think of something else. That’s how lists work, which is why I like to do them! In future posts, I might dig into some of these classic conflicts a little more and give you some examples in books, TV, and movies.
THEY HAVE CHARACTER FLAWS… Honestly, every real-life romance deals with this, and it should probably come up in any story about a relationship. Maybe he’s too selfish or lazy. Maybe she’s too rash, or too fearful. Maybe one of them is too negative, and needs to stop being so cynical. This could lead to one of them making a big, stupid mistake, and needing to make amends and get the other person’s forgiveness.
She’s already ruled him out… she made up her mind a long time ago that she would only marry a man with a title, or she would never date a biker again.
They are competitors… for the same job, the same championship, etc.
They are straight-up enemies… He wants to buy the land to build a resort, and she wants it to get turned into a nature sanctuary. He’s the defense attorney, and she’s the prosecutor. They’re soldiers on opposing sides of the war… the possibilities are endless here!
He already won… he inherited an estate that should have been hers, or he got the job that she was hoping to be promoted into, and she’s seething.
He broke her heart in the past. Maybe there was a good reason behind it, or maybe he was an idiot then and realizes it now. It’s possible he just ignored her.
She did her wrong in the past… or maybe she wronged her family member or friend. (Or did she? That family member or friend might have lied.)
He did something wrong in the past, period. Although she wasn’t the victim, it was pretty bad. How can she be sure he’s changed?
She has trust issues… her last relationship ended in a terrible betrayal.
He has intimacy issues… maybe because of a traumatic past, he feels too vulnerable if anyone knows about his real emotions or weaknesses. Maybe she’s a psychic, a behavioral expert, or just the one person who can see right through him… and it makes him uncomfortable as hell.
She doesn’t trust her dating choices… she’s gotten involved with several losers in a row, and she’s taking a break–maybe a permanent one.
She believes no one can truly love her… because she made a terrible mistake in the past, or she’s not attractive in the conventional manner, or she’s a “fallen woman” in a repressive era, or whatever.
They are good friends… and they don’t want to risk ruining their friendship by taking it to the next level.
They are co-workers… and they don’t want to make things weird at the office, bar, or wherever they both work.
She’s freaked out by who he really is… a werewolf, ex-con, or whatever.
He has a secret… he’s in a witness protection program, he’s a hacktivist, his father is literally the Devil, or something of that sort. (When she finds out, the conflict may turn into the one above. Or maybe she’ll surprise him and be like, “You’re a hacker? Dude, that is so hot.”)
It was supposed to be sex only… they were going to be friends with benefits, or maybe he’s a male escort. Falling in love goes against the original arrangement.
Their love was supposed to be fake… they were pretending to be in love or married, or they entered a marriage of convenience. It can’t be real, can it? On a related note…
He was faking it at first… he made a bet that he could bed her, or pretended to like her so he could learn her secrets and be the journalist who broke the story.
She was stuck with him… he’s a partner on a job when she wanted to do it by herself, or he rescued her when she was actually pretty happy where she was. She doesn’t want to admit she’s actually falling for him.
He has moral qualms… he’s her boss, her teacher, her captor, or something like that. Or maybe she’s the sister or ex-girlfriend or his best friend, and that gives him pause.
She’s a mess... She’s grieving the death of her husband, partner, or child, or she had PTSD from battle or some other terrible experience.
Their love is forbidden by others… it’s against the rules, spoken or unspoken, of their family, organization, community, or religion.
He’s into something she doesn’t like… it could be an addiction, like alcohol, laudanum, or gambling, or a profession, like boxing or defending corrupt clients in court. Whatever it is, she wants no part of it.
Their cultures clash… because he’s a modern man and she’s from ancient Greece, she’s a big-city girl and he’s a small-town boy, or whatever you like. This can overlap with the next one.
They are from different classes… he’s a duke and his boyfriend’s a commoner, for instance.
One of them is promised to someone else… maybe the wedding’s already planned and everything. S/he might have reasons for going through with a loveless marriage.
One of them is married to someone else… but it was some weird legal, not-consummated arrangement, or she ran away long ago because he was an abusive asshole…anyway, there’s a damn good reason why these marriage vows don’t hold much water.
She is infatuated with someone else instead of him… she doesn’t realize yet that this other person is awful.
She is interested in someone else in addition to him… and she’s having trouble making a decision. Maybe she refuses to choose.
Their time is together is limited… she’s going abroad to study in the fall, his work visa is almost up, or she’s about to go on a space mission to another planet, never to return… what’s the point of getting serious? The next one may be related to this.
Being together would require a big sacrifice… she has to say no to her dream job, he has to move away from his family, etc.
He’s a danger to her safety… because he’s a spy, a vampire, or something like that.
She’ll only make him unhappy… because she’s dying of a disease, suffering under a curse, can’t have children, or whatever. (Note that in many cases, this conflict may be exaggerated in the character’s mind.)
He’s ugly, freaky, or scary-looking... but once she gets to know him, she sees him differently (basically, Beauty and the Beast.)
She’s disguised as someone he would never fall for… a man when he’s only into women, a Republican when he’s a die-hard liberal, etc.
She may or may not be real at all… is it really possible he’s meeting a fairy or an alien in his visions or dreams?
They can’t get together in real life… there is an ocean or a few centuries between them.
He’s a suspect… in a murder or robbery case.
Her family is the worst… can he really get involved with that? Alternately, maybe she has a couple of kids, and while they are cute, this is not what he imagined for himself.
Her town is the worst… and she really can’t leave. Can he really resign himself to living in New York City, when his cowboy heart longs for Montana skies?
He’s got a reputation… as materialistic douche, a heartless womanizer, a stone cold killer, or some other despicable thing.
They have terrible first impressions of one another… and it’s a little hard to admit they were wrong. They might have gotten off to an awful start by arguing over something.
She loves her freedom… and always saw herself as the carefree type who would never settle down.
He doesn’t want distractions… he has one very important job to do, and he can’t afford to get sidetracked.
He loves her, but she doesn’t know him… maybe he knows her from an alternate universe, or maybe she has amnesia.
She’s not supposed to ever fall in love and/or have sex… maybe she’s a nun or vestal virgin, or a cyborg for whom sex is illegal, or a unicorn herder, or something.
He’s trying to control her… because he doesn’t want her to be ostracized by Victorian society, or to be in danger by becoming a firefighter. But nobody bosses her around, so that’s not going to fly.
He doesn’t see her in a romantic way… for instance, she’s the kid sister of his best friend, and he still thinks of her as a kid.
The job is getting in the way… Look, it’s hard to be romantic when you’re working 24/7 on a political campaign, or helping fellow victims of the airplane crash survive in the mountains.
What’s that? You want even more plot ideas? There are more in my reference book Master Lists for Writers. Click on the cover to take a look if you’re interested!