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Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough: 5 Tips for Writing an Interesting Love Story

Whether you are writing a love story or a story with a romantic subplot, it’s crucial that your readers be as invested in your characters’ romance as you are—because let’s face it, the minute a reader starts rolling their eyes is the minute your story is condemned to DNF (Did Not Finish) status. As a reader who’s left my fair share of books in the DNF bin, I can assure you that causing the dreaded eye roll is the surest way to condemn your book to its depths. 

So—how can you avoid this most terrible of literary fates and make your love story as swoonworthy as possible? Here are five tips to keep you on track.

1. Star-crossed love doesn’t have to be instant.

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You may have heard the term “insta-love,” and if you have, you already know it’s usually not a good thing. As the name suggests, insta-love is romance that occurs instantaneously the moment two characters meet. While there are occasions in which the later development of the romance makes up for its microwave-ready nature, insta-love robs readers of a chance to connect with the characters as they get to know each other and fall in love over time. This kind of romance can also seem unrealistic and thus induce the dreaded eye roll.

But just because a romance isn’t instant doesn’t mean it can’t still be sweeping and star-crossed. Pride & Prejudice is a great example of this. The gradual development of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s romance provides suspense and gives readers space to grow ever more invested in the characters’ changing relationship. Their love seems all the more fated because it is so unlikely and impeded by so many obstacles.

Your story may not require the same pace as an enemies-to-lovers story like P&P, but make sure that you still give your readers time and reason to care.

2. The protagonist is for your readers. The love interest is for your protagonist. 

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Resist the urge to write a perfect love interest. By “perfect,” I mean a love interest who is designed to seem so to your audience, who is written as charming even when they supposedly mess up or cross a line with the protagonist, and who generally functions as a vehicle for romantic wish-fulfillment rather than a fully developed character. A perfect love interest could look like a lot of things, depending on what you think your audience wants. Nice, good-looking, romantic. Devil-may-care, rakish, witty. Or wears cool neutrals and only drives Audis. Whatever.  

The main problem with this kind of character is that they are meant to appear eminently desirable to the reader, and as a result, they tend to overwhelm your entire story. Any conflict between your protagonist and the love interest is defanged because your story now cannot afford to lose or demote the love interest. At the same time, your protagonist is shunted aside, since their motivations and desires—which should be foremost in the reader’s mind—are less important than the continued narrative presence of the love interest. Furthermore, you may actually alienate readers by giving them the love interest you think they want—many will recognize the ploy and, yup, roll their eyes.

In order to avoid this, write the love interest with your protagonist in mind. Don’t worry about what you think readers in general will find attractive or charming, but rather pinpoint the traits that are important to your protagonist and make sure you know why. If you can’t articulate this, you probably haven’t developed your protagonist well enough.

3. Conflicts should actually be conflicts.  

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Okay, so this one is a pet peeve, but I know it’s one that many readers share with me: Unless your characters are particularly affected by a Mercury retrograde, there’s no reason for their main conflict to stem from a goofy misunderstanding!

Let’s say your protagonist is on the phone, complaining about someone else, and the love interest overhears and thinks your protagonist is complaining about them. Does the love interest:

A) Storm out of the house, throw their phone in a ditch, and cause the protagonist to file a missing persons report.

B) Do something ill-advised and overblown to get back at the protagonist.

C) Say, “Hey, I heard you on the phone the other day. Were you talking about me or someone else?”

The correct answer is C—and not because there aren’t people in real life who would probably react in A or B fashion. But if you’re tempted to go one of those routes, it might indicate that your characters and their interactions are not complex enough to require a more, well, complicated conflict.

Think about your characters, what they’re like as people, and how they are different from one another. As in life, romantic conflict in fiction should arise out of differences in personality, worldview, personal ambitions, and the like. If the misunderstanding that causes the conflict is rooted in a character’s inherent impulsivity, trust issues, or lack of communication, then make the conflict about that, not about the misunderstanding itself.

4) Love isn’t just for shiny happy people.

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It’s all right if your characters are kind, polite, and well-adjusted. Kind, polite, and well-adjusted people fall in love with each other all the time. But so do bitter, spiteful, or somewhat prickly people. So do people who haven’t lived up to their own goals and who may have settled into a Squidwardian pessimism. So do people who aren’t likable or relatable.

To revisit the Pride & Prejudice example, Mr. Darcy wasn’t exactly charming in the beginning of that novel—and even Mr. Darcy’s behavior seems practically gracious compared to that of the romantic protagonists of some other great novels. No one actually likes Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, for instance, nor Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind. But these awful people make for interesting characters and compelling stories.

Of course, it is really difficult to write characters who are that awful without alienating your readers. Your characters don’t need to be anti-heroes in that sense. Just remember that it’s okay to introduce some pretty major flaws into your characters’ personalities. When flawed characters fall in love, the potential for more varied and intense conflict is greater—and the potential for an interesting story is too.

5) Get an ERE (Eye Roll Evaluation)   

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With so many pitfalls to avoid, writing a compelling romance can seem like a daunting task. But don’t lose hope! The important thing is to finish a first draft and ask for feedback from trusted readers. Ask them to be honest with you about which aspects of your story’s romance worked and which didn’t—and tell them you especially want to know if anything made them roll their eyes. Then, use their feedback and these tips to help you revise what you’ve written. Before you know it, you’ll be on your way to writing a swoonworthy romance.

Still have questions about writing an interesting love story? Ask away in the comments. 

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Val O.

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