10 Tips for Building Believable Love Stories

One of my favorite love stories.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to my Athens Writers Association class in Athens last weekend, here’s a taste of what we discussed —

  1. Make your characters interesting. The best way to make me believe the love story is to make me believe in them. No matter how good the blueprint, if your building materials are Styrofoam and gummy bears, that cathedral ain’t standing for long. The more interesting and complex your lovers are, the more we’ll believe in them and root for their ‘happily ever after’. If your having trouble with the love story, go back and spend more time figuring out who these people are.
  2. Go for an off-kilter aesthetic. Symmetry is beautiful but, to me,love stories thrive in the place between beauty and ugliness. Let me explain— the cheerleader and the jock get together. They both like the same things, the same movies, and same religion. They’re perfect for each other. Are you asleep yet, ‘cause I am. There’s nothing wrong with that story if there’s an important ‘other’ element (’perfect’ couple must overcome her drinking problem or they’re both men- and it’s 1950). But in most cases, I’m more interested in the people you wouldn’t think would be together. My character Maurice (who follows the god of Darkness) falls for servant of a rival god just as a war is about to break out. A different Maurice (E.M. Forster’s) is a college-educated city man who falls for a simple (but super-charming) games-keeper. This is not just about differences in background, this is about the characters seemingly having good reasons to have no interest in each other and yet finding themselves very interested indeed.
  3. There’s obstacles to their happiness. Now, you could say that’s more about good storytelling than being ‘believable’ and yet part of the real world is diving into challenges and changes as you add a new person into your life. Your family might not approve; their family might not approve. You might live in different cities. But better yet — you might not agree about everything. I think some of the best love stories have the characters standing in the way of their own happiness. Can they move aside and allow themselves the happy ending? And should they? Love can spring up between diametrically opposed characters, say a detective and a killer, and they may love each but still make choices that ensure they won’t walk into the sunset together.
  4. Neither one is perfect. Most often the hero (male or female) in more interesting and flawed and the ‘love interest’ is some sort of perfect, beautiful, glowing god or goddess from the sky. No matter how great they appear to their lover, the love interest should have flaws, even tiny ones. In my mind, Edward (in Twilight) was a little too boring and perfect — a wish fulfillment for an accessory instead of a human being. Compare that story to My So-Called Life’s Angela and Jordan. The most interesting thing about us is often our weaknesses. And it’s often those weaknesses that we are most protective of in those we love.
  5. When it comes to cliches, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s certain phrases (and situations) that you should probably avoid like the plague (I promise to stop now). The ‘tripping into a stranger’s arms’ or ‘both reaching for the last- whatever’ are pretty overused as meet-cute devices. And I shouldn’t have to tell you to avoid actual cliches like ‘Her heart skipped a beat’. That said, don’t give up the emotion or impact you’re looking for, just find a more clever way to express it. In the beginning of Jumping the Broom, Sabrina is tired of sleeping with cheating run-a-round men and makes a promise to God to not have sex again until it’s with her (as yet unmet) future husband on their wedding night. So you get the feeling God is about to introduce her to the man of her dreams, and he does — when Sabrina accidentally hits Jason when he walks in front of her car. Her overreaction of bumping into him goes from funny to sweet when the audience sees their both smitten from the start. Likewise, if you feel like your character’s heart really did skip a beat (arrhythmia) then write that, but write it in such a way that it’s uniquely you (or better yet, uniquely your character). ‘Lucy decided she was having a heart attack, right now, right here in Josh Logan’s office. Josh raised his beautiful eyebrows in concern. Great, thought Lucy, I meet the man of my dreams and the only place he’ll ever take me is to the morgue.’ Dig past what you’ve seen and try to really connect to your character, where they might meet someone, and how they might react (especially if it’s not smooth).
  6. The best times aren’t the most perfect times. The best kiss, most romantic date, hottest make-out session, and favorite moment may not be exactly as planned. Scarlett and Rhett first kiss beside a dirty wagon with an unconscious woman and a baby in it, and he’s about to abandon her to drive miles by herself through a war torn countryside. Oh yes, and Atlanta is burning to the ground behind them. Their both soot-stained and sweaty — and it’s a great kiss. Much better than if they were in a perfect hotel room with glasses of Champagne. The same way that the ‘perfect’ first date with your crush might be ruined when he has to drive you to the hospital because your best friend got into a car crash- while driving drunk. Worst night ever? Not so fast, your friend was all right and while you watched her sleep, your crush sat down beside you and took your hand — and in that moment you kind of knew he was going to become your husband.
  7. Make us believe these two could have a great life together. Whether or not you have a sunset planned for your two leads, we (the readers) should at least believe it could happen. By which I mean, their personalities and souls are compatible. Do they laugh together, get each other’s humor and priorities? Do they respect the other’s mind? Even if they are opposed in some major way (she’s going to war/ he’s a pacifist) you still want to believe they could be happy if that one thing didn’t exist. Some characters fight and misunderstand each other so much that I want to separate them now, and I’m certainly not betting on a golden anniversary. In the same way, if your characters break up and get together more than once — I’m gone. I’ll go give my heart to a love story I can believe could work out longterm. The exception is something like the film Sid & Nancy: totally screwed-up characters whose destiny is to burn down the world with their love — and hate.
  8. Don’t fall into traditional boy/girl relationships. This is related to the tip about cliches. You may have noticed that in a couple of examples above, I role-reversed (she have a drinking problem/she’s going to war). That’s because few places force characters into tighter traditional roles than love stories. ‘“Don’t leave me!” She begged, clinging to his sleeve. He shook her hand away- cold, unfeeling.’ Youch. But what if you reversed it? Suddenly, it’s at least a little interesting. In Fall Street Claire is a sensible, sane, and intelligent 15 year old. Tommy is the popular kid two years older than her. But as they become friends, she realizes he’s a lot more emotionally needy than she is, and she had to reassure him and look after him. The reverse wouldn’t be much of a story, but the fact that people would expect an older boy to act one way (especially around a younger girl) to me gives the scenes more interest. One interesting way to break out of stereotypes is to have both of your characters be male or female. ‘Gay’ films or stories as genre can have their own cliches (just like ‘chick lit’). But I’m not talking about category fiction here — I’m talking about taking the exact story you were already telling and making the lovers the same sex. ‘He’s an ex-marine and the only person who can save the President from an assassin’s bullet. And he teams up with a rookie Secret Service agent to protect the leader of the free world. All the while, sparks fly between these two!’ It would be an interesting twist, and it might help you break out of expectations while writing it (ie the assassin — OF COURSE — holds the agent hostage in the final battle).
  9. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. One of the most believable love stories is ‘the one who got away’. 99.99% of romance stories try to deliver that happy ending — your story can really stand out if you admit that sometimes love can’t conquer all. If you really see your character unable to forgive him, unwilling to move to Bombay, or fatally shot in the final showdown with the assassin, consider following your instinct. There’s always room for another Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliette. Now, in a lot of cases, we want the happy ending and woe be to the writer who tricks us. So consider giving us a heads up (right in the beginning the narrator of 500 Days of Summer tells us ‘This is a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.’). You can also have an open-ended love story where you leave us hopeful without promising sunsets and grandbabies. In romance even a pinch of doubt can shake the reader out of a rose-colored haze and remind them of events in their own life.
  10. It’s weird and different. In real life, it can be hard to explain exactly why you connect to a certain person, what so funny about them, and why you can’t get them out of your head. Most people will never understand exactly why you fell for each other. But in fiction, the writer needs to make us understand, to feel the love story from the inside out. You can do a surprisingly good job with the simplest story. Imagine a teenage boy — he carries the girl’s books every day, asks after her family, and- is totally ignored. But he keeps trying. And, if she’s worthy of him, we want him to succeed. That said, the shortcuts to connecting to your readers (his startlingly blue eyes, her pounding heart) — we understand we’re suppose to care without really connecting to the story. Your readers, and your characters, deserve better. Dig deep, and discover what makes these two different and how to write something you’ve never read before. My favorite love quote (which I can’t find the source of) is “Her lips were so close, what else could I do?”

And that’s what you want; give your readers no choice but to fall in love with your story, your characters, and your view on romance. It could be the beginning of a lifelong affair.

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