How to Write A Believable (Fictional) Love Story
So, you want to write a love story for a work of fiction?
First things, first. Anything goes. Write for your genre, of course, but readers of fictional stories generally accept that what they are about to read has sprung from your imagination. They’re cool like that.
What will stump them, however, is not giving them a reason to root for the romance. Why else would they devote hours of their time to your story?
To do this, you have to deliver the human experience. As we all know, to be human is to be flawed, resilient, sometimes lucky (and sometimes not), vulnerable, and so many things in between. To love, and to have that love returned, is nothing short of a miracle. The trouble is, we never know when our human experiences will mesh well with someone else’s.
Past trauma, hidden vices, and subconscious desires are not a part of the equation when we first meet someone. Hope is. And as the creator of your story, you must convey that emotion from your characters in a way that resonates back to your reader. It is what will have people not only reading your story all the way through but have them coming back again to reread it.
Creating that spark of hope is also why so many writers stress the importance of crafting a memorable “first meeting” for your main characters. It is the driver of your story. In a series, hope must steer the reader through the first book and again, direct them to the starting point (the story itself) through other installments, until they have reached the final destination (the ending of the series.)
A tall order, indeed. But that is the power of hope.
In romance novels, hope is what makes a long-time reader of the genre take a chance on yet another story where they know what the ending is likely to be. They are hoping to find a story that stimulates their emotions along the way. A lackluster first meeting in your story will not inspire confidence that you will deliver the desired outcome to your reader.
Having said that, it isn’t always the initial meeting that can blow a crater-sized hole in the credibility of your character’s love story. It’s what leads up to it and what happens afterward that can be tricky.
I’ve seen characters start off wanting to kill each other become #relationshipgoals in 300 pages or less. I’ve also fallen asleep waiting for two people who are perfect for each other fumble around for the first few books in a series before they finally get a clue. The former often crosses over into the unhealthy while the latter makes you question the character’s intelligence (how many blatant signals can the average person misread?)
The truth is: your readers will sit through either scenario if you pace the story out in a creative but believable manner.
Elements of Storytelling
By pacing, I don’t mean just figuring out if you are writing a slow-burn or insta-love romance. I’m referring to the ebb and flow of tension, attraction, conflict, seduction, and opportunity that you are responsible for maneuvering your characters through. Writers often refer to the term "arc" to describe this concept.
The Nicholas Sparks novel, The Notebook, employs these elements brilliantly. The story resonates with so many people—even the love cynics—making it an enduring classic. The love story spans an entire lifetime of a couple (barring their earliest formative years) but keeps us enthralled because of the clever roller coaster ride of emotions it takes us on.
For anyone who still hasn’t seen it, here is a simplified spoiler summary:
Boy sees girl and is instantly attracted. Girl resists boy, setting up several scenes of tension while boy does extreme things to win girl over. Conveniently, boy and boy’s father do work on girl’s family’s property (opportunity.) Mutual attraction flairs (seduction) between them until their "opposite side of the tracks" romance is discovered (cue conflict), and the girl’s parents split the young couple apart.
Using variations of that same formula, we are later reunited with the couple (opportunity) as they maneuver through past hurt and current roadblocks (conflicts and tension), rediscover their feelings (attraction and seduction), and reach a bittersweet happily ever after. There is another element to the story that I refuse to spoil but trust me when I say it’s a big reason why this movie is universally loved.
In Love with Love
Most people expect to be challenged, thwarted, and ultimately, rewarded, in love.
They accept these highs and lows as a natural course of the human experience.
It is the job of writers to communicate these human conditions in a believable and compelling arc that ignites a readers hopes and carries them through each happily-ever-after.