How to Write a Love Story: My Top 4 Tips

by Mary Adkins
published in Writing

What makes a great love story?

Whether you’re writing romance, mystery, or literary fiction, when you’re incorporating romance into our work, the task is the same—to write a believable, engaging relationship that keeps readers turning the pages. (I write contemporary fiction, for example, but I write contemporary fiction that sometimes has romance in it, and so, of course, I want to do that well.)

So let’s talk about how to keep readers turning the pages with a heart-tugging romance—maybe even one that sticks with them long after they’ve read it. (I think about Rebecca Serle’s book In Five Years all the time, for example, and I read it well over a year ago.) 

Before we get into the tips of how to write a love story, I want to briefly tell you how I came to this advice, myself.

Learning How to Write a Love Story

Before I started publishing novels, I was a lawyer.

I had no time to write, and I’d been dying to be an author since I was twelve.

So I quit my law job only seven months after graduating from law school. I found a tutoring job on Craigslist, broke my lease to move to a cheaper apartment, and then the real work began.

I was going to write a book, but I didn’t know where to start. So I signed up for writing classes.

I took writing class after class on everything from how to write a short story to how to write a funny essay to how to write beautiful sentences. Six years into writing classes, I had managed to eke out my novel.

I was submitting it to literary agents—which is how you get a book deal from a publisher, typically—but, over and over, I was hearing “no.”

I couldn’t figure out why. So I choked up $3,000 I didn’t have and hired a freelance editor to tell me what was wrong with my book. And this editor wrote me a letter that changed my writing life.

Here is an excerpt from the letter, with the part I want to highlight in bold:

“You have the humor in spades. It’s the heart that you need more of. And heart demands deep work. (I should say here that I was really impressed to find as I was reading that the prose was near-flawless. On a sentence-to-sentence level, your writing is remarkable.) If you are serious about this novel, I want to encourage you to reshape it, to give your characters more love.”

My work needed heart.

This letter changed my entire approach to writing.

I felt exposed reading it, and I knew that she was 100% right. As she notes here, I’d mastered writing individual sentences, but that wasn’t enough—that wasn’t the heart of the story.

I hadn’t been showing up emotionally on the page because I was too worried about inciting incidents, themes, and foreshadowing to believe in the characters I was writing about. I was too hung up on writing devices to feel my characters.

I didn’t even open the attached manuscript with her line edits; I didn’t need to.

Over the next six weeks, I rewrote my draft yet again, but I showed up emotionally this time, and I wrote love into my story.

Within six weeks, I had a literary agent. And that was the version of my first novel When You Read This, that sold at auction in the United States and to major publishers around the world.

Again, whether your work is formally classified as romance doesn’t matter—the tips I want to share next will be useful if there is romantic love in your story, at all.

Let’s dive in! Here are my top four tips for how to write a love story.

Tip #1: Be brave enough to draw from your own experience.

The first tip I have for you today may sound obvious, but if you’re anything like me, it wasn’t always.

As fiction writers, it’s a given, to an extent, that we’re always drawing from life.

But sometimes we are hesitant to do this with romance writing, especially physical or erotic scenes rooted in attraction, where we’re trying to construct a degree of wish fulfillment for the reader, due to personal inhibitions.

We feel like our Sunday School teacher is looking over our shoulder and going to tell our parents.

But just like with other emotional experiences in life, this is where we mine for the good stuff—inside the secret chambers of our own emotional experience.

So if you’re feeling bashful or vulnerable, here’s something to remember: you’re writing fiction, and you don’t owe anyone any kind of answer as to what part of your own life the inspiration came from.

If a reader says, “Dang, Jessica, that hot scene—was that real? How’d you think up that?”, just smile and say, “I’m glad you liked it.”  

Tip #2: What are your character’s primary attraction drivers, and what makes this time different?

We’ve all heard the saying, “she’s/he’s/they’re my type,” right?

And if you’re unlucky, you’ve been told that you’re someone’s type…as you’re dating them.

There is nothing less appealing than thinking that someone wants to be in a relationship with you because you look or act like other people they’ve liked before, right? It’s objectifying; it removes personal uniqueness from the equation.

On the contrary, when someone is attracted to another person in a way that plays against their tendencies, our ears perk up. We pay attention. If it’s us, we feel good.

We think, huh, what’s going on here? There can even seem to be more potential validity to the romantic feelings—they hold more promise—because it’s the exception, not the rule.

A fun way to play with creating a believable love story that’s genuine and special is to play with this idea—to identify your character’s primary attraction drivers, so that you can work against them.

Ask: how is this love interest different from the love interests that came before? Brainstorm. Pick your favorite(s). Make this time different.

Tip #3: Love in real life is not one-dimensional—and real love is hotter love. Lean into complexity.

Often when we write romance into our stories, we are writing a kind of wish fulfillment for the reader—we want the reader to want to be in the shoes of a character who is experiencing the romance. We are hoping to offer that pleasurable experience.

But for the reader to have that pleasurable experience, they need to believe in the love story.

Readers are smart. You may have heard the adage, which I think is a great one, to assume that your reader is at least as smart as you are.

If the love story feels one-dimensional—if it’s all light and positivity—it’s going to strike the reader as false in some way. Maybe not false as in fictional or made up, but false in the sense that one character is idolizing another, putting them on a pedestal, willingly indulging their blind spots to prolong the romance. And that’s going to create space between the reader and the character, thereby making it harder for the reader to want to identify with the character.

Follow me?

For the enticement of wish fulfillment to work, the relationship must seem realistic. And for it to seem realistic, we need some degree of complexity.

So lean into the complexity—be willing to get into your character’s mind and heart and explore the complex feelings that come up there. Don’t worry; it won’t make your love story feel less deep—it will do the opposite. It’ll make it feel real.

Tip #4: What limits (perceived or real) can you explore to deepen a character’s longing?

The last tip about writing a love story here—we all know that what carries a story forward is tension, right?

I tell the writers I work with that when you don’t know what to write next, ask: what tension is the reader most nervous about at this point in the story, and how can I ramp it up even more?

In writing romance, leaning into that tension serves an additional purpose, which is that limitations and obstacles to the realization of romance tend to heighten longing.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? So does forbidden love.

So what externally imposed—or at least perceived—limits could make it harder for these people to be together? How might you use limitations to infuse the longing in the story with even more energy, which the reader will feel?

Want some writing prompts for how to write a love story?

Those are my romance writing tips for you! I’ve written 10 writing prompts to help you write compelling romance stories in your work, and you can get them by going here and dropping your email—I will send them right over.

Tell us in the comments: What did you learn about how to write a love story?

Mary Adkins is the author of the novels When You Read This (Indie Next Pick, “Best Book of 2019” by Good Housekeeping and Real Simple), Privilege ( Best Summer Read), and Palm Beach (New York Post “Best Book of 2021,” and “like a sandy beach, equal parts beautiful and uncomfortable” according to the Associated Press). Her books have been published in 13 countries, and her essays and reporting have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and more. A graduate of Yale Law School and Duke University, she teaches storytelling for The Moth worldwide and runs The Book Incubator, a program for aspiring authors. You can also follow her on Instagram.

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