How To Write a Love Story To Avoid Vanilla Cliches

how to write a love story

Writing a love story that doesn’t smack of cliché is a lot harder than you might think. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you that love stories and love scenes are in fact very challenging to narrate. Many actors also express difficulty in nailing love scenes. They fear they’re being melodramatic and not genuine.

What is it about love stories that makes them so tricky to get right? The biggest factor is that love stories hinge on the intangible. It’s all about emotion and emotional build-up. And the inexplicable connections that make people fall in love. How do you capture that without sounding corny? Here are some tips on how to deliver the goods the right way:

Focus on the Characters

It’s easy to overdo the emotional narrative of a love story. But, in the end, that actually makes the reader less emotionally invested. As in any story, the characters have to have something that anchors them to this world. Who are they? What drives them? What makes the reader able to identify with them? When you develop characters who look, act and talk like real people then you have a chance at writing a good love story between them.

Where’s the Tension?

Who’s watched a film about a love story where there’s no sexual tension between the main characters? Isn’t it painful to watch? Doesn’t it make your skin crawl? Or make you wish you had the power to be in the room to shout “No!” when the casting director made this awful mistake? Well, reading a love story can be exactly the same. That is, if the characters haven’t been given the emotional build-up they deserve in order to make their story exciting.

Creating tension has a few different elements. Whether this is a doomed romance or one with a happy ending, this is love we’re talking about and therefore it should have that feeling of jumping off a cliff. Even if the characters live in suburban Pennsylvania and drive SUV’s, the vulnerability and emotional risk of falling in love should be present in the story. In fact, please do write about people who live in Suburban Pennsylvania and drive SUVs. Writing about ordinary people having an extraordinary experience by meeting each other and falling in love is a great way to build tension.

Throw In Some Conflict

Maybe your protagonists aren’t Romeo and Juliet, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw in some conflict to spice things up. Maybe one of them has a jealous ex. Or a child who won’t accept the new partner. Maybe they’re colleagues at work. Or she’s his boss (avoid stereotyping!). Or one of them is a priest or a nun. What are the hurdles they have to get over in order to be together? Big or small, conflict makes the story tellable. Nobody rushes to call a friend to say, “I just couldn’t wait to tell you how incredibly easy my day has been!” Conflict makes things interesting and makes the reader beg to discover how it’s going to be resolved. If your characters just fall perfectly into each other’s lives and every page is about how smoothly everything is going, don’t be surprised if you have some angry readers on your hands by the end.

Don’t Go There

Avoid stereotyping both the men and the women in your story. You know what I mean: the helpless woman and the manly man. Corseted damsels and sword-bearing knights, princesses and princes. Make your characters as real as you can. Avoid these cliches, unless you’re doing a unique spin on a tired theme – then it’s okay.

Dare To Be Different

So what should you write about? Good writing is original yet familiar. Realistic yet surprising. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall includes a scene where he asks a couple on the street what the secret to their happiness is. The woman replies that “I’m really shallow and empty and have nothing interesting to say.” And the man adds, “I’m exactly the same way.” Let’s hope that your characters go beyond that. Check out this list of unusual love stories for some inspiration.

Get the Language Right

Avoid the romance novel cliches that involve words like moaning, groaning, rippling, aching, burning, urging, yearning etc. This is perhaps the biggest challenge in a love story – to describe the characters’ feelings without resorting to any of these cheesy terms. If you can’t think of original ways to express these things, take a different angle. Focus on the events, the conflict, the characters and tell the story from that perspective without the emotional interludes.

There’s a Thin Line Between Love and Porn

Okay, it’s a love story, so we all know that the characters love each other and want to rip each other’s clothes off. That’s a given. But when it comes time for them to actually do that (that is if you even choose to write the love scene at all) be careful not to be too graphic, crass or pornographic. Otherwise, it’s not really a love story, but more of a story for Penthouse. While writing the love scene, ask yourself: does it deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters? Has something changed between them after this scene? Does it help move the story forward? Does it help the reader understand more about love, sex and relationships?

Keep It Real

If you want to be graphic, try another tack. Take author Rachel Toor’s advice, “I think love scenes are better with farts – or fear of farts, worries about bad breath, wondering about the state of one’s underthings, concerns about parts left too long un-groomed…in life getting jiggy entails the incredible and terrifying act of coming this close to another person that can be messy, smelly and often pretty darned funny.” Being ultra-realistic is certainly a way to avoid cliché. Author Caitlin Moran’s autobiography How To Be A Woman also has some hilarious chapters that deal with the physical paranoias that come with sex and dating. Check it out for more reality-driven inspiration.