Sunday, February 14, 2016

Creating a Valentine: Writing Realistic Love Stories

Hi everybody! Happy Valentine's Day! I know a lot of people absolutely hate this holiday, but I definitely don't. Anyone who knows anything about me will tell you that an entire holiday devoted to hearts and candy and romance is right up my alley. So to celebrate, I'm going to talk to you guys about love... in your writing!

So often I see writers struggle with romance. Love stories are hard! Especially when you're trying to create a romance that builds in a genuine way. I can't even count the number of times I've been talking to a writer about their romance and they tell me, "I know what I want them to be like. I know that I want them to be special, but it just comes out like everything else out there."

And therein lies their problem. People, in general, tend to gravitate toward the mundane when it comes to romance. It's so easy to fall into cliches when writing a love story. The love interest shows up for the first date with a single red rose. They go to a candlelit dinner, and then stroll through the town, talking about their hopes and dreams. Then comes the built up first kiss at the door, and it's over. And none of these things are bad.

But they're not original either. What I'm talking about is creating moments between your characters that are uniquely them, and not just for their dates, or the things they do once they're together. From the very beginning.

Why do these two people love each other? Where does it start? WHY does it build? If you want a genuine romance, you have to give them something to connect to.

Let me give you an example. Let's say we have two characters. I'll name them... William and Lola. Now when this scenario here starts, William and Lola don't know each other at all. They're complete strangers, at the starting line, no previous contact. It's a blank slate.

So how do we get them from 0-60? From first meeting to true love? They could meet through a mutual friend. They could run into each other in the street. They could both reach for the last mimosa at a New Years party. They could meet up on an online dating service. Your options are almost limitless, which is part of the problem.

99% of those options probably won't mean anything to your characters.

Without that substance, without a reason to root for these two people, and tangible reasons for their feelings, there's nothing there but two people who fall in love for the sake of your story. And that'll never be enough.

In order to avoid this, you have attempt to create two characters with their own goals, their own paths within your story, and then make those paths cross in a way that makes sense. In a way that's theirs alone.

So, back to our example, what if William's last girlfriend died a while before the book begins, and he has to drive all of her stuff back home to her family? What if Lola is hitchhiking her way across the country during her year off from school to put some distance between her an an abusive ex? What if William see's Lola being hit on by a sleazy truck driver at a diner and then ends up offering her a ride? They're both struggling with things, but they're thrown together within the story by those things they're battling. It's not just a chance meeting of two people who are perfect for each other over a mimosa. It's the beginning of a story that's uniquely theirs. This battle to get over grief and heartache while on a journey across the country.

Complete with all the awkwardness a
journey like that would generate.
It's also about creating moments that are unique to them. Keeping with the same example, William and Lola could start off barely talking, and then William finds out they love the same band, and a few longing looks later, they're going at it in the backseat. But where's the substance there?

Insta-love is my most hated thing in books. I want to know WHY they feel that spark. I want to see it build into a flame, and then combust the both of them. I want reasons for their feelings. Insta-love cuts all of that down at the knees and it's incredibly frustrating.

Don't do this. You'll regret it when your characters are just two people who love each other because you said so. Make it difficult. Make them work for it. Love is often surprising to us, and half the time we don't even realize how hard we're falling until it's painfully obvious. One of my favorite Pride & Prejudice quotes is “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

Give them a middle to find themselves stuck in.

The more unique your characters are, the more reasons you have for them to have this connection (and scenes where these reasons are shown and felt,) the more substance your story will have. Don't have William buy a rose at a gas station and hand it to Lola in the car. Show Lola always buying gummy bears and then (after an epic fight with her mom on the phone) William hands her a package to make her feel better. I mean, that's a pretty lame example, but it still makes my point. Show through Lola that William is paying attention. That he knows this little thing about her and makes it a point to use that to make her feel better.

In my WIP, I have a main character who starts collecting those teeny tiny seashells (the ones that are about the size of a pea) in a mason jar. When she's bored, she grabs her jar off the microwave, goes down to the beach, and sifts through the rocks for them. At some point, her love interest is in her house and asks about the shells, and she tells him about her little mission to fill it up before the end of the summer. From that point on, pretty much every time he sees her, he pulls a small handful of shells out of his pocket and hands them to her for the jar. This little inconsequential detail then becomes a thing between them, that carries through to the rest of the book. And it's not a cliche rose, or something generic. It's unique to my characters, and it means something more to both of them as the story builds too, and then later, when things sour, it's that mason jar that gets shattered in his driveway, like a symbol of them being "done." This thing they were building together is literally in pieces on the ground.

My point is, you need to find YOUR moments. The things that tie these people together, and not just because you said so. Their romance should be 100% theirs, even in a world where everything's been done before. It's the behind the scenes stuff, and that inner emotion, that'll make them stand out. Not grand gestures and romantic "type" things that happen. 

Roses don't make a love story. 

Your characters do, because...

So go forth, and dig into your own moments. List the reasons (and the moments) that build up these feelings for your characters. Why these strangers keep thinking about each other. Why these friends are suddenly feeling more than before. Why this online date is different than the others. 

Whatever your premise is.

Don't let William and Lola become generic. Don't leave them to the single red rose and the candlelit restaurant. Cover the car with candles in an apology. Leave a wildflower from one of their stops wrapped around the gearshift after they've split up, as a reminder of what's been lost. Throw the death of the girlfriend in there at the worst possible time.

And I'll say it again: MAKE THEM WORK FOR IT.

Sometimes, love can be simple. But nobody wants to read about the simple ones. They want to see love conquer things. To level mountains. They want the challenge. So give them the challenge. Throw everything but the kitchen sink at your characters. Let them struggle through these moments you've created, and by the end of it, you'll have created a love worth rooting for.

And if that's not the goal of a romance, I'm not sure what is.


(Also, if writing romance is something that you really struggle with in general, and this advice isn't enough, I also offer romance critiques through Wild Things Editing, where I break down your love story and work with you to direct your romance in the direction you want. So if this is something that you feel might be helpful to you, feel free to contact me through the link above. I love working on love stories, so I'd be thrilled to help get yours in the right place.)