Regular readers will appreciate that I’ve used plasticine here.
I have to confess that I give most love stories a wide berth. They’re so… predictable. Nice. Naff. But recently I’ve been re-evaluating my thoughts on the genre. At their core, love stories are about some of the most powerful experiences we can have as human beings. They show us people overcoming all manner of barriers in order to make another person happy. That’s hugely satisfying dramatically, and also very life-affirming. Love stories tell us that good can overcome evil. Love trumps hate, as you may have heard people say recently. So we clearly need more of them.

Turns out they’re harder to write than you think. It’s so easy to steer straight into cliche. Much harder to tread your own path, craft something truly original and stay true to yourself. But that’s what love is all about, isn’t it? Here are some of my thoughts on how to create something which will make strangers’ hearts soar.

  1. Plan your characters’ retirement party.

The love story genre is so strong and the conventions are so well established that it’s easy to get lazy and copy what a million people before you have done. You end up with characters that feel a bit flat (maybe a bubbly but clumsy girl, and an inept but loveable guy?), and a plot that we can all recite in our sleep.

If you want to steer yourself away from cliche and towards originality, work on the details. You need to know everything about your characters – both as individuals and as a couple. Some questions that are particularly relevant to lovers:

  • How do they meet?
  • What is it about the other person that attracts them?
  • Why do they work as a couple? How do they make each other’s lives better?
  • What are the tensions and differences between them? How do they overcome these?

You also need to know everything about their lives, both before they met each other and when they’re together. Look for the areas you’re neglecting and spend some time writing about that. For example, if you’re writing about a couple who meet when they’re young, write a scene set once they’ve retired. If you’re writing about a couple who’ve been married for ages, write the scene where they first kiss.

And put the effort in. Don’t cut corners. Make these practice scenes as detailed as you can. Detail is what keeps your work original.

2. Show don’t tell…

As you’ve probably heard before. A lot of writers seem to plonk a couple in front of us and tell us that they love each other. That’s not enough. We need to feel that they love each other. We need to see it happen. What do they do to demonstrate their love? It’s not always about pulling their loved ones from the burning building. It’s also the quiet, daily details – the way they cook together, the things they say to each other before they go to work, their night-time routine.

Try this:

Write down three things that your characters say which show their love for the other.

Write down three things they do.

Describe three moments in the past where they showed their love for the other.

3. Find a good war.

Stories need contrast and variety to thrive. So what’s a nice contrast to an intimate, emotional story? That’s right: socioeconomics, politics and institutions. We don’t live or love in isolated bubbles, although characters in love stories often seem to. (Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love makes this point rather beautifully.) Think about the cultural framework your characters live in, the social and historical forces that shape them, the external events taking place in their lives. Look for a contrast to all the tender, gentle stuff. Two of my favourite examples: Casablanca, which offsets the romance with the threats of Nazi occupation, and Slumdog Millionaire, which does the same thing with poverty.

You don’t have to be in a war zone to find conflict. The main character in The Republic of Love leads a nice quiet life. But when she meets someone, the rest of her life doesn’t all fall into place. She still has problems at work, divided loyalties with her parents, and friends to see. Her conflicts are internal and personal but no less compelling for that.

4. The path to love must not run smooth.

All drama needs obstacles. Love stories are no exception. But again, the conventions of the genre are so well-established that we can get lazy setting them up. The meddling best friend, the good-looking but evil love rival, the mean parent… There’s nothing wrong with any of these, provided you do the work to make these characters complex and believable.

But how about investigating some other sources of conflict for lovers? There are the big taboos – age, religion, gender, race, but you could also think about subtler things like cultural tastes, family traditions or local rivalries. In this way,  your love story can become about more than the personal.

(Check out the film Harold and Maude for a boundary-transgressing love story…)

Differences don’t have to mean Romeo-and-Juliet-style  levels of outrage and punishment. Gavin and Stacey uses social and geographic difference to create humour and fun as well as giving the characters some great hurdles to overcome.

A final word of warning : some of the obstacles that real-life couples often face don’t make for great drama. Long distances, bad technology and conflicting schedules lack a fundamental aspect of great dramatic obstacles: they’re not human beings. So they can’t react to your characters, and your characters don’t have the power to change them, and so the story has nowhere to go. If your lovers are being kept apart by a faulty Skype connection, there’s only so much mileage you can get out of that one. If however that faulty Skype connection is being engineered on purpose by a third character with a big old agenda…

Do you have any recommendations for a good love story, in any genre? Please post below! Maybe my gnarled old heart* can be saved after all.

*I’m very happily married.