As February store shelves glow pink and jewelry ads twinkle on social media, one thing is as clear as a princess-cut diamond: Our culture loves love. Harlequin books sell four copies every second, and romance films make millions in theaters and on streaming platforms.
In 2019, greeting card companies made close to a billion dollars from Valentine’s Day alone. That’s good news for romance writers: You’ve got a large, enthusiastic audience ready to be captivated by your love story.
Sizzling, sweet, toxic, or wholesome, a romantic storyline can be a dynamic narrative tentpole in your writing. Entangling the flaws and assets of two (or three or four) personalities with unique histories, goals, and values creates endless interactive possibilities.
Weaving these threads into a rich, immersive love story might seem challenging, but don’t lose heart (sorry, not sorry). Whether you’re writing a script, short story, or novel, whatever your platform or genre, you can write a swoon-worthy romance into your tale by following a few guideposts.
Wrangling two or more characters as they develop complex emotions can be daunting, but the best place to get some amorous inspiration might be right in front of you: at the coffee shop, in class, at home, and even on your devices. The often-confessional nature of social platforms gives modern writers helpful (if unscientific) insight into the mental and emotional underpinnings of a relationship.
Observe the couples around you and write a list of general features that stick out—good and bad. Take note of language patterns, power dynamics, and nonverbal cues.
If you’ve ever overheard a spicy breakup conversation at a restaurant, the details were probably juicier than an episode of Cheaters. Making lists might not sound very sexy, but assembling real-life snippets and impressions can help you build a convincingly passionate world.
There are endless ways to experience and express love that you can draw on to develop your own style. What mood do you want to create for your lovers—and the reader? The besotted couple might snap together like magnets over a mutual cause or shared passion as in The Queen’s Gambit. They might fall in love through language, writing steamy billet-doux and sharing lots of pillow talk.
Maybe they demonstrate their devotion with a selfless act or a sweeping gesture like Heath Ledger’s sports-stadium serenade in 10 Things I Hate About You. The emotional charge might come from high-octane danger like in James Bond or the thrill of forbidden romance like in Casablanca. Consider the kind of love stories you connect with the most and use those elements as your narrative hook.
Before you start writing, decide the fate of your lovers. Will they fall in love early, face a catastrophe, and rebound stronger than before? Will they loathe one another until a last-moment change of heart—or miss their chance entirely? Will they roller-coaster up and down or crash and burn spectacularly?
It’s a relief to know that there’s no single perfect way to write a romantic plot because there is no perfect romance. Map out the trajectory of your characters and drop plot breadcrumbs that point to the next chapter of their tale. Whether you lead readers to a happy ending or heartbreak, a well-crafted story arc lays a compelling path to follow.
Before the characters ever meet-cute on the page, the reader needs to know and love (or hate) them first. People’s histories and personalities influence their romantic behavior; if you can build a deep backstory, you can hook the reader’s emotions and establish expectations and allegiances that you’re free to smash or uphold as you’re creatively led.
If one character is a shameless player, tell us all about her scandalous liaisons through flashbacks or dialogue with friends and family. If the other character is a good-hearted romantic, he might work at a nonprofit and confide in a friend that he’s struggling to find true love after a string of painful relationships.
The point is that the reader forms an emotional view of each person, for better or worse. If you’re intentional about your lovebirds’ pasts, readers will invest in their future as a couple— before they ever lay eyes on each other.
Love is probably the most written-about emotion but often the hardest to describe because folks experience it so differently.
Bring readers into your lovers’ universe by drawing out their impressions, internal monologue, and unspoken feelings. What were their first thoughts when seeing a beautiful piece of their partner’s art at an exhibit? What went through their mind when their partner touched them for the first time—or suggested they separate years later?
Love is a world-builder, and so are you: Carve out an intimate but accessible space by deep-diving into their conscious and unconscious process.
Sooner or later, every relationship drops the filters and gets real. It’s an undeniable part of falling in love—acknowledging and appreciating the whole person, ingrown hairs and all.
Your lovers should notice their partner’s quirks—whether they’re annoying, like talking with a mouthful of toothpaste, or adorable, like an obsession with baby sloths. Looking beneath the surface to better understand another person is a profound step toward intimacy. Those interstitial moments of connection might feel mundane, but they’ll pay emotional dividends for the reader when the story gets intense.
The amorous tales our culture once considered heartwarming have aged badly: From the creepy lyrics of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” literal stalking behavior in Love, Actually, and misogynist stereotypes in Shallow Hal, storytellers often retooled paternalistic themes, emotional manipulation, and abusive control as ideal expressions of love.
Creatively speaking, we can do better.
Your job as a writer is to craft the best version of your story, which may involve sobering problems like codependency, addiction, discrimination, or abuse. You can build a compelling story around a troubled relationship, but readers no longer accept biased, incomplete, or rose-tinted interpretations of these problems being rebranded as “love.”
Use the many resources at your disposal to research your story’s unhealthier dynamics, and listen to people who experienced them and choose to share about them. Some writers may want to add a content warning about distressing material or hire a beta reader to screen their work for stereotypes, misrepresentation, or offensive content.
Most thoughtful writers recognize the semantic gulf between describing unhealthy behavior and glamorizing it, and they wield this narrative power judiciously.
Construct intimacy through inside jokes, affectionate nicknames, or shared secrets. Deep bonds form through mutual experiences, and the more intense the event, the stronger the bond.
Trials, rituals, and private codes are narrative ligaments that run the length of the story to sustain and protect that closeness: One of my fictional couples always signs their shared texts “4M1,” shorthand for “forever my one.” (If that sounds a bit too sappy to be genuine, it is: One of them ends up cheating!)
The fastest way to sink a love story is to write characters who never act spontaneously. Love calls for risk and vulnerability. Readers want to feel the rush of hanging over the chasm of heartbreak while clinging to the hope of fairytale bliss. If your pacing feels predictable and your lovers seem wooden, make a decision that you personally think is detrimental to one or more of them, then follow that plot thread.
Moreover, make it so that it’s not just a choice the character wouldn’t make, but an authorial choice that you wouldn’t make for the character. For example, if every instinct is telling you that a character would (and should) accept a date from X, write them rejecting X instead. Then it’s up to you to tweak the plot to reunite them—or let the story develop differently.
To interact authentically, humans must accommodate a host of differing opinions and moods, oppositional values, unpredictable reactions, and changing philosophies. So make your lovers authentic by working around your own narrative instinct to understand, like, or agree with them. It might fizzle, but it might also wring out a more fully-humanized story.
Think about all the action-adventure movies that end with a smooch: Indiana Jones, anybody? Danger and romance go hand in hand because our subconscious brains confuse the surge of fear-driven adrenaline for sexual chemistry.
According to one study cited by the Daily Mail, couples meeting over a perilous bridge were more likely to exchange phone numbers than others who met under tamer circumstances. The science is in: Risk really is an aphrodisiac.
The most enduring love stories often put their star-crossed couples to some kind of test: They face conflict, sacrifice, long odds, disaster, and loss. Is their passion enough to meet whatever crisis comes their way? Skilled writers aim to build and release this tension and do so in patterns that lead the reader through an emotional obstacle course to the tale’s conclusion—and hopefully a happy ending.
Writing romantic storylines can be as tricky as couplehood itself, but you don’t have to be Nora Roberts to steal your readers’ hearts. By following a few basic guidelines, you can engineer a love story that makes your narrative outsparkle a Tiffany’s store.
Make a solid start by logging real-life observations, settling on a sub-genre, and plotting a defined story arc. Then you can introduce your lovers with a strong backstory, communicate their most intimate thoughts, and ground them in prosaic moments of connection—but steer away from romanticizing obsessive or abusive behavior. Raise the stakes by introducing conflict or stress, then add some spice with a bad decision or a surprising plot swerve.
Use these guidelines to captivate readers, and you’re well on your way to spinning a love story that will enchant even the crispiest heart.
Rachel is an all-terrain media writer who has garnered little acclaim for her media reviews on Book & Film Globe, and won zero Emmys while working as a morning news producer. She is also a no-time finalist for any award, prestigious or otherwise, for her work at Curve and Girlfriends magazines. Rachel lives in Bakersfield with her partner Jason and pup Bandit, where they hike on the spectacular Kern river and ride motorcycles. When she isn't studying theology or Spanish, Rachel is cooking, exploring abandoned spaces, and stalking mid-century furniture sales online. Follow her on Instagram @little.red.writing.good