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Ask a Writer: How to Write Love Stories

Ask a Writer: How to Write Love Stories

With all the love stories out there, how can we keep our story original or at least refreshing? 

One fundamental principle is to write an honest love story. And by that, I mean don’t let your characters fall in love just because the formula says they should. They should fall in love in a sincere manner, not in a way that feels forced. People have to get logically attracted and connected through their traits and their circumstances.

As a reader, I would want to ship the two characters. I have to find them likeable and I have to believe that they are naturally going to love each other. To be more specific, the honesty in the love story extends to the Characters feeling like real persons (as opposed to cardboard cutout characters) and that they respond to their situations naturally, as opposed to Eros Ex Machina, where Love “simply” solves any and all complications without a coherent explanation.

Thoughts on using flashback to drive a love story? I noticed that K-dramas tend to use a lot of flashbacks in their stories, while I read in a few 'how to write' novels to avoid flashbacks as they get in the way of the forward movement of the story.

Flashbacks, whether in love stories or in another genre, are tricky to use. Beginners try to use them to explain something, but they can’t come out of nowhere. Something has to trigger the flashback.

Casablanca is a good example. There’s history between the characters, but the flashback happens when the male character is alone and drinking. Even then, the flashback is set up after Rick suddenly meets Ilsa again, long after he thought he lost her for good.

To look at another example, 500 Days of Summer (although it claims to not be a love story) also has flashbacks. We already know, from both the title and the beginning, that the relationship is not going to last. Despite that, we’re still attracted to follow the story. We’re interested in the context of Tom’s misery and how he lost Summer. This is what justifies the movie’s many flashbacks.

Sometimes, a flashback can create expectation or anticipation, which in turn creates tension. An example is Titanic, which is one enormous flashback. Rose is old at the start, everyone knows the Titanic will sink, but we don’t know until the end if Jack survives. This tension keeps us engaged.

Also, in Titanic, the flashback contributes to the theme. Because of an early scene where Jack saves Rose, a thread emerges: Rose’s life that would not have extended as far as it did if he hadn’t saved her. That relationship changed her life. From being suicidal before meeting Jack, Rose learns that her “heart will go on” despite Jack’s death. And that realization is central to Titanic.

So, what are my thoughts on flashbacks, given these three films? I don’t suggest that we should avoid flashbacks in our stories altogether. But if we’re going to include flashbacks, we need to have a good, unavoidable reason for using them and we better know how to time them well. When used skillfully, flashbacks can add great impact to a story. But when used clumsily, they can be distracting and can hamper the progression of the story.

What’s a love story you would use as a standard for good love stories?

To answer this, I'd like to begin with what doesn't make for a good love story. For example, one thing that makes a love story feel forgettable is when the readers/audience are not invested in the characters. Especially with film: we have to distinguish between shipping the actors and shipping the characters. While it’s fine for the audience to ship their favorite love teams, it’s bad practice for writers to just rely on the love team at the cost of the characterization.

For a love story to be good, the decisions of the characters have to at least seem real and properly-motivated. The characters become forgettable when the writer just goes through the motions of the formula without demonstrating a clear understanding of why the formula is such, or if there’s no reflection on love itself. 

Ultimately, the standard for a good love story is that the story leads to a good insight about love.

In terms of Love Stories, here are a few films that have made a great impression on me and helped me with my standard for a good Love Story: In the Mood for Love, 5 Centimeters per Second, and My Sassy Girl. While My Sassy Girl is, in many ways, cliche, there was something rewarding about watching both characters grow into maturity, eventually becoming compatible with each other. 5 Centimeters per Second works as a contemplation on heartbreak or, as one of my friends would say, saudade or “sad reminiscence.” In the Mood for Love also feels fresh as the characters choose a nobler path despite their obvious attraction to each other.

Little Manhattan, Flipped, Story of Us, Date Night, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were also stories that resounded with me. These stories went beyond the kilig and actually contemplated on the different aspects of love. I appreciated the logic or statement they made about love.

Perhaps a common denominator with the love stories listed above is that it’s through love that the characters grow as persons, and the growth is believable. That is something I look forward to in love stories. But that’s just my personal preference, because I believe that love should lead to the personal growth of lovers.

Do you have some tips for a romantic comedy? 

The two tips for a romantic comedy are these:

  1. Be familiar enough with the romantic comedy formula; and

  2. Understand why the romantic comedy formula is structured as such.

We must first understand that the tradition of a romantic comedy follows the premise, "Love conquers all." Notice how most romantic comedies feature a hurdle that the romantic couple have to overcome. That hurdle is the "all" that the couple's love conquers.

With this premise in mind, the romantic comedy formula utilizes these three key events:

A Meets B

A Loses B

A Gets B (or not)

Why do romantic comedies start off with A meets B? This is because the writer’s first order of business is to have the readers/audience ship the two characters. It is very difficult to ship characters if we don’t know them and if we don’t know what one would like about the other. When A meets B, they are blank slates to each other, just like how the audience sees them for the first time. From this meeting, the writer can now provide opportunities for the audiences to discover more about the pair as the pair discover more about each other. As the pair grows into liking each other, the audience should grow to ship the pair.

Why do romantic comedies have to have an A loses B event? This is because if the sentiment or romantic comedies is “Love conquers all,” then Love must be provided a formidable challenge. A losing B should be a situation where the relationship between the two is challenged and the loss of the relationship—whether it be a literal loss or just a serious strain—emphasizes that the challenge that their love faces is indeed a serious one. In a way, this event of A loses B prepares the audience for the last event: A gets B.

Why must romantic comedies usually end with A gets B? When is it appropriate to end a romantic comedy with A doesn’t get B event? Romantic comedies mostly end with A gets B because that is what most audience members are looking forward to in a romantic comedy: the triumph of Love. A or B has to work to overcome the challenge that caused the loss of love and to bring back the love that was lost. Is it a must that the two characters end up back together? No. But there must be a good reason for them not to end up together, and the audience mustn’t be disillusioned about Love.

Does having this formula mean that we must follow this, no matter what? No. We are, of course, free to defy a formula that has been tried and tested for almost a century. But, as writers, we must know this formula and understand what has made it so successful for so long. If we understand how the formula works and then still choose to defy it, we can then, at least, calculate and anticipate our audience’s reaction and still provide them a story they will appreciate and enjoy.

How do you define kilig and how essential is it in a love story?

I’d define kilig as the near-fulfillment of a reader’s/audience’s anticipation and expectation in the context of romance. The kilig moment happens when something we’re looking forward to in a love story is pretty close to happening or happens partially. The kilig is a payoff, but a partial payoff so the audience keeps going forward. A full-payoff loses the tension between the two Characters and closure usually kills the kilig almost immediately after.

How essential is it? I’d say quite. However, to achieve kilig, I think there are two things that need to be set up first:

  1. The Characters are likeable enough for the readers/audience to want to ship them.

  2. The fulfillment of that anticipation is achieved by the Characters through a great display of likeability or likeable traits. That fulfillment isn’t just given to the Characters. It has to be earned by them through their actions.

Is cheesiness in a love story subjective? I mean, how can a love story writer be conscious of kilig that is a good kind of kilig vs getting too cheesy to the point of being cloyingly annoying?

Cheesiness in a love story is subjective in the sense that one cannot come up with a mathematical formula for it, as far as I know.

However, to avoid getting too cheesy, I think one must not be cheesy for the sake of cheesiness. Sometimes a beginning writer adds a quotable quote or a witty repartee simply because they think it’s cute; however, that quotable quote or witty repartee is hardly justified. When a reader/audience senses this, they become conscious of the artificiality, and that’s when the cheesiness becomes cloyingly annoying. However, if the situation is unavoidable and the cheesiness is quite in context, then we get the kilig factor.

Do you find it harder to write the dialogue and direction of the male protagonist vs the female protagonist? I find myself tripping over what the guy would say, because I would think they would say it “this way” but maybe a male writer might write it differently? 

Before I even worry about the dialogue, I worry about the plot and my statement. Usually, when I am clear and convinced by both my plot and my statement, I no longer worry about dialogue. A good plot already tells me what motivates characters to speak, regardless of whether they’re male or female. 

How do you manage the love story as a subplot?

The love story as a subplot has to be simpler. It’s no longer an exploration of love; it’s about whatever the main plot wishes to discuss. It has to contribute to the main arc.

For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s the love story between Marion Ravenwood and Indiana Jones. The arc was very important to Indiana. Especially in the climax of the film, Indiana prioritizes the safety of Marion over getting the Ark of the Covenant from the antagonists. I think that says something.

In The Mummy Returns (a very underrated movie), love becomes a subplot of survival. In that film, the love story of Rick and Evie is set in contrast to the love story of Anck-su-namun and Imhotep. It’s especially in the film’s climax where we see the clear distinction between love and self-love.

In both examples, the love stories as subplots are nowhere as complex as compared to stories that focus primarily on love. Nonetheless, they’re so integral to the main plot that these films would be drastically different without their love story subplots.

Dr. Joem Antonio has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from UP Diliman and is an eight-time Palanca Award winner. He's also the Director of the MA Humanities Program at the University of Asia and the Pacific. For more information on his writing workshops, please visit https://www.storywritingschool.com.

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