Emotional Fiction: How to Use Love in Your Story

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How does that song go — every story is a love story? It’s true. Even if you don’t write romance into your manuscript, some kind of love invariably makes an appearance.

Portraying love in fiction is tricky. While love is considered a universal language and a core element of the human experience, we can’t shorthand it. Love in fiction should mirror the experience in real life, not the unrealistic ideal we’d like it to be. Love often brings out conflicting loyalties, priorities, and desires. This is just the kind of drama that keeps readers turning pages.

Want to beef up the love in your story? Show readers the following:

Conflicting Goals or Desires

Love stories that show people grappling with conflicting loyalties and priorities will grab readers’ attention. Real-life relationships are imperfect, be they marriages, friendships, or parent-child relationships. Those imperfections give our relationships deeper meaning and force us to ask important questions. Seeing those issues in fictional stories helps us process them in our own lives.

If your relationships feel flat, find ways to infuse them with tension. Some possibilities include:

  • One partner wants children but the other is unsure
  • A single parent is heartbroken when their teenage child wants to attend college abroad
  • Two friends share an obsession with a guy they assume is unattainable — until he expresses interest in one of them
  • Your protagonist is passed over for a promotion the same week their spouse gets offered a dream job

These don’t have to be explosive moments in your story. Your characters may never even talk about them out loud. However, they create interesting tension in your story and give readers a chance to learn more about what sort of people your characters are.

Different Ways of Showing Love

My husband comes from a family of huggers. I do not. Over the years we’ve learned there are many different ways to demonstrate love for another person. Physical affection and the words “I love you” are only two examples.

How do your characters show love for others? How do they want others to express love for them? These questions can open up tons of possibilities for character development, conflict, and tension. Show your characters navigating their own love languages and struggles to show their feelings in a way the intended recipient will understand.

Also, what about love from a distance? Many obstacles can keep people from being with those they love, including:

  • Family (teenagers with disapproving parents, religious or cultural divides, etc.)
  • Geography
  • Incarceration
  • Illness
  • Conflict (one person has cut ties out of anger, etc.)

If your characters face an obstacle like this, show how they respond. Do they find a way to communicate anyway? Wait it out? Give up? Showing how your protagonist negotiates this separation will keep readers on the emotional rollercoaster with them.

Reasons for Love

One of my favorite cliches is “love is a verb.” When I see love portrayed in fiction, I don’t want to see warm fuzzies on the page. I want the full relationship. A well-crafted collection of moments and actions will evoke that feeling of love more effectively than racing hearts and warm fuzzies ever could.

This is particularly true of romantic love. Too often, writers put characters together and expect readers to take their love for granted. You may be able to get away with this under the right circumstances, but readers will find it off-putting in pairings that don’t make immediate sense.

Love is complicated in all its forms. It may indeed be a universal language, but each relationship is unique. Don’t shy away from this complexity. It can add a big emotional punch to your story.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for Inkitt and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster and in print in Houston Family Magazine.

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