Former NCW Programme Manager Lora Stimson has taken quotes from four authors, old and new, and created four short writing exercises to help you develop your skills in writing about love, sex and romance.
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Love, including exercises, a podcast and an article, all covering the broad topic of writing about love. Our Resources packs are generously supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
Learning your character
‘Love is a gateway towards ourselves, it knows you in ways you may not have already discovered. I write love to show care to the people in my stories, and the nuances of how they choose to love. My advice to anyone thinking or writing about love, is to always remember how someone’s reality will affect the way that they receive and share love. What is your reality and how does it make you want to love?‘ — Tice Cin, author of Keeping the House, Shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2022
Take a lesser known-to-you-character, perhaps one who exists in the shadows of your story, has a supporting role or bit part. One whom you don’t yet know enough about. Think about the object of their love; this could be a romantic partner or parent, a celebrity or historical icon, a sibling or co-worker.
Then think or write about the character’s reality, fleshing out some of what you don’t yet know about them.
Going back to that character with this new information, how might that character choose to give and receive love. Why is that? What have you learned about this character to make them more alive in the world of your story?
Try this exercise in 800 words.
‘I often write from a place of lack, and this was certainly true with my butch-meets-femme coming-of-age rom-com Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz. I wasn’t seeing relationships between young, queer working class characters being represented in fiction so I decided to write something myself. I highly recommend that new writers just ignore the trends, go with your gut and write the book you want; write the book that you would love to see on a shelf.‘ — Ely Percy, author of Duck Feet and Escalator Literature alumni
Think of a story of love between characters whose fate left you cold. Maybe it’s an infamous couple from history or family from the literary canon, a Bollywood movie or song. Why are you frustrated by their story? Did the character fall for the wrong person, forgive the family member, behave at odds with their character? Was it the Hollywood ending that put you off, the injustice of a power-imbalance, or did it just. not. work?
So rewrite it!
Take the dynamics of these characters and play the story out as you see it. Is what you’ve created the beginning of something completely fresh?
Try this exercise in one scene.
‘In love there are two things—bodies and words.‘ — Joyce Carol Oates
Think about two or more bodies in a room, or take a scene from your own work. Remember, the more bodies to orchestrate the more complex and interesting, but the harder the task! What are they each saying?
Then think about what they are each thinking.
How do their bodies convey or mask these differences. Is their body language defensive, flirtatious, comforting. How might the characters be attuned to their bodies in this scenario? Are they unaware of themselves, or horribly self-conscious? As you start to build their personality and backstory, how does their body language change in the given scenario?
Try limiting yourself to 500 words.
‘To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.‘ — Mark Twain
Think of a character who believes the opposite of this. What do they believe? How might this play out in their relationships?
On hearing this quote, what might they say in response? Do they believe what they say? And why? How might they persuade Mark Twain otherwise?!
Try this exercise in 1,000 words.
The first rule for writing about love…
‘The first rule of writing about love is we do not write about love. Why not? Isn’t love what most of us write about, most of the time? Its pursuit, its loss, its unfailing capacity to make idiots of us all? That is precisely my point. The emotion we call love is many things. The Greeks have eight words for it. It may be romantic love – usually the first which comes to mind when we think of the word ‘love’ – but it may also be love of family, of country, of pets, or paintings, or even ourselves.
‘As fiction writers our task is not merely to tell our readers that Jodie is in love with Mary, who is devoted to her aging father, an old soldier reliving the wars he fought with the comrades he loved, adored by his dog who also loves anyone who will give him peanut butter. Each of these loves is different and shows itself in different ways. Perhaps the tension between these loves is the story. When writing about love we are writing about everything. All the language we use is a language of love, and so are the spaces we leave, the silences we observe. To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.’ — Sarah Bower
Sarah has created the following exercise: take three characters who have an emotional connection. Feel free to choose from the example above or use your own. Create a scene which shows how they relate to one another. Do not use the word ‘love’ or any of its synonyms in your writing. See what happens.
Take the following eight Greek words for love for further inspiration:
- Eros (romantic, passionate love)
- Philia (affectionate love)
- Agape (selfless, universal love)
- Storge (familiar love)
- Mania (obsessive love)
- Ludus (playful love)
- Pragma (enduring love)
- Philautia (self love)