Posted On March 30, 2015 by Print This Post

Portraying the Unportrayable: Inspiring ways to show love and tenderness in fiction by Alex Limberg

Good morning, RU Crew! Please welcome first-time guest Alex Limberg. 

Wonderful to have you with us, Alex.  

Rain was pouring down on the pavement in heavy showers.

“Wait, wait,” he suddenly shouted from behind, running after her. “You forgot something…”

Under her umbrella, she turned around surprised, with an expectant look on her face: “What is it?”

Panting he stood before her: “You forgot to give me a chance to tell you that I love you. More than I have ever imagined that I could love someone!”

“Oh, John!” She fell round his neck. Suddenly teardrops were mixing with the pouring rain: “I promise to love you forever, every single day of eternity,” she sighed. “Being with you is… like magic.”

They kissed passionately under the open sky, lost in a bubble of time and space, not even noticing the heavy waterfalls pouring down on them and getting them soaking wet.

Did this scene touch you deeply? Did it really get to you? To me, it did nothing.

What you just read is an accumulation of clichés we have seen a thousand times before, all pressed into one single scene. I just fed you a learned code instead of serving you fresh fiction, a learned code like traffic signals or like the bell Pavlov’s dogs were trained to react to. The signals above are intended to get you salivating romantically…

Fiction needs to speak truth, it needs to be raw and bold and unconditional, it has to touch our inner beings – like love. It shouldn’t be a preformed template.

Here is the problem though: No feeling in fiction is harder to convey than love. That’s because being in love is a feeling that escapes any description – it’s too exciting; too strange; too magnetic; too rare. Pain, joy, disappointment, anxiousness are all easier to describe than love. They are more one-dimensional, more common, maybe not as strong as love.

Because love is so difficult to describe, many writers circle around it. Instead of taking a shot at painting the feeling itself for you, they give you placeholders you recognize from movies: “Ah, they are saying they will love each other forever! That’s how it works in romance novels, so that must mean it’s real love.”

How can you do it better?

This post aims to show you a couple of ways to craft more authentic love scenes, drawing from deep inside. Also, because I know stereotypes can be hard to detect, below the post you can find a free goodie to help you check your story for clichés and any other imaginable problem (it uses test questions).

Let’s take a look at refreshing ways to craft love scenes:

  1. Work with Commonalities

There is one thing all romances share in real life, and that’s definitely not a cliché: It’s the lovers’ commonalities.Ride The Pen

The type of these commonalities might be completely different from romance to romance: One couple could be very similar in character, but very different in lifestyle; another one could have the same hobbies, but sport very divergent world views.

Common features and differences are what makes romance so exciting; use the tension between the opposites and the attraction of the same to craft an emotional rhythm in your scene – or maybe it’s the tension between the same and the attraction of the opposites?

One great ingredient of a love scene is two people “discovering” each other. Discovering commonalities is an exciting process and oftentimes lets love grow, so play with it. Let them be like magnets: Repelling when approaching each other from the wrong side, but attracting each other strongly when approaching from the right side.

  1. Less Is More

The finest notes in good love scenes are often not spoken aloud, or they are articulated in a delayed or shortened way. It’s because we are operating on emotionally delicate ground: A lot of desires, reservations, suspicions and fears play into our notion of romance.

Don’t just let your characters plainly say what they are about! This rule holds true for all fiction writing, but the difference in a love scene is that you have very believable reasons to not let your figures talk, be it awkwardness or reservation. Operate with unspoken words, silence, a sentence much too short at the right time. You can let body language speak for itself.

This technique should force your reader to read between the lines; to turn on his own imagination, which is the most amazing thing you can do for him: Let your reader watch his very own movie!

Here is a quick example:

“Sometimes I feel like there is nobody to turn to,” Joe said, “like… like the world is an empty place. Do you know what I mean?”

Scarlet just stared at her shoes.

“Nobody,” he said.

  1. Draw from Your Very Private Experiences

Draw from your private treasure trove of experience instead of from experiences movies and TV shows have pre-canned for you. Don’t commit the error we were just talking about and sidestep the challenge by falling back on clichés because you feel like you don’t have the ability to describe something on your own terms, following its own laws. In other words: Risk something!

Anger, hurt, attraction, admiration, enthusiasm, guilt: Let your characters experience, express and withhold a broad range of emotions, a variety of complicated feelings – love is complicated! Think of all the emotions you could send your characters through. Try to express things the way they felt to you personally when you were there, not in the way you have seen others describe them.

For example, did you notice the word “tenderness” in the headline? It’s a very private word and a rather unusual one to include in the headline of a writing tutorial, isn’t it? That’s why I put it in there. It comes a lot closer to the core of this post than the word “love,” which is so overused it has become a cliché in itself. You can find the word “love” everywhere, be it in movies, novels or song lyrics, not to speak of oversized ads or everyday language. So try not to use it. Instead, it makes much more impact to just describe what love does to your characters.

Using your private experiences also means that you will have to get naked and spread bits and pieces of private feelings for everybody to see. Luckily, nobody knows which parts stem from you personally and which parts are just made up. And contrary to an actor, you don’t have to pour out your soul directly in front of an audience, but have the laptop screen between you and your readers to protect you.

  1. Let Men and Women Talk Differently

There is a big misconception about men and women. Maybe it’s just a misconception of language, because when somebody says, “Men and women are equal,” he is only half right: We are equal in value, but not equal in nature.

We don’t feel alike. We don’t act alike. We don’t talk alike.

For example, can you quickly tell if the following phrase likely comes from a man or from a woman?

“Do you think he/she looks better than me?”

How about the following one, man or woman?

“If he does this again, I will teach him some manners!”

You might call this a cliché, but I can’t remember ever overhearing a woman saying the second sentence. I have heard men uttering similar statements though – we just have big egos…

So keep in mind to lend different voices to your boy and your girl. In other words, let the differences between men and women get into your scene and make sure the romance in your story becomes as complicated and as awesome as romance is in real life…

And there you have it, the ingredients for an authentic love scene. There is so much more to romance in fiction, but if you keep these points in mind, your scene will make a powerful impact and really touch readers.

Now over to you: What are your own secrets? Have you found something that works really well for love scenes? Let us know in the comments!


Alex LimberAbout the author: Alex Limberg is the founder of ‘Ride the Pen’, a creative writing blog dissecting famous authors (works, not bodies); his blog includes detailed writing prompts. Check your story for clichés with his free e-book (download here) about ‘44 Key Questions’ to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter in a Hamburg advertising agency and with camera and lighting in the movie business. He is from Austria and has previously lived in Los Angeles and Madrid.


Coming up on Wednesday, April 1st – Give Your Heroes Some Help: Supporting Characters Lend a Hand with Barbara White Daille. 

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5 Responses to “Portraying the Unportrayable: Inspiring ways to show love and tenderness in fiction by Alex Limberg”

  1. Great post, Alex! One thing I’ve noticed is that when I see the word “passionate” describing a kiss, a clinch, whatever, I react much the same as when someone tells me their book is hilarious, wonderful, the best thing I’ll ever read. It instantly throws me into a distancing mode: “Suuuuure, it’s passionate, and you’re sooooo funny – NOT!” Of course, that could just be my own personal reaction to certain buzzwords. Those scenes are always hard to write, in part because there’s a limited number of ways to describe actions pretty much everyone is familiar with. It’s incredibly refreshing to come across books where the author makes these scenes REAL.

    Thanks so much for your great advice!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | March 30, 2015, 10:47 pm
    • Thanks, Becke!

      Yes, exactly, it’s important to be specific – in fiction writing and in real life as well.

      Somebody says “She is a nice person.” That means basically nothing.

      Or my favorite: “I have a great sense of humor.” Show, don’ tell! Ha ha.

      I’m glad you like the post.

      Posted by Alex | March 31, 2015, 6:33 am
  2. Hi Alex,

    It’s been a crazy day, and I finally have time to sit down in front of the computer.

    After I read your post a few days ago, Jim Croce’s song ‘Time in a Bottle’ came to mind. (And yes I’m dating myself.) This song, and many other love songs, don’t contain the phrase ‘I love you’ and still convey the sentiment.

    As far as using cliches, I think writers are influenced to an extent from what they’ve read. I’m aware that clichés are a no-no, but I swear they’re imbedded in my subconscious because I’ve read so many romances. I like to weave short sentences, one-word answers, and subtle physical cues in love scenes. Sometimes, the most powerful emotion on a page is what’s left unsaid.

    Thanks for an insightful post. You’ve given me some valid points to mull over.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | March 30, 2015, 11:26 pm


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