No, I don’t actually believe in such a concept as “too much love”. If anything, the world could always use more love. But I’m not talking about world issues right now; I’m talking about romantic fiction.
Today’s topic is about the dangers of overusing the phrase “I love you” when writing romance. Now you might be wondering what exactly gives me the credibility to write about such a topic, and the answer is… not very much, except for my own amateur experience writing cheesy romance as a teenager and reading it again years later as an adult. So I’m just gonna talk about that.
When I was 16, I was a hopeless romantic. Now that I’m in my twenties… I’m still a hopeless romantic, but with a little more wisdom. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent part of my teen years writing medieval fantasy stories, among which was a star-crossed love story between a paladin (light-magic knight) and a necromancer (dark-magic sorceress). This story, so I had hoped, would someday develop into my first published novel. I was rather proud of it at the time I was working on it, even going as far as to share an excerpt of a particularly romantic chapter with friends. However, because my studies were highest on my list of priorities, the story was never finished, instead sitting in my computer as an incomplete novella collecting metaphorical dust over the course of a few years. It was after I started college that I finally rediscovered the piece among my archives, and after rereading my work with a fresh perspective, I finally began to take notice of some elements in the narrative that were – to my disappointment as a perfectionist but my delight as a neophyte at writing – dangerously clichéd.
Now, I won’t be going into excruciating detail about what made my unfinished story trite; I wouldn’t want to bore you with what could easily be thousands of words’ worth of self-criticism. Instead, I want to cover the main cliché in my work that jumped out at me the most: the aforementioned overuse of the phrase “I love you”. At the end of every romantic scene between the main characters, I would have them finish their conversation with those three words before they parted ways. It made sense to me that those should always be the last words they’d hear each other say until the next time they met. So what was wrong with that?
What I didn’t yet realize at the naïve age of 16 was that by having my characters actually say the words “I love you”, contrary to my intentions, I was creating less-than-believable dialogue. I was writing based on an instinct I’ve had my entire life: to always make sure these are among the last words I say to my loved ones before we leave each other’s company. Although this was perfectly normal for me (or perhaps because it was), it took me a while to realize that such a practice is not universally routine. Not everyone is accustomed to speaking the phrase several times in a single day; for many, it’s often just implied, if even that.
This, I realize now, is what I should have made clear with my characters. The love between them should have been implied, without the need for constant spoken confessions. By having them end every conversation with “I love you”, I was inadvertently detracting from the emotion that should have already been established outside of the dialogue: the way they looked at each other, the subtle gestures they exchanged, the littlest details of every kiss. This surely would have made their romantic moments much more believable, and more importantly, it likely would have made the moments that I did have them confess their love verbally all the more powerful. And isn’t that really the ultimate goal of writing romance in the first place?
Though I never did finish this particular love story, I don’t consider a single second spent writing it a waste of time. Leaving it untouched for a while helped me to see it again with the slightly wiser mindset of a young adult, and recognizing my own mistakes taught me about a part of my growth as a writer and a person that I might not have come to notice otherwise. But you don’t need to care about how this subject has affected me; what’s important for you to take away from this topic is a new awareness of how to recognize believable dialogue in romantic scenarios, especially if you plan on writing some yourself.
So if you appreciate romance as much as I do, please feel free to take my advice and learn from my mistakes (or even yours, if you’ve been through a similar experience). In short, writers should take care not to abuse the words “I love you”; if you wouldn’t do so yourself in your real life, you shouldn’t have your characters do so in your fictional works. “I love you” is a beautiful and magical phrase, but it can only remain so as long as it’s handled with the respect it deserves. Please write wisely; true romance enthusiasts everywhere thank you.