Director and Screenwriter Yulin Kuang Switches Gears With Debut Novel

Author Yulin Kuang and the cover of her book "How to End a Love Story."
“How to End a Love Story” has already been named a Most Anticipated Book of 2024. (Photo courtesy of Sela Shiloni.)

Yulin Kuang has been thinking up romance stories since she was 11, back when she was writing Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley fanfics in her childhood bedroom. Now, all that practice has led to her debut novel, a contemporary romance titled “How to End a Love Story,” which released this month on April 2. 

“How to End a Love Story” centers around novelist Helen Zhang and screenwriter Grant Shephard, who have a prickly history after an accident in their teenage years left them both devastated. Thirteen years later, fate pits the two of them together once again, as they find themselves in the same writer’s room, working towards adapting Helen’s popular YA series, “Ivy Papers,” into a television show. 

On the film front, Kuang has directed episodes of “Dollface” and “The Healing Powers of Dude,” the latter for which she was nominated for a 2020 Daytime Emmy. Next for Kuang is writing and directing the adaptation of Emily Henry’s novel, “Beach Read,” for 20th Century. She is also the adaptor of Henry’s “People We Meet on Vacation,” which is in development at Temple Hill and 3000 Pictures. 

Kuang chats with Character Media in anticipation of her debut novel, sharing with us her love for romance, as well as the differences between writing for the screen and for the page. 

CM: It’s your debut novel. How are you feeling? 

Yulin Kuang: Oh, God, I’m sinking slowly into madness. [I feel] all the normal anxiety. It’s a very personal story and so that means I care a lot about how it’s received. And that’s not always a recipe for glowing mental health. But that’s part of the charm of being an artist. 

CM: What made you decide to write a novel? 

YK: Normally, I’m a screenwriter and director. I wrote this at a time when everything else I was working on was an adaptation of something. It felt like nothing was original anymore. I love adaptation and I loved the things I was working on, but it was still a moment of “Is this why I got into this?” 

I was going to write something for myself to direct, but it was October and National Novel Writing Month was around the bend. There was something in the air. I decided to have at it and try writing a novel and I figured, if it’s bad, I’ll never have to show it to anybody ever. But it was rewarding and fun and I wrote it in a fugue state where I would wake up at 5 a.m. every morning and write until 10 a.m., then switch gears over onto “People You Meet on Vacation,” which was the script I was working on at the time, and do that from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and then I’d switch gears back to the novel from 5 p.m. until midnight. By the end of it, I was frothing at the mouth and crazy-eyed.

CM: How do you transition from writing on-screen to writing for a book? What is the difference between these two processes?

YK: I outline all of my scripts and use the same basic break-down, [beat-sheet] for the story. It’s called “Save the Cat.” I use it for features and Dan Harmon’s story circle for TV pilots, but I figured a novel is closer to a feature than a TV show. I went through the movements of the “Save the Cat” beat: an opening image, then the theme stated, etc… I was writing towards beats like that, but in screenwriting, the next step is a more detailed outline, where it’ll have the literal slugline. That’s the outline I would be working on if it was a screenplay, whereas with the book I just went into writing it and so things had a way of bleeding into other things. It was definitely less structured [than screenwriting].

CM: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

YK: Early on, I was writing a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction [during a time] when it was illegal for me to have a account. I was way too young. I was always writing but I didn’t know I was going to be a writer until I was 15-years-old. I made this deal with myself that if I could get my Harry/Ginny fanfic on the top ten list of LiveJournal’s Top Ten Harry/Ginny One-shots of the Year, then I would have a career for myself as a professional writer. And I did, and I do. Shoutout to 15-year-old me. 

I was always drawn to storytelling. Even before all that, I would watch movies with my parents and lie awake in bed at night thinking of ways to make the characters kiss. I remember “A Few Good Men” was one that we watched – and that’s a gritty, courtroom drama – but I remember just thinking, “Demi Moore and Tom Cruise should kiss.” I would go to bed at night and I would replay the movie up to the point and be like, “Alright, I think in this scene, he would say this and she would say this,” and then I’d rewrite the scene. I was always drawn to romantic storytelling.

CM: How does it feel being an Asian American writer in the romance space? What does it mean to have an Asian American woman be central in a romance story? 

YK: It was very important to me to have an Asian American woman as the heroine of this romance novel. I always want to see myself represented in things. I don’t think we should only be allowed to tell stories that center Asian leads. I am glad that I’ve been able to expand into things where the source material or the protagonists aren’t necessarily Asian, because on some level it means that I haven’t been pigeonholed. But, when I was telling my own story, it never occurred to me to make the protagonist, Helen, anything but Asian. That’s a part of how I experience life and that is a part of the story spectrum of romance novels that I want to contribute to – there are a lot of great romance novelists writing out there who are Asian and have interesting things to say. 

CM: With the rise of BookTok, YouTube, and fanfiction, how have online spaces changed the ways you receive or write stories? 

YK: I’m part of the first generation of artists that grew up extremely online. I started my fanfiction profile when I was 11 years old. I also had a YouTube channel in the 2010s. I used to talk a lot about how exciting it was to have a dialogue directly with people who are fans of your work. But then I found focusing too much on that back-and-forth would lead me to be self-conscious artistically. I was like, “These people liked this thing … I’m a little bit worried if I do something different, they won’t like that … and they’re really invested in these actors and if I work with different actors, will they follow me?” Having that awareness in the back of my head wasn’t always great, but that’s a part of being a creative in this day and age. Constantly being able to know what people think about you, what they think about your work, and then you have the option of, Do you want to engage with them? Or do you want to construct this wall? Once you let in a little bit of a dialogue, how much? You need really healthy boundaries now in a way that I don’t think Jane Austen was thinking about. Maybe she was getting a couple of fan letters, but I don’t think she was able to Google her name and be like, “Oh these people think I’m annoying.” It’s different. 

CM: One of the things I appreciated within the book was the balance between romance and family. How did you go about toeing that balance?

YK: I did not realize it was going to be about family as much as it was. I was going to tell a romance novel with a meta component, exploring screenwriting and novel-writing and adaptation. Then, I thought, [the characters] should go home for the holidays. Suddenly, I’m in my childhood home and I’m writing out all my generational trauma onto the page. It was interesting, as I was writing, finding the things that I was writing towards be the things that I felt nervous about. I pick at emotional scabs in order to figure out what is interesting. I wanted to chase that feeling. For a lot of my younger work, when I was a YouTuber and I made all these short films, I was writing away from those things. I wanted to be a good role model. I didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes about high-achieving Asians. This time around, I don’t want to be a careful storyteller, I want to be a compelling one. And for me, what’s compelling is when things have a ring of truth to it.

CM: Helen and Grant have a heavily intertwined past, one that involves the death of Helen’s sister, Michelle. When did that idea – the tragic relationship between Helen, Michelle, and Grant – come to fruition? 

YK: That came last. I knew I wanted it to be about adaptation. I knew I wanted it to be about a screenwriter and a novelist who had known each other in high school and had these dynamics: she was the head of her school newspaper and he was the Homecoming King. The day before I was supposed to start drafting, I walked into the kitchen, turned to my husband and was like, “What if I did this crazy thing too?” And he was like, “Oh, there’s something sticky about that.”

I was nervous because I would have to handle things very delicately and with sensitivity and I’d have to do more research. I love a romcom, but I also love real-life stakes. I wanted to explore what it is to have a shared wound between two people. When I’m doing my adaptation work, I spend a lot of time thinking about the author. What shared wounds do we have in our past that make us gravitate towards these types of stories? I knew I wanted to also give [Helen and Grant] a shared wound. 

CM: Speaking more on adaptation, what was the process like adapting Emily Henry’s books? With such a big fanbase, how do you do the story justice? 

YK: I was always such a big fan of books when I was growing up. I remember I would scour the internet for news about any adaptation. I’d always look up the people working on it and think, “I hope they fucking care about this book as much as I do.” I’ve been using those memories and feelings to guide me in this. I think, “What would I have wanted people to do back then?” For “Beach Read,” which I’m directing as well as writing, I knew I wanted to really steep in the atmosphere of it, so I could bring justice to that. I booked a trip to Holland, Michigan, which is the place Emily was inspired by when she was writing “Beach Read.” I stayed there for about a week, just rereading the book, walking along the beach, looking at all these things and trying to be inspired by the same places. I love making a literary pilgrimage. I’m a big Elizabeth Gaskell fan and went to her house in Manchester just to see where “North and South” was written. I treated it like that – I was making a literary pilgrimage and then exploring accordingly. That’s the beginning part. I wanted to steep in the text so that when I get to this part, where I’m in my office [trying to figure out] how I can show all this interiority on the screen, I can think back to all of those scenes that I’ve walked through and see if there’s anything else to pull from. 

CM: Who would you fancast in an adaptation of “How to End a Love Story”?

YK: That’s such a hard question because if we ever do it, I don’t want anybody to hear it and be like, “Oh no, she didn’t want me.” There is something about these characters that is Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang-coded. He’s the golden boy and Cho Chang is the representation that we had in those books. That’s our baseline. We’ll start there. So, whoever we would fancast in those roles.