My first four professionally published short stories were all love stories of one kind or another. I love good love stories. And so when the Writing Excuses team podcasted about this topic with Dave Wolverton, I was excited to hear what they had to say. Of course, they didn’t dissappoint. However, I would like to add a few things here.
1. A love story or romance is a happiness story. The problem is one of danger to, lack of, or opportunity for the happiness that comes with having a close bond with someone else. To be loved and included, to be valued by someone.
2. Love stories don’t have to be between two characters who are romantically interested in each other. They can be between two people who become friends or a person who is on the outs with a particular group as with RAINMAN, or between a father (or father figure) and son as in TREASURE PLANET, or a mother and daughter.
3. It seems to me that these social story problems can be broken down into four elements.
- Raising the idea
- Making the characters attractive
- Raising obstacles and conflict
- Showing signs of progression
RAISING THE IDEA
Just as with any story problem, we have to know there’s an issue. The idea of possibility or lack has to be presented to us. And the specific person who we hope the character bonds with has to be identified. How is this done?
Lots of ways. But I can see two big ones right off the bat. The first has to do with what a character notices about the other person. In a romantic love story, it might be some thoughts about another’s attractiveness, either looks or character. This could happen when the character sees the other person, touches them, hears them speak. And it doesn’t have to be a stranger. Perhaps they had a crush on that person when they were younger. There are all sorts of cues we use to signal romantic potential. All we have to do is raise a few of those for the reader and the idea is planted.
The second way the idea is raised is by having some other character raise it. Someone else notices the person and thinks them attractive. Or they make a suggestion that our character getting together with them is a possibility.
So when Jack sees Mary he can think about when the blankety blank she’s going to get off the commando team because all she does is distract the men. Not him, of course. Or Bill can tell Jack that Mary has been watching him. And Jack can say, she can look all she wants because she’s never going to get a piece of this.
MAKING THE CHARACTERS ATTRACTIVE
The second thing I see that’s necessary is that the other person is attractive to the reader. Or, at least, the reader could see how the character could be attracted to this person. This doesn’t always have to be physical beauty. Nor does it have to be sexual attraction. A buddy story would be about something else–about someone who we think is admirable in some way. But it has to happen for the reader to believe the story.
Of course, our hero may be duped. Jack might be falling for Cindy when she’s really just after his money. The readers know both sides and can see how Jack’s choices make sense, even while we feel great anxiety of the trouble coming down the line.
RAISING OBSTACLES AND CONFLICT
These are key, of course. No obstacles or conflicts and there is no story. Jack sees Jill. Says I love you. They marry. The end. So we have to have obstacles. They can start immediately with the character recognizing a possiblity. For example, Jack is simply oblivious to Jill’s interest in him. And when he decides to trust his friend’s advice to pursue her, he sees her with another man. She’s not an option for him afterall.
If we think about yes-buts and no-furthermores and that usually the hero has to fail at the end of act 2 for us to feel triumph at the end of act 3, we’ll see that obstacles and conflicts progress just as they do in any other story.
There are many obstacles or points of conflict. Distance (CASTAWAY), social status, fears of rejection, a stuttering problem, another person who Jack is interested in or who Jill is interested in, something Jill does that Jack doesn’t agree with, jobs that are demanding and keep them apart or make them keep secrets (TRUE LIES). Are too closely related. It’s against your vows or values (you’re a nun or he’s a client) Etc. Many are internal and have to do with trust, fear, competing desires, and commitment.
The key to the obstacles, I’ve found, is in making it hard to choose or fulfill commitment. It isn’t about sex or kissing. Because you can have a story where two people have sex and it doesn’t resolve any tension in the love story (what if the guy is seen that night with another woman?). It’s about two people being able to say I love or value you and meaning it.
And so anything that would keep them from commiting works. And after they’ve committed, anything that would make one recant. Or be unable to enjoy that love going forward.
SHOWING SIGNS OF PROGRESSION
The last thing is that the audience needs to know that things are moving forward. In plotting, we need a few yesses along the way or the story’s over. How do we do this? What are the signs? I can think of a few.
- The character’s thoughts are more and more about the other person, noticing all sorts of things, dealing more and more with inner dilemmas.
- The character’s actions become more and more open. The lingering looks, or glances she tries to hide, the touching. The character’s words become more and more direct. Usually oblique at first and then more clear later.
- There is more validation from other characters.
Why do so many stories have the characters in a romance dance? Not because dancing is some mystical thing. No, it’s a romantic cue. We associate romance with dancing. And being in such close proximity raises the pulse. But you can put people in close proximity in many other ways–in a crate as they’re being smuggled into the country, standing smashed together in a subway, retracting a bullet from the leg, cutting and washing hair (John Travolta in PHENOMENON), etc. The reason why we do this; however, is so that we can get a yes, a sign of progression. Of course, we could also use it to raise a devestating conflict as when Maria dances with Captain Von Trapp in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But that’s only devestating because during the dance they had declared in subtle ways that they were interested in one another.
So we raise obstacles and show signs of progression, back and forth, the obstacles pointing more and more toward disaster until at the end of act 2 Jack loses…and we get the no-but plot turn. No, he’s failed completely. But then a desperate glimmer of hope…
In the end we need final confirmation. One thing that says, yes, they’re committed. Often in romantic love stories writers use sex as a blunt confirmation. I think it’s often the lazy way out. Here, show Jack and Jill having sex. Okay, next plot point. It’s lost most of its power for me. And such a thing should be anything but cliche. My advice is to think of many other ways that show commitment and value. A few examples off the top of my head are what Dean Koontz in his ODD THOMAS series did this for Odd and Stormy, FAR AND AWAY with Joseph and Shannon, WHAT ABOUT BOB, and SABRINA. In fact, having sex was turned on its head in this one. Lovely.
At least think about other options because romantic love stories are not about sex. Sexual tension stories are. But that’s a different problem. A different type of story. And it seems writers sometimes confuse these two. Romantic love stories are about two people finally saying, yes, I love you, I value you, and I mean it, and always will. And as an audience, we believe.
And if that doesn’t move you, then remember that one of the things we go to stories for is surprise. Something new. How wonderful would it be if something as simple and Jackbiking into Jill’s work place with a parrot on his shoulder is the ultimate moment of the story, and says everything that needs to be said? And when Jill looks up at the commotion, her heart to this point hardened or desolate, and sees the bird, the audience weeps or cheers…