Writing a love story
February 27, 2010 11:39 AM   Subscribe

What are some tips for writing a really convincing love story?

I’m researching time-honored ways to write a believable and gripping love story. I wonder what advice is out there on how to write such a thing, or what has really worked for you as a reader/viewer.

So far I’m familiar with your basic romantic comedy formula (boy loses girl through misunderstanding and has to get her back; forces conspire to keep them apart, but they are destined to be together; the hero is deceiving himself or others, but has to face the truth; the love object must be desirable to the audience as well as the protagonist).

What are some good devices for making a love story work, without being hackneyed or predictable?
posted by thelastenglishmajor to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I write for television, and also watch a stupid amount of television. In my experience, the obstacles should come organically from the characters and be believable. For that reason, I'm not a fan of problems due to misunderstanding. I also hate love triangles in which one person is a straw man villain (like Billy Zane in Titanic -- although obviously that movie was a highly successful love story). It's much more interesting to me when everyone in the love story is behaving in a justified, sympathetic way. That way the problems they face are more heart-wrenching.
posted by malhouse at 12:05 PM on February 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Random observation from personal experience:
-I hate the cliche that if you're really in love, you put the other person's happiness over your own desire to be with him. I've never known anyone who was able to follow "if you love him let him go." Things are usually a lot less mature and a lot more humiliating.
-I second this: I'm not a fan of problems due to misunderstanding. I really hate that so many love stories manufacture drama from one person being magically unable or unwilling to say something.

Most believable love stories to me:
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for its illustration of how devastatingly sad it would be to lose the memory of even the most painful parts of love.
-When Harry Met Sally, for its illustration of how personal issues don't suddenly disappear when you first get romantic with someone you're "meant to" be with.
-The Graduate, if for nothing else than for its very last scene, where we wonder if one or both characters have started thinking "fuck, bad idea."
-That one scene in 500 Days of Summer where the protagonist looks back at a memory he's been idealizing and realizes he's misremembered, and had been cutting out all the conflict and hurt that was there too. Yeah, the movie is a little twee, but it did a really great job of showing the lies we tell ourselves when we so badly want someone to be in love with us.
-Season 2 of The Office (US), especially "Boys and Girls," where it becomes obvious that, if Pam doesn't know Jim loves her, she is at least picking up on whatever tension is present and is having a hard time confronting it.

Special mention to the real-life team of Dottie and John, whose book Love by the Glass was (thought not that literary or inventive) the simplest and sweetest book about love and marriage and wine I've ever read.
posted by sallybrown at 12:22 PM on February 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: the hero is deceiving himself or others, but has to face the truth

To me, this is the key. Love is (psychological) nudity. Being in love means being vulnerable. At some point, you have to take the risk and say, "I love you," knowing that your love might not be returned. Sometimes the risk is admitting to yourself that you're in love. Sometimes it's admitting it to the person you're in love with.

This is so scary that we put up huge walls of irony, bravado and denial in order to stave off the risk. It's cathartic to watch someone take that risk and see it pay off. (It's also really moving to watch someone take the risk and have it not pay off, as in "Remains of the Day." But that's a different kind of story.)

Read/watch "Remains of the Day" and "Sense and Sensibility." (SPOILER AHEAD!) What you want to shoot for is what happens to Emma Thompson's character at the end of the latter, when the man she's wanted through the whole movie finally declares his love for her. She's so overwhelmed with pent-up feeling that she bursts into tears.

This, I think, is what malhouse is talking about when he(?) talks about obstacles that come organically, from within. There's no major external force keeping Thompson (in either of those movies) from saying how she feels. (There's also no major external force keeping Anthony Hopkins' character from declaring himself in "Remains of the Day.") These characters partly hold back due to beliefs instilled in them by the societies in which they grew up. But -- and here's where we connect to them, most -- they also hold back out of fear: fear of rejection, fear of being so vulnerable. That fear is timeless. People felt it in caves. People feel it now.

When you're writing this sort of story, there are two ways to do it: you can go the way of "Emma" (or "Clueless") and "Much Ado About Nothing," and allow the audience to sympathetically smirk at the characters. We are wiser than Beatrice and Benedict. We know that if they just shut up and give up their pride, they will live happily ever after together. We know that almost from the beginning, and the fun is sitting back and watching it happen.

In movies like "Remains of the Day" and "Sense and Sensibility," we're much less sure. We get the feeling that an emotional risk might succeed or fail. We can't relax. We're caught up in the tension.

Both types of stories are wonderful if they're well crafted. I think the former is a bit easier to write than the latter (and so we see more movies and books like that). But I think the latter has a more profound emotional payoff.
posted by grumblebee at 12:28 PM on February 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

Can't agree enough about avoiding the misunderstanding plot device cliche.

A love story is only as good as the character development of those involved. It may not be enough on its own, but without good character development you have nothing. Ultimately if you want to tug the heartstrings of your audience, they need to be able to sympathize or at least empathize with the characters on a human level.

Also, for the love of god, respect the age of those involved. I hate the tendency with many love stories for people not to act remotely their age.
posted by drpynchon at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2010

Figure out why this couple is in love. There are plenty of love stories out there that show you how the couple is kept apart and expect you to think of it as tragic, but the romance isn't developed enough for you to become invested in their story, so you don't really care about result. In other words, if you're writing a romantic comedy, figure out the romance first, then add the comedy.

Unlike others, I'm okay with situations that keep couples in love apart; there's plenty of them in the real world and some stories I've heard from people -- and that I could tell -- sound like they're from the cheesiest romantic comedy you can imagine. A missed phone call, a misunderstood email, not enough communication, too much communication -- all of this can lead to people who were maybe meant to be together not ending up together. But like I said, the problem is that too many movies with a romance at the center take the assumption that we're all going to root for the couples to end up together for granted. Make people care about that and make that relationship real before you focus on taking it away.

Also, there's a reason why the cliches are cliches. Because they, at least at one time, worked really well. Don't focus too much on avoiding them but instead think about why they work, especially those that move you and feel real to you, even if you've seen them 1000 times.

But also don't worry about subverting expectations. The most romantic movie that's come out in the last five years, in my opinion, ends up with the main couple with other people and this is the happiest ending. The love these two people shared is what made the love they had with others possible, and if they'd met at a different time, maybe they would be together, but that doesn't matter -- because you have to live on the time line you're on right now. (I'm not saying what movie this is because I don't want to spoil it for those who might not have seen it.)

I had more to say when I was in the shower, but I've forgotten it now, and I'll let you know if I remember it. Sorry if these answers are too vague.

I had more to say when I was in the shower, but I've forgotten it now, and I'll let you know if I remember it.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:38 PM on February 27, 2010

Make his profession of love kind of meandering and stammering and not-really-getting-to-the-point-ish. Then she says something deadpan and they drive off into the sunset. Then add a twist. About how while he seems to have found happiness he's still not content.

Then make a lot of money.
posted by tigrefacile at 12:55 PM on February 27, 2010

What are some tips for writing a really convincing love story?

I'm unsure what you're asking. Do you want to know, 'what makes for an entertaining read' or 'what's realistic'?

... (boy loses girl through misunderstanding and has to get her back; forces conspire to keep them apart, but they are destined to be together; the hero is deceiving himself or others, but has to face the truth; the love object must be desirable to the audience as well as the protagonist)..

Realistically, the things you mention ('boy loses girl...' et al) really aren't artifacts of real life YMMV but are artifacts of the "Romance" genre. Maybe you might want to ask, how does real love get attained in real life.

If you're interested in real-world realism (as opposed to Hollywood realism), the most realistic detail I have to say is: crushes and romantic infatuations rarely end well.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 1:47 PM on February 27, 2010

In real life it seems that there are two basic falling in love premises - the immediate attraction at first sight, and the we've been friends for years but suddenly something ignites a romantic spark between us. Since my own personal romance story falls in the latter category, I'm more drawn to books/movies that follow that story line. I was acquainted with the future Mr. Adams for a few years via a club we both belonged to. We then became friendly after meeting several times per year at club functions. And then after six years of mingling at three or four conventions/meetings/parties per year, and occasionally talking on the phone in between times, we suddenly found ourselves sitting alone together at one of the conventions and talking about totally non-convention related stuff. I recall that childhood toys came up, and he'd remembered the same Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots commercial that I did, and that sent us off on a conversational tangent that lasted for many hours. And at some point during that meandering conversation we "clicked." So I tend to find story lines where two characters know each other tangentially but then eventually, quite unexpectedly, find out some sort of odd interest they both share and then slowly realize they have X amount of other things in common more interesting and believable.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:48 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's my feeling about the "misunderstandings" issue:

There's a old way to divide up conflicts in stories, categorizing them as Man-vs-Man conflicts and Man-vs-Nature conflicts.

Don't take those labels too literally. A story is a MvM story even if the two "men" are the same person. I would call "Hamlet" a MvM story, even though the protagonist is mostly doing battle with his own inner demons. A MvN story needn't be about people fleeing from a tidal wave. It a story where the obstacles come from situations rather than people. I would call "All Quiet on the Western Front" a MvN story. It conflict isn't between two characters. It's between a character and The War.

To me, "misunderstanding" stories are MvN stories. Yes, the misunderstanding comes from within, but it's basically a random event. It's not deeply rooted in character.

Both of these types of stories have rich pedigrees. An individual person may prefer one over the other, but both have been entertaining and moving people for as-long-as people have been told stories.

"Much Ado About Nothing" and "Taming of the Shrew" are MvM love stories. The conflict comes from the protagonists themselves. "Romeo and Juliet" is a MvN story. The conflict -- what's keeping the lovers apart -- comes from a force outside them.

I suspect many people here are reacting strongly against misunderstanding stories because many specific examples are contrived, silly and have no relation to anything anyone goes through in real life. But I wouldn't extrapolate that into a general principal that all love stories must be about internal or character-to-character conflicts.

If lovers are kept apart by something like war or parents (or sanctions from society), we can identify. Even if we don't live in a repressive society, we've all dated people that someone close to us hated. We've all had to move far away from people that we love.

You can also combine MvM and MvN: for instance, you could write a story about a Red State man who falls in love with a Blue State woman. Neither of them are political, so they don't care. But their parents are. So the two lovers are torn apart because their respective parents can't tolerate each other. So far, MvN.

The lovers find secret ways to see each other, until some event happens (e.g. the woman's sister decides to get an abortion) and they find themselves disagreeing along party lines. All of the sudden, they are just as entrenched as their parents.
The story is now also MvM.

This could become a tragedy, in which they forever remain divided. Or one or both of them could come to feel that love transcends politics and capitulate.

That's not terribly original, but I hope you get the basic idea.
posted by grumblebee at 4:46 PM on February 27, 2010

For me it's when the characters do everything they can to not be in love. Characters who are in love and resist and have internal conflicts about it are far more interesting than characters who fawn over each other.
posted by CarlRossi at 5:46 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most important: the reader/viewer has to want the characters to fall in love (or make good on it).

Hence, the characters should be likable (amidst less likable characters), or the feeling should be that love will somehow fix them. The question should always be: what's stopping these characters from being in love right now?

A traditional love story hinges on the idea that the characters will achieve perfect happiness if they get together—that's the bright shining McGuffin. And they could do it too, if they just open their eyes to what's in front of them / believe they are capable of loving [again] / shirk off whatever self-destructive thing they think is more important / learn how to love themselves too / validate their love via hardship and sacrifice / get over themselves and see how great they are as a team / look past their own shallowness / forgive each other for the mistakes they made when they came at love in a naive way / realize it's not too late to make it work / etc.

A more sophisticated story will often go on to show that the perfect happiness can't happen for some reason. But those are more like stories about love, instead of love stories. There are lots of good ones of these. I'll throw in Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
posted by fleacircus at 8:17 PM on February 27, 2010

A friend of mine has written some interesting love stories. I was at a dinner once where a woman asked him how he wrote such convincing women, considering he is a man. He said something like, "I think if you remove the pronouns and physical descriptions from my characters, there genders aren't guessable. The key to writing the gender you're unfamiliar with is to write them exactly the way you do the gender you are familiar with. Make them believable as people--true to themselves and the characteristics you gave them. Then, when you add the pronouns and the physical descriptions, the reader will fill in the 'Yup, just a like a man/woman!'"

That night he also said something II think was a quote, but I can't remember who: "The key to writing a compelling love story is to create two characters who the reader knows are destined to be together and keep them apart as long as possible."
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:41 PM on February 27, 2010

Response by poster: These are great answers, thanks. I do wonder about executing some of the specifics. For example, what gives us that feeling that two people belong together? Other than just being the only logical pairing on screen.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 11:38 PM on February 27, 2010

All the stuff I write has a huge element of romance (though I don't write in the romance genre) so this is something I've given a lot of thought to... in no particular order:

- Romances where the people get together relatively quickly are, in my opinion, usually boring. I've never felt emotionally invested in a story that has progressed that way. What I like to see, and what I try to do, is keep them apart for as long as possible, well past the point where if they each just said so, it would be a done deal; in real life, people tend not to "just say so" for far longer than is necessary. By the time they do get together, the tension should be so great that reader/audience can't believe the relief of it. There should be times where you think it sure as HELL has GOT to happen now, and it still doesn't, so that the reader/audience is FREAKING OUT about when it will finally happen. For every bit too early you let it happen, another shade of emotional impact is lost.

To do so believably ties into grumblebee's advice. People have a lot of insecurities. Someone can act like they really like you, and given whatever your history is, you may have a thousand reasons for telling yourself not to read anything into it -- think about all the "does he/she like me?" AskMeFi questions. It's very easy for us to answer, "geez, just ask already" but it's never that simple in someone's head, and part of writing a good romance is treating those crazy little feelings with love and respect. Doing so will work to keep the characters apart for a while. I like the insecurities route especially because it makes the characters more human, and even kind of assholish characters can become likable if the reader/viewer is privy to their insecurities and desire to be loved.

There are other internal reasons that will work for a while, depending on the two characters and their concerns. Stuff like interpreting what the other character finds desirable based on stray comments, or interpreting the other character's past relationships, in such a way that the person feels that person would never be attracted to them is something a lot of people do. Even something as simple as "he's always dated blondes" will, in reality, do a number on someone despite whatever signals to they contrary he might give them. Or, they might think such a relationship would never work because XYZ -- that person's social circle is too different, or their family would never approve, or there's some kind of career conflict of interest, or whatever. Or one or both of the characters is especially guarded for reasons having to do with things they've dealt with in the past. Or they once thought the other person was attracted to this third person because of how they acted, but it turned out they weren't, so they have no metric by which to measure whether this person is attracted to them. I could go on and on.

If you have any sort of power imbalance between the two characters, suspicion is another thing; does that person have something to gain if they were merely to pretend that they like them, or is there some social structure in place where the other person has to be nice even if they don't want to? Or, depending on the time and setting, racial differences can make one doubt the signals they're receiving for a while -- as in "surely a person in their position wouldn't be attracted to someone like me" or "I could say something, but he/she might think I'm just exerting my power over him/her and I don't want to make him/her uncomfortable." (I'm a fan of interracial romances even when the races don't matter to the story, fwiw; I've written them both ways.)

- The biggest way to keep them apart for a while is to adopt this kind of arc: they dislike each other initially, things unfold so that they no longer dislike each other but they aren't entirely sure about that and they aren't clear on how the other person feels, then they've so thoroughly mindfucked themselves they don't know what to say or do so they keep quiet until something really important happens -- hopefully multiple times -- before things are entirely clear. The other thing about that arc is a great deal of personal growth must take place for each character to reach the end, which makes the ending that much more satisfying. Plus, you get that growth whether they get together in the end or not.

Depending on the circumstances, I like a good long stretch of time where they're just friends but maybe wanting more. I write LGBT romances where it's very easy for them to fall into a sort of "friends trench" where neither of them wants to interpret anything another way lest they be wrong. You can do the same thing with straight characters; it's only a bit harder for them to go out together, one on one, when both of them are interested without it really seeming like a date and leading somewhere. It happens, though -- my husband and I went out, on one on, as "friends" for a couple months before he asked me out, even to really date-like stuff like classical concerts followed by dinner -- so write it if it fits. It's never necessary, of course, but having them be friends for a long time creates a lot of tension because they'll show some tenderness to each other they couldn't get away with if they weren't friends.

what gives us that feeling that two people belong together? Other than just being the only logical pairing on screen.

The first way: make sure they're NOT the only logical pairing on screen. There should be many possible pairings. Other people, likable people that real people would want to date, should be available and trying for at least one of the characters. One of my pet peeves in romance stories is the idea that their romance is meaningful when really, the story was wrenched in such a way that no one else stood a chance. In real life, people could end up with multiple people, and multiple people are usually in a knot of attraction with each other. The fact that a romance works out one way, instead of the other many possible ways, is one way in which it is meaningful.

The second big way to show that they belong together: they like the things about each other that other people find irritating, upsetting, etc -- or at least the big things. This is, in practice, what people are really looking for when they seek out a partner: someone around whom they can be who they are. Everyone has qualities that are not objectively good or bad but a matter of taste, and a lot of people spend time dating people who dislike some major part of their personality that someone else would like. A lot of people often try to change those parts of themselves because they think if Ex#1 didn't like it, no one will. This is a huge source of insecurity, and a huge source of joy and relief the day they realize that someone likes that part of them they've never been able to "fix."

So does one character get dumped a lot because they're too excitable and talk too much? Then show that (subtly), and make it so that the character you're putting them with actually likes that about them -- without ever outright pointing out what you're doing. There are tons of qualities like that: being "too" rational, or "too" idealistic, or "too" quiet, or "too" loud, or "too" brooding, or "too" intense, or "too" confrontational, or "too" unserious, or "too" serious, or "too" disciplined, or "too" undisciplined, etc.

The other big reason I like the "got over initial dislike" arc is because getting over your dislike of anyone by coming to understand them better feels like a huge triumph. Even when it doesn't lead to a romantic relationship it is undoubtedly a beautiful thing, and it's hard not to be moved by it; just thinking of prejudices mankind has made progress to overcome can make me tear up a bit, and that's a vague concept not specific to any individual. When it's specific to an individual it tends to hit harder: someone admitting to themselves they were wrong, on behalf of the respect for another person, is a HUGE deal and requires a TON of vulnerability. We like to see others become better than what they were.

When one of those individual triumphs leads to a romantic relationship, though, such a beginning can make it feel like it was "meant to be" -- there was an obstacle of the type that is not normally overcome, but they admitted fault within themselves for the sake of another person... that other person becomes significant at the least, and not just that, but someone who had a part in making their life better than it had been. Other characters might have opened up their worlds a bit by the story's end, but none so much as each other. It's not any more destined than it is in real life, but it feels like it. It carries that kind of emotional weight and awe.

I also tend to like stories in which this happens but they don't get together for some other reason, sometimes external. They're kind of joyously heartbreaking, but I still think they qualify as "good romances." I think part of me likes the idea that loving someone can change you for the better, even if you never get anything physical out of it and have to move on.

This is not to say you can't do any other kind of romance -- one where they like each other from the start, one without a lot of obstacles, the sorts of tropes you listed, etc. Those kinds of romances happen all the time, of course, but personally I am never much engaged by them; stories should be true to human emotion, but it doesn't follow that all arrangements of human emotion make a good story. Very many of those arrangements lose people's interest early on.

I do think, however, that anything can be done well in the right hands, and that other people would be better at writing those kinds of stories than I am. In other words, take everything you hear with a grain of salt: there are no rules. I came upon my own guidelines by hearing what other people think, and reading a lot of stories and identifying what I do and do not like. You're going to ultimately have to do the same, and don't fret if your guidelines turn out different than everyone else's: you'll simply be writing a romance for a different group of people who share your likes and dislikes, and those people deserve stories as much as anyone else. I dislike Twilight, for example, and it barely meets any of these guidelines, but a ton of people love it. Whatever you write will be fine.
posted by Nattie at 2:48 AM on February 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also, a quick disagreement with something above: I think "misunderstandings" in love stories are often contrived and that's why they annoy people. I agree that those stories suck and the misunderstanding comes to feel like this artificial way to keep the characters apart longer. A lot of "But don't you see: I'm pretending not to like you for your own good!" things fall under this category. (Not always, but it's rare to come across a story where it's a reasonable reaction for a character to pretend not to like someone in order to save them from something or other.)

But don't shy away from misunderstandings on principle or anything. There are many, many kinds of misunderstandings that realistically keep people apart, especially when one or both of the people are bad at communicating their feelings, or are holding back part of their feelings for fear of being hurt, or they're saying what they think the other person wants to hear and they're wrong, or they simply aren't yet sure how they feel, or they have good reason to think the other person wouldn't want to talk to them, etc.

Some of the best romances I've read have used misunderstandings like that. For example, Pride and Prejudice is rife with misunderstandings that feel inevitable; Eliza has plenty of reasons to assume that Darcy would no longer like her because she turned him down and has all the social marks against her family, and since she turned him down and told him off before he has plenty of reasons to believe he should just say as little around her as possible. It makes absolute sense that the misunderstandings linger for so long between them because after what they've been through, having a conversation would be really awkward. People do a lot to avoid awkward conversations, especially ones in which they feel they'd have to prostrate themselves before someone they've wronged.

In other words, make it inevitable instead of artificial and it's great.
posted by Nattie at 3:00 AM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aaand one more thing that reminded me of: often people don't come to like each other at the same pace. If one person likes someone and the other person makes clear they don't like them, one easy misunderstanding is assuming that person still dislikes them later; most people won't up and announce their change of heart. If they do, usually the other person will be reluctant to read anything into it anyway. And generally, the person who did the rejecting in the first place will feel kind of dumb about it, perhaps regretful, and will tell themselves it doesn't matter anyway because surely the other person has moved on, etc.

In fact, any time a person changes their mind about something can lead to misunderstandings because they usually don't send out special memos to everyone, it just stays in their head. Sometimes it's because it would seem almost non sequitor to bring it up, and sometimes it's because they don't like admitting they were wrong before. You can probably think of a lot of examples from real life. But misunderstandings can be done well and realistically, imo.
posted by Nattie at 3:05 AM on February 28, 2010

I keep thinking of the advice Stephen King gave in On Writing - never forget that you're writing about characters who do things. That advice is applicable to just about any kind of writing you're doing.

In your case: you were asking for advice about "how do you give us the feeling that two people belong together." Rather than trying to "write in" the feeling that these two characters belong together, concentrate on creating two specific characters who are so well-drawn and so compatible that it is obvious to anyone reading that those two SPECIFIC people belong together.

Because the whole "we both like blueberry pancakes and we both hated playing Monopoly" kind of "compatibility" will only take you so far. On paper, me and my friend C are a great match -- we dig a lot of the same things, our personalities sync pretty well in many respects. And, C and I did in fact start out by dating briefly. But within a couple months we figured out that there were some personality differences that made it clear we didn't belong together in that specific way, and we split up -- but stayed very fast friends, and still are (it's become more like a sibling thing). Within a month of us splitting up, C met N, with whom he was also compatible -- but compatible in the right way, and they've been together 8 years.

I can tell you what gives us the feeling that C and N belong together, but that's not going to apply to your characters, because your characters are not C and N. It's the personality traits of your specific characters that will give us the feeling that those two specific characters belong together.

This is hard, because you'll have to create your characters really well. But that'll help everything else overall, so you'll benefit all around. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:27 AM on February 28, 2010

Best answer: Rather than trying to "write in" the feeling that these two characters belong together, concentrate on creating two specific characters who are so well-drawn and so compatible that it is obvious to anyone reading that those two SPECIFIC people belong together.

I agree 100%. If the characters are both so well-drawn that we feel we KNOW them and we like them, we will want them to be together. Isn't that the case in real life? You have two friends who are single and you really like both of them. Where does your mind tend to go next?

You can then give a little push via "Wow, we were both adopted" or whatever. That will give us a "logical" explanation of why these two people are meant for each other, but it will be backed by strong and charming characterization.

Here's how to make characters likable: give them little obstacles and let us watch the overcome them or fail to do so with wit, humbleness, bravery, cleverness or something else we admire. It's even better if they create the obstacle themselves by being clumsy or forgetting the car keys or something. We've all been there. Have you seen "Meet the Parents"? Remember the beginning part where Ben Stiller's character tries to propose to his girlfriend by making children line up and hold signs with letter on them. He see him working hard to do something charming, and we see it fail, and when it fails, he doesn't throw a fit. He keeps his sense of humor.

Here's another trick. Give one (or both) of the characters a fun flaw (not a horrible flaw that makes us dislike him) that we feel a relationship with the other character will solve. Have you seen "Bringing Up Baby?" Carry Grant's character seems too straight laced. Or rather, he seems like a clumsy, forgetful, messy guy who is trying to be very proper and straight-laced to please other people. We yearn for him to be able to "let his hair down" a little. So we feel that Katherine Hepburn's free-spirited character is just what he needs.

A similar situation -- taken to greater extremes -- happens in "All About Eve," in which Henry Fonda's character is so pent up and conservative, he makes us nervous. WE need Barbara Stanwick to loosen him up.

That movie plays another trick. It makes all the other women boring. We want Fonda to get together with Stanwick because she seems special in comparison with everyone else. You have to be careful with that trick, because you don't want the other characters to seem conveniently dumb, boring or unattractive. But there's nothing to stop you from giving your love-interest characters the most witty lines.

In "Sense and Sensibility," Emma Thompson's character is trapped in chaos. We feel she is a quiet soul who needs a quiet, simple life. Hugh Grant's character is also quiet. We feel that they could help each other find peace.

Watch "The Apartment." (God that's a great movie!) Jack Lemon's character is too caught up in trying to get ahead in his corporation. He's a yes-man to everybody. So everybody takes advantage of him. Yet, again, he handles the situation with humor. We like him because we've all aimed too hard to please and we've all been taken advantage of. Meanwhile, Shirley McClain's character is in a horrible relationship with a married man who has promised to leave his wife but is clearly never going to do so.

If I think about it logically, there's really nothing that makes it clear that McClain and Lemon belong together. It's just that they are both struggling valiantly and they are both lonely. So my mind connects the dots. They are definitely the only two completely-realized, likable characters, so the movie stacks the deck (without me being aware of the fact that it's "cheating" in that sense).

"Clueless" and "Much Ado About Nothing" play the same game. Both have many well-drawn characters, but two that are so barbed that we know they can only be happy with each other. If Beatrice gets together with anyone else in that play, he'll be running for cover in five minutes. She needs some who is not scared of her. Kate and Petruccio have the same dynamic.

Good luck. We need more well-wrought love stories!
posted by grumblebee at 6:31 AM on February 28, 2010

Best answer: For example, what gives us that feeling that two people belong together? Other than just being the only logical pairing on screen.

Usually they're the illogical pairing! (At least from their point of view.)

I think for a real love story, you need to show the characters' lives apart are Not Acceptable because they are Without Love. The characters themselves don't necessarily know this, and so it's a source of humor (or chagrin) to have the characters earnestly attempting to keep on with their lives that the reader knows won't lead to happiness. Even if they do realize it there will often be something stopping them and usually at some point one or both of them will have a crisis of love-faith and resign themselves to going back to their shitty loveless ways.

Your readers identify with these characters a bit because they understand those decisions, because they are logical. Marrying for money is logical. Doing your duty to family/country/friend is logical. Playing it safe and not believing in love is logical.

To use an example, in "Moonstruck" the girl is smart and practical, but she wants some kind of passion in her life—her fiance doesn't want to kneel to propose because it might embarrass him or wrinkle his suit. She agrees anyway because what can she do? She's too old to stay single and she has to take what life offers. But then she meets the brother and falls in love pretty much instantly; the guy is long on passion but short on brains, has some awful job and is literally not whole, missing a hand. Together they become beautiful and proud, even though it's all sort of disloyal and wrong. But in a love story, love makes things not-wrong, which the subplots of the movie enforce.
posted by fleacircus at 11:32 AM on February 28, 2010

Response by poster: That makes a lot of sense. Love becomes the inconvenient alternative to other, soulless pursuits, which we know aren’t the answer. So then, at let’s say the 75 percent mark, the lovers relapse into their old, chilly values, raising the question of whether they will have the guts to escape and find happiness.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 12:17 PM on February 28, 2010

That's the formula, at least. The forces that keep the characters apart seem to reassert themselves after things go too well. It could be they have second thoughts, or maybe a jilted or snubbed third party causes a problem, etc. It can happen multiple times; they kiss on impulse but know they have to go back to their corners after that, but then they start to try to mesh their lives together but their chemistry gets noticed in public, etc.

(Personally I don't like the big crisis of love where one of the characters decides they just can't do it and runs off. It's almost always based on the guy blowing it slightly and the girl way, way overreacting. Usually we get a few minutes of moping, time passing montages, blah blah, that make it look like the story will end with them apart. In a comedy it's a good time for jokes; in a drama it's basically a head fake that this story will end with them not getting together, but I don't think anyone is ever fooled. But maybe it's just that lots of movies run out of ideas and options in the second half.)
posted by fleacircus at 10:43 AM on March 1, 2010

Let me ask a question about the "formula" here, actually.

Go see the movie Once. It is absolutely obvious that the two leads "belong together." Yet -- it breaks all the conventions of "formula" -- especially at the end.

So -- if it doesn't follow a formula, what makes us nevertheless believe that the leads "belong together"?

....I'd wager that it's the characterization. Come up with well-drawn characters and that does most of your work for you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:48 AM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, I was thinking about “Once.” What is it about those two? Isn’t it sort of a “Before Sunrise” thing? The two people opening up to each other? I’ll have to see it again.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 11:16 AM on March 1, 2010

Yeah, I was thinking about “Once.” What is it about those two? Isn’t it sort of a “Before Sunrise” thing? The two people opening up to each other?

Not just "two people opening up to each other" -- it's the audience getting to know two people so well, and THEN watching those two specific people we know so well opening up to each other, that makes us all go, "oh, SAY, look at that."

It's not a plot formula in my book -- it is the specificity of the characters. Take Scarlett O'Hara and Stanley Kuwalski and put them into the situation we get in Before Sunrise, and it just plain wouldn't work, even though you've kept the very same formula. The reason why it wouldn't work is because we know Scarlett O'Hara so well, and we know Stanley Kuwalski so well, that we know that getting those two characters together would be a complete and utter disaster.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:21 AM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: I guess because we know each of their fears and ambitions, right? He has a dream of going to London and being a musician, and is afraid of repairing Hoovers with his dad for the rest of his life. She has her deal, which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 12:15 PM on March 1, 2010

This is rapidly becoming a two-person conversation, so I'm going to memail.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on March 1, 2010

Didn't "Once" follow a pretty clear progression of guy and girl growing closer through advances and setbacks, but despite that they reach the point where it's obvious how awesome they are and how beautiful their lives could be together? In the end reality wins, but that's not really a big formula subversion. The characters are even named Guy and Girl to hint this is a play on a formula. I guess the question, is what did they do to make it fresh and entertaining, how'd they hook you in?

I think people have said that the characters should be entertaining. I think that's true; you need something to distract the reader/viewer with, something for them to chew on, but I think you still have to turn to plot eventually to answer the question of "what next?" Characters still gotta go somewhere and do things and possibly change. It still all hangs on the plot. Relying too much on the audience caring because you assume they will be entertained by whatever random thing happens to the characters is a recipe for schlock: bad soap operas, latter-day Simpsons, cloying web comics, etc.
posted by fleacircus at 12:21 PM on March 1, 2010

Characters still gotta go somewhere and do things and possibly change. It still all hangs on the plot.

No, that's true; my harping on character was more to stop what was feeling like too much of an emphasis on plot or on specific traits, however. Yeah, characters have to go somewhere and do something, but it's not the things they do and the places they go that make it compelling. It's who's doing the doing and who's going there.

I mean, lots of people make it into the Notre Dame football team. Making it into the Notre Dame football team is not in and of itself an heroic act. But when a specific person makes it in, then you have an heroic story.

Plot is important, yeah -- but character is equally important.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:32 PM on March 1, 2010

Okay, I just thought you phrased it in a "screw plot, all you need is character" kind of way which I thought was misleading. Let's not get in a war over reductive interpretations of 'plot' and 'character' that don't help thelastenglishmajor.
posted by fleacircus at 1:21 PM on March 1, 2010

We've actually been speaking more on this issue in email (and speaking only for myself, I'm having rather a bit of fun, may I add). so I think we're good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:26 PM on March 1, 2010

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