Given that Valentine’s Day is this Sunday, I thought I would post something I use in my Litreactor classes concerning how to stage the conflict in a love story. I find the usual gladiatorial implications of the word “conflict” all too often lead writers astray, making them think of the loved one as the opponent or antagonist in the conventional sense, which creates more confusion than clarity.
So, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, allow me to offer you this little gift…
Love stories have a unique structure because, though the protagonist and the loved one are in conflict, it is not adversarial. One character is not seeking to defeat the other in the sense we find in crime stories, war stories, tales of class or political strife—where the conflict is staged in such a way that only one party can or should prevail.
In contrast, both characters in a love story have the same goal—to put an end to their unfulfilled lives, to be in love, or at least to be happy. What’s at issue are the terms of that fulfillment, love, or happiness.
Though one can imagine this requiring one character to “defeat” the other in the adversarial sense described above—note how frequently one hears the word “conquest” used in the realm of romance—it is difficult if not impossible to reconcile such a view with anything resembling what we commonly think of as genuine love.
By “love story” I don’t mean merely stories focused on romance. Friendship stories, mentor/student tales, a boy-and-his-dog (or a girl-and-her-horse) stories often fit this same pattern. Stories of sibling strife and parent-child discord can also fit this pattern if the underlying conflict isn’t irreconcilable. (If it is, you have the kind of adversarial, winner-takes-all battle of opposites described above.)
For purposes of staging, the question that lies at the heart of every love story is: How will the lovers come together? This implicitly asks another, more dramatic question: What is keeping them apart?
Typically there are only three things that prevent a couple from uniting:
- An exterior force such as the family, class, race, social mores, money.
- A rival.
- The lovers themselves.
The first source of conflict has gradually receded over the years, though it’s by no means obsolete. As long as one faces challenging circumstances or lives among others who believe they have a say in how one should live, there will always be external forces seeking to influence how loved ones should connect—or not.
That said, clashes of family such as found in Romeo and Juliet are increasingly rare in modern life. The social stigma of the extramarital affair (Brief Encounter) has been mitigated by the ease with which couples can divorce. Class and race strictures lack much of the force they once did (see: Cinderella, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sabrina, My Fair Lady, Love Story, White Palace, Inventing the Abbotts, Pretty Woman, etc.). Where such forces continue to impose themselves, it’s often a question of individual conscience holding a character back, rather than social strictures; if that’s the case, then we find ourselves in the third sub-type listed above, where it is the character herself keeping her and the loved one apart.
The second type of conflict—the presence of a rival—creates an opponent if the protagonist is the other suitor, and thus the conflict becomes adversarial, and can be staged accordingly. If the protagonist is the one being sought by both lovers (e.g., The Diary of Bridget Jones), this is what creates her problem (see below), and the story can track reasonably well with the usual love story format.
The third category of conflict, where it is the lovers themselves creating the problem, is the usual form in which the contemporary love story appears. The lovers themselves make complete commitment problematic. This takes several forms, which sometimes blur together:
- One or the other lover (usually the man) resists the commitment, faithfulness, honesty, devotion to family or some other aspect of marriage and must “grow up,” usually by facing how much his life would suffer without the loved one in it. The “qualm of conscience” setup mentioned above—for example, a married woman having an affair who knows she can divorce but cannot bring herself to do so—also conforms to this format.
- Both lovers resist the full commitment of the bond for their own unique reasons (a “battle over terms”).
- One is in love, the other is not (or at least not yet).
As should be readily apparent with only a moment’s thought, these categories are not mutually exclusive.
The first type of story is particularly susceptible to comic treatment, and if badly done reduces the loved one to a mere love object. Woody Allen films, especially Play it Again, Sam; Manhattan; and Annie Hall are some of the best examples of the comic treatment of this form. Often the protagonist has a false idea of himself or the loved one and must put aside his own insecurity or his fantasy projections and see himself and the loved one honestly. Other times some experience in his past has caused extreme fear of intimacy or commitment, and he must work out those fears through his involvement with the loved one. In but another formulation, the character is obliged to choose between two equally compelling demands: love versus loyalty, love versus duty, love versus adventure, romance versus family, etc.
The second sub-type of story has a similar conflict element except it’s two-directional: each of the lovers has a competing demand on their hearts, or there is something in their past or present to overcome, such as a false/distorted idea of their own worth or attractiveness, and each must come to grips with whatever is complicating, inhibiting, or preventing their ability to love.
The classic archetype for this story type is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The recent film Love and Other Drugs (analyzed in more depth below) is an excellent, more modern example.
A variation on this type is where a couple who’ve previously been platonic or involved with others gradually, often through a joint adventure or ordeal, recognize they belong together, such as in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Midnight Cowboy, Broadway Danny Rose, or Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
The third sub-type of love story in this category, where one character is in love and the other is decidedly not, can take the form of The Taming of the Shrew, where Katherine violently refuses all suitors, but ultimately succumbs to Petruchio (either because he wears her down, or her pride refuses to allow her to be seen as less ideal a wife than her sisters). Alternatively, it can take the form of Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the suitor ultimately proves his worth and overcomes the initial resistance (or revulsion) of the loved one. It can take the form noted above of one of a pair of friends or platonic lovers who realizes he is in love, and has to somehow convince his potential mate that she is as well. Or it can be blackly comic, where the protagonist, like the skunk Pepe le Pew, recklessly pursues an impossible love (or a series of them). In all such cases, the greater the resistance of the loved one—the more adamant her commitment to saying “no”—the more the conflict veers toward the purely adversarial, and can be staged accordingly.
Despite the variations, the stories often follow a similar logic:
- Introduction: The lovers are leading unfulfilled lives (whether they know it or not).
- Inciting Incident: The lovers meet. Anything from immediate attraction to outright revulsion or hostility may result, but there is clearly a reaction.
- Introduction of the Problem: Something is keeping the couple apart. What is it?
- Point of No Return (Act One Climax/Pivot Point): One or the other of the lovers commits to the connection, perhaps secretly, and decides to pursue it and overcome the problem. (Sometimes both lovers make the decision.)
- Initial Connection (Midpoint): The couple somehow connects and realizes the spark between them is real, though perhaps inconvenient, unwanted, or even unthinkable (man meets mermaid, for example).
- Reassertion of the Problem: The initial connection falters because the root of the problem has not been discovered or solved.
- The Breakup (Act Two Climax): The full power of the problem is felt and the connection is broken, seemingly forever.
- The Recommitment to the Bond: The couple tries to get on with their individual lives, perhaps even pursuing other promising relationships. One or the other of the lovers, however, soon realizes he cannot live without the other, and recommits himself to the relationship. Refusing to give up, he either solves the problem within himself that formed the basis of the problem, or redoubles his efforts to overcome the problem’s effect on the loved one.
- The Gauntlet: The recommitted lover pursues the loved one despite a series of barriers, betrayals, reversals and/or rejections, possibly including the appearance of a new rival.
- Climax: The Problem is solved, overcome, or accepted as insoluble.
The act breaks I’ve added are entirely arbitrary, and track largely with screenwriting format, which tends to be rigid. As my prior mention of Pride and Prejudice should indicate, this tidy act-by-act breakdown need not apply. But the logic of connection and disconnection, attraction and rejection, one individual’s commitment to the relationship while the other demurs, the appearance of rivals, etc., still applies. (As an exercise, it’s useful to see how Pride and Prejudice both follows and digresses from the format I’ve laid out. A useful plot summary of the novel can be found here.)
For an example that hones closely to the plot format I’ve laid out, let’s examine Love and Other Drugs, which falls into the second sub-type of conflict, i.e., where both lovers have their “issues.”
Because of lackluster grades, Jamie Randall fails to live up to his father’s ambition for him as a doctor and instead finds work as a pharmaceutical salesman (Introduction).
He struggles at the job, but on one of his sales calls he meets the beautiful if prickly Maggie Murdock (Inciting Incident). He soon learns she suffers from early onset Parkinson’s Disease (Maggie’s Problem).
Maggie enjoys Jamie’s coltish charm but senses he’s a bit of a player (Jamie’s Problem) and doesn’t take his flirting seriously. Then again, she takes few romantic partners seriously, because she knows her condition will only get worse; one day she’ll be dependent, she will need him more than he needs her, desperately even humiliatingly so, and she cannot face that.
But Jamie persists (Point of No Return), just as his fortunes at work are also changing due to the introduction of Viagra. He’s suddenly everybody’s favorite pill pusher. Maggie interprets Jamie’s deepening affection harshly: “You’re not a nice person because you pity-fuck the sick girl.” But he refuses to go away, and his relentless charm beguiles her. They begin a rewarding romance.
But then, at a conference on Parkinson’s, a long-time husband of a patient confides, “It’s not a disease, it’s a Russian novel.” He advises Jamie to turn around, run, and never look back. (Midpoint) Jamie instead commits himself all the more devotedly, but now with the quest of finding a transformative treatment for Maggie, perhaps even a cure. His efforts wear her down to the bone and she finally breaks things off. (Breakup). She sees what he can’t see: That he can’t really love her without “fixing” her.
Jamie struggles through the separation, trying to find gratification in one-night stands, only to realize he can’t live without Maggie and decides to win her back. (Recommitment to the Bond and Gauntlet). He finally chases her down when she’s on a bus to Canada with other patients to buy cheap generic drugs. He convinces her his love is not blind. In particular, he convinces her that the imbalance between their levels of need is not a problem for him, and never will be. Because of his honesty and newfound humility and her own deep affection for him, she decides to let go of her own fears and accept his love. (Climax).
This same format works if it’s exterior rather than interior forces keeping the couple apart. For example, let’s say the couple meets during war time. The connection is strong, but their unique duties make separation inevitable. Despite that, they stay in touch, communicate their feelings, and when the chance comes to be together they seize it with all their might. But then the war takes a bad turn, the ensuing separations are fraught with danger. One of them goes missing in action (this will serve as the Breakup). In truth, the missing loved one is captured, but he becomes obsessed with surviving and returning, because his love is the one thing above all others that makes survival meaningful. Meanwhile, the other loved one waits and waits, but after a while gives up, believing her lover is dead. She turns her attention to her life and ultimately a new love. She marries, begins raising a family. Then, one day, out of the blue…
[The astute film buff will recognize this plot line as a variation on Ilsa’s backstory in Casablanca.]
To create a truly compelling love story, however one ultimately works out the plot, the following elements are crucial:
- At least one of the lovers must be totally committed to the relationship, even if s/he does not fully realize it at first or initially keeps it a secret. This creates the stakes: true love or utter devastation.
- The problem keeping the lovers apart must be serious and interesting, with the potential to make their connection impossible.
- However, some hint that a connection remains possible, if unlikely, is crucial to maintaining suspense. This poses the central story question: Will they get together despite the odds?
- The problem must ultimately prove so overwhelming or irresolvable that it obliges the lovers to break things off, and that break must feel permanent—and heart-wrenching.
- The return to life alone must be pursued honestly if unhappily, or you risk undermining the dramatic power of the breakup.
- The ultimate solution or overcoming of the problem must be credible, or the entire story will feel contrived. Better a bittersweet “if only” ending, with the lovers going their separate ways, than a forced or magical resolution, unless your intent is comic. (See, for example, The Palm Beach Story, written and directed by Preston Sturges.)
If you’re writing a love story—or have a love story subplot—whether it’s a romance, a friendship story, a tale of family anomie or some other story premised on the characters pursuing a deeper bond:
- What is keeping the loved ones apart, i.e., what is “the problem”?
- How could you make it worse, i.e., harder to resolve?
- Why do the loved ones pursue a connection despite the problem—what is the basis of the attraction?
- How harsh is the breakup?
- How honestly and meaningfully do the loved ones pursue life without the other after the breakup?
- Which character recommits to the relationship—why?
- What must that character undergo to overcome the problem once and for all and try one last time to reunite with the loved one?