Friday, October 4

The Structure of a Love Story

The Structure of a Love Story


Love is love, but there tends to be a certain pattern to how it progresses, both in fiction and real life.

I’m going to go over three different kinds of love stories and pivot to examine six scenes any romance story must have.

Before I do this, though, I would like to thank Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl for their podcast, the Story Grid, a lot of the material for this blog post came from these podcast episodes:

The Most Important Genre
How to Write a Great Love Story

Okay, let’s get into it:

What is a love story?


That’s an odd question, isn’t it. We know when we are in love. But when we create a character, it’s a good idea to break these things down.

Shawn Coyne defines it like this: The protagonist pursues or runs away from an intimate bond with another human being.

As for the goal of the protagonist, it is to have an intimate relationship with that person.

That may seem like it is too simple to be stated, but if you’re like me it's a big help to have everything spelled out, especially when I'm in the weeds.

The Lovers: Protagonist and Antagonist


Romance stories are different from all other kinds of stories.

Of course the protagonist DOES NOT LIKE the antagonist and vice versa. In fact, they quite often hate each other and want to kill each other.

In a romance, on the other hand, the protagonist and antagonist often end up married. (I know there's a joke in there, but I'm leaving it alone.) Even when the lovers are hating on each other, there is a bond of potential love between them. And that's not generally true of protagonists and antagonists.

But it makes sense. There is a symmetry between the protagonist's and antagonist's goals. Whatever the protagonist's goal is, she will not be able to accomplish it if the antagonist achieves his goal. Similarly, whatever the antagonist's goal is he will not be able to accomplish it if the protagonist achieves her goal. That's true for any kind of story.

In a romance, the protagonist's goal is to form a meaningful relationship with a particular person she is attracted to: the antagonist.

The antagonist is very attracted to the protagonist but for some reason he cannot return her affection. Perhaps he can't reciprocate because the antagonist is scared of commitment, or perhaps he is a crown prince and cannot marry a commoner, or perhaps because he is a reclusive billionaire and she wouldn't fit in, or perhaps he is a vampire and cannot form that kind bond with a human. Be creative.

The key thing is that, initially, there has to be some sort of absolute incompatibility. But, regardless, they are insanely attracted to each other.

When I first started looking at the structure of a romance story it was slightly off-putting to think of the lovers as protagonist and antagonist, but that's what they are.

Make it Clear Why the Protagonist and Antagonist Can't be Together


I've covered this, a bit, above, but it's worth repeating. Make it clear why the lovers, the protagonist and antagonist, can’t be together. So, for instance, in Beauty and the Beast -- one is a beautiful human, and one … well, isn’t human! But, hey, every relationship has its problems.

Also, as for any story, ask yourself:

What are the protagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the protagonist’s biggest weaknesses?
What are the antagonist’s biggest strengths?
What are the antagonist’s biggest weaknesses?

Okay, so, let's look at the three kinds of love stories.

Three Kinds of Love Stories


For each of these stories, we need to answer a different question.

1. Obsession


Obsession stories are, I think, the least common kind of romance story.

Obsession stories are about DESIRE.

We’ve all known a relationship like this, one person is crazy in love with another, they are both attracted to each other, but they are just too different and the outcome is tragic.

Here’s the pattern:

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist overcome their extreme differences and transform their relationship into a loving bond?

At the beginning of the story: The lovers despise each other. BUT the lovers are also profoundly attracted to each other. Each acknowledges that being together would be a bad idea.

At the end of the story: One or both of the lovers are dead.

Not my favorite type of story, but there it is!

2. Courtship


I love a good courtship story. Especially after a breakup. Some port, a little chocolate ...

It will come as no surprise to you that the overwhelming number of stories are courtship stories.

Courtship stories are about COMMITMENT.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist commit to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist haven’t made any commitment to each other.

At the end: The protagonist and antagonist are committed to each other and to their relationship.

3. Intimacy


In this kind of story, the protagonist and antagonist are already a couple at the beginning. One or both of them will be tempted to cheat on the other. There is a challenge here: will the couple remain faithful, will they remain together?

There are two concepts here: TRUTHFULNESS and FAITHFULNESS.

Question: Will the protagonist and antagonist remain faithful to each other?

At the beginning: The protagonist and antagonist are in a committed relationship. Perhaps this commitment has begun to wane because of whatever trials and tribulations they've gone through over the years.

At the end: The couple have re-committed to each other.

One more thing before we get started ...

The Protagonist's Secondary Arc


We know the protagonist's main desire (this will be her desire deep, deep down, although she will likely be in denial in the beginning) is to form a loving bond with the antagonist, but she needs a desire apart from this, she needs an arc apart from her connecting with the antagonist. And, of course, there has to be an obstacle to her completing this arc and achieving her goal.

Let me give you an example:

Don't laugh, but I personally think Die Hard is a romance story; specifically, an Intimacy story.

John McClane's main desire is to reunite with his estranged wife. It just so happens that at the beginning of his journey to do this, someone took his wife and all her coworkers hostage. At that point, McClane’s secondary desire becomes to defeat the terrorists. For most of the movie we are watching Willis's secondary arc unfolding.

As soon as the terrorists are defeated and his secondary goal is achieved, McClane goes right back to trying to reunite with his wife.

I would say this is a romance story because as a general rule the protagonist's highest level goal (in this case reuniting with his wife) sets the genre of the story. 

Anway! Now that we've got all that sorted out, let's look at the essential scenes in a romance novel.

The 6 Scenes All Romance Stories Need


Stories generally have three or four acts. That's not written in stone, they can have six or eight or how ever many you want -- it is just a matter of how you want to structure the events of the story. In what I write, below, I have a three act structure in mind. (see: A Story Structure In Three Acts)

1. The Protagonist and Antagonist Meet


Of course, right? This is a love story, if the lover’s never meet, there is no story.

When the protagonist and antagonist meet for the first time, it needs to be a BIG SCENE. You need to communicate to the reader the essence of each character, you need to communicate that the protagonist really quite likes the antagonist AND that she believes the two of them would absolutely, totally and in all other ways NEVER work as a couple.

Of course the reader knows it probably will work, but this should be a journey FROM lack of hope and lack of love TO hope reborn and love reborn.

But, naturally, before the protagonist and antagonist meet, you need to introduce the main character. And this really is the most important scene. Because, face it, if you don’t get your readers to connect with your protagonist they aren’t going to keep reading. In what follows I’m going to assume the protagonist is female and the antagonist is male. (And, yes, this may have something to do with the port and chocolate mentioned, above)

Unless you are writing a novel that is being told from two viewpoint characters, the protagonist is introduced at the beginning and then the antagonist is introduced at around between the 10% and 25% mark.

Things may have changed since the last time I read a romance novel -- I’m going to have to read another one soon. (I would love it if you would recommend your favorite romance novel!)

Onto the next point!

2. Confession of Love


Whenever anyone says, ‘I love you’ for the first time it is an intense moment. In a love story the person on the receiving end might be scared because they haven’t had the best experience with that sort of thing.

For example, I am a big fan of the TV show Big Bang Theory, Penny broke up with Leonard when he told her he loved her. She was scared because she wasn’t ready for commitment.

Or the thing that initially comes between protagonist and antagonist is, as I’ve talked about above, an inherent incompatibility. He is the crown prince, she is a penniless commoner -- and his mother hates her.

Or perhaps the thing that breaks them apart is the jealousy of one of the protagonist’s friends. The protagonist's bestie could lie to her and tell her that the antagonist is lying to her -- perhaps the best friend tells the protagonist that he has been unfaithful. Or perhaps the protagonist breaks up with the antagonist because she thinks that NOT being with him would be best for him.

By the way, this confession doesn't have to be, literally, "I love you!" It could be a look that the antagonist gives the protagonist, it could be him saying, "I really like you, I would like you to meet my family." And so on.

IN ANY CASE! We’ve come to the end of the first act. It’s time for the …

3. First Kiss


This usually occurs at the midpoint.

The protagonist and antagonist do not have to kiss here, but their relationship goes to the next level. Maybe they have an intense conversation, maybe they hold hands, maybe they kiss -- maybe they make love.  It all depends on the spiciness level of your story. Although, if they make love at this point, you have to figure out a way to kick things up a notch at the end.

4. The Lovers Breakup


This is the All Hope is Lost point (for more about this see A Four Act Structure). Something -- perhaps the protagonist's mean mother -- has forced them apart. There are two things here:

a. The thing that breaks the lovers apart is something neither of them has control over.

b. The breakup seems final.

For example, in the case of the prince and the pauper, the king has died. The prince must choose between taking the throne and his love for the protagonist, a penniless waitress. She sees that the situation is impossible and breaks up with him because she loves him and wants him to fulfill his destiny.

Another thing that is often done at this point is to have the breakup happen over a misunderstanding. For me, personally, this is less satisfying.

For example, the protagonist believes the antagonist has killed someone and, because she loves him and wants to save him, she takes the blame. Of course the antagonist didn’t commit the murder, but now he believes his one-true-love is a murderer and so he breaks up with her, possibly to protect her so she will receive less scrutiny.

At this point we are about 75% of the way through the story.

5. Proof of Love


At the beginning of the scene, both the lovers believe that any further contact between them is impossible. They can not spend their lives together.

But there is something each of them has overlooked. Or the antagonist does something exceptional to show the protagonist that she is mistaken, he really does love her. Or he discovers his love did not commit the murder he believed her guilty of, perhaps the true murderer was her oh-so-negative best friend. Perhaps the popper takes a bullet for the crown prince and this endears her to the citizens of his nation and so now they can get married.

In Die Hard John McClane saved his wife's life and the lives of many of her colleagues. And he did it because he was a good police officer and that was one of the things that had come between them.

Whatever the proof of love is, it needs to be something big, important. And it needs to be foreshadowed.

The Proof of Love often occurs about halfway through the third act.

6. The Lovers Reunite


This is the climax of the story.

As we have seen, the issue -- whatever it was -- that was keeping the lovers apart has been obliterated; it has gone away, it is no more.

This is a big scene. This is the payoff of all the struggle the lovers have been through. Emotionally, just as the All Hope is Lost point was the low point of of the journey this is the highpoint.

If anything is left between the lovers to be set right this is the place to do it. Have them forgive each other and do something to solidify their relationship, something that will make it stronger.

At the end of the story they are happier and more committed than ever.

That's it! By the way, I wrote about a lot of this in an earlier post, 6 Scenes Any Love Story Must Have.

If some of the information I have shared has been useful to you and you would like to support this blog I just opened up a Patreon account! If you support the blog for just one dollar a month I'll send you my book, "The Structure of a Great Story."

BTW, I've combined this post and the next one (5 Necessary Characters in a Romance Novel) into an ebook: The Structure of a Love Story.

Thanks for reading and I'll talk to you again, tomorrow! :-)


2 comments:

  1. Excellent advice. I had to take notes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Elizabeth! Sorry for the late response, I wasn't getting notified about comments. My bad.

      Delete

Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.