One after another, since I was a shiny-eyed pre-teen, I have gone into one obsessive tail spin after another.
I can’t tell you which came first: Anne and Gil in Anne of Green Gables, or Jo March and Professor Bhaer in Little Women. Peter and Assumpta in Ballykissangel, or Elizabeth and Darcy in… need I really say?
I would discover a love story and then I’d read the books, if there were books, and then repeat. Obsessively.
I’m a little embarrassed, but I know I’m not the only one.
I write romance. That’s my genre. It’s what I love, and it’s what I’m good at. Good-ish.
I want to write love stories that have this effect on people – that get them on the edge of their seats, fingers crossed, hearts beating, breath held… But what’s the magic ingredient? Why do certain love stories get under our skin?
My theory: because they’re tragic, or because they really could be.
Be it simple unrequited love or a truly tragic end, a guaranteed way to rile a reader/viewer is to thoroughly disappoint all their hopes and expectations.
But that’s just mean. A good tragic ending might be the only believable ending, sure. Anna and the King never had a shot, did they?
For some characters, death might be the perfect ending, because its ironic, or narrative genius, but it still blows.
The film, Stranger than Fiction, shows this quandary beautifully.
I love that line in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
There’s enough tragedy in real life, surely. As brilliant as a tragic ending can be, I’d rather read, and write, happy endings. Not the too-easy unbelievable kind, but the kind that give some satisfaction.
I suspect the most satisfying conclusion is the one you hope, but don’t really believe, is possible: when tragedy is possible, even likely, but our hero and heroine escape by the hair on their chinny chin chins. (His chin, obviously, because no romantic heroine ever has facial hair.)
In two words or less: forbidden romance.
This is most effective when there are internal and external factors making a romance impossible or at least very risky.
Classic external factors are disapproving family, social or racial divides, a career/mission which gets in the way, a previous marriage or relationship commitment, bad timing etc.
The internal factors are the clincher though. The characters own fears, their own conflicting values, misunderstandings and mistakes… these can be so small and ordinary and familiar to us. This makes the characters and their conflicts real. We identify and we are cheering for them.
The external factors keeping Darcy and Elizabeth apart are initially Wickham’s lies. But you have to have a really good reason to keep the couple from clearing up a misunderstanding. If they’re at all reasonable people then eventually they’ll figure it out and then what’s to keep them from getting together?
The misunderstanding, in this case, has kept one party from forming a romantic attachment. But now that the misunderstanding is cleared up, Elizabeth goes right ahead and falls for him. So what’s to keep them from getting together? Darcy’s pride, all his reservations, are still there. He has to go through a process of transformation.
Any good character changes during a story. Darcy struggles and grows and becomes a better man.
But then there’s Lady Catherine, another external obstacle. Lady Catherine’s objections themselves are nothing much to overcome at this point. Their power is in the fact that Darcy had the same objections to begin with. Which means Elizabeth’s fears are brought to the fore. On top of which, she is now Wickham’s sister-in-law! This is yet another external obstacle: an appalling family connection.
Little does Elizabeth know, Darcy is too in love to be thwarted by the prospect of Wickham for a brother. Meanwhile, Darcy is still a rejected lover, afraid of a repeat performance.
These final obstacles end up being the catalysts that force the pair to get past their fears, clear up their differences, and live happily ever after. Nicely done, Miss Austen.
Now for something completely different: While you were Sleeping (yes, the 90s movie with Sandra Bullock)
External obstacles: he believes, mistakenly, that she is engaged to his (comatose) brother.
Internal obstacles: she is lonely and terrified of losing this great family who have taken her in.
The trend, perhaps goes something like this: the internal obstacles are what keep the characters from overcoming the external obstacles.
It’s really nice (for us readers/viewers, not so much for the characters) when the obstacles snowball – external plus internal plus external plus internal… one is overcome only to make way, if not create, another obstacle.
I’ve recently rediscovered a hilarious Irish drama BBC put out in the 90s: Ballykissangel. In this series an English priest moves to a small Irish town and over three seasons falls in love with the publican, who, despite loathing the Catholic church herself, has come to love the priest right back.
The external obstacle is obvious, but it’s compounded by the internal and external conflicts that follow: his faith is still important to him for starters. Then there is the loyalty he feels toward the community. Believing there is no future for them, the publican leaves town and rushes into marriage with an exboyfriend… so now we have a catholic priest and a married woman. If all goes well we’ll soon have an ex-priest, still a devout catholic, and a divorced woman…
Yep, they’ve got obstacles and conflicts coming out their ears.
Then the actors decided to leave the show… so we got a tragic ending on top of all that.
Way to get under my skin.
One other thing which raises the stakes in a good love story is a higher purpose. If one or both of the characters are doing important work, are on some kind of mission, and the relationship would affect that work, then there is more conflict.
And that right there is the key: more conflict.
So, off I go to make my characters more miserable… for a while.
But I promise they’ll get a good ending.