I once heard a critic claim that love stories are more difficult to write today than they were for Shakespeare. The obstacles that Shakespeare depended upon—class, feuding families, the fate of stars—have mostly been removed as possibilities, at least in America.
So, if class isn’t an option, how do we put obstacles between lovers in a story other than “he’s just not that into you?” This is a problem that genre literature, especially genres that deal in fantasy elements, handles well. The new YA paranormal novel from Shannon A. Thompson, Seconds Before Sunrise, perfectly illustrates two great ways to complicate a relationship. You can read the opening chapters here.
How the Story Works
I don’t necessarily believe the critic is right, but the idea that class is no longer relevant is still an interesting one. It’s certainly true that when class conflicts appear in fiction, the battle is often quick and decisive. For example, in the film The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway’s character questions the importance of choosing between two identical belts (in other words, questioning the industry itself). In response, her boss not only says she’s wrong but also insults her clothes as lumpy and unfashionable, saying that they must come from “some tragic Casual Corner.” After that, the movie never questions the class divide again.
So what are other ways to complicate a relationship? This passage (the beginning of Eric’s chapter on page 10) from Thompson’s novel illustrates her approach to complicating a love story (and the approach of many novels that incorporate fantasy elements):
I shoved my head into my locker and breathed hoarsely. It was the first day of school and sitting next to Jessica was already killing me. I wanted to talk to her, hold her, be with her—anything really—but I couldn’t. If the Light realized who or what we were, she’d be killed, and there was nothing I could do except stay away.
“You okay?” Jonathon asked, his voice squeaking through the slits of my locker.
I leaned back to stare at the blind artist. I wouldn’t believe he was Pierce, a powerful shade, if I hadn’t known his identities myself.
“I’m dealing,” I grumbled, unable to keep eye contact as Jessica passed us.
She flipped her brunette curls as she playfully hit Robb McLain’s arm. Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.
The narrator and Jessica are in love, but the powers that be are keeping them apart—in this case, the “powers that be” are actual forces with actual special powers. Jessica’s memory has been wiped (though not completely) and other characters are in disguise. In other words, Thompson has invented an obstacle that does not exist in the real world. But she has also added a more realistic obstacle. Though the plot depends on paranormal activities, it’s grounded with a staple of love stories: the beautiful and charismatic, yet so-wrong-for-her, rival.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s introduce complications to love story, using the passage from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise as a model. In order to introduce those complications, we first must do the following:
Choose the relationship. It can be a relationship between lovers, of course, but that isn’t the only option. Every story has pairs of characters who develop a relationship with each other: brothers, siblings, parent/child, friends, co-workers, or teammates. All of these relationships work the same. The story is often driven forward by the forces that push these characters together and then pull them apart.
Choose the force of attraction. The most obvious is love. But characters can also be brought together in other ways: their shared history together, duty to a cause or each other, an event like a funeral, or some external force (boss/teacher forcing them to work together). In stories, this force is often clearly identified: “I could never leave her because _____.” Or, “Now, we had no choice but to work together.” Now, we can introduce the force that will disrupt the relationship. There are many ways to do this. Here are some of them:
Forces that can disrupt a relationship:
- Forces of Class: These are forces whose power comes from differences in social standing: wealth, race and ethnicity, and position within a power structure. Wealth complications, though less common than in the past, still exist in fiction, especially historical fiction. So, The Notebook initially disrupts its characters’ relationship (just before World War II) by having Allie’s parents call Noah “trash.” Romance novels do this all the time: the tycoon’s son seducing the maid. Complications due to race/ethnicity might seem less common (or, again, confined to historical fiction), but they are still used (as in this beautiful story by Tiphanie Yanique). And, relationships in science fiction and fantasy stories (between different kinds of aliens) often mirror realistic stories of racial/ethnic differences. Complications due to power imbalance might be easier to use: bosses and employees, teacher and student, mentor and mentee, player and fan, soldier and civilian, or legal immigrant versus undocumented immigrant. In short, any policy or tradition that grants one person greater power than another is ripe for use in a story.
- Forces of evil: It’s often useful to say, in a story, that if two characters get together, the bad guys will kill one of them. This is what Thompson does in Seconds Before Sunrise. It’s also the complication used in most adventure stories, like these two favorites from my childhood: Romancing the Stone and The Princess Bride.
- Characters in disguise: Shakespeare used this a lot in his comedies. Characters—particularly female characters—would disguise themselves, often as men, and go unrecognized by their beloved. The question you must ask yourself is this: why must the character go into hiding? Are they in danger? Are they balancing multiple roles? Are there parts of their lives that cannot be revealed or discussed? The disguise can come in different forms. They don’t always make a beautiful person less beautiful. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac does the opposite by disguising looks with wit.
- Irreconcilable differences and incompatible goals: This is used by romantic comedies a lot (she’s too serious, and he jokes all the time; she has a career, and he’s a Playboy). It’s also the basis of many domestic dramas. Answer the question: what would make it difficult for these characters to live together, to stand being around each other?
- External Events: Many stories use external events that separate the characters (soldier shipped off to war, kid left at home over Christmas). The event can also be more intimate, such as the onset of a disease. The film Away from Her (based on Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”) disrupts a relationship with Alzheimer’s, to devastating effect.
Now, you can choose a rival.
Three ways to choose a rival:
- Pick someone poorly suited as a love interest: This kind of rival is often the complete opposite of the other love interest—beautiful and popular instead of ordinary-looking and nerdy or uncool in some way. Even though the rival’s qualities at first seem appealing, the character who falls in love with him/her eventually realizes the rival’s “true” qualities. This is what Thompson has done: “Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.” This kind of rival often creates a plot whose focus is on revealing the rival’s true personality.
- Pick someone similar to the other love interest: What if the rival isn’t easy to hate? What happens if I love So-and-so, but she falls in love with someone who is just like me, but not me? This kind of rival creates a plot whose focus is on the other person (me) finding ways to distinguish him/herself.
- Pick a random person. The scary thing about finding your beloved in love with someone else is that it may mean your beloved is far different than you thought. A random rival (someone whose qualities are neither good nor bad, just unexpected) often creates a plot whose focus is revealing the beloved’s true personality. In other words, it shows that the other person (me) has been pursuing someone with whom he/she is poorly matched.
This may seem like a lot of information. In a nutshell, all you need for a love story is an attraction, a disrupting force, and a rival.