The best love stories are more than morality tales. They deal with fundamental questions about our community and what that community should fairly demand of us. The greatest love story of them all is probably Romeo and Juliet, written by Shakespeare and enjoyed by lucky Londoners in the 1590s, about young lovers who fall in love on a glance and are kept apart by their warring families. Their deaths together shock everyone into accepting peace.
Community requires obedience to the law in respect for others. Biology however likes a bit of variety and throws in some unexpected passion now and again to strengthen our genetic make-up. So, forbidden love, defying boundaries, has been with us for centuries ranging from Paris and Helen, Ruth and Boaz, Abelard and Heloise to, who knows, Eve and the snake.
What’s the essence of a good love story?
- ‘Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again.’ Happy days. Notice that the lead figure in this old expression is the ‘boy’ or man. As I said last time, this corner of the fiction playground is not just for girls.
- Falling in love is instant and overpowering for both lovers. If we go back to the classic story formulae, that moment is the ‘inciting incident’ compelling the story forward. Life can never be the same again.
- The loving couple will give each other something of fundamental value for life, even if they can’t be together. Their love is a once in a lifetime chance for completeness without which the characters are lost. Austen’s Persuasion is a leading example of this.
- The lovers learn that love is about more than pheromones. They genuinely ‘get’ or understand each other. This week I found myself watching Room At The Top, an 1959 film based on John Braine’s excellent novel. It’s not about shenanigans in a penthouse – the title comes from the phrase ‘There’s always room at the top’ for able people – but about how Joe Lampton tries to make his way in a world of connections and vested interests that are stacked against him. He plays two women against each other and ends up married to the young, rich one. Happy ever after? His climactic scene delivers him the insight that with the older woman he is truly known and could be lifelong happy. But he rejects it. As he and his young wife drive off from their marriage, we see years ahead of misery for them both.
- A political context raises the stakes as well as bringing on a wider theme (Dr Zhivago, Dido and Aeneas, A Tale of Two Cities).
- In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare used street violence between the young men to raise the stakes to life and death levels. It also challenges Juliet’s love to her core when she discovers that her darling new husband has just killed her beloved cousin Tybalt.
Why do we warm towards love stories, whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live? They reinforce the happiness we’re blessed with? Soothe are our loneliness, remove briefly the disjointedness in our lives? Are an antidote to cynicism?
Types of love story
We love it whenever we hear that Grandma and Grandad fell in love at school, stayed married for seventy years and died within a month of each other. That satisfies our deep need for stability. But in fiction we like obstacles, preferably ones that raise our heart rate good and high. This is where forbidden love comes in:
- Love triangles – tried and tested from the earliest times (Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseult, anything with Zeus in it) through the 19th century (Anna Karenina) and 20th (Brief Encounter, Bridges of Madison County, Doctor Zhivago), still alive and well today;
- Sleeping with the enemy (Romeo and Juliet and all its derivations);
- Love that is socially, politically or morally impossible (Pride and Prejudice, Dido and Aeneas, Antony and Cleopatra, the story of Frankenstein’s monster and his bride);
- Love rejected when one rises in status and rejects the real love (Wuthering Heights, Gatsby);
- Love otherwise torn apart by circumstances (Jane Eyre);
- Unconsummated love (Gone with the Wind, A Tale of Two Cities, The Snow Goose);
- Two characters who meet through work or similar, can’t stand each other and learn to love each other (African Queen, Guys and Dolls, The Philadelphia Story, Austen’s Emma and its marvellous film spoof Clueless, anything with Jennifer Aniston in it).
That last one fills cinemas regularly these days. See how small a part it plays in the whole picture?
It’s all what you want to make of it. Go ahead, try a new mix.
What about structure?
Set up the characters in their unfulfilled lives. Bring the lovers together. They notice each other and their connection becomes apparent. Their love faces whatever obstacles you can think up until both characters reach the necessary climactic insight about themselves as part of the process of deserving each other. They come together again – happy ending.
More about The Odyssey
Homer’s Odyssey is the story of an old soldier’s quest for home after a decade of dreadful war. His tests vary from keeping his ships safe from crashing rocks to escaping the clutches of a love goddess. Escaping a love goddess? Yes. There’s a marvellous bit where he explains to the goddess that, for all the delights of living with her, what he actually needs and wants is to be with his wife Penelope. He longs to grow old with her and watch the mortal furrows spread on her face.
When Odysseus arrives home, his old dog Argos’s last act is to snuffle around Odysseus’ feet in recognition of his master, and fall dead at his feet. Does this convince Penelope that he is her long lost husband? No. She is being tormented by gangs of ‘suitors’ who are taking over the place, being nothing but trouble, and the last thing she needs is another one lying to try and jump the queue. Odysseus might have a chance if he could tell her something that no-one else in the world knows but the two of them. She asks him, seeing as he’s standing there being useless, to do her a favour and move her bed for her. He replies that he made their marital bed himself from the living oak of a single tree, and built their bedroom and their house around it. Now she has no doubt who he is and welcomes him home.
They have already been married at least twenty years. They are not young. She did not run to him the moment he staggered through the door, as he probably hoped. He had to win her over afresh and did it not with his charm or strength but with that wonderful secret about their love. All exquisitely romantic and not, in my view, bettered by any other writer since.
Time and again we use stories to explore what is the best, sustainable kind of love and what isn’t. And how far wealth brings us happiness – which is where love stories overlap with another great plot structure, Rags to Riches. More of that next week …