Making the Torches Burn Bright
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright…
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
By John Jarvis.
February is the month of love. Indeed, we even celebrate the guy with the little bow and arrow on the 14th.
But that little guy, although powerful, is also evasive. The love story is one of the hardest stories to write. Make that: write and SUCCEED. For almost all writers try their hand at this Story Type from time-to-time with very mixed results. Indeed, I can remember a number of love stories that really moved me at the time, but have been lost in the ash bin of history.
I. The Lure of the Love Story
Love stories are very commercial. By “commercial” I mean universal to all. They “feature” a host of universal passions: anger, fear, hate, revenge, greed…and love, the greatest of all the passions. Love, though, is not necessarily the greatest because it is more universal than the rest; rather, it is the greatest because it is more noble than the rest. Indeed, we can all think of even enormously powerful persons – dictators, politicians, moguls – who were driven by greed and revenge but in the end toppled by the forces of love. And just about every religion teaches us to turn the other cheek. (Which, of course, is why religious people have suffered so much over the years. But that is another subject.) And so we dream of love and make poems to our mistress’s eyebrows; and so we, as writers, celebrate it.
II. Ingredients for a Powerful Love (Story) Potion
Yet those celebrations fail most of the time. Why? One major reason is that we place our story’s lover in a narrow historical context that is lost on future generations. Shakespeare knew better when he created his Romeo and his Juliet: he placed them in a setting where their parents and families were the villains and by doing so created dramatic tension. Note that I did not use the word “antagonist” for the parents and families; love-story antagonists must always be molding forces – forces that constantly cause change – and not brick walls (antagonists can be brick walls, but not in love stories). In short, in StoryCraft lingo, one lover, usually the female, acts as a Shape Changer for the male. And villains, another necessity in all good love stories, act (again using the language of StoryCraft) as Gate Guardians.
To create a proper love story, then, requires five ingredients: 1) a universal context for the lovers, 2) one lover who is the hero, 3) the other lover, who is an antagonist (acting as Shape Changer only!), and 4) a villain (or villains), who acts as Gate Guardian.
But I said that there were five ingredients. The fifth is the Story Type-Category relationship. I do not have the space to cover this rather complex subject, but let me cover a few love stories that satisfy all, or most, of the five criteria.
The best love stories to study are ROMEO AND JULIET and WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Those who know the Method used in StoryCraft know that ROMEO AND JULIET’s Story Type is Love and that WUTHERING HEIGHTS’s Story Type is Extreme Love. Both are in the Theme Category (the only proper Category to satisfy requirement number one above).
A recent very successful love story is THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Love stories that concern adultery always, of course, have a strong Gate Guardian in the spouse. And because of the adultery, they belong to the Extreme-Love Story Type. (However, it is important to understand that a story is not automatically a “love story” just because it may have love and a Gate Guardian. Much depends on the ultimate fate of the main character. ANNA KARENINA, for example, is not a love story, even though it seems so at first. FOR A LOVE STORY MUST END WITH THE LOVERS TOGETHER IN LIFE OR IN DEATH. Thus Tolstoy’s novel belongs instead to the Excess-and-Downfall Story Type.
II. Flash: “PATIENT has Perfect Potion!”
But to return to THE ENGLISH PATIENT. This is perhaps the best love story written in a long time, and I would recommend that all writers see it. It has a well-developed main character, whose character arc and backstory are shown in flashbacks. Although this device is normally not recommended, it works wonders here and makes the film not just a good old prose love story, but a cinematic one as well. It also has a Gate Guardian and an antagonist lover who should be the model of every writer.
One of the pleasures of this film is that we have a subplot showing carnal as well as Agape love. Hence, we get a little philosophy for our money as well! However, unlike the moralizing Tolstoy, this writer does not make the carnal-love character dominate the story; in short, the film remains a love story, and does not become the Excess- and-Downfall Type.
Those of you who have read my discussions on subplots know that I am generally against subplots. The reason for this recommendation is that subplots are seldom handled well. Which just goes to prove that, once again, THE ENGLISH PATIENT is an exception – all in all, a great love (story) potion!