Romance Without Romeo: Telling a Love Story sans Soppiness

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I often tell myself that I can’t write love stories. Deliberately building that kind of delicate, ephemeral sentiment on the page in solid ink is something that seems utterly beyond me. Not only that, it makes me feel ridiculously self-conscious, both about the words I’m choosing and about the skill with which I’m deploying them. Writing love is sodding difficult. This should be no surprise, since living love is pretty challenging.

The thing is, the scenes that flat-out say what the emotions are tend to be awkward to read as well as write. That’s due at least in part to the fact that they’re unbelievable. Seriously, who really goes around gazing wide-eyed at their beloved and exchanging tender devotions? That isn’t how people work. Love is occasionally shown in words, but far more often in actions and the silences around other words. To quote M. Night Shymalan’s The Village:

Sometimes we don’t do things we want to do so that others won’t know we want to do them.      ~ Ivy Walker

Not an obvious couple

I have been playing my way through The Wolf Among Us – a point-and-click adventure by Telltale Games, featuring all your favourite characters from Bill Willingham’s Fables graphic novel series. In both the novels and the game, one of the central threads to the story is Bigby Wolf’s love for Snow White. It’s never ever stated in bald words, but he tries to reign in his bad behaviour around her. He does his best to protect her, both in body and reputation, and to support her whenever it’s needed. No one else gets anything like that sort of treatment from him, so it makes his feelings blazingly obvious. And the understated nature of it makes it beautiful.

Love stories happen around other things. They might be the central point of the story, but they cannot exist in a vacuum and they read much better if the majority of that plot line is subtext. Even in Romeo & Juliet the central action is about murder and feuding families, with love hanging from those hooks. Once you realise that, writing a love story becomes… well, still not easy. But marginally more approachable.

Now, many people who know me will be somewhat surprised by this post. The stories that I’ve written – and those that I tend to play out in LARP – are, at base, driven by fairly devoted (indeed, an argument could be made for ‘fanatical’) love, whether that be for a god or a family member or a partner. Surely that means I know how to tell them? No, it means I know how they feel. They feel powerful. This is pretty much my biggest worry as a writer – how to convey the power that I feel onto the page so everyone else can feel it just as strongly. Words can do that, but they have to be the right words at the right time in the right way. Silences can often do it better but that involves putting even more trust in your readers to join the dots. Not a bad thing, but a scary one.

The upshot is that I’ve given this some thought and I’ve got a couple of tips for conveying love without actually writing it:

1. Changing behaviour: just like Bigby Wolf not being a violent psychopath around Snow White, an alteration in personality and behavioural patterns can be used as a silent flag for conveying one character’s opinion of another. Are they making an effort, trying to impress or acting with rare respect? Best of all, they might not even realise themselves that they’re doing it. That way the audience gets the added smugness of knowing more than the character.

2. Not saying it: I don’t mean double entendre. I mean awkward lines, clumsily corrected by the character. Mundane conversations that clearly aren’t about the topic being discussed. Shared jokes and interests and all the little exchanges that make a real relationship… real. For an excellent demonstration of this, I recommend Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, which is basically about how to build a marriage.

3. Character priorities: as Conan Doyle said via Sherlock Holmes, ‘it’s amazing how fire exposes our priorities’. In a crisis, what do your characters care about first? Is it each other? You don’t need to mention anything about romance – unveiling love through violence or desperation is far more powerful.

Nothing says romance like the living dead

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like the living dead

4. A fact of life: if this isn’t a story about falling in love, but about an existing relationship, you still don’t have to say it for the reader to get the point. The relationship is a given for the characters. They don’t talk about it because what is there to talk about? This may sound a little dull, but I’m going to blow my own trumpet for a moment and say that it really isn’t. This pretty much sums up the central love story in Spiritus, and is the foundation for the events of Corpus. The best example I can come up with right now is Rick and Evelyn in The Mummy Returns (I love that film). There must be better ones but I’m writing this late at night so I can’t bring them to mind.

5. Physical contact: obviously this ties into body language, but it can be used much more strongly. I refer you again to the quote from The Village above. Because we are naturally such hands-on creatures, restricted physical contact can be very telling and the moments when it does happen become correspondingly more powerful. This is something I’ve played with in the LARP field. It may sound simple but it can carry an astonishing amount of impact.

6. Other problems: like I said, love stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Concentrate on writing an adventure, or a mystery, or an apocalypse. If your characters are in love, it’ll come out naturally in their responses to everything else. And ‘naturally’ is very much the point.

Anyway, I hope that helps. It certainly isn’t something I’ve got totally cracked so if anyone has any other tips they’d like to share, I’d be very grateful!

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2 responses »

  1. “I don’t ever want to have to watch you die.”
    “Then one day you might just have to close your eyes.”

    I actively hate myself for delivering that line. But I’m perversely proud of it all the same
    .

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