February 14, 2011

What We Write About When We Write About Love

My critique partners have problems with my relationships. If they object to my real-life involvements, they've kept quiet about it, but they're always vocal in questioning the relationships I write for my characters: "What does she see in him?" "Why would he stay with her?" "Were they ever really in love?"

In most of the stories I've written -- and really, most of the stories anyone has ever written -- people fall in or out of love. Based on the progress I've made as a writer in other areas, I'd expect that these days I'd be much better at writing about love than I used to be. The consistency of feedback from my critiquers suggests otherwise.

Why is it so hard to write convincingly about love? I've been pondering this issue for a while, and I've isolated a few of the difficulties:

Love is arbitrary. In real life, on those rare occasions when we're called upon to explain why we love the people we do, our responses are cliches that don't tell the full story: "We have chemistry." "We have a lot in common." "She makes me laugh." "I just feel comfortable with him." People fall in love as a result of an idiosyncratic, favorable set of circumstances. Even if we managed to reconstruct and describe how love occurred, it wouldn't be an explanation grounded in logic. The truest answer is, "We're in love because we're in love."

Now take this problematic situation and stick it into fiction, which is burdened with a need to be more believable than reality in order to convince the reader. If fictional love is as arbitrary as real love, readers and their pattern-seeking brains won't buy it. But if the characters' relationship develops based entirely on logic, that rings false to readers. Fictional love needs more rationale than real love but somehow also has to reflect the randomness of life. Good luck with that.

In my own writing, I've bounced back and forth between the extremes, and now I'm starting to settle into a more workable middle ground. I give characters a few tangible reasons for attraction of the type that they could report to friends, and then I focus on capturing the "because we're in love" emotion that's at the core of a relationship. Which brings me to...

True love is all show and no tell. In these relationship discussions with my critique group, my sheepish reply is always something like, "But in the narration, he keeps telling us how much he loves her!" I should really know this one by now: Don't tell the reader that the characters are in love -- show it! Duh.

I've been paying attention to how people behave in real-life relationships to identify those little moments, in public or private, that indicate when people are involved and even demonstrate how long they've been together or how it's going. Sticking a few of these moments into a story does far more to bring the relationship to life than the most passionate inner monologue expounding upon how much a character loves someone.

Relationships that end were once beginning. It's hard enough to convince my critique partners of the love between characters who are starting out together, but things really get tricky when I write about a relationship on the rocks. Inevitably, my readers look at the misery and antagonism of characters breaking up and say, "There's no way they were ever happy together. They should hurry up and end it."

This is a tough one. The point of a story about a soured relationship should be that it's a painful situation and that it's unclear what the best outcome is. None of that works if readers aren't sympathetic to how much the characters are struggling, so I need them to appreciate how good the relationship once was. Do I do this through flashbacks, memories, passionate inner monologues? None of these are great, all-purpose solutions.

If it's possible to begin the story just before the circumstance that tears the characters apart, the writer has the opportunity to show the relationship in a happy starting state. But relationships often break apart in a gradual way, unconnected to any single event. I'm still figuring out how to effectively write this kind of story.

What problems and solutions have you encountered when writing about love?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times Book Review explains the redesigned best-seller lists that track e-book sales. A accompanying graphic shows how print and e-book sales compare.

→ At Conversational Reading, the Spring Big Read will be LIFE, A USER'S MANUAL by Georges Perec. I read this fascinating book in college, and while I don't think I'll have time to reread it with the group, I'm looking forward to following the discussion.


Scooter Carlyle said...

Very good observations. I've struggled with the romance in my novel, though it isn't the primary focus. I'm working very hard to ensure the reader can understand what Junsan sees in Ellie. Hopefully, it's believable!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Scooter, I've found that all of these problems loom just as large, or even larger, when romance isn't the main focus of the plot, perhaps because I spend less time exploring the relationship. Good luck figuring it all out in your story!

Anonymous said...

Argh! The internet ate my comment and I don't have time to rewrite it just now... This is a great topic & I'd love to have a long conversation about it, but I don't have the time, alas. I've been meaning to post about watching Slings & Arrows, which your post reminds me of.

But I think it is possible to show chemistry/what the relationship is like, whether between people falling in love or those on the rocks -- and it's not only the thing that really makes it believable, but also the thing that makes the reader interested in/care about the characters. Once again, detail is everything. (Wish I didn't struggle so hard with detail as a writer.)

Lisa Eckstein said...

desireearmfeldt - Sorry your comment got lost! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject whenever you have more time, and I can't wait to hear what you have to say about Slings & Arrows.

You are so right that showing how characters feel about each other is a big way to make the reader care. That's something else I should have thought to mention: it's not only that my critique group says they don't believe the relationships, but they also have trouble getting involved in the romantic part of the story when they can't get invested in what happens between the characters.

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