Thrillers are great because you get to test a character’s limits and see what they’re really made of. An author tosses some people into circumstances that test their courage, their compassion, their patience, and their wisdom. Conflict is important and is a fundamental part of any story in any genre. And there is no finer conflict than love.
Two parties seek the same ends. They have to overcome something. Incompatibility? Distance? The lies they tell themselves? Means and motives may vary between these two parties. Perhaps even their idea of what they want is at odds with the person they love.
It’s complicated, so maybe we should talk about a love story that is somewhat commonly known and build on that. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare seems like a good place to start.
Romeo and Juliet is a love story, but I’m not sure if it’s a good one. We’ll come to that. It is, however, an awesome tragedy. The story is brilliant because the tension between the families ultimately leads to the exile of Romeo, creating the circumstances for the tragic ending. The key is that message that never makes it to its destination. The audience knows what’s going to happen, and it’s that sense of anticipation, the realisation that it’s not going to end well, that makes the story compelling. The love story, however. Well...
There is a fantastic book by Tzachi Zamir called Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama. Zamir makes a case for why Romeo and Juliet might be overrated, and I recommend reading it (he talks about almost all of the Shakespearean canon – well worth the time). Fundamentally, the problem with love in Romeo and Juliet is that it’s so fake, superficial, and over-the-top.
The language Shakespeare uses is the stuff of dreams, of fantasy. Stars, oceans, suns, and moons, angels and gods. “It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night,” Romeo says when he first sees her. Juliet isn’t of this earth to this guy – she’s divine, a goddess, perfect. In summary: she’s not real. (And, yes, vice versa.) Easy to dismiss, perhaps, but the language does have its allure.
Some of you have read or seen the play. Some of you have seen the movie Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996). To those who have seen the film, how many remember the scene when Romeo first claps eyes on Juliet? The costume party and the fish tank and Leo with his great hair. Remember it? It’s very dreamlike, very unreal. Here’s the scene. Do watch it. There will be a quiz afterwards.
It draws you in a little bit, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if we end up participating in the same dream. Maybe we like it. Did it suck you in? No, yes? Don’t want to answer? That’s okay. Answer this instead: how many of you noticed the guy in the background taking a piss?
How easy it is to ignore reality when you’re trapped in a dream. And this, dear readers, is the essence of the tragedy. I daresay Shakespeare knew what he was up to, the cheeky bugger.
It’s perhaps unfair to say Romeo and Juliet is an over-the-top love story. Love is, after all, one of those things that is easily idealised. It’s right up there with courage and virtue and wisdom (usually portrayed as ‘genius’ in film). There are a lot of articles out there about how this idealisation of romantic interaction in art is ruining our lives. I’m not going to link them here because I think it’s a stupid thing to worry about. The idealisation of love manifests when people see other relationships around them anyway. (Happily married parents or friends can distort our ideas of what love should be more than television.) The idealisation of love is, in fact, a part of the reality of any romantic interaction and is, in itself, a cause of conflict.
So what is real love? Buggered if I know. I could sit here and write a thousand more words about the chemical urges that compel us to fulfil our biological purpose. I could also sit here and write about the poetic fantasies we concoct about the people we meet – I wrote a passage about it in No Free Man:
You might notice that I never mention ‘shaving her legs with my expensive razor’ or ‘cutting her toenails at the coffee table’. We never think about those things, do we? Fortunately, I don’t think we need to.
Anton Chekhov wrote that “[b]eing in love shows a person how he ought to be.” This idea brings me back to the opening paragraph of this post. The characters have a whole story to be this person. Yes, I know, a character isn’t a real person, but they could be a real person, and that’s why we’re drawn to them. They have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and quirks, and some people hate them while others love them. Each one is capable of love, even the worst of them. There may be things standing in their way. Maybe the timing is bad. Maybe they wish it was someone else. Maybe they spend a lot of time trying to talk themselves out of it. Maybe the person they love turns out to be much more monstrous than they ever imagined. Maybe they cling to the fantasy at the expense of reality, and it leads to tragedy.
And tragedy is okay. I don’t believe that it’s the ‘happy ending’ we look for so much as a ‘resolution’, which is why tragedy works in stories. We never would’ve invented tragedy if we were all looking for a happy ending – but we do love a resolution, an answer, perhaps.
So how the hell do you write love? It’s a good question.
I had a friend who told me a love story. She met a man. He was a neighbour of sorts. There was a lane beyond the fence at the bottom of her garden and he lived on the other side of that narrow bit of gravel. Her gate was rusted shut, so she never ventured into the lane. She saw him walking past, though, maybe returning from work or walking his dog. She wanted an excuse to talk to him and concocted this scenario where she would attempt to fix her gate at the time of day he would normally walk past. Her scheme worked. He struck up a conversation and offered to help. They fixed the gate together, though it still squealed when they opened it. Nevertheless, it led to him asking if she’d like to get a coffee sometime.
He started to visit her every day, arriving through the gate. It was like a secret between them. Everybody else thought the gate was still rusted shut so only he would use it. She would smile every time she heard those hinges squeal. They were together for months. They seemed happy.
Then there was an affair. She found out. They argued. She told him to leave and never to come back. He left. She cried herself through a sleepless night.
She told me about this a few days afterwards, and I listened and didn’t know what to say. I think I mumbled a question about how she was holding up. She told me she spent the day after the breakup lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. The whole time, lying there, angry at him, her ears strained to hear that squeaking hinge. She missed it so much.
If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned this: it’s the little nothings that mean everything. Nobody else knows what they are, but we all understand it. And it might be foolish, it might be fantasy, it might be madness, it might be the worst decision we ever make, but that’s as real as it gets.