Hooked on a Feeling enters its fourth installment. Today, we will take a look at love—what purpose does it play in writing, and how to evoke it within the reader.
For today’s post, I have enlisted the help of our mutual friend, Mr. Devil’s Advocate.
Mr. Devil’s Advocate: “Always a pleasure. Though I am a little unsure as to why you invited me today. So far, you’ve managed this miniseries largely without my help. Why would you reach out to me now?”
Ah, well, that’s the thing. Today’s subject is love, after all, and I…technically, in the strictest possible sense, according to the traditional definition, haven’t exactly, you know, uh…ever been in love.
Mr. DA: “What was that?”
*Sigh* I’ve never been in love. And I really have no point of reference in describing it. But it can’t be ignored as a feeling, and this miniseries won’t be complete without it, so I thought I would get some outside help for this one.
Mr. DA: “I see. And what makes you think I have any more experience than you in this arena?”
What, you’re telling me you don’t have a chubby succubus somewhere who’s waiting for you to call?
Mr. DA: *Snort* “You must think very little of me, Mr. Horne. I’m a professional—I do not eat where I defecate. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be with a demon. Every advocate knows that they make great clients and terrible lovers. Like redheads, but WORSE.”
Uh…if you say so. But still, I can’t quite tackle this topic on my own. Will you please help me?
Mr. DA: “Well, I’m not ashamed to admit I have a few tricks up my sleeve in this regard. Very well, I will educate you in the ways of love, young man.”
Great. Where do we start?
Mr. DA: “We start where everything starts: in history.”
A Brief History of Love
Well, I know that love has played a large part in the literary side of history. A lot of ancient sagas and epics include love subplots.
Mr. DA: “Yeah, if you can call that love. Remind me again how Gunther and Brunhilde fell for each other.”
Well, first he tricked her into marrying him. Then he had his pal Siegfried sneak into their bedroom with his invisibility cloak so that he could hold her down while Gunther…oh.
You know, those old sagas aren’t really love stories. Maybe we should explore a different period of history.
Mr. DA: “Yes. Let’s.”
Love in Ancient Greece
Mr. DA: “The Greeks saw romantic love almost as a kind of madness—something that could rob a man of all reason and make him do insanely stupid things. It always ended badly for the hero.”
That sounds about right. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story from Greek mythology where love wasn’t used as some kind of precursor to punishment. Someone was always getting turned into a tree or a flower or a snake or a gorgon, or something. The only Greek romance that has a happy ending, as far as I can remember, is the tale of Eros and Psyche, but since one of those people was the physical embodiment of love itself, I don’t know if that really counts.
Mr. DA: “Put simply, the ancient Greeks might not have approved of the idea of evoking love in the reader. They might have even been receptive to the idea of someone going their whole life without experiencing it.”
Not the place we should be looking for love stories, then.
And now we’re getting somewhere.
A lot of the modern concept of love has its roots in the Renaissance. Judeo-Christian notions of sacred love had settled in during the centuries after the fall of Rome. Love—in literature, at least—was seen as something not to be exacted of someone by clubbing her head and dragging her by the hair back to your cave. Nor was it treated as a sickness or sin.
Granted, there was a great deal of pressure to emulate the ancient Greeks and Romans, so plenty of romantic tragedies still abounded, but there was also this thing called the “happily ever after”, which saw the protagonist couple end up together, often with large cash prizes attached. These prizes often came in the form of castles or kingdoms, but the message was clear: “Find true love, and riches are sure to follow.”
Mr. DA: “However, with the ‘happily ever after’ came another development.”
Yes. The “love at first sight” trope was also popularized. Among other things, it made writing love stories completely straightforward. The man falls in love with the woman because she is beautiful, and therefore their love is true and unbreakable.
And, honestly, society has never gotten over this. Oh, there’s been a great amount of pushback. These days, a lot of powerful people look at the “love at first sight” concept no differently than the idea of head clubbing and hair dragging. Even Disney, who used to be the strongest purveyor of this philosophy, has largely repented of it with movies like Enchanted and Frozen. But that hasn’t stopped people from watching, and even preferring, the older Disney titles.
Not what I was talking about, but the wordplay is too delicious to pass up.
Writing it Down
Which brings us to one of our main points: how does the writer put the emotion of love into his story.
Mr. DA: “Using the ‘love at first sight’ method, it becomes a no brainer.”
True. With a bit of handwaving, we can simply have it happen without explaining it.
Mr. DA: “You might have some trouble publishing that, though.”
Also true. The powers that be demand more depth from the love stories produced by authors in this day and age. Then again, that hasn’t stopped romance novels from falling back on the classics.
The genre has a wide umbrella, and even today puts out every conceivable variety of love story, including love at first sight, as well as forbidden love, hopeless love, urban love, country love, oppressed housewife love, lonely caterer love, rich woman in a big empty house love, klutzy girl who can’t hold down a job love, and I don’t know how long I can keep this gag going love.
So we can’t take the “love at first sight” card off the table, as it apparently has a lot of mileage still left on it, plus a free burrito on your tenth visit.
Mr. DA: “Dibs!”
Lots of people, for whatever reason, still like the traditional love story that their parents grew up with. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that you as the writer decide you want something deeper. In which case “love at first sight” isn’t going to cut it. What other options are there?
What Love Brings to the Table
But before we go any further, I am going to do what I have done with previous entries in the Hooked on a Feeling miniseries and talk about the advantages of evoking certain emotions in the reader.
Do you remember the list? Don’t worry, I’ll reprint it here.
- Inspiration is personally transformative for your reader, and has the greatest lifelong benefit.
- Fear ignites the suspension of disbelief, and most powerfully reinforces the illusion you are weaving around your reader.
- Hate makes the story immortal, providing a conduit to future generations of readers.
It’s time to add another bullet point:
- Love keeps the book in the reader’s mind, even when they are not reading it.
It’s something that every writer needs to learn. Your book’s success—by which I mean whether or not it has an impact on the reader—largely depends on what the reader does when the book is closed.
If the reader can simply get on with their life without thinking about your book ever again, then you failed to evoke any love in them. But if a book can generate the feeling of love within the reader, they won’t be able to stop thinking about it. They will have to put it down, of course, to go to school or to work or to handle whatever emergencies pop up in their lives. But later, while they are studying, or while they are doing the dishes, or even while they are lying in bed, waiting for sleep to come, they will be thinking about your book. They will be thinking about the characters in it, or the world you built, or what it all means, in the end.
This is why so many stories prioritize love, and attempt to stir feelings of it in anyone who cares to glance over the pages.
Mr. DA: “I think I get what you’re saying. But aren’t you conflating two different issues? Up until now, we’ve been talking about romantic love between characters in the story. Yet suddenly you talk about love between the reader and the book. Those aren’t the same thing.”
Even if they aren’t, there’s enough of a correlation there to reliably use one as bait to catch the other. Readers literally hold the characters in their hands, so it’s not surprising that they tend to obsess, a little, over these characters’ fates. And no fate is quite so distressing as the “will they end up together” question. It causes concern—worry, even—for the poor players upon the stage. And in the reader’s head, she says to herself, “Well, if she won’t love you, then I will.”
Case in point:
Check and mate.
How it’s Done
Mr. DA: “It sounds to me like you actually know one or two things about love.”
I know what I’ve read in books. Do not ascribe to me any more than that.
Mr. DA: “You did just say that falling in love with a book was comparable with one person falling in love with another. Are you sure, having said that, that you have never experienced love.”
Mr. DA: “I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.”
“Devil’s advocate” is fine. I didn’t ask for “devil’s wingman”.
Mr. DA: “Neither does the devil. That’s a free service I provide on the side.”
Regardless, we have reached the end of what I am able to give. If you have forsworn “love at first sight”, then how do you make your characters fall in love with each other, and your reader fall in love with your book?
This is why I asked you to join me today. I can’t fill in this one gap. Do you know how to set up a more complex love story?
Mr. DA: “I do indeed.
“The key to evoking love in literature is the use of reverse psychology. 100% of the time.”
*Blinks twice* What?
Mr. DA: “I’m serious. It’s no more complicated than that.”
I’m sorry—aren’t you the one who is supposed to challenge me whenever I spout absolutist statements? Why am I hearing something so deterministic from you?
Mr. DA: *Shrugs* “You’re the one who asked.
“And it’s the truth: reverse psychology can be used to make any two characters fall in love, and do it in a way that feels completely organic, deep, and fleshed out. All those people who dismiss “love at first sight” as antiquated or barbaric have espoused a system that is just as simplistic, if not more so.
“It’s so easy to do. You want two characters to fall in love? Then just give them a reason why they can never be together. This can be done in an infinite variety of ways. You can:
- Have the lovebirds come from completely different social classes or castes.
- Have the lovebirds come from different sides of a war between nations.
- Have the lovebirds come from two feuding families.
- Have one of the lovebirds contract a deadly disease that will shortly kill him/her.
- Throw the lovebirds in a prison where unbreakable walls separate them.
- Have the lovebirds hate each other viciously from the start.
“And there are a thousand others, but they all boil down to the same thing: you have a legitimate reason why the lovebirds could not even conceivably end up together. Once you have that, all you need to do is suggest the slightest hint that they are still attracted to each other despite all the obstacles. And that’s all it takes to convince the reader that these two should end up together. Because an impossible romance is, by definition, an underdog. And everybody LOVES an underdog (pun intended).
“A great example of this actually comes from Disney’s Frozen. Consider the two competing love interests.
“By the end of the movie, each of them has won the heart of Princess Anna. But Hans won it through the ‘love at first sight’ approach, so the movie tries to portray it as illegitimate, particularly because it all happened in the course of a single day (and something sinister must be happening if people fall in love after just one day together).
“Kristoff also wins the heart of Anna, and the movie portrays this as acceptable because he cannot possibly end up with her, she being already engaged to Hans and therefore unavailable. Nevertheless, the narrative hints at an attraction between the two, and therefore the audience is already rooting for them to get together. When the two realize that they actually do love each other, the discerning audience member may realize with a start that this new love happened in…how much time? Just. One. Day.
“And yet, people praised the movie for how it supposedly rewrote the rules of Disney romance. And any idiot writer can do the same thing.”
Is it really that simple?
Mr. DA: “You were expecting something complicated?”
Well, yeah. I mean, creating a convincing romance is supposed to be one of the hardest tasks in writing.
Mr. DA: “A ‘convincing romance’ is one where people are convinced that their love is genuine. But there’s no way to determine that. The people in love are so blinded by it that they have no idea what they’re doing. And the people not in love have no business telling them if they’re doing it wrong. So even if the romance you write isn’t ‘convincing’, no one can possibly call you on it without exposing themselves as a hypocrite.”
Huh. I guess, in a way, that’s the most reassuring truth I could have asked for. Looks like I made the right call by inviting you into this post.
Mr. DA: “Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to do it wrong.”
The Achilles Heel
This is the part where you tell us how evoking love in the reader can blow up in the writer’s face.
Mr. DA: “Which is easy enough to explain. You remember what the Achilles heel was during the post about inspiration?”
Yes. It was sap.
Mr. DA: “The Achilles heel of love is something related to that: it’s pine.”
Oh, I get it. You’re saying that the story goes down the drain when the characters pine after each other.
Mr. DA: “Exactly. And this is a much bigger danger in modern romance than in the ‘love at first sight’ stories. Because if there is a reason why the lovebirds can never be together, the natural reaction for them is to pine and whine about it, and that can curdle your story faster than perhaps any other method. Have you ever read Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon?”
Mr. DA: “Good. Because that could ruin love for you forever.”
Thanks for the heads up.
It appears that you don’t need to be in love to write about it (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). That’s a huge comfort to me, but more importantly, it should be a big help to anyone interested in the subject.
Love is a powerful thing, but it still follows patterns and rules, just like every other emotion. If you know how to manipulate these rules, you can cause your characters to fall for each other and even evoke a degree of love in the reader. And since you can do these things, why wouldn’t you? It will only make your writing that much more appealing to readers.
Are you hooked yet?
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”]