The Love Story: Mutant Sharks Are Not Enough

Pearl diver collecting shells from the beds of Torres Strait, Queensland / Frank HurleyFor this post on love stories, I’m stealing massively from Matt Bird of the Cockeyed Caravan blog, specifically his idea that love stories are about two people who fundamentally get each other in ways others don’t. To quote him directly: “Every love scene is about one thing: ‘I understand you.’ If they don’t understand each other, it’s not real love.” That post is HERE, and if you’re writing a love story—or a story with any interpersonal connection—whatsoevergo read it, it’s brilliant.

With that as a premise, here are my thoughts.

People live disconnected from each other almost all the time, and finding the people who see you clearly is rare and hard and miraculous. Love stories, for the purposes of this post, are stories that capture that. It doesn’t need to be romantic love or the central plot. When a story makes me feel that, I’ll follow it anywhere.

But in stories, unlike life, similarity is easy. Fictional people are in constant danger of having viewpoints and preferences identical both to each other and the author. That isn’t compelling, and it doesn’t count.

Let’s say Alice and Bob discover they both adore surfing and then fall in love.

Literally, nobody cares.

Here’s why:

1) We feel nothing for Alice or Bob. They’re not compelling personalities whose goals matter to us.

2) Their connection isn’t unique. It sounds like we could give Alice any surfer boy and she’d be happy, so why worry about Bob?

3) We don’t feel the threat of disconnection. We know of nothing lacking in their lives, and there’s nothing that puts them in conflict.

A love story, like any story, needs conflict, tension, obstacles, and a character struggling towards a goal. But it also needs that one-in-a-million hope of connection that we ache to find and fear to lose.

Here’s my possibly-totally-wrong theory:

In a love story, two people need to be uniquely, specifically, astoundingly aligned in some important way.

And they need to be uniquely, specifically, astoundingly misaligned in some other important way.

In a happily-ever-after story, the forces of alignment gradually win out.

If the relationship ultimately fails, it’s because misalignment wins.

I was going to say that’s it, that’s a love story. It’s not, of course.

I’d love to say I figured that out quickly, but no. I wrote out a whole scenario for Alice and Bob up above, using my theory to turn those surfer kids into a romance that worked. It was pretty cool, too–mutant sharks and everything. But it wasn’t a love story, because I forgot the same thing I always forget.

It’s about vulnerability.

It’s about the slow deepening; it’s about the interplay between I want you to see me and Can I afford to let you see me? and the series of events and revelations that ask your characters to choose. It’s about how I understand you, which is not just great, but also awful and terrible and terrifying.

Character creation is the act of distilling a nigh-infinitely complex human being into few enough traits that we can comprehend them. Howsoever quirky and distinct we make our characters, they’ll never be as gloriously weird as real people.

The above theory is me trying to make a love story something small enough for me to grasp.

Let me know what you think.

Photo Credit: Pearl diver collecting shells from the beds of Torres Strait, Queensland/ Frank Hurley 1885-1962.