Writing the Blockbuster Love Story
By John Truby
Everyone loves a love story. But this apparently simple tale may be the most difficult form to write well, for a number of reasons. First, love is the only genre where you need not one, but two equally well-defined main characters. You know how hard it is to give depth to one character.
With two, you not only have to detail their weaknesses and needs, you have to track a goal for each character that won't kill the story drive.
Second, the love story has a plot where surprise must come out of intimacy. This is different from almost every other major genre. Most genres, like detective and action, have big, sensational reveals. 'Ah-hah, it was Mike who shot Fred, not Jane.'
Big reveals are easy. But with love, you don't get that luxury. You have to dig deep into the psyches of both characters and find the subtle differences and hidden agendas that even the closest couple will keep from each other.
Third, love is a story form that should naturally take ten minutes. Boy and girl meet, they feel a spark, the rest is negotiation. But you have to fill two hours, which is why most love stories don't have enough plot.
Finally, you have to make the audience not only see the love but feel it, want it, even demand that it happen. If that isn't hard enough, your characters must want it, but fear it and avoid it as well. It's not easy.
These and other pitfalls await you if you tackle this great form. Most writers try to beat these problems by writing what is really an action story. Powerful man meets beautiful woman and chases her. She resists for awhile, but he eventually 'wins' her by 'proving' his love. This is not a love story, and scripts written this way almost always fail.
Real love stories hit about ten unique story beats that are really a choreography for how deep love between two people can be expressed to an audience.
The first story beat is the main characters' fear of love. Weak love stories show this in a predictable and unbelievable way. They give one of the leads a love from the past for whom the person still bleeds.
Now we've all had our scars from love, but making one of your characters emotionally crippled from a single affair of years gone by is silly. It comes across as a contrivance, and it also takes the audience's attention backwards.
A better solution is to show that both main characters have a fear of love in the present. Remember, in the best love stories, the deepest opposition to love is love itself. Not a single instance of it, but rather what love must always do to anyone who feels it.
That's why love stories often begin with the eventual lovers fighting. This wouldn't make sense in real life; you don't start a relationship with someone you are attracted to by immediately getting into a fight with them.
No, the eventual lovers fight -- to a draw -- because deep down they are afraid to love. Both know they will lose some freedom and some of themselves, and they will experience pain if they fall to this attraction. But they keep coming back to it because, down the road, they may get something back through this unique other person that is far more valuable.
Be sure you show this fear of love for both of your lead characters.
If you believe love is the most important thing in life, if you believe that learning to love is how we live a good life, then you should write this form. But, make it a real love story.
Use the love story structure steps to show how love can deepen. A good love story is among the most powerful of all genres because it shows the audience what love could mean in their own lives.
Meet the Author: John Truby
John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.