This week, Jarie pitched Love Story as a great example of—guess what—a Love Story. This 1970 film starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal was directed by Arthur Hiller from a screenplay by Erich Segal based on his novel of the same name.
Genre: External: Love > Courtship
It is a bit muddled since the marriage takes place in the middle of the movie.
Secondary: Society > Domestic
Internal: Worldview > Maturation
- Beginning Hook – When Harvard legacy Oliver “Ollie” Barrett IV meets quick-witted, working-class Radcliff student Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri, they soon start dating but have yet to be intimate. Oliver calls Jenny out on her tests. Jenny decided she loves Oliver and they sleep together.
- Middle Build – When Jenny gets accepted to music school in Paris, Oliver can’t believe she wants to go. Oliver proposes and Jenny accepts, knowing that being Barrett will be difficult for them both since Oliver’s family does not approve of Jenny.
- Mid-Point Shift – Oliver and Jenny Get Married
- Ending Payoff – When Oliver graduates from law school, he gets a job at a New York law firm and they attempt to have kids. One day, Oliver visits Dr. Shapely and learns the reason they can’t have kids is that Jenny is dying. He must decide to tell her or wait for her to find out. He decides to keep the secret and becomes guilty that he prevented Jenny from living the life she wanted but on her deathbed, Jenny tells Oliver that he did not hold her back.
Jarie – A Modern Day, Dated Masterpiece of Je Ne Sais Quoi
As I have mentioned before, I’m working on a Memoir about a particularly hard time in my life. It happens to be a love story and when I shared it with Shawn, he recommended that I study Love Story as one of my masterworks. Actually, all three of the movies I picked this season are part of the masterworks I studied to figure out the best way to tell a love story in my memoir.
I used Sense and Sensibility to learn how to craft the everyday mundane and make it interesting, which I feel is important to set the sense of a time and place and the sensibility of why it’s important. I used Crazy Rich Asians to understand how culture keeps lovers apart and how those dynamics make for power of ten tension.
I chose to end on Love Story because it’s the one that’s closest to what I experienced, sans the rich father, ivy league education, and playing hockey. I won’t go over the specific details of how what I’m doing is the same as Love Story since you’ll have to read it when it comes out. What I do want to go over is the six-core questions, how close the movie and book are, and how the author and screenwriter nailed the je ne sais quoi between Ollie and Jenny. For me, that was the hardest thing to get right and I’ll explain that a little more below.
I also read the book and the movie follows the book closely for reasons we’ll get to in a second. Of course, there are some details that are hard to include, like what’s going on in Oliver’s head, but overall, it follows the book. That’s probably because it’s 224 pages or roughly 56,000 words, which meets one of Anne’s criteria for a good length for a book that can translate to a movie. Right Anne?
Anne: In fact Erich Segal began it as a movie treatment that he sold to Paramount. Paramount asked him to generate a novel as a promotional product for the movie, which was already greenlit. Critics panned the novel, but it was a huge bestseller and helped propel the movie to box office success.
The giant commercial success of this little novel led to its being nominated for a National Book Award, but William Styron, author of Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice, was the lead fiction judge that year, and he said Love Story was “a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.” He felt that its very nomination demeaned all the other novels under consideration. The novel was withdrawn from consideration.
Since the nominees that year included works by Lillian Hellman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joyce Carol Oates, and Kurt Vonnegut, Styron might have been right.
Anyway, I can’t really evaluate this film as an adaptation of a novel, because the book was written by the screenwriter after he had already outlined the film, and it exists as a marketing tool rather than a standalone work of fiction. So the movie is not a transformative work in way that, say, Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility is.
Jarie: Got it. No wonder the novel matches the movie so well. Below are the continuation of the 6-core questions. I won’t go over all of them but will hit some highlights that will be helpful when we talk about the je ne sais quoi between Jenny and Oliver. I’ll attempt to solidify that into something that writers can use like screenwriters or casting agents use chemistry in movies.
What are the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of the Global Genre?
Obligatory Scenes for Love Story > Courtship (Marriage)
- Lovers meet: Oliver meets Jenny at the Radcliffe Library
- First Kiss or Intimate Connection: Oliver kisses Jenny outside the hockey game without permission and then again, this time longer
- Confession of love: Oliver calls Jenny after their first date to say “I think … I’m in love with you.” to which she replies “I would say … you were full of shit.” Jenny tells Oliver that the love they shared was worth it before she passes away.
- Lovers break up: Jenny gets accepted to a music school in Europe. She tells Oliver “Ollie, you’re a preppie millionaire and I’m a social zero”. After school, this will be over.
- Proof of love: Oliver does not tell Ray about his sexual exploits with Jenny. Oliver goes to Jenny’s concert. Oliver disowns his family to marry Jenny. Jenny supports Oliver as he goes to law school. Oliver asks his father for money to pay for Jenny’s treatment. Jenny wants Oliver to be the merry widow.
Kim: I’m struggling a bit with the Proof of Love in this film. As an Obligatory Scene is it the Core Event of a Love genre story, but we don’t see a specific scene where that plays out. I’d argue that the core event is when Oliver goes back to his father to ask to borrow money for Jenny’s treatments, which is a proof of his love for her—doing the one thing he swore he’d never do, talking to his father again.
I was thinking about Mr. Darcy’s Proof of Love in Pride & Prejudice — where he pays for Lydia and Wickham’s wedding … so he gives something to someone he despises because he loves Elizabeth and doesn’t want her to be ruined, even if he can never be with her. Is this scene similar? But the scene feels off as a Love genre core event and I think it comes down to the core emotion: Romance. It feels more like Oliver surrendering his rebellion against his father in the Society-Domestic, but it doesn’t feel romantic.
Jarie: I think it’s similar. He loves Jenny so much that he’s willing to do what he said he would never do, which does hurt his pride. I mean why not tell your father that your wife is dying. That’s Oliver’s pride getting in the way since he does not want either the pity or the almost “I told you it would not last” or even a sick relief that his father would feel.
Kim: I think my editorial recommendation would be to have Oliver break down in the scene and let his entire mask he keeps up for his father crumble. Crying and confessing how much he loves his wife and that she’s dying and that he doesn’t know what he’ll do if he loses her … and having the father come around the desk and hold him like a true father and son — THAT would produce some core emotions. And to me would feel more like Proof of Love. As written, it’s like they got stuck on using the line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, which I think could have been in my hypothetical revision. If Oliver showed back up at the hospital with his father, that would have meant a lot to Jenny. She would been comforted by that. And I think made the whole thing feel more like a Love genre payoff.
- Lovers reunite: Oliver proposes to Jenny so she won’t break up with him right after she tells him about music school. After Jenny fights with Ollie in their apartment when Ollie won’t talk to his dad, Ollie searches all over for Jenny and finds her on the stoop where she delivers the iconic line.
Conventions for Love Story > Marriage (Courtship)
- Triangle: Jenny’s terminal illness
Anne: I strongly disagree that the illness constitutes a third point in a triangle. The triangle convention exists in order to prove to one lover that the other is desirable: that they’re not the only choice. It exists to set up the obligatory breakup scene. The “triangle” does not have to be a person—it can be something like a job, or some obligation—but it must be something the lover that it’s pulling on has some choice about. It also has to be present early enough in the story to drive the breakup scene.
Jenny’s illness doesn’t meet any of these requirements. There is never any competition for either lover’s love. I think this is a missing convention, and part of the reason the story, despite its title, doesn’t feel quite like a love story.
- Helpers and Harmers:
- Helper: Roommate Ray Stratton
- Harmer: Oliver’s father
- Helper: Phil, Jenny’s father
- Gender Divide: Harvard boys and Radcliffe girls since Radcliffe was founded as a Women’s Harvard, which meant that it was not necessarily equal Harvard since a lot of the Harvard facility and administration did not treat it as equal. Now Radcliffe is officially part of Harvard.
Anne: to the extent that this is even a valid convention of modern love stories, the convention is met by the simple fact that Oliver is a straight young man and Jenny is a straight young woman. The Harvard/Radcliffe “divide” serves to underscore the class difference, not the gender difference.
- External Need: To be loved for who you are and not where you come from. To be your own person without the help of you family so you are free to love who you want too.
Anne: Oliver depends heavily on his family’s wealth and the easy path it has bought him in life. Giving that up is the story’s major crisis.
- Opposing Forces: Oliver and Jenny are from two different parts of society
- From Family: That Oliver and Jenny are a couple
- From each other: Oliver is scared that he won’t perform sexually with Jenny.
- From each other: Oliver knows that Jenny is terminally ill
- Rituals: Jenny calling Oliver Preppie, Oliver calling Jenny names like “snotty Radcliffe bitch”, Oliver and Jenny give each other a hard time. Studying together. Jenny bringing Oliver lunch.
- Moral Weight: Does Oliver go against his family’s wishes to marry Jenny?, Does Oliver tell Jenny that she has a terminal disease or does he let her live without that knowledge?
What is the Point of View/Narrative Device?
- 1st Person from Oliver’s point of view.
What are the Objects of Desire (Wants/Needs)?
- Wants: Oliver wants respect from his family.
- Needs: Oliver needs to be loved for who he is and not his wealth
What is the Controlling Idea/Theme?
Controlling Idea: Love prevails when we open our hearts and express our true selves and not hide behind the masks that society puts on us but in the end, love cannot conquer death. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
The most iconic line and central to the controlling idea above is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This line is said twice in the movie. The first time is when Jenny and Ollie come together after a fight (Jenny says it). The second time is after Jenny dies and Ollie sees his father outside the hospital (Ollie says it). What does this mean?
I did a little digging and found what I feel is the best meaning and it comes from an article by Barbara Rose who put it this way:
True love is unconditional. It is transparent, where we can accept, understand, and allow the other person to make every mistake, falter, stumble, and give genuine heartfelt compassion when they are trying their best, even if their best can be “better.”
Love carries no judgment or manipulation. Love carries no ego, or the need for ego gratification. True love is pure. It is deep, eternal, and it never dies.
Anne: Sounds like a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient and kind,” etc. As to never having to say you’re sorry, does he mean never having regrets? Or never apologizing?
To my mind, neither approach would be very conducive to lasting love of any kind, romantic or otherwise. In fact, that bumper-sticker of a line sounds a little hippie-dippy to me, like a philosophy someone came up with while high on weed. It also sounds like a way for Jenny to let herself off the hook of forgiving Oliver for several key transgressions, not the least of which is keeping her illness a secret from her.
If only Oliver had been somehow responsible for her death! If only, instead of a nameless mystery disease that leaves her looking lovely even on her deathbed, his reckless driving had been responsible for her becoming disabled or something, like Ove’s wife in A Man Called Ove.
In that film, though Ove wasn’t directly responsible for the bus crash that cost his wife the use of her legs, there were clear reasons why he felt responsible, and his every action in the rest of the story flowed from that sense of responsibility. His rebuilding the house and the school for her was proof of love, even though the love story was secondary in that film.
Never having to say you’re sorry is the ethos of a sociopath.
Jarie: I wish Segal put it that way but from what I read, he needed a catchy almost controversial tagline to sell the book and the movie and we got it.
That’s a tall order and I feel that in order to make that believable, you need two characters that have je ne sais quoi driven by the rituals that show their love for each other.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the two main characters since that’s what I find so well written. In particular, I like how the writer created the ritual of Oliver and Jenny checking each others egos. This teasing, for me, is at the heart of why it’s believable that these characters love each other and a great example of the Convention of Rituals.
Rituals are what connect lovers together and build their unique world in which their love can grow or wither. Rituals also give us insights into each lovers quirks, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. When Jenny brings Ollie his lunch of Skippy and white bread as he ignores her while studying, you know that’s not the first time she has done that. Her reaction is not of anger. She smiles and knows that Ollie is working as hard as he can.
It’s through these rituals that the writer reveals to us how we can also connect with the characters. If it’s done right, we root for the lovers. If it’s done wrong, we feel empty or even cheated.
Let’s look at Oliver “Ollie” Barrett IV or “Preppie” as Jenny calls him. In the book as in the movie, he’s a guy that has everything going for him — at least on the surface. Half the buildings at Harvard are named after his family. His father, OB III, has a plan for his son and that plan includes what all Barrett’s do — be lawyers and marry well. While he’s smart, he’s also a jock, which sets up a certain implied prowess with women that is confirmed by his roommates.
Frankly, I started off hating him right as he meets Jenny while he is “slumming” in the Radcliff library. Right away, you get the sense that Jenny has seen Ollie’s type before and is not impressed that he is a “preppie that goes to Harvard.” We know Oliver’s type. Rich boy who takes what he wants yet he can’t take Jenny and because of that, we start to fall in love with her.
The scene when they are studying together is also something that, while looking boring, is touching, playful, and heartfelt. This ritual shows that Ollie wants to be with Jenny in all ways — not just in the way a jrich ock might want to be with a pretty girl.
This is important since we already know that Jenny dies. The author needs to build empathy for Jenny. Secondarly, the empathy for Jenny will hopefully bleed over to Oliver once we start to peel away the facade of this preppie and see why Jenny fell in love with him.
It’s this empathy for Jenny then Oliver that is tricky since it’s easy to love Jenny and really hard to love Oliver. That’s why the je ne sais quoi between them is so important. It’s the process of how their love for each other that is revealed that builds this empathy and tension along the way. When Jenny is going to leave Ollie to go to Paris, we feel something for him since we know that he has earned her love in the preceding scenes where he bears his soul to her before they sleep together.
I will admit the movie does not stand up over time. Some, even back in the 70’s, felt it was not literary enough or lacked a certain sophistication since the dialogue is crass, the story does not end happily ever after, and as Anne said, it was written after the screenplay was greenlit. All of those are true but what Love Story does have that and what makes it an excellent book to study about love is the je ne sais quoi that gets developed via the rituals between Jenny and Ollie. It’s authentic, crass, and sometimes offensive dialogue coupled with moments of normal, boring, and playful scenes between the characters that make you genuinely want to root for them. If you recall in Crazy Rich Asians, this was not present as much because you never got to see what it was like for Rachel and Nick to be a normal couple. It lacked those rituals of what they did together to be a couple that was for them and only them.
Leslie – Narrative Device and Point of View
Outside of the podcast, I’ve been studying narrative device and point of view. Today, I’m going to apply some of what I’ve learned to this story to give you an example of how you can analyze the POV of a masterwork or think about these choices in your own story while planning or revising. I’ve uncovered a surprising yet inevitable takeaway that I hope will help you with your stories.
POV is a technical choice, but together with your choice of narrative device it is the most important decision you’ll make after the global content genre. Because if genre is what your story is about, then the narrative device and POV are how you present it to the reader. These choices create your reader’s experience. So as you think about your options it’s a good idea to ask yourself whether your choices are consistent with the experience you want the reader to have.
A word about choosing generally: Many of the decisions we make in crafting a story are guided by our intuition, and that’s not only OK, it’s wonderful. It’s important to check these answers though, because every technical decision you make can support or undermine your story.
How can you be sure your narrative device and POV are creating the experience you intend? Essentially, you interrogate your choices and see how consistent the form and content are. This sounds tricky, but as you’ll see with this example, the answer generally becomes clear.
What’s the experience?
The natural place to start is to consider the experience you want to create. We don’t know exactly what Erich Segal intended, but we can look at the nature of the story for clues.
We have a love story between two young people from different social classes. We see the entire arc of their relationship from the moment they “meet cute” in a library at Radcliffe to when they are parted by Jenny’s death. This is a highly emotional story, that is like a rollercoaster with its ups and downs from the couple’s fun banter to Oliver’s frustration with the depth of their relationship and Oliver’s joy in being married. We also experience Oliver’s rage with his father and his grief resulting from Jenny’s illness and death. It’s not unlike a thriller, just with different emotional content and stakes.
What’s the narrative device?
Oliver is the overt narrator of this story. So everything we learn comes from what he observes or believes about what is happening. For example, when Jenny disappears, we don’t learn where she is until Oliver does. And though we see his father’s office a moment before Oliver walks in, this is what he would imagine is happening within, rather than what he actually observes.
What form does this the narrative take?
Given the framing scenes of the film, where Oliver sits alone in a small sports venue shortly after Jenny dies, it seems that the narrative takes the form of Oliver’s thoughts. No one is present, but the little bit of narrative we get feels as though he’s talking to someone else as he makes reference to things that he knows. For example when Oliver thinks about where he falls in the list of people Jenny loved, he says, “Either way I don’t come first, which for some reason bothers the hell out of me, having grown up with the notion that I always had to be number one. Family heritage, you know?”
It’s as if he’s trying to collect the story to present the facts to someone else, maybe to convince them of something, just an attorney might think through a speech to a jury. Who might the jury be in this case? It could be himself, or it could be his father. It’s speculation on my part, but for your story, you’ll want to get to the bottom of your narrator’s audience.
What’s the POV?
Given the narrative device, the clear POV choice is first person. But are we talking “I as protagonist” or “I as witness”? That’s an interesting question.
Both the book and movie begin with the line, “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” The suggestion is that the story is about Jenny, but quickly we learn it’s about Oliver, and more specifically, Jenny’s impact on Oliver. This is a hint that Oliver isn’t quite as objective as he might believe. All first person narrators are unreliable to a certain extent because characters, like people, struggle to see themselves clearly. A narrator as witness on the periphery of the story (like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby or the unnamed narrator in Ethan Frome) would give us some objectivity and perspective, but that’s not what’s happening here. The point of the story is about his experience, rather than Jenny’s. This is especially clear in the book where we spend a lot of time in Oliver’s head.
Another important fact we get from the opening line is that Jenny dies. We don’t know when, but the whole film, we know it’s coming. This puts us in dramatic irony, the form of narrative drive where the reader knows more than the characters do. (To learn more about narrative drive, check out Valerie’s excellent series of Fundamental Fridays posts on mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony.)
We’re in a different position from the characters as they experience the story because Oliver tells us the ending before we begin. He and Erich Segal want us to know this fact going in. This changes the questions we ask that propel us through the story. We wonder not what will happen, but how it will happen and how Oiliver will react to the circumstances. Because we know how it ends, the only way narrative drive works is if we care about the characters.
Incidentally, the main way to achieve dramatic irony with a first person narrator (if you have straightforward first-person POV), is to have them tell the story from a different place and time. (With an omniscient narrator or multiple third-person narrators, we could be shown events Oliver is not aware of, but here we’re locked into his point of view.)
One thing to remember with first-person POV is that the words belong to the character-narrator, not the writer. There is some leeway here (for example, we often accept a particularly precocious and erudite child protagonist—Flavia de Luce of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley is a great example of this), but remember that you have only so many buy-ins you can require of the reader before they grow frustrated and stop reading.
What can we conclude?
Well, if I’m correct in assuming that the emotional rollercoaster is the point, that we’re meant to follow along with Oliver’s ups and downs, then the narrative device is not just appropriate, it’s downright fantastic. This first-person POV in the hands of Oliver gives us the immediacy and intimacy from someone who is both in the story and the relationship.
The problem is the execution of the rest of the story. If the reader or viewer doesn’t attach to Oliver, then the narrative drive fizzles, and there isn’t anything else to save it. This is where I found the story troubling. I didn’t find Oliver particularly sympathetic, and so Love Story didn’t work for me. With a thin story and characters, it relies too heavily on the nature and intensity of the tragic event at the end and the narrative situation, so I didn’t feel catharsis, I felt manipulated.
What’s the surprising yet inevitable takeaway for writers?
How you tell your story is as important what your story is about, but it’s not more important. In other words, choose a fantastic narrative device that supports your story, but don’t rely on it to carry the story. Focus on the fundamentals of the writing craft. Establish and innovate the conventions and obligatory scenes of your global genre. Ensure that the scenes of your story spine turn the global life value, and make all your scenes and characters transmit the controlling idea. It’s that simple (and that challenging).
Anne – Several ways this story doesn’t work
At my age—which is to say, old enough to have seen this movie at the theater when I was a kid and everyone was talking about it—life is too short to spend as much time as I’ve spent in the last couple of days thinking about this film, which I found almost unwatchable.
My first task was to set aside personal taste, and my second was to work as hard as I could to filter out purely cinematic elements that bugged me, notably the less than stellar acting of the two leads, and focus on the screenwriting.
So after I slogged through the whole thing once, I tried to figure out the 15 core scenes, and what values they turn on. Why? Because as we’ve learned here on the Roundtable, if a story doesn’t seem to work, one of the most powerful diagnostic tools is to find the 15 Core Scenes and figure out what value they turn on.
After a couple of painful hours rewatching and making notes, I gave up. Leslie and Kim and I have different ideas of where the act divisions were—almost always a sign of a poorly-constructed screenplay. Nobody wants to sit in the movie theater and be conscious of act breaks, but as Story Grid Editors, we should be able to spot them pretty easily, and we couldn’t.
The act breaks are important because it’s important to have a clear beginning, middle, and end in a story.
The beginning introduces us to the life of the protagonist and the inciting incident that causes that character to want something new and change their path in life.
The middle should show us all the increasing obstacles the protagonist has to face along the new path, until finally one obstacle is so great that they have to change before they can successfully confront it and overcome it.
And the job of the end is to resolve or pay off all the threads of the story in a way that proves the protagonist’s internal and external changes, and shows us either the reward for the changes they made or the punishment for failing to make them.
In Love Story, the beginning is just okay. It introduces both the love story and the father/son society story. The lovers who meet in the opening scene are engaged by the end of the first act, signaling a marriage love story.
We would then expect the second act to be mostly about troubles in the marriage, but their troubles are few. There’s no real conflict over their relative poverty. She supports him through law school. They switch roles again when he graduates and gets a good job. Not a lot of marital conflict there.
The one big conflict they do have is about his stubborn refusal to forgive his father, not about their marriage. It’s a major turning point, and it doesn’t turn on love and marriage, it turns on power and rebellion.
Then suddenly a wholly new element is introduced late in the middle build: this illness. It is entirely un-foreshadowed. It comes out of nowhere. We learn in the first three seconds of the movie that Jenny is going to die, so we’re looking for a cause of death all along, as Leslie has been explaining. We expect that cause of death to arise from Oliver’s stubborn pride and ego somehow, because stubborn pride and ego drive his internal Worldview story as well as the Society/Domestic plot of power and dominance between father and son.
Honestly, I’d have expected Oliver to cause Jenny’s death by crashing that antique British car of his, because he drives like a maniac. His father says, as they roar away from the Barrett estate, “Drive safely. Get there a minute later, but get there,” and it’s like this huge red flag. Even though I knew the ending, I was tense watching that reckless drive home.
But no. Nothing happens. It’s a setup that doesn’t pay off. Jenny’s death is not due to Oliver’s stubbornly egotistical reckless driving. It’s a disease whose name is not mentioned. It’s causeless and nobody’s fault, as such diseases are in real life.
But this isn’t real life. It’s a story. In real life, such bad luck has no meaning. It’s just “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.”
And that’s why we have stories. To make sense of the senseless. To impose some order or meaning on the chaos of real life.
How would that work in this story? If Jenny had just mentioned one time that she grew up next to a nuclear power plant or a toxic waste dump…if her mother had died of something similar…if she’d even shown signs of illness earlier than the end of the middle build, something—that illness would have felt like less of the proverbial deus ex machina.
Alternatively, if the whole point of the story was life’s randomness or the unfairness of fate, it should have set us up for that from the get-go.
How? Maybe some of the snappy dialogue between Oliver and Jenny could have been repurposed to show that Oliver is searching for meaning in life, while Jenny’s been swayed by a course in nihilist philosophy. There were endless opportunities in the Radcliffe and Harvard setup, especially in 1970.
Maybe Oliver’s arguments with his father could have been beefed up with similar conflict. “Meaning? I’ll give you meaning, son. It’s money and success and the family name.” “No, Father. That has no meaning for me.”
Then, when Jenny’s on her deathbed dying a meaningless death, her saying it’s nobody’s fault would make sense, and Oliver would finally realize that his love for her was his meaning.
I don’t know. I can’t be bothered to rewrite this thing retrospectively. I just know that if Erich Segal had nailed his beginning, middle and end; if he’d subordinated the marriage love story to Oliver’s struggle for meaning and identity apart from his father, he still could have kept his five-tissue sentimental ending, and it would have been a far better story.
Kim: It’s interesting because this story was very popular at the time and we’ve been talking a lot this week offline about why this is … it seems similar to The DaVinci Code phenomenon. Critics hated it but was still wildly popular. Fifty Shades of Grey also comes to mind. The current Goodreads rating for Love Story the novel is decent at 3.6 out of 5, with 91% positive on Google readers. To produce those results it must have satisfied an audience, and yet we didn’t find it very satisfying here. In the Story Grid world, we are very conscious of not letting our personal taste overly dictate our analysis of the story.
Anne: I wouldn’t want anyone to come away from this episode, or from Story Grid itself, with the idea that we only value so-called “literary” works. That’s not the case. My beef with Love Story is not that it’s “poorly written” in some vague line-writing sense, but that the story structure is weak. Here on the Roundtable, we promote Shawn’s inspiring idea, which he put this way in the Story Grid book:
Can there be an innovative literary novel that is also a barnburner of a read? Or a potboiler that is exquisitely written? Such is the Holy Grail of publishing. And of course the answer is a resounding YES. When line-by-line writing and global story magic come together, our jaws drop. It’s why we pick up any book, hoping that this one will join the short list of those that have changed our lives.
And that’s the goal of our work here at Story Grid.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Fred.
Hi Roundtablers. This is Fred and I have a question for you about the external love genre. My story involves the familial love between a parent and child, and vice versa. For now I’ll call this the Love/Storge subgenre. Storge is the Greek word for this sort of genetically-based love. Now I know that Love/Storge is not an official Story Grid subgenre, but I didn’t know where else to put a story involving the love valence between a father and a child. That’s just my first problem.
Next, I asked myself, “What is my global Value at stake?” My answer was punishment to forgiveness, more specifically punishment masked as forgiveness, to punishment, to indifference, to forgiveness. That seems okay, right? Well, not exactly. Something’s wrong with that. My genre and the value at stake are not mutually exclusive. That is to say there are several other genres where your protagonist could go through the spectrum from punishment to forgiveness.
So I basically have two questions: What is the value range for a Love/Storge subgenre, if it exists, and if it doesn’t exist, am I supposed to read masterworks until I figure this out myself? And next, are punishment and forgiveness just the cream filling between love and hate? Hope to hear from you guys, and it was great meeting most of you at Story Grid Live.
Anne: Hi Fred. Great to hear from you. I learned a new word: storge, so thanks for that! I’ve hunted around and heard it pronounced a variety of ways, but “store-geh” seems to be the best one. For those who didn’t catch it, storge is the Greek term for “natural or instinctual affection, as of a parent for a child.”
This is a complex question that I’m not going to do full justice to in the time we’ve got. But I will start with something simple. Many kinds of love exist, but we’ve got a clear guideline for the Love Story genre itself: it must contain the possibility of sexual intimacy.
So right off, we can eliminate familial love from the Love genre. That leaves us to consider where else stories of familial love might fall, and the first genre that springs to mind is Society/Domestic. Now typically, Society/Domestic stories involve power and impotence within the family, but stick with me here.
You mention that your protagonist’s value range includes “punishment,” and I would argue that punishment isn’t a value, but an action. What value lies behind the action of punishment? Why does the parent punish the child? How is it that the punishment masquerades as forgiveness? I only know what you’ve said here about your story, but punishment masquerading as forgiveness gives me a real power-and-dominance feeling. “I’m only doing this because I love you” abuse kind of thing.
Forgiveness might also be seen as an act of power. When the punished child gains enough wisdom to forgive the parent who punished them, that child is empowered, and the parent no longer has power over them. In today’s movie, Love Story, Oliver would have gained considerable power by forgiving his father.
This is the kind of question it takes a half-hour call with one of us to hash out, but I’d certainly suggest looking at Society/Domestic stories as a starting point. There is no better, or more depressing, slog through the Society/Domestic genre than one of the filmed versions of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. If you can stand it for three hours, you will come away with a cautionary, tragic version of the Society/Domestic genre seared into your bones.
From there, you can start to see where redemptive values like forgiveness might come in to turn a potential family tragedy into a satisfying prescriptive story of family love. There’s a lot more to think about in your question, but I hope this gives you a starting point for further exploration.
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Join us next time as we wind up Season Five of the Editor Roundtable Podcast when I pitch The Girl in the Book as my final look at stories that don’t quite work. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?