Do you want to write a story in the top selling genre of all time? Want to innovate on a classic story that almost everyone can relate to? Want to break your reader’s heart or fill it with joy? Both? If so, let’s explore the Love story where attraction and love just might clash with indifference, repulsion, and even hate.
In this post, we’ll review what you need to know to create and edit a Love story that will meet or exceed your audience’s expectations. We’ll do this by focusing on the building blocks of the genre.
Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s categorization of genres first? A refresher is here. They aren’t the same as categories found on Amazon or in your local bookstores and libraries.
What exactly is the Love Genre?
It’s not just a romance. The Love Genre encompasses a number of different story types and we’ll look at each one.
The Love story is an arch-plot (single protagonist) or mini-plot (character ensemble) external genre.
Shawn Coyne describes the genre as “centered on romance with the possibility of sexual intimacy.”
Editor Tip: This means the Love Genre does not include the bromance or familial love stories. The bromance is usually secondary to a Crime or Action story. The familial love stories are often found in Performance, Society, and the internal genres. But you can find bromance and familial love stories in any of the other genres, even secondary to a Love story.
According to Coyne, “Love stories give us prescriptive (positive) and cautionary (negative) tales to navigate love’s emotional minefield. They give us tools to try out to attract a mate and behaviors to avoid.”
What’s the Global Value at stake in a Love story?
The Global Value at stake describes the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s the primary arc you’ll keep your protagonist moving along throughout your story. There are no exceptions to this guideline. It’s the heart of what makes a story a story.
The global values of the Love story slide between hate masquerading as love and intimacy. Your protagonist need not experience each of these values but should progress from one value to another in a logical sequence, ending somewhere along the spectrum other than where they began.
Unlike most other genres, conflict in a Love story must be expressed on three different levels:
External Conflict arises from social and/or environmental pressures. The protagonist is motivated by the expectations and limitations of a group of others. This can be family or other community members enforcing larger problems such as classism, racism, nationalism, religious prejudice, homophobia, etc. But external conflict can also be job related deadlines, team performance expectations, courtroom drama, and the like.
Interpersonal Conflict is primarily between the lovers. The antagonist of a Love story can be one of the lovers, a rival, or a character who represents the external conflict.
Internal Conflict is a war within the protagonist. This often follows a Worldview trajectory and culminates in a shift in thinking which allows the protagonist to change in order to earn the love of another.
As we see in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Love story arises from the need for the obvious– love. The Love protagonist’s primary goal (want) might be to obtain a lover or avoid love all together. Their want could be related to something that seems entirely unrelated to love such as getting a promotion (Status), training for the big game (Performance), solving a mystery (Crime), etc. But their ultimate need in this story is gaining or maintaining romantic love.
What’s the Core Emotion?
The core emotion is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.
In a Love story, the core emotion is Romance. Readers want to experience the excitement and mystery associated with love without the real-life risks involved.
What’s the Controlling Idea?
The controlling idea of a story is the “lesson” your reader comes away with, the meaning they apply to your story. Also called a theme, it’s the single sentence summing up the argument your story attempts to prove through narrative.
It’s made up of the big value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change. Each of the main content genres has a generic pair of controlling ideas, one for the positive outcome and one for the negative. (For everything about controlling ideas, see Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway on this site.)
If your story is positive, your controlling idea might look something like this:
Love triumphs when lovers evolve beyond desire and overcome moral failings.
Love triumphs when lovers sacrifice their needs for one another.
If your story is negative, your controlling idea might look something like this:
Love fails when the lovers don’t overcome moral failings and evolve beyond desire.
Love fails when lovers don’t sacrifice for one another.
Editor Tip: Here, you see why an internal genre arc for at least your protagonist is important. Gaining the love of the other character is dependent on the internal genre value shift (sacrifice and emotional growth).
What are the Obligatory Scenes?
According to Coyne, Obligatory Scenes are “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out a scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.
Each Love Subgenre has its own obligatory scenes, but here is what they all seem to have in common:
The lovers must meet. This one is obvious, right? In a romantic comedy this is the meet-cute scene. In a marriage story this will likely be off the page (spare us the flashback unless absolutely needed to move your story forward).
The inciting incident of the story is a shock (negative or positive) that upsets the homeostasis of the protagonist and disrupts their ordinary life. This could be meeting the new lover for the first time, discovering a spouse is cheating, or both lovers being called to a new adventure that will force them to adapt their relationship.
At least one of the lovers denies responsibility to respond to love and/or the antagonistic force, creating conflict for the characters.
Editor Tip: Lajos Egri writes, in The Art of Dramatic Writing, that the other lover (the non-protagonist) acts as a kind of minor antagonist to the protagonist. Basically, this equates to the primary lover trying to deny the attraction or keep away from the more assertive lover.
The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver antagonistic force or character fails.
There is a confession of love by one or both lovers. Usually, one lover confesses love too soon and creates an obstacle in the relationship. This is often the turning point complication of the story or integrated into the climax.
The lovers experience a first kiss or intimate connection together. This could be the first time they hold hands or when a married couple finally makes progress toward emotional intimacy. This is the scene when the truth of their feelings first becomes known to the other, perhaps even to themselves.
The lovers break-up or are forced to separate. A story is only a story if there is conflict which forces change in one or both of the lovers. They must learn the hard way and survive a break-up, or fail.
The all-is-lost moment is usually the break-up or a scene that shortly follows the break up where the lovers are miserable without one another and certain they will not reunite. Though the all-is-lost could also be the scene where at least one lover finally realizes that they must end the relationship (common in Marriage stories).
Editor Tip: The duration of the break-up must serve your story. If they will be apart for a long time, make sure that time is spent well. If not, consider shortening the duration. Unless your story has an epic quality (Brokeback Mountain, Bridges of Madison County, Restraint, The Thornbirds), a close timeline works best.
The big climactic event of the Love story is the proof of love scene where one lover sacrifices for the other without any expectation of receiving something in return.
Editor Tip: Notice how the climactic event ties directly to the controlling idea? Once you know your climactic event in your story, it will point you directly to your genre. Already know your genre? Then it points you right to your controlling idea and climactic event.
The lovers reunite after the break-up or a forced separation. Unless you’re writing parody, the reunion carries residue from the break-up and requires conflict before all is well again.
The protagonist is rewarded with at least one level of satisfaction (external, internal or interpersonal) for their sacrifice and/or growth. They gain love or lose it.
Editor Tip: These obligatory scenes don’t have to be individual scenes. You can combine two or three into one scene. Example: The confession of love scene is often combined with the lovers break up scene.
What are the Conventions?
Here’s how Coyne explains Conventions: “They are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused…Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward.”
Each Love subgenre has its own conventions, but here is what they all seem to have in common:
The story follows a cause and effect trajectory as the protagonist pursues their object of desire from beginning to end. This is every working story, not just in the Love Genre. It is a foundation of storytelling. Even if your story is a dream sequence, supernatural events, or has a fairy tale quality, this holds true.
Editor Tip: It’s important to remember that the protagonist in a love story (courtship, anyway) is usually not the pursuer, but is the object of desire of the other character.
There are secondary characters representing helpers and harmers. There must be characters for and against the relationship. Those in favor of the match help unite the lovers and those opposed to it will do everything to destroy it.
Editor Tip: Consider creating a shapeshifter character who seems to fill one role but is actually filling an opposite.
There must be a triangle of relationships that includes a rival. In courtship stories, the rival is a character who is involved, often romantically, with one of the lovers. The rival could be a personal belief that keeps one lover from accepting the other or prevents them from being available to love. The rival can also be an addiction to work, substances, gambling, sex, etc.
There must be an external need, something outside the romance that is driving the actions of the main characters. See other external genres for ideas. Maybe they have to work together, solve a crime, save a life, win a match, keep a secret, or discover a cure. Something other than love is at stake.
Editor Tip: Make sure you have a foil for your protagonist within the story. This is the character who embodies the ideals and attributes opposite of your character. As in a Status story, this character exists to show the reader the other path your protagonist could have taken. Or, they appear to embody attributes and ideals similar to your protagonist but, ultimately, make different decisions.
There must be forces opposing the lovers’ relationship, often outside the lovers’ control. Explore other genres for ideas. Is it Society? A War? Are they on opposing teams? Are they separated by land or time? Familial obligations? Can you represent these forces with “harmer” characters?
There are secrets. Your story may have only one kind of secret or include all three of the following types of secrets:
1) Secrets the couple keeps from society (they hide their relationship from friends and family).
2) Secrets the couple keeps from one another (a rival, past or present sins, shame).
3) Secrets one of the lovers keeps from themself (a character flaw that prevents intimacy such as narcissism, racism, or the belief that they are unloveable).
***There MIGHT be secrets society keeps from the couple (they discover they’re related, the sacrifice of one lover is concealed from the other lover by harmers, a lover will be killed).
The lovers develop rituals of intimacy such as shared traditions, private language, and inside jokes. This convention is not always present in Obsession Love stories where the action or clock is so fast paced that there just isn’t time or space for these to develop.
Love stories have a moral weight. They suggest those who cannot love have a moral failing. For one to live happily ever after, they must get over the moral failing by story’s end or suffer the consequences.
What are the subgenres?
The psychological driver in this story is desire. One of the “lovers” has a shallow but intoxicating passion for the other that leads to clear danger for the “beloved.” These are cautionary tales. They don’t progress beyond the desire value and usually end in tragedy. Examples of this subgenre are The Great Gatsby, Damage, and Last Tango in Paris.
The psychological driver in this story is commitment. This story encompasses the romantic rituals one goes through to find a lover. It typically ends in a commitment with the expectation of a “happily ever after” future for the lovers where intimacy assured. The Courtship story is prescriptive. Traditional romances fall in this subgenre. Examples of this subgenre are Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Notebook, and An Affair to Remember.
The Marriage story concerns a committed relationship that certainly had early stages of passion and is now at a crossroads. Something external provokes trust issues and challenges the lovers to recognize, accept, and love the authentic other person rather than the illusion the other displayed during the courtship phase. There is a paradoxical (win-but-lose, lose-but-win) ending. The Marriage Love story may be either prescriptive or cautionary. Examples of this subgenre are War of the Roses, Ordinary People, The Corrections, Private Life, and Blue Valentine.
Forbidden (Desire, Commitment, Intimacy)
In this story type, romantic desire leads both lovers towards emotional and physical intimacy, but official commitment is prevented by society. A happily ever after is impossible despite the lovers’ willingness to commit. Their love is glorious and painful, and they have a win-but-lose ending or a tragic one. Examples of this subgenre are Brokeback Mountain, Restraint, Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere.
Erotic (Desire, Commitment, Intimacy)
The erotic love story must be driven by desire but can encompass both commitment and intimacy. The story is about a character’s sexual journey and how it impacts them as individuals. If the sex scenes were removed from these stories, they wouldn’t work because sex is integral to the arc of the story. A happily ever after is possible but not required. Books focusing on both explicit sex and commitment are often called “erotica” or “romantica” or found in the “black label” lines of romance publishers. Examples of this subgenre are Blue is the Warmest Colour, Fifty Shades of Gray (as a series), and Nine and a Half Weeks.
Again, you can see why the Love Genre doesn’t operate alone. In order to meet the obligatory scenes and conventions of the Love story, at least one of the lovers needs a strong internal genre arc. And, often, the Love story is entwined with a second external genre that is driving most of the action. A couple of great resources for combining Love with other genres are The Units of Story: Subplots and Editors’ Roundtable on Jane Eyre.
Editor Tip: The journey of a lover is one of change the hard way. Consider taking your protagonist through the stages of the Kubler-Ross change curve.
How Do You Structure a Love Story?
Now that we know that stringing together a bunch of kissing and sex won’t build a story, I offer some basic guidelines:
Here, you introduce the characters and setting of the story world. You set the plot in motion and create questions in the minds of the audience. You make them want to learn more.
Begin by introducing the protagonist doing something they consider normal (In a Courtship story, we see the single life of the protagonist or their unsatisfying relationship with someone else. In a marriage story, we see the status quo of their relationship.
Editor Tip: Their normal doesn’t have to be what you or I would consider normal. It’s relevant to the protagonist. The goal is to show their baseline, what they will change (or fail to change) from by the end and what it is that the inciting incident disrupts.
Demonstrate their flaw or fear to establish empathy in readers. Before the protagonist is making tough choices, we need to want them to love and have a life worth living.
Demonstrate the protagonist’s want. This can be internal or external. Make the want blatantly clear to encourage empathy. Remember, the want doesn’t have to relate to Love. The need is Love.
Introduce supporting characters as rich and interesting. Include most of the same Hero’s Journey archetypes as in any other external genre story.
Editor Tip: Give them distinctive names, appearances, emotions, and actions. Use description to evoke a sense of their broader culture or background. Don’t create meaningless sidekicks, flawless heroes, or solely evil antagonists. It’s imperative that every character have a clear and supporting role for your lovers and that they operate as believable in the story world.
Grab your audience’s attention with an inciting incident that launches the global story as soon as possible.
Make the stakes clear. What can the protagonist gain or lose? Are there consequences to not securing this particular lover? To not securing love at all?
At first, the protagonist reacts to the inciting incident (negative or positive) with inaction, either because they delay making a decision or because external forces prevent them.
Editor Tip: If the subgenre is Forbidden, the consequences of loving, rather than failing to find love, must be clear from early in the story.
Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s beginning hook will contain your inciting incident (call to adventure) and first progressive complication (refusal of the call). In the Kubler-Ross change curve, your character will experience shock and denial.
Create a scene where the protagonist is forced to act in order to gain Love/Intimacy or avoid it. Actively choosing one launches the middle build.
The middle build belongs to the antagonist or antagonistic force that is continually putting obstacles in the way of the lovers. You will test the protagonist and their ability to love.
Your goal here is to build tension and increase the stakes for the protagonist. You might answer some questions here but you’ll want to raise even more. The protagonist is confronting increasingly complicated challenges. Demonstrate how they are learning (possibly changing) and setting new goals or failing to do so.
At the midpoint of the story, the protagonist shifts from avoiding the problem (by relying on old patterns of behavior and thinking) to actively attacking the problem (with a new way of viewing the challenge).
Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s middle build will contain the second major progressive complication of your global story (crossing the threshold), the third progressive complication (test, allies, enemies), the turning point complication (the ordeal), and the crisis (apotheosis). In the Kubler-Ross change curve, your character will experience frustration, experimentation with new ideas or behaviors, depression, and the need for decision making.
Editor Tip: You will slowly expose your protagonist to greater and greater Love obstacles due to the bad choices they make (and hate making) to create rising action. A central dilemma must be solved before love or intimacy can be gained.
In the ending payoff, you ramp down the tension and action with scenes that answer the primary story questions. How have the characters changed and learned or failed to do so? How will that success or failure impact the protagonist’s daily life and create a new normal?
Crossing Story Grid terminology with that of The Hero’s Journey, your story’s ending payoff will include your climax (the resurrection, in Hero’s Journey terminology) and the resolution of the global story. The protagonist confronts their fear or flaw, rises to the challenge, and sacrifices for the other lover in order to gain love/intimacy (prescriptive tale). Or they fail to so and lose their opportunity for love/intimacy (cautionary tale). In the Kubler-Ross change curve, your character will make act on the big decision and integrate the decision into their new way of thinking and behavior.
We’ve read and watched the Love story a hundred times, so how can anything be new? In the Editors’ Roundtable Podcast on Harold and Maude, Leslie Watts discusses the challenge of innovating in such a popular genre. Leslie suggests deconstructing your story idea in order to plan and execute novelty.
Once you’ve identified the wants of the characters and who they are within their social constructs, you’ll want to identify the historical context and the resources available to the characters for obtaining their wants. Be clear about the nature of the antagonist or antagonistic force.
Examine these elements from different points of view and metaphor. How could you present the story core in new and fresh ways? Through style and tone? Through narrative device and structure? Will those changes improve and support your story idea or undermine it? How do your ideas compare with other stories outside of the Love Genre? Are there innovations in other genres you appreciated and could implement in your story? What do you know has been overdone in the Love story that you can definitely change in your story without leaving out a convention or obligatory scene?
Other resources that might help you write the Love story:
Now you have the basic keys to the Love Genre and many of the tools you’ll need to write better Love stories. Put this all together by reading widely within the genre. Compare the masterworks of the genre. Imagine your story arc by using the values at stake in the Love Genre. Get your words on the page and then compare your work to those masterworks. Check your work with The Story Grid book and against the Love Genre secrets here. Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that story. (If you want help anywhere along the way, go ahead and book a free half-hour consultation on my calendar.)
I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.
You can read more blog posts I’ve written on genre at: Secrets of the Performance Genre, Secrets of the Morality Genre, Secrets of the Status Genre, Secrets of the Society Genre, Secrets of Writing Memoir, Secrets of the Crime Genre, Secrets of the Worldview Genre, Secrets of the Action Genre, Secrets of the Horror Genre, Secrets of the Thriller, Secrets of the Thriller, Part Two, Secrets of the War Genre, and Secrets of the Western Genre.
*Special thanks to Anne Hawley, Certified Story Grid Editor, for editing this post, providing the Value Infographic, and for updating the Gas Gauge of Need Infographic.