Volume 14, Issue 6 ~ February 9 - February 15, 2006

Writing the Book of Love

Brand new love, same old story:
In life and literature, plots recycle

by Carrie Steele

Love stories date back to Adam and Eve. Over the ages, the stories weave together to form the epic of human history.

As the only two people on Earth, Adam and Eve didn’t have much say about their pairing, but ever since, we’ve been choosing loves (or loving those chosen for us), seeking soul mates and threading our way through social graces and emotional tapestries. Every love story begins with two characters and a romantic bond, either found in a sea of faces or arranged by culture’s custom.

The first stage — moments, days, even a whole novel — of a love story seems a jumble of chaotic feelings and emotions. Did she notice me? Does he feel the same? Is it love?

Our Valentine’s quest is to make sense of love. Just as historians study wars past and lawyers study cases that came before, so can we look to love stories — real and fictional — for inspiration and order.

Helping you peruse romance near and far, timeless and modern is our guide to love stories. Here, we’ve gathered classic love stories — and a special one in the making — by their themes. Discover where your own story — or the one that hasn’t quite happened yet — fits on the continuum and you’ll see that love, like chaos itself, has pattern.

The Dewey Decimal System of Love

The number of love stories lived, dreamed and imagined teems like the stars in the heavens, but just as stars can be novas, white giants and supernovas, so do love stories have genre, pattern and plot.

That’s a concept that keeps novelist Lauren Sharmen of Laurel in business. She’s published two novels this year.

“I think there’s a lot of different love stories. I believe in soul mates wholeheartedly. And there’s love at first sight, and then people who learn to love each other,” she says.

Immerse yourself in love stories. Question family and friends, read romance, study advice columns, tune into the love channel, bring home a DVD armload of romantic comedies and tragedies. Through literature, history, friends and family love stories, you’ll find that love isn’t as random as it seems. Love follows patterns.

Browsing in the library of love, we’ve started a list we hope you’ll add to:

• The Young Love Story: High school sweethearts, and loves begun even earlier, are the picture books of love. A couple is bound so irresistibly that they share all the stages of their lives.

This is my parents’ love story. My mother worked on the Indiana High School yearbook in western Pennsylvania; my father was yearbook photographer. They dated through separate colleges and married just after Dad graduated from Bucknell University.

• The Friends First Love Story: Some loves blossom out of familiarity. That’s the story in the gold-standard movie When Harry Met Sally, also of Jo and Professor Bhaer, who meet as boarding-house neighbors in Little Women. The Friends First theme has many variations, as in the Neighbors First Love Story. Two Bay Weekly couples met as neighbors.

“There was a lot of sneaking around because I was also Bay Weekly’s editor’s neighbor,” says production manager Betsy Kehne, who sought to “nonchalantly show up at his house without drawing attention.”

• The Enemy before Love Interest Love Story: Opposites like love and hate sometimes become like magnetics, drawing two opposing forces together. It’s a favorite theme of comic literature, and Shakespeare uses it routinely. In Jane Austin’s ever-popular love story Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth swears off the seemingly pompous Mr. Darcy. But loathing turns to secret hope as she learns to separate truth from falsehood. By the end, they find they’re meant for each other.

• The Rescued by Prince Charming Love Story: Damsels in distress have been rescued by their Prince Charmings for centuries. In this plot, the heroine is plucked from danger — or freed from some condition, as Sleeping Beauty awakened with a kiss. The couple must prevail through trials before they can live happily ever after.

• The How-You-Met Love Story has particular interest because you can’t have a love story without a partner. Each era — and each age — has its laments about how hard it is to meet eligible, let alone perfect, matches. In the new millennium, a popular variation of the How-You-Met theme is …

• The Technology-Aided Love Story: Online dating is the matchmaker of the new era, connecting people with love interests they were otherwise unlikely to meet. That’s a tool that, producers say, helped hundreds of thousands of couples meet on the most popular dating website, Match.com, since launching in 1995. My very eligible brother met my sister-in-law on Match.Com in 2002. Two years later they married. There’s also JDate.com, eharmony.com and more where future couples can screen their preferences in potential mates before they actually meet. To love stories of this sort, there’s a lot of prelude.

• The Love Conquers All Story: The couple overcomes external obstacles, fighting battles to stay together, along the way creating great drama. Like Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice, characters caught in this plot line must ride an emotional roller coaster before arriving home safely. In this story, Cold Mountain and too many others, war is the complication.

Such plots are a favorite of Maryland romance writer Diane Wylie, author of My Enemy, My Love. “I use external conflict in my Civil War romances. The war keeps my lovers apart — though they always get back together in the end.”

• The Too Hot Not to Cool Down Love Story: Sparks. Electricity. Fire. Passion. This love story is saturated with both drama and emotion. Think Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, or any other Hollywood starlet couple that hasn’t yet hit the rocks.

• The Unrequited Love Story: This bitterest love story involves only one side, as in Great Expectations, where the lead character, Pip, pines for Estella. In the end (at least one of two alternate endings written by Charles Dickens), he never does get the girl. Looked at from the positive side, his rejection frees him to marry someone else.

• Tragic Love Story: Lovers like Romeo and Juliet — or Tony and Maria in West Side Story — love intensely but never reach the bliss they seek. Outside interference fuels the fire first of passion, then of injustice. Like John Keats’ figures etched on a Grecian urn, forever frozen for eternity just moments before a kiss, their romance never passes pursuit to fulfillment.

Of course, there’s plenty more ways to meet and plots to follow.

My own love story has been in the making for a year and a half. There’s no forbidden love or wartime strife to keep us apart, but it has its plot. Here’s how my story unfolds.

The Ever-After of the Tragic Love Story

“A traditional romance book has to have a happy ending,” says author Kate Dolan of Catonsville. “But a love story is just as valid with a tragic ending. True love doesn’t guarantee a happy outcome.”

If the couple can’t overcome their complications, then the love story ends. Sometimes its ending was just one of those things. Other times, it’s tragedy. Othello destroys Desdemona because he loves not wisely but — the rationale of every perpetrator of domestic violence — too well.

Romeo and Juliet — and like them, Tony and Maria — never grow old together. On the other hand, their love never dies. The enmity between Montagues and Capulets may have won out in the short run, but the couple’s tragic love story still thrills, inspires and brings tears at the injustice of love’s waste.

Plotting My Love

I found love wearing a worn University of North Carolina baseball cap and jeans. Part of a small group of young adults from my church, he and I had joined our young associate pastor for a volunteer day to help restore an underground railroad stop on a living history farm near Germantown. Our group met in the parking lot. He and I smiled. We shook hands. We probably said something generic like ‘nice to meet you.’

On that sunny morning of July 2004, I met my match.

Working together on a team in the basement level of a rickety barn, with dust swirling about and pigeons in the roof, we stacked rugged, stray wooden boards as we talked. In dust masks neither of us looked our best. I commented on his cap — after all I was born and spent most of my childhood in North Carolina. So we had three things in common.

Later, we both wanted to try the new coffee shop in town. That first cup of coffee together — he latte, I chai — led to me his band’s show at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Days later, dinner. Within the week, we were talking on the phone every night and spending all our free time together.

He says he knew love was ahead from the moment we met. I knew weeks later, when I found myself wishing on twilight’s first stars.

Love led me to endure smoky bars on late nights to hear his trombone in the rock-ska band 23 Skadoo. Love led him to spend many a weekend — even cold ones — out of doors with me. Love led us both to work out misunderstandings, value differences and discuss everything.

“It’s meant to be,” we say, echoing most happy couples.

That didn’t lessen my surprise when he made his proposal on top of our favorite stargazing hill, the one where we talked for hours on that first date while searching for shooting stars.

The next chapter in our love story is getting married this September.

The Plot Thickens …

My own love story is not so tumultuous as Sampson and Delilah’s, nor so dramatic as Romeo and Juliet’s. Nonetheless, I’ll call my own love story Magnetic Love. In this story, the couple is drawn together like magnets. No drama, no fuss, just straight to the point.

My fiancé’s certainty is not the plot of most love stories.

“When I start writing, I never ever know what’s going to happen,” says Sharman, whose latest novel, Growing Up Little, comes out in May. “Sometimes I do a little plotting; then I’ll go back. I never know how a story’s going to end.”

Wylie doesn’t know, either. “I don’t know how the story will end. I let the characters take me on their journey,” she says. “I write by the seat of my pants.”

So fiction evolves much like real life. We just don’t know where the story will take us.

Love stories are each new editions of an old book: the outline of love’s plot is already written. Even if each story unfolds with unique twists and turns, there’s a common sequence of romantic events. The stages are The Before, The Meeting, The Crux (where one or the other decides to pursue or not), The Complications — then fast forward to happily ever after or a whole new story.

“Yeah there is a semi-standard love plot,” says Sharmen. “Boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Most love stories start out happy, then something happens, there’s a misunderstanding or third party who’s coming in to disrupt.”

Stage I: Before

The Before sets the stage in any love story. That’s the time before Tyras and I met, attending the same church, probably even services together, as strangers — though Tyras claims he once saw me taking communion. I say I’d remember that handsome face if I’d seen it before. Back then we were two people on courses that hadn’t yet converged, anticipating.

Before Audrey Hepburn’s character meets Paul Varjack in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she’s just a lonely New York socialite (of course there was still another Before in that story). Before Tarzan met Jane, he was content to swing through the trees.

Stage II: The Nature of the Pull

Stage II is the spice of love. As the magnet pulls, lovers discover all the ways they’re alike — and like each other. Coincidence, signs, special connections enrich the plot. They share a passion, a childhood dream or the same strange craving for Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream.

There’s hundreds — thousands — of small moments of romance, generosity, chivalry and laughter that bond the players and make each love story original.

In the film It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey lassos the moon for Mary. In Little Women, Laurie promises to kiss a young Amy before she dies — before they know that she will live and their love story will bloom.

Woven into my love story was our unknown proximity: We’d attended the same church in Olney for two years before ever meeting. Once we met, we discovered dozens of confirmatory signs that we were a good match: We both love our families, adore dark chocolate and delight in studying the sky at sunset.

The magnet pulled us ever closer until we evolved from he and I to we, during an afternoon spent in Annapolis, sitting on corner of the Naval Academy’s seawall.

Stage III: The Crux

After such delicious samples of love, who wouldn’t want to stay for the whole meal?

But in real life — and literature — good love stories must weather a few storms.

“Nobody’s life is perfect. My husband is my best friend, but still we disagree on things sometimes,” says romance writer Sharman. “To read a harlequin romance where boy gets girl and everything works out — that’s unrealistic.”

In literature, the conventional test of love comes as the black moment.

“Near the end of the story there’s the black moment, when it looks like all will be lost,” says author Kate Dolan of the test that relationships pass or fail. “The characters are separated by something, like fear of commitment. Or if everyone they’ve become close to has turned on them, they think that the person they love has turned on them.”

Only if a tested couple passes the black moment do they earn their happy ending.

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the black moment comes at the very end, in the back of a taxicab, when Audrey Hepburn finally allows herself to love and belong, desperately searching an alleyway in the pouring rain for her drenched Cat, all before the big The End kiss.

In real life, where plots are often subtler, the tests come as pop quizzes rather than climactic make-a-love-or-break-it finals. Even so, the black moment is a rite of passage many a real life lover remembers forever.

Whether the differences a couple has to surmount are small — his towels on the floor; inconvenient; or tragic — war, plague, famine — complications are the crux of the story of love.

If the couple can get through the obstacle — if the prince does indeed find his lost Cinderella — they live happily ever after — at least as far as that part of the story goes.

Stage IV: Happily Ever After

“After the resolution of the problem, the hero and heroine get together and live happily ever after,” says Diane Wylie, a historical romance author from Havre de Grace. “Snow White and Cinderella get their princes. Harry stays with Sally. The beauty marries the beast. True romances end happily.”

In real life, the statistics aren’t quite so good. Within 15 years, 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce, according to a 2001 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even so, 57 percent of marriages endure, and their love stories continue to evolve. That’s pretty good odds for an age where true love seems as old-fashioned as fairy tales.

As Tyras and I read the book of love, the Magnetic Love Story gets a happy ending. We’ve planned our wedding for later this year in full expectation of living happily ever after — though we’ve barely cracked open the book.

The End.


Have a love story to share? Send in your tale of love to [email protected], and we’ll pick a winner to feature next year in our Valentine’s Day special issue.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.