What Are Love Stories For?

This is the third in my series about Love Story. If you’d like to catch up, here is the first one and here is the second one.

When you come right down to it, life breaks down into just two states of being.

  1. Alone
  2. Not Alone

We’re either alone, with someone else or we’re a member of a group.

That’s basically it.

And as we all know, being alone all of the time is torture. Solitary confinement can literally drive you crazy.

So if being along all the time results in serious psychological damage, then it’s safe to assume that we are genetically programmed to be social.

Which makes sense.

And that need to be social is all about forming varying levels of connection with others. There will be times when we just won’t be able to survive alone, so we better damn well learn how to get along with others.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to understand that the social connection begins with our mothers and soons extends to the other members of our nuclear family. And as anyone with multiple children only a few years apart will tell you, those first connections prove confrontational and dramatic.

But that bickering about inconsequential things (he’s breathing my air!) with our siblings and then as it extends to our peer group slowly teaches us how to manage irreconcilable goods and make the best bad choices. What’s good for me may not be so great for you, so I need to take that into consideration when I’m pressing my agenda. So managing brotherly and sisterly connection/love prepares us for even deeper connection later on.

By the time we reach puberty, though, romantic love and its physical component knocks us way out of our comfort zone.

How do we separate the simmering stew of emotions and feelings inherent with romantic love? How do we approach romance? What do we expect? When is the right time to express romantic feelings?

This is where love stories come in.

Few of us ever felt comfortable talking with mom or dad about romantic love. Just learning the mechanics of baby making from them was enough to send us running into the hills. Those conversations are embarrassing because the sex act is so primal and loaded with so much religious history and cultural baggage that we are at a loss to understand where our biological drives kick in versus when our conditioned psychological/social triggers are firing. Do I like red hair because of my DNA or because of that L’Oreil commercial from 1973? Geez…just writing about this here gives me the willies.

Nor do we want to get into how to talk to Peggy Sue with the guys on the football team or with our fellow mathletes or members of the brass section of the marching band. Being vulnerable in a pubescent peer group is a sure fire way to ridicule. Speaking of desire, in any way, shape or form is a one way trip to weirdo-ville.  Best to keep cool, not show your cards.

So where do we get our strategies and tactics to land our dream companions?

Love stories give us prescriptive (positive) and cautionary (negative) tales to navigate love’s emotional minefield. They give us tools to try out and behaviors to avoid.

Because these stories are responsible for nothing less than the continuation of humanity, they are hugely important.  And the best ones are rewarded with cultural immortality. Tristan and Isolde. Guinevere and Lancelot. Romeo and Juliet.

But best of all…love stories deliver the emotional feelings of romantic love to the reader or viewer or listener…from a safe distance.

Would you rather put yourself in deep emotional peril by expressing your adoration for another human being without having any clue about how that other person feels about you? Or would you rather read a novel about someone else doing that beforehand? Stories allow us to prepare for what we might be in for.

So of course we read the novels and we watch the movies and we subscribe to Lifetime Cable network. We consume love stories like honey-roasted peanuts. We’re studying them.

We don’t have to be vulnerable in real life when we can vicariously explore the joys and darkness of love in stories. There are millions of lonely hearts out there that find that this love story consumption experience is even better than the real thing. In fact, that’s a trope of many a love story itself (Romancing the Stone).

This is why love stories are in such demand and why a writer who can master the form will find themselves driving fancy cars and having multiple vacation homes.

So if we go to love stories for answers to our questions about how to connect with others romantically, how are love stories divided? How do they break down in terms of the “connection” value?

Is there a hierarchy of connection?

Of course there is.

We all have levels of connection with people.

There’s the friendly smile and “how you doin’” we give to the guy on the corner who sells us our morning coffee. And there’s the knock-down drag out fight we have with our spouse or significant other…the ones that push us to the edge of our connection and force us to confront things about the other person (and especially ourselves) that we’d really rather not.

We don’t have the kind of relationship with the guy on the corner to ever have to plumb the depths of his soul. Which is as it should be. But for someone we’ve decided to spend the rest of our lives with…that kind of plumbing is an inevitable progression to deeper and deeper intimate knowledge of the other’s and one’s own internal self.

So the “connection” value in love has many levels.

Here’s one continuum to consider:

Acquaintanceship  to Friendship to Committed Friendship to Intimate Friendship to Romantic Desire to Romantic Commitment to Romantic Intimacy

I won’t get into the first three levels of love because the Love Story external genre concerns romantic love, which is love with the possibility of sex. I will note that When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron’s great love story plays on all of the above continuum masterfully, but it absolutely abides one of the sub-genres.

It is those last three levels…Romantic Desire, Romantic Commitment and Romantic Intimacy that divide the big love story category.

There are three kinds of sub-genres of Love Story that result

  1. Obsession
  2. Courtship
  3. Marriage

And these three levels of love, the depth of connection between the two lovers, correspond to the progression of meaning derived from the love experience. The deeper one goes…the more meaningful the relationship.

That is,

The Obsession Love Story concerns physical Desire. This is the first level of love, thinking someone is cute and wanting to possess them.

The Courtship Love Story concerns Commitment. Monogamous binding of two people to form a third metaphysical being…the “love between the two.” This is a far deeper level of love than an obsession…committing to fidelity and honesty and servitude to one above all others.

The Marriage Love Story concerns Intimacy. This is the deepest level of love.

Now that the two have committed to one another…will they courageously choose to go even deeper?

To confront and accept the inner demons and angels of the other?

To accept the light and the dark and continue to nurse and feed that mystical third metaphysical thing they’ve created, their “love”?

Or will they build an emotional wall between one another and maintain the appearances of commitment but internally live another secret life, unshared with the other?

Guess which subgenre is the one that performs best in the marketplace? Let’s walk through them and see.

The Obsession Story is traditionally a cautionary tale. It concerns two people who just can’t help themselves. They’re so attracted to one another that they ignore the rest of society and do what’s necessary to be together… There’s no deeper connection between them than the physical and/or psychological.

You can guess how these stories usually end…tragically. Loving a lie doesn’t end well. There are two kinds of Obsession stories, dramas and comedies. The dramas are tragedies and the comedies are sex farces…literally comedy about people just trying to get into bed together.

The Gatsby/Daisy love story in The Great Gatsby is and example of the obsessive. At no point does the reader think that Gatsby loves the “real” Daisy. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that there really is anything beneath the surface of Daisy (or Gatsby for that matter) than just longing and desire to be longed and desired.

Gatsby can’t help himself. He’s obsessed with Daisy. Even though it’s not an outward carnal obsession (although that’s certainly part of it in the subtext), Gatsby wants to possess Daisy because she represents the final cherry on the top of the American Dream…the beautiful blonde rich girl. When the rich girl picks a poor boy out of the slagheap and makes him her own, the poor boy gets to eat and hang with the swells. He’s becomes “one of us” instead of “beneath us.”

Daisy is validation personified…more than money itself. If she takes his hand, he’s reached the pinnacle of American society. His blind love for her ends up killing him.

The Great Gatsby bombed when it was published. Despite ourselves, we all still believe in Gatsby’s dream. To reach the end of the novel, witness to it’s obliteration…is a bummer.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wisely chose to describe this love from a distance, through the eyes of Nick Carraway, so as to temper the depth of despair in his audience. And he added Nick’s Disillusionment plot too (as well as a domestic drama) to balance out the Gatsby’s sad end.

The Great Gatsby was just too well constructed…too well executed…and it too convincingly conveyed its controlling idea for it to die after initial publication. Then again, many believe it was World War II that saved it from oblivion…it being one of the novels donated to soldiers abroad and widely read by men with undivided attention.

So betting on an Obsession Love Story to rocket up bestseller lists isn’t the best idea. (There are exceptions of course, but these usually combine another genre in their recipe…Gone Girl being the perfect example)

By far the best bet for commercial success is to tell a well conceived Courtship Love Story. These are the ones that we all absolutely adore. They usually end with the lovers committing to marriage or at least committing to one another.

Examples of these are plentiful. There are two varieties too. The dramatic Courtship Love Story is played mostly straight. The archetype is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, written in 1813, it ushered in the romance novel that is still the biggest selling category in the book business.

And then there is the Romantic Comedy, which is a mainstay of Hollywood. Four Weddings and a Funeral is a great example of that form. The two lovers end up together at the end, but it is their commitment to “not marry” that seals the deal for them.

Lastly, there is the Marriage Love Story, which has dramatic and comedic subsets too.

The marriage love story concerns two committed people trying to or running away from intimacy. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections features two Marriage Dramas in its many skeins of domestic drama plot. And there’s always the horrifying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? By Edward Albee to give you a very cold plunge into the marriage drama world. Gone Girl is another novel that uses Marriage Drama and its concern with fidelity/infidelity to great effect.

So, to break it all down again:

Love Story has three Sub-Genres:


a. Drama (usually ends hugely negative or at most ironically; positive and negative

b. Comedy (usually ends positive)


a. Drama (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)

b. Comedy (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)


a. Drama (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)

b. Comedy (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)

More to come.


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  1. Michael Beverly on November 11, 2016 at 8:22 am

    I’m obsessed with obsession, so I’m digging this series.

    Because of my, ummm, I don’t know, ADD or something, I’m working in three genres.

    But they all have a strong element of love/betrayal/relationship/desire/etc.

    I guess that’s the underlying theme in every thing I write, even my posts here, I think: does anyone love me?

    Do I really love anyone besides myself?

    Is love real?

    There is a very real possibility that I’ll be day job free as I go into 2017, so I know I love Shawn.

    • Tina on November 11, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Good for you!

  2. Jerry Ellis on November 11, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Good, strong, and well written points, Shawn!Thank you. I’m currently on the second draft of my 10th book, Last Living Love Letter (412 pages). Random House nominated one of my books for a Pulitzer Prize. All my books have been a labor of love.

  3. Mary Doyle on November 11, 2016 at 10:17 am

    Thanks for this series Shawn! I just saw a great example of the “Marriage” sub-genre in the old film “The Pumpkin Eater” with Anne Bancroft.

    • Michael Beverly on November 11, 2016 at 2:29 pm

      You had me worried there for a moment. I’m not usually the first to post.

      You’d better let us know if you go on vacation or something because the first thing that went through my mind was “OMG, she’s been in a car accident.”

      Oh, my youngest is about to get her learners permit to drive so I’m probably transferring my anxiety.

      • Mary Doyle on November 11, 2016 at 2:52 pm

        Thanks Michael! Nothing so dramatic as that – just a couple of early-morning phone calls that threw me off schedule. Good luck with that teen driver!

  4. gwen abitz on November 11, 2016 at 10:25 am

    For the 3rd year in a row; I am “obsessed” this time of year with the two Hallmark Channels After Halloween they begin all their Christmas Love and Miracle Movies. I’ve seen the same movie I don’t know how many times Know how it is going to end. I now feel “so smart” what the screen writer is doing after reading Writing Wednesdays and What It Takes.:-)

  5. fireboy and watergirl on December 19, 2019 at 8:26 am

    So if being along all the time results in serious psychological damage, then it’s safe to assume that we are genetically programmed to be social.

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