Love Story Cheat Sheet /Controlling Idea (Theme)

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright's Adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright’s Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

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

If there is one question I get more than any other it’s this:

“Could you tell me what the controlling ideas/themes, obligatory scenes and conventions are for Genre X?”

Well, I could.

And I did go through the OSs and Cs for Thriller and Crime in The Story Grid book as well as those in the Redemption story (part of the Morality Internal Content Genre) too over at

(And I plan on analyzing each of the twelve content genres, plus some of the reality genres too, with serious coursework specificity in mind before I leave this mortal coil…click here if you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.)

But come on…part of being a writer is exploring the story universe you wish to enter all by your lonesome. And there’s no better way than reading a whole bunch of your favorite novels from a particular genre and then compiling a list of what they all have in common.

That’s a lot of work. I know. I’ve done it. You should too.

Getting the answers to the test so you don’t have to study is rather lame, but I get it.

Just like the next guy or gal, I like to know that something is worth learning before I book a long trip into the autodidact’s lonely intellectual desert for an extended stay.

So as I pick up where I left off with the mini-love story genre course I’ve been writing here for What It Takes, I thought I’d just throw down a three part cheat sheet for love story.

So here you go:

What’s the global value at stake in love story?

The value at stake in a love story is…duh…love.

But what spectrum of love are we talking about here?

Here is a nine level list of the varieties of romantic love from the most positive love to the most negative.

Intimacy ++++

Commitment +++

Passion ++


Ignorance ~

Dislike –

Hate —                       

Indifference —

Hate masquerading as love —-

(HMAL is when someone tells you how much she cares and loves you, but really she can’t stand you. Behind your back she does everything in her power to make you miserable. See Gaslight and Gone Girl.)

So when you set out to write a love story, you’ll need to make a big decision about where you will begin on the love value spectrum (hint…ignorance is a good place to start…that is when the lovers haven’t met yet) and where you’ll end up.

In the last post in this series, I discussed the three subgenres of love story. Here they are again with the movement from beginning to end indicated.

Obsession (Moves from Ignorance to Passionate Desire and usually ends negatively)

  1. Drama (usually ends hugely negative or at most ironically; positive and negative
  2. Comedy (usually ends positive)

Courtship (Moves from Ignorance to Commitment, or lack of Commitment)

  1. Drama (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)
  2. Comedy (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)

Marriage (Moves from Commitment to Intimacy, or sinks beneath Commitment negatively on the spectrum)

  1. Drama (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)
  2. Comedy (usually ends positive, or ironically; positive and negative)

I’ll also restate that the most commercially viable love sub-genre is the Courtship drama and/or comedy that ends positively with a concrete commitment made between the two lovers.

Controlling Idea of the Love Story (often referred to as Theme):

 Obviously, the controlling idea (theme) is crucial to the telling and commercial success of a love story.

If you decide to end your Courtship story negatively (the lovers do not end up together) you better have a damn good reason (and a sequel planned to bring them back together).

Remember that the controlling idea is about answering the how and why life has changed.

Have I mentioned before that All Stories Are About Change?

The controlling idea is a simple sentence that explains how the core value of your story fared by the ending payoff.

What caused the move from one place on the value’s spectrum to another?

So as I’ve been putting together a new love story book featuring Pride and Prejudice as the overarching case study, I’ll construct the controlling idea behind that brilliant novel.

First of all, how does it end?

It’s ends positively. The three love stories in the novel result in marriage commitments.

So lets’ begin our controlling idea to reflect that positive ending.


Great. So now we need to add the “how it changed element” to the sentence.

So how did the love value change in Pride and Prejudice?

It moved from Ignorance (none of the lovers have met at the beginning of the novel) to Commitment. Right, of course, but let’s be more specific than that.

I’m going to focus on the primary love story of the three love stories featured…the one between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

How did Mr. Darcy change? How did Elizabeth change? What were the causes of their being able to finally come together and commit with authenticity?

Mr. Darcy had to temper his pride and dispel his prejudice, right? He had to internally move from a negative worldview to a positive worldview.

At the beginning of the story, Darcy finds England’s country folk leave much to be desired. They’re, according to his myopic vision, provincial and ignorant with suspect character and generally untrustworthy. By the end, though, he sees them as having particular charms and deems them worthy of getting to know.

And Elizabeth had to have a worldview correction too, right? She had to shed her reverse prejudice and temper her pride in being above the pragmatism of her era’s mating rituals.  Interesting that Darcy and Elizabeth are so similar, isn’t it?

Elizabeth had to internally move from someone who finds all wealthy people ridiculous and abhorrent to someone who has a far better grasp of humanity. She has to mature into someone who knows that all social classes have all different kinds of people. And that class does not determine character. Even rich guys can be morally weighty and capable of romantic feeling.

Her family, which she sees as delightful and charming at the beginning of the story, ends up being far less admirable in her eyes by the end.

And the snooty upper class group as represented by the Darcy and his confidants, which she sees as nasty and negative at the beginning? She ends up actually joining that class by the end. She comes to understand that like her own tribe, the rich are made up of all sorts of different people. The rich can be like you and me.

The cause of LOVE TRIUMPHING is in the personal shifting of attitudes/worldviews by the central players involved.

So the Controlling Idea is something like:


The “Why” of the change is embodied by the phrase “the vibrant mix of humanity within all social classes.” Change is possible when there are differences in people–freethinking and moral individuals who denounce vanity in favor of authentic expression. And love is the force that will cure society, moving people from one class to another until class distinctions are no longer impediments to romantic engagement.

The “How” of the change is embodied by the phrase “Dispel their ignoble attitudes and embrace.” So that’s how Darcy and Elizabeth changed personally… Those internal changes enabled them to find their true selves and thus fall in love. If neither changed their worldview, they’d never end up together.

A wonderful controlling idea. Far ahead of its time and as moving today as it was 213 years ago.

To love with integrity requires personal worldview transformation.


Next up will be the cheat sheet for the conventions of love story.

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  1. tony levelle on January 13, 2017 at 6:22 am

    superb post. especially like idea of reading many books in genre and assembling list of what they have in common… before going to Story Grid book to see where I get it right and where I overlooked… what’s overlooked is most likely to be where I will run into problems in my draft.
    thanks again!

  2. Mary Doyle on January 13, 2017 at 6:50 am

    I’m so glad you’ve chosen this genre and am looking forward to the rest of the series…and the book! As always, thanks!

  3. Joanna on January 13, 2017 at 6:55 am

    This is my favorite post yet! What an excellent analysis of my favorite story. Thanks for the help, Shawn!

  4. Brendan on January 13, 2017 at 7:28 am

    Man oh man, this could not have come at a better time…just wrote the first few lines of a new story of the Obsession variety…thank you sir!

  5. Rhonda on January 13, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Thank you!! Incredibly helpful and much appreciated.

  6. Mia on January 13, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Shawn, would you classify Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels as love stories? Nobody changes in them… Not for 24 volumes or so. I’m really trying to understand, “all stories are about change.” Thanks.

    • Renita Wellman on January 13, 2017 at 12:51 pm

      To my mind, the Stephanie Plum novels are not romances, but in the mystery genre, like the Agatha Christie novels are mysteries. Hercule Piorot never changes.
      Plum’s include sexual attraction and physical sex within mystery adventures. Romance invokes a higher order of being.
      Renita Wellman

    • Shawn Coyne on January 13, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      Hi Mia,

      Renita’s comment is a good one. The Plum Novels are Crime stories that hinge on the global value of justice/injustice. The central change of the story value rides on the discovery of the perpetrator and whether or not the villain will get away with the crime.

      All stories hinge on change. Some is external like in Action, Thriller, Horror, Crime etc. And some change is internal like the Worldview and Morality Internal Genres.

      But all stories must move from one place on a life value spectrum to another by the end. That is why I say that all stories require change.

      Some even require external and internal change…like the courtship/marriage love stories do. Pride and Prejudice is a perfect example. The obsession love story (Damage by Josephine Hart is a prime example) does not require internal worldview change (although it does require external change)…hence the preponderance of tragedy in that subgenre.

      I could really get nutty here with inside baseball, so let’s leave it at that.

  7. Renita Wellman on January 13, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Interesting that I was unaware of this sequence of meditations on the structure of Love Story (also the title a book and a movie that could be analyzed to death) and began to explore on my own the factors using Pride and Prejudice. And just this morning I came up with the same conclusion – characters must change to find love with authenticity and integrity.
    I guess we are all connected to the great universal unconscious as Jung said. However, your ability to write and your knowledge and hard work on the subject far exceeds my own. There is in all writers I think the urge to catch the bubbles that are emerging from the collective unconscious and to craft those into meaningful communications, such as fiction.
    I look forward to learning more from you and Steve in the future.
    I expect you will be offering classes at some point?

    • Tina M Goodman on January 13, 2017 at 1:07 pm

      Hello. You can get a lot of information at There is a week long class in New York.

  8. Jerry Ellis on January 13, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    Well done.

  9. BETH DORA REISBERG BARANY on January 13, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Fun breakdown of the LOVE STORY. As someone who writes romance, what you write jives with what I’ve experienced.

    On the subject of the controlling ideas/themes, obligatory scenes and conventions for my new genre — mystery, I drafted the obligatory scenes and conventions. I see I need to go deeper into the controlling ideas/themes. I’m actually weaving in romance over a 4-book series, so I’m juggling that too. Throw in the setting of science fiction and I have lots of balls in the air!

    I did the obligatory scenes and conventions with another writer. So helpful!

  10. JM on January 15, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Billy Mernit’s “Writing the Romantic Comedy” is not only a fantastic book in breaking down that genre and its conventions but also on how to create great characters and drama as well. Highly recommended.

  11. Larry Pass on January 21, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    I watched Pride And Prejudice And Zombies on a lark — and found it surprisingly good. It retains any number of the plot points and scenes of the original, yet (I think successfully) adapts them to the zombie subgenre.

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