Love Story Cheat Sheet/Obligatory Scenes

If the lovers never "meet," can the love story work?

If the lovers never “meet,” can the love story work?

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

What scenes must be in every Love Story?

While the following list may seem obvious, you’d be surprised how many amateur writers fail to deliver these essential must-haves. Or if they do deliver them, they toss them off with an uninspired let’s get this over with sensibility, thus disappointing readers looking for something singular and magical.

  1. Lovers Meet Scene.

In order to tell a love story well, we need to bring the two people together.


But what if you decided to write a love story in which the lovers don’t actually meet face to face?

Could you do that?

Would it work?

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, published in 1970 before our crazy social networking world, worked and the two lovers never met. It’s a memoir/love story with a devastating climax. But it abides the lovers meet scene nevertheless.

You see, the two lovers meet via the UK and US post offices. And their chaste metaphysical connection is absolutely irresistible. The book was so heart wrenching and delivered such an innovative form of love story that it had very successful stage, television and feature film adaptations.

The movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins is a guaranteed rainy day delight. Especially for us sentimental book nerds who yearn for the days when Manhattan had a used book store just a few doors down from our favorite independent movie theater (And there was one of those in every neighborhood) where we’d meet our dates twenty minutes before the Sunday Double Indemnity/Maltese Falcon double feature. (Note to Elon Musk…get working on that time travel machine!)

  1. Confession of Love Scene

This is the scene when one of the lovers declares that he/she is in love with the other. Hey, we’ve all been in that scene ourselves, right?  Gets your stomach churning just thinking about it.

You don’t want to mess up this scene. And no, they don’t literally have to say “I Love YOU!” Steve wrote about this scene here.

Where do you put this scene in your global structure?

Well, where you choose to put it will inform the rest of the story…just like where you choose to put the “Lovers Meet” or any of the others that follow.

A lot of writers decide that this scene is best in the middle build. Jane Austen did that with Pride and Prejudice and she made out pretty well. That novel still sells more than 400,000 copies a year, just in the English language. Not bad for a 204 year old book.

A movie that placed this scene as the ending payoff climax in one of its eight! mini-plot love stories is Love Actually, written by Richard Curtis. Two of those, though, were not “love with the possibility of sex” as I’ve been defining love story (the bromance story between the singer and his manager and the child crush subplot).

I’m referring to the unrequited love story between the best friend of the groom who marries Keira Knightley at the beginning of the movie. Saturday Night Live did a great parody of this scene recently using Kate Mckinnon reprising her impersonation of Hilary Clinton. I’ll not spoil it if you haven’t seen the movie, a real cheese-fest that you either surrender to or find treacly and impossible.

  1. First Kiss/Intimate Connection Scene

What many call the “first kiss” scene, I add “intimate connection” to further clarify. The reason being that many great love stories never have the lovers kiss in the narrative. Pride and Prejudice is a perfect example. No one ever kisses in the novel and it’s delightful that they never do. Check our Lawrence Kasdan’s film Body Heat (Film Noir Crime/Obsession Love Story) for a killer first kiss scene if you really want a literal interpretation.

So baring a kiss as the driving climax of this scene, an intimate connection works just as well. The intimate connection scene in Pride and Prejudice is when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet discover the facile wit and intelligence that the other possesses. This connection occurs in Chapter Six when Elizabeth, noticing Mr. Darcy’s “satirical eye,” gooses him by confronting him for listening in to her conversation with another man…

“Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teasing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?”

“With great energy; but it is always a subject which makes a lady energetic.”

“You are severe on us.”

Is there any doubt that these two are meant for each other?

Their verbal teasing is the stuff of intimate connection, which becomes a ritual between them (a convention which I’ll write about in the next post), and is as delightful for the reader to experience as it must have been for Austen to write.

Austen’s “First Kiss” scene is so much better in my opinion than them stealing a kiss in the moonlight after too much champagne. Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bennet would never be so stupid as to drink too much champagne.

  1. Lovers Break Up

This scene is the one where many writers pull their punches.

It’s the equivalent to mystery/crime/thriller writers who don’t go to the end of the line with their “perfect crime” scenarios. Amateur crime writers bake in solutions to their crimes so that they know how their protagonist/hero will come to figure out the criminal before they begin writing. That’s a big mistake. The big work to explore before you write a crime story is to create the perfect crime. And then challenge yourself to mastermind a way to solve it. You must wear both hats. And the antagonist’s hat in the crime story is even more important than the protagonist’s.

Similarly, the tendency for love story writers is to avoid breaking up the lovers too definitively. They want to leave some wiggle room for them to get back together. They do this so that they’ll know weeks or months before they write the scene how they’ll solve the inevitable “Lovers Reunite Scene.” Which is the final resolution of a courtship drama no matter if the lovers commit or part. More on that later.

That’s a mistake (leaving the easy possibility of them getting back together) because you’ll inevitably telegraph how they’ll reconcile to the reader long before it happens. Remember that the “how they reconcile” is the fuel that gets us to the ending payoff. And readers hate it when they figure out how your ending payoff will payoff.

The trick to this scene is to remember that the lovers need to have an internal change before they’ll be capable of coming back together. More on that in the next post.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy both have to change their worldviews before either of them will be capable of authentic commitment. Both must examine their “pride” and “prejudice,” and actively commit to a change of behavior guided by their enlightened point of view.

So when the lovers break up in Pride and Prejudice they do so in an extraordinary way. Austen combines the “Confession of Love” scene with the “Lovers Break Up” scene in a tour de force.

After Mr. Darcy confesses that despite his better judgment, he can’t stop himself from wishing to add Elizabeth Bennet to his possessions and thus he’s decided to make her dreams comes true and accept her as his wife…Elizabeth hits him with double barrels of vitriol. Not only does she decline him because of his arrogant pride, she attacks him and his social class with fury. She essentially tells him that he’s the last man on earth that she would ever love.

This happens just about the middle of the middle build of the novel (Chapter 34 of a 61 Chapter novel)… Just perfect.

  1. Proof of Love Scene

This is the most important scene for the love story. Without a satisfying Proof of Love Scene, your love story will not work.

Like the “Hero at the mercy of the villain” scene for a thriller or the “Exposure of the criminal scene” in a crime story or “The big event” scene in a performance story, the Proof of Love Scene is the thing that every reader is unconsciously waiting for. This is the scene that will turn the entire story from negative to positive or positive to negative.

It’s the core event…the thing that will push someone into committing themselves until death.

The key component in the Proof of Love scene is that one of the lovers must SACRIFICE for the other’s happiness WITHOUT HOPE THAT THEIR ACTION WILL DO THEM ANY GOOD WHATSOEVER. Loving someone and acting on that love by personally suffering… all the while knowing that your sacrifice will not change the other’s mind…is the proof of authentic love.

Authentic love does not require reciprocity.   A tough nut to accept, but until you do, you’ll be incapable of living the dream.  Remember that this notion is part of the romantic myth which has evolved from the Age of Chivalry to the present.

So how does Jane Austen handle this high task?

She beautifully and gracefully allows Mr. Darcy to prove his love…off the page. This choice was incredibly courageous (not having him make some grand on the page gesture could have really backfired), but this decision is the thing (well one of them) that makes Pride and Prejudice a perfect story.

Why? Because it is perfectly in character.

Austen decided that Mr. Darcy would arrange to solve the Bennet family’s impossible situation (it is suggested that death would be preferable to the predicament they face) behind the scenes. She does not show us the particulars or negotiations he must accomplish to succeed at this task. Rather she has third parties inform Elizabeth about his actions.  And their betrayal of his confidence is in character too. These actions provide yet more proof of the fallibility of the average person and the necessity of forgiveness, something Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have had to painfully learn throughout the novel.

When Elizabeth thanks Mr. Darcy for his efforts, he quickly changes the subject. It’s not to be discussed. He did it simply because he is enlightened now, and knows that love is more important than pride, even in the service of unreciprocated love. His actions are merely those of a proper gentleman.

What Darcy sacrifices is part of his fortune and his pride in order to save his beloved. And he does it without hesitation too.

Mr. Darcy’s proof of love turns the global story and convinces Elizabeth to devote herself to him without reservation. By the way, Elizabeth proves her love for Darcy in an earlier scene.  That one, though, is on the page. As it should be.  Elizabeth is the central protagonist after all.

  1. The Lovers Reunite Scene

This is usually the resolution scene of the entire love story, most especially the courtship drama or comedy. That is, the lovers get back together and agree to commit to one another. Or decide it’s best that they part ways.


The recent film, Manchester By The Sea (a very courageous work of writing supported by impeccable performances) used a subplot love story to girder its global Redemption Plot.

The Lovers Reunite Scene in this case does not result in the two lovers getting back together. In fact, it serves as impetus for a heartbreaking negative outcome that turns the global plot irreversibly.

What makes this choice so courageous is that the writer and director Kenneth Lonergan decided that he had to be truthful to the realism of the world he created on the page.

When he was writing, let alone when he was directing, Lonergan had to know that ending his story with a dark negative would really hurt the movie’s chances commercially. But he did it anyway. He didn’t put in a feel good ending. I doubt he ever considered it. Even though redemption relief is what we all want when we watch it…sometimes we just can’t get what we want.

Because the characters he created would not end well.

Contrast this dark decision to another realistic film, Good Will Hunting, a story that explores a similar blue-collar world as Manchester By The Sea. I really enjoyed it and thought it was very well done, but anyone who truly understood the characters in that film knows deep down that it would not have ended well in real life.

The self-hatred the protagonist was consumed by in Good Will Hunting would not have been slayed after one cathartic therapy session…or even a thousand. But that was that key scene that left audiences smiling when they walked out of the theater and it is what pushed the film to a 225 million dollar box office.

Manchester By The Sea won’t come close to Good Will Hunting numbers. By design. It’s not because it’s not truthful to the characters or to the world’s those characters represent. It’s because it is truthful.

To be fair, I think when we’re younger (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were in their 20s when they wrote Good Will Hunting) we tend to think that lightening bolt catharsis moments are possible. We think one good cry will prime us to move forward.  It will get us into our metaphorical life journey cars and we’ll never look back.

A decade or two down the road, though, that kind of magical thinking proves tenuous.

The truth is that our deeply negative experiences refuse our prepared place for them in the rear view mirror. Cry a river, talk yourself silly.  No matter. Some just won’t budge from the shotgun seat, their methamphetamine chatter inflicting an inescapable internal torment. Their sounds tend to rise above our better angels’ counter-programming reminders coming from the back seat. For whatever evolutionary reason, loss and regret argue better than gain and satisfaction.

Some things we don’t beat.  We endure them.

I think it’s interesting that Matt Damon was a key driver behind the making of Manchester By The Sea. In many ways it’s what could have happened to poor Will Hunting further on down the road.


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  1. Mary Doyle on January 27, 2017 at 6:11 am

    Thanks so much for this – it’s solid gold! And thanks also for continually expanding my reading list – somehow I missed 84, Charing Cross Road and I look forward to reading it.

  2. Patrick on January 27, 2017 at 7:04 am

    Just a quick note to say I really appreciate what you chaps are doing. I’ve been listening to The Story Grid podcasts and think what you offer for free are as good or better than any university course I could pay for. Thank you. I’m learning a lot about story and some of it I even remember when I sit down to write. Really, thank you so much.

  3. Ruby on January 27, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Thank you for your sharing your work and insight. I recently found the Story Grid podcast so have been listening from the beginning and still not current. I’m writing my first novel and still shaky in the genre so I’m still working out “obligatory scenes”. Unfortunately it’s not a love story. I’m curious about your comments about “Manchester by the Sea”. I have to say I walked out of that movie feeling so let down because the main character didn’t change at all. That made it a long movie with no ending payoff. True, the ending wasn’t predictable, but it was still unfulfilling. I walked out of the movie theater thinking about the Story Grid so I could pinpoint the problem and wrap my head around why I just didn’t like the movie.

  4. sandra harrison kay on January 27, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    “84, Charing Cross Road!!” -this is a direct cerebral hyperlink for me to a true story I must share -write now!-

    LOVE the book! and the movie too!

    For years I referred to Leonard Stegmann and myself as “The 21st Century 84 Charing Cross Road”

    because my introduction to blogs came via Leonard Stegmann, who, beginning in 2005, wrote an entertaining blogumn, like 5 days a week for years!

    REVOLUTIONARY to me, was that as a READER I could RESPOND to what i had just read

    /kinda like i’m doing write now.. only this is when it was brand new

    SO! Five days a week, for NINE YEARS, I read and responded in comments to Leonard’s blogs. As he has a sense of humor much like my father and brother, I felt like I could be as playful, lighthearted, and facetious or funny as I would be with family.

    Of course I did wonder, what Helene and Franks relationship would have been like if they had access to blogs..

    Anyway, -It was my great joy to read and respond.. read and respond.. to Leonard’s blogs for years.

    And he did/does credit me for helping him keep going, as a writer.

    Now, -I tried forever! to pitch this to agents/publishers; because I knew other people would find it entertaining, but -big fat nothing, until one day

    a bite! -some interest! at last!

    and so I went back to share the good news with Leonard, and..


    I went into a bit of a panic.. contacted him immediately.. “Leonard.. there must be some kind of virus! where are the archives?!?”

    and that’s when he explained to me, there was no virus.

    they were -UNpublished.

    apparently, when he turned his blog posts into books with Amazon as Publisher, the rules/regulations say that the stories cannot be published anywhere else online. so he unpublished everything; which vanished my 5 days a week/9 years worth of comments

    -they were very entertaining.. a lot of thought/craft went into how I would respond -it nearly killed me.

    but, they sit in his blogspot domain UNpublished. -when I asked to have copies of his archives for just my own memory archive

    he said he would republish for a short time, and I could copy/paste only my comments; not his posts.

    so, if you could imagine 84 charing cross road, with only Helene’s letters, and not Franks..

    my comments were in RESPONSE.. so, what good/use?

    I just let it go.

    And have continued to do an enormous amount of creative non-fiction writing on my own blog.

    Have let go of the 21st Century Charing Cross Road pitch & dream,

    and currently believe my memoir could sit on the same shelves with Jeanette Wall’s Glass Castle, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Anne Lamotts work..

    so that is the goal I’m working toward now

    Thank You for letting me share,

    Sandra Harrison Kay, literary & mixed media artist

  5. Jerry Ellis on January 28, 2017 at 1:57 am

    Keep up the good work, Shawn. You’re getting closer.

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