Love Story Cheat Sheet/Conventions

At long last, we’ve come to the end of this romantic journey.

I’ve been compiling a category-by-category cheat sheet for the must-haves of any working love story. To read the series from end to end, here are the previous five posts—1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

The final topic to cover is the conventions of love story.

Conventions differ from obligatory scenes in that they are not formalized beginning, middle and end units of story. Instead they are the milieu of a particular content genre, distinct add-on elements that give the story context, which elicits an emotional response from the reader/viewer.

A convention for a lawn mower is to have a pull cord to get the engine started. You can certainly change that convention to an on/off switch, but whatever choice you make to abide the convention (a force is necessary to begin a chain reaction) you’ll need something to get the engine started. Or you’ll have little chance of cutting the yard.

So conventions evolve over time—like a pull cord to an on/off switch. Some are added and some discarded from a content genre depending upon the cultural context.

Readers intuitively expect them to be present without formally checking that they are. That is, they don’t know that they’re supposed to be there. They just know something’s off when they’re not. The story just doesn’t “feel” right. They don’t emotionally connect to it in the way they’d anticipated.

In Donald Rumsfeld-ian terms, the conventions are UNKNOWN KNOWNS.

Conventions of a particular content genre are key to delivering the emotional experience a reader is expecting from the genre itself.

One love story convention that’s been shape shifting since it’s introduction back in the days of Chivalry is the necessity for clearly defined gender roles…traditional female and male characteristics played by the male and female players, respectively.

Now the two players can have both the traditional male (emotionally guarded and more obsessed with consummating the relationship than connecting emotionally) and traditional female (looking for a deeper connection before physical connection) sensibilities.

There’s a terrific series on Netflix called “LOVE” that plays with the convention very well. The man is more “female” and the female is more “male.” It’s perfectly in tune with our culture today.

That great movie BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does a terrific job abiding the convention too. Even though the love story is between two men, there are distinct gender roles played.  Watch it again and see if you can pinpoint what I mean.

Conventions are the ways in which storytellers deliver emotional experiences to their readers. They are the means to the ending emotional effect. So to best understand convention we need to examine what emotional experience a particular story genre promises.

Crime stories concern justice as their core value and the core emotion is intrigue. We become fascinated with discovering the how, who, what, where and why of the fictional crime as we follow an investigator from beginning to middle to end. And that emotional experience, intrigue, keeps us coming back for more and more.

Similarly, action stories, which revolve around the life/death value, deliver excitement as their emotional experience. Excitement is best described as the “tiger in a cage” phenomenon. We witness a very dangerous thing but from the safety of having it confined at a safe distance.  We won’t get bitten, but we can watch the tiger bite something else inside the cage.

This is a similar emotional experience we get from love stories.

We get to fall in love when we read or watch a love story and experience all of the sturm and drang of love…but at a safe distance. We don’t actually have to put ourselves in any vulnerable position. We get to vicariously experience love without risk.

How great is that?

For some people that’s the only kind of love they’re interested in.

Why do you think 200,000,000 units of love story are sold every year (that’s 500,000 copies every single day!)?

Love story makes up 45% of’s entire book market.

Check out this incredible presentation from “Data Guy,” to see the hidden sales details of the dominant story of our time (and probably of all time!).

We experience the feeling of romance when we enjoy a love story, the butterfly in the stomach churn when we are attracted to another person.

So how do writers ensure that they deliver this emotional catharsis?

By making sure they have these ten elements in their love stories, they’ll give the reader the best possible environment to fall in love with their lead characters.  It’s incredibly effective.  Literary alchemy.

  1. The Rival: There must be a competing force for the affections of one or both characters. Without rivals, there is no possibility for Crisis (if there is no alternative choice how do you have a best bad one? or an irreconcilable good one?) Sometimes a Rival isn’t flesh and blood. Check out Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS. One major Rival for Ingrid Bergman’s affections is her dependence on booze. Will she choose booze or Cary Grant? Which brings up another major convention of the love story.
  2. Moral Weight: This is the baked in INTERNAL GENRE to the best love stories. The idea is this… If the lovers cannot elevate themselves morally, they will not be able to find authentic love. That is, they must have a worldview shift that raises their moral fiber. In Pride and Prejudice, you guessed it, if the two central lovers do not overcome their pride and prejudice, they won’t be able to properly love one another. This is why the book works so well.  It clearly tells us that Love requires self-reflection and change. Sweet talk and roses mean nothing without moral elevation.
  3. Helpers: There are those in favor of the love match who help the two come together.
  4. Hinderers: There are those who are not in favor of the love match who work to destroy the match.
  5. Gender Divide: Distinct differences in the ways the two lovers view love and its responsibilities must be in play.
  6. External Need: One or both of the lovers have to have external pressures on them to find a mate quickly. There’s a great movie called A NEW LEAF with Walter Matthew and Elaine May. A perfect example of external need. P and P is perfect too.
  7. Forces at Play Beyond the Couple’s Control: Social convention often fits the bill here. The woman, or the man, is from the other side of the tracks…
  8. Forces at Play In the Couple’s Control: This usually goes hand in hand with the moral weight convention. One or both of the lovers has to get out of their own way and change their behavior and worldview before they’ll be rewarded with authentic love.
  9. Rituals: The lovers develop little things that they only do with one another. In P and P Elizabeth and Darcy only tease one another…they don’t do that to any other character in the story. In The Apartment Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine play gin rummy

And last but not least, there must be

  1. Secrets: There are four varieties, a.) Secrets society keeps from the couple, b.) Secrets the couple keeps from society, c.) Secrets the couple keeps from one another d.) Secrets one of the couple keeps from himself/herself.

Not delivering conventions with innovative verve will alienate your audience. It will make them feel as if something was missing in the telling (Unknown Knowns) and for that very reason the story will not satisfy their expectations.

They just won’t get the emotional oomph they’d hoped for when they gave your story a chance. And we all know what happens when a story fails to meet expectations…it does not spread.

Take the time to work up some dazzling satisfactions of these conventions…and you’ll find that you’ll be well on your way to solving the rest of the riddles of your global love story.


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  1. Mary Doyle on February 10, 2017 at 5:54 am

    Thanks for this terrific series Shawn!

  2. Mia on February 10, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Lately I’ve been noticing my own feelings as a reader. It’s a bit shocking to discover my unspoken expectations and impatience. Your descriptions of my own experiences as a reader are surprising, but awesome. They’re critical to me as a writer.

  3. Dana on February 10, 2017 at 6:27 am

    I’ve enjoyed this series, Shawn. It made me wonder if you’ve done similar posts on Crime Fiction? I’m particularly interested in Traditional Mysteries.

  4. Carolyn on February 10, 2017 at 6:52 am

    Shawn, I am a huge fan of SP & SC. I enjoy reading your blogs more than any other. You stated this is the conclusion of LS genre and I am left wondering about the last convention you listed. Do you have any examples of the four types of secrets? Particularly the last one, keeping a secret from himself/herself? I assume that means they aren’t facing something about themselves, but do you have an example in a book or movie? Thanks. Also, I will go back and re-read 1-5, but are these same conventions required if the love story is between another type of relationship i.e. Father/son, sibling or other relative- even friend etc. Thanks!

  5. Bev Ross on February 10, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Dear Shawn
    I wish this was a face to face course where you were the teacher and you guided us through these wonderfully abstract and insightful intellectual… secrets of the art and craft of writing.
    You are on to something really huge and I feel like I barely grasp it.
    I am writing a book and I am not following your guidelines in a linear fashion. God knows where the inspiration comes from but for me it is emerging and i grasp it when I can. However, the organizational piece is important and the genre moves it all. Can”t make love while holding the manual but it helps to have information.

    You are brilliant. Thanks for illuminating so much about writing.


  6. Linnie Peterson on February 10, 2017 at 11:07 am

    You guys are heroin. I’ve become addicted to the frequent fixes of timely, relevant, user-friendly knowledge that you present with such clarity, charm and grace. Thanks so much.

    I’ve added this romance series plus the great discussion you, Tim and Shawn, had on subgenres of romance to my Newbie Novelists’ Links page.


    I’m writing a suspense / coming of age novel with elements of a tragic romance arc in that the heroine at first believes she is in a “Which of my 2 ardent suitors is Mr Right?” dilemma. I’ve set up my opening and closing chapters and my plot outline as those 3 in that priority, with Mr Exciting in the first paragraphs showing signs of Bad Dude-ness and her blind to its severity. Ultimately Good Dude / mentor, Mr Stuck in the Friend Zone, also betrays her trust. I really see #s 2, and 6 – 10 coming strongly into play on all 3 levels with all 3 characters.

    But, Shawn, in one of your initial chats with our brave hero Tim, you told him you saw 3 or 4 books in what he had written; now his nuanced complexities constitute “layering” which is a good thing.

    So how does a poor newbie know if she’s on the right track or going totally off the rails? Because these ten conventions, to me, show how layered and complex even a simple love story is.

    Maybe you cannot answer this but, if you can offer any insight and guidance at all, I would be deeply and lastingly grateful.

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  8. william shakespear on August 4, 2021 at 7:27 pm

    dear shawn you are the father of my child lol
    i will never see you again as i am moving
    thou art hate you
    ps nice seeing your mum last night

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