An age-old novel-writing question: How can I sustain a plausible love story using the minimal number of actual scenes between the two principles?

Your handsomeness is not going to fool me into forgetting that you're barely in this book!
Your handsomeness is not going to fool me into forgetting that you’re barely in this book!

I am awful at love stories. A friend of mine was telling me the other day that all her stories are about the guys she’ve dated. I can’t even imagine doing that. It’s not that I dislike love plots. I like them alot. I find them very warm and wonderful. But I just don’t have much to say about love. However, love is a real part of life. And sometimes a novel simply demands a love story. Like, you can’t ignore it. Love and sex often intrude on life.

Which means that I not infrequently am forced to ponder: Can I make this love story work even though there are only maybe five scenes between the characters?

It definitely can be done. Look at Jane Austen. Sometimes her novels have lots of meetings between love interest and protagonist. For instance, Emma and her love interest meet on a number of occasions. But how many pages do Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy really spend together? He’s very much in the background through much of the book. And yet their love feels plausible. It almost seems like the only kind of love that could be shared between two such formal and terse characters. It’s a love that’s revealed not through words, but through actions.

And, in general, there’s a larger question here about economy of incidents. The easiest way to build intensity and show movement is to have something happen many, many times. If two people meet and exchange numbers and then go on a first date and on a second one and a third one and then it’s their one-month anniversary and etc. etc. etc., then obviously the audience will believe they’re in love. I mean, they’ll be bored, but they’ll believe it. Whereas if you sweep over all that time with a blistering narration, then it’ll move much faster, but might not be as believable.

In general, I have become a much bigger believer in doing everything as few times as possible. I don’t like to look at a novel and see, “Oh and here they have lunch again and here they discuss the previous night and here…” No. I want to be able to sit down and enumerate, in a specific way, every interaction that two characters have. For instance, I want to be able to say: “These characters have six scenes together. In the first, she kicks him in the kneecap because she thinks he’s an Islamic terrorist. In the second, she apologizes to him in the hospital. In the third, he testifies against her in the course of his civil suit for all the emotional distress and physical pain she inflicted on him…”

I think that if you break down lots of good novels (and I’m actually just making an assertion here, since I haven’t done this), you’ll see that in lots of them, there’s considerable economy of scene. Each incident is very sharp and very specific and shows measurable movement in their relationship since the previous incident.

Romantic subplots are just an example here. It’s also true for anything in the novel that requires movement: a job, a friendship, a question to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer…

I write my novels in Scrivener (I know, feel free to groan right now), which allows you to tag each scene with keywords. Lately, I’ve taken to tagging all my scenes with keywords relating to the various plots that are advanced therein. Obviously, the main plot is threaded through (almost) every scene, so there’s no point in tagging that. But all the minor ones, the friendships, the love stories, the sad and lonely declines, get their own tag. I’m hoping that when I’m done, I’ll be able to just click each tag and immediately be able to break out each subplot and see the places where it’s advanced in the novel. Hopefully, this will allow me to learn something about economy of incident. It also might just be a waste of time and an easy way to procrastinate (today I spent half an hour figuring out how to make Scrivener reset the chapter count for each new part of the novel. Yes…that wasn’t procrastination at all).

2 thoughts on “An age-old novel-writing question: How can I sustain a plausible love story using the minimal number of actual scenes between the two principles?

  1. Anonymous

    Two thoughts:

    1. I have watched the love story montage from “Up” a dozen times, trying to figure out what makes it work. It shouldn’t work. It’s too quick, too obvious. But it does work. And, I can’t figure out why. Damn them.

    2. I am (partly) convinced that, in most cases, the story content of a love plot is not as important as having the two characters exhibit instinctive mating rituals that the reader responds to unconsciously, i.e., “They have chemistry!” In fact, I think that the less the writer makes a big deal out of these clues, the more incidental they are to whatever other plot-lines they’re buried in, the better … because, to use another word ineptly borrowed by romance from physical sciences, sexual “tension” requires the desire to be powerful yet unspoken, or even unspeakable.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I think you’re exactly right about needing the coded mating rituals. It’s a lot like courting in real life, actually. When it finally becomes overt, the love needs to feel like it was meant-to-be.

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