(Cue harp music…)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
One, two, three, four, five…
Wait, that isn’t how the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning goes, is it? In fact, she doesn’t say a single number, nor spell one out. The reason for that is numbers fail to capture all the nuances of love and romance, don’t they?
But they capture 10 things someone hates about someone else. They capture 50 ways to leave your lover. They capture a legal code for legal separation or divorce.
We know the #1 leading cause of something terrible, but we don’t know the #1 leading cause of how people experience joy.
My husband makes lists. I used to make lists, too, when I was younger and had more household tasks to tackle. It felt good, crossing each number and word, or words, off the list.
Costco and Ikea are perfect places for lists—they are sometimes all that stand between you and a $1000 shopping spree.
So a list that makes sense would be this:
Cross them off as you put them in your cart. But other lists might be simple to one person, but not to another. My list today:
play the piano
work on song
So how am I doing? Well, I’ve written and rested, played the piano and painted all week long. Clean? Organizing drawers? While simple directives, for someone with my type of brain injury and illness, the words “clean and organize” might as well be “write a novel” to someone who’s never written something fictional in their entire lives.
Sounds so simple until you sit down to do it.
It was a dark and stormy night…
hm. Goodness, what happens next? And as for me and trying to organize…simple enough, yeah? YEAH.
“Okay, so I’ll put all the vitamins in this part of the cupboard, the makeup all goes here, the…wait…where would I put aspirin and are these lipsticks in the right place? Wait, what pile is…okay so if I empty wait….Q-Tips, they go with mouthwash but wait we have three tubes of…wait, so where do I…? Is that a vitamin or…? I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m so tired, suddenly. And dizzy and …maybe some oxygen or rest or…crap. Honey!?”
Yes, lists can be deceptively reductive, just as a number can’t capture the whole of a human being. But sometimes a list can’t capture the whole of what you want to remember, do, or convey. Lists can also be reductive formulas.
Not very literary and not very evocative.
Back to Browning’s poem. How do you love your beloved? How do you quantify it?
If you ask someone to name all the things they detest about an ex, they can give an impromptu litany about why they hate them.
But when you ask someone to list or tell you why they love someone, they can’t usually go beyond a list of qualities found in a boy scout:
“Oh, well he/she/they are honest, helpful, true, kind, funny, sensitive, and great in bed–oh, uh, er—” (okay maybe not a boy scout quality, at least we hope not.)
So once they tell you the listable qualities, they hit a wall. I know I do. They smile and pink-cheeked, attempt to find a way to capture what they love about their… Love.
And when you observe these folks, make a note: As their eyes wander the ceiling, mouths slightly open they stutter or maybe just search for words, as if they’re up there, on a fan or light. Sometimes they’ll wave their hands in the air in front of them, as if trying to use sign language to help you see into the immense love, they feel for their partner and what other word but love describes how deeply one….loves someone else?
Go ahead and try, Stephen King. Try to capture the kind of love that is loved between lovers without an adverb. And look at how, as writers, we could also employ “word economy,” because why say it in a paragraph when you can write it in one, creepy, ineffective sentence. Some dictionary synonyms for love, and I’ll give a valiant effort to using words that aren’t repetitive to compensate for the four-lettered state of being that is so complicated, yet simple, yet complicated yet…
CARE: “I care for you, darling, but in a different way than I care for my aging Nanna.”
Synonyms for CARE: treatment, upkeep, worry, nursing, attention.
The latter word is likely the only word that falls under romantic love’s purview, so would you say, “I’m attentive to your needs, darling”? Lord, I hope not. Or how about, “I know he loves me because he’s attentive, more attentive than anyone before, or since him.”
The latter sounds like someone who has never heard the word “love.” The former sounds like a newly acquired trophy-spouse speaking to their new, octogenarian partner on their deathbed. So let’s move to devotion.
DEVOTED: “I am devoted to you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and you with me and my devoted golden retriever, Marsha.”
Synonyms for DEVOTED: dedicated, LOVING, fervent, caring, enthusiastic.
Well, we’ve explored “care,” and we aren’t using the “L” word, so let’s see which one likely falls under romantic love’s purview:
“I am dedicated to you as I’ve never been to anyone else and I’m also a dedicated parent and pet owner. Will you be mine forever, darling?”
“I’m fervent. I’m fervent about you, darling, just fervent and I—no, I’m not feverish at all, but I am sick with a fervent. I’m fervent for you. With you. I…fervent you. You are my greatest fervent. My need to be with you is fervent as is my need to marry you in fervent fashion. Why yes, of course you can take some time to think abo—hello?”
“I’m enthusiastic about what we’re doing here, darling, and I’m enthusiastic that this is almost over, this exercise in the language of…devotion, care, and fervency.”
ADORE: “I adore you, darling, yes I do, and I would adore spending the rest of my life adoring you, but only if you adore me, too. Do you? Adore me? All right, kiss, kiss, and when you see Mummy, tell her I adore her too, and to call me when she’s back in the city. We’ll do brunch.”
Synonyms for ADORE: LOVE, idolize, like, admire, revere.
“I like you and I want to make like, sweet, sweet like with you right now and I also like Shrimp Creole and soft Jazz.”
“I idolize you, you know that, right? I idolize you so much, I made a sculpture of your face in a bass relief over my bed, and I want to be with you forever because who doesn’t want to marry someone they idolize, so—wait, where are you going?”
Swap admire for idolize and you’ve got a great case for never employing them in dialogue in a love story.
Synonyms for WORSHIP: LOVE, veneration, devotion, reverence, adoration.
“I worship the ground you walk on and also I adore sculpting so I’ve sculpted a bass relief of you over my bed, in my shrine, where i idolize you, venerate you, and feel we should make like with reverence and also I’m insane.”
So you’re writing a novel and there’s a love story in it.
Or, you’re writing a love story and you want it to be novel. OR, you write romance novels, you want to write romance novels, or you read all the above.
What kind of dialogue do characters use to convey love for one another? Where is the “tipping point,” when that hard-to-get character, married to their work and career suddenly sees, as if for the very first time, the other character who has been right in front of them, all along…
The reader saw it coming, the audience in the movie theater saw it coming, how stupid do you have to be Linus (Harrison Ford who, let’s face it, didn’t have enough heart in this movie for it to be believable that he’d fall for Sabrina, but his lack of actual passion in the movie made for an actual sort of surprise-ish ending)? Or Jerry McGuire? Or…literally every Rom-Com or romance novel ever written? I mean, “You had me at ‘the most unlikely suspect/love interest’” isn’t exactly what you want to shoot for as a writer, is it.
As in love, words are just that: words, words, words. When writing a story of love, the tension shouldn’t be between characters, behaving in ways that could be traced back to an episode of Three’s Company or The Bachelor, and their words:
“I’ll never love again.”
“I don’t believe in love/marriage/happily ever after” (but you know they do or will!)
“I hate you!” (tumble to the bed making fervent like, all night long.)
As in the real love stories of real human beings, the emotions felt by the lovers can’t be captured in words, or a word (except, of course, “As you wish,” well done Rob Reiner!)
A love story is filled with the same tension as every story, where the only real tension comes in whether the characters will lose the other one to some external force, or an internal conflict that tears them apart. But that’s easy. That’s too-easy storytelling. “Easy” is a polite way to say lazy.
There are a lot of writing experts out there who want to sell you their formulas, their list, a checking-off of elements of your story, narrative, whether it’s romance, love or mystery.
Buzzwords like “stakes” and “tension” and “likeable” and “the first scene of the book MUST…”
The only hard and fast rule of any first scene? It must appeal to your audience and it must be so engaging, they want to read the second, third, fourth, and so on scene. There is no tried-and-true formula for love in real life and so there is none in literature, either.
So returning to the beginning of this article, I can show you what love feels like without using the word love, or adore, or devotion or any of the synonyms above.
Tell me Dear Reader, does Anne answer the question? Doesn’t matter, does it. Because that isn’t what you want to know based on this snippet of my fictional fictional love story, is it?
Where is Anna? Who is Anna? Who is this Dr. Feldman and what kind of doctor is he? Why doesn’t Anna say anything out loud? Can she indeed not speak? To whom does Dr. Feldman refer, aka who is Anna’s beloved? If she can’t speak, how does Dr. Feldman KNOW who “he” is, and that Anna loves him “so much?”
And most importantly, does this feel like a formulaic love story at all? It does not. Because there is something almost foreboding in all of it, isn’t there?
The difference between a literary novel and a genre fiction is not that the literary is better, but rather it’s not a story one can predict nor follow a formula when writing it. Same goes for the characters you create.
As with love, real-life love, the man or woman or person you marry is not just his name, her name, his number (husband #3), nor a list to check off all the qualities in him you so admire.
When my husband and I are whispering to each other in moments of deep connection and I say, “I love you,” he will sometimes ask me why I love him. I look up, smile, and I can’t find a word—a verb, adjective, adverb, or even a story or tale that captures how and why I love him so deeply.
So, in our epic love story, I show him, or try to show, every day, in the small things I do that speak to the kind of universal love that lasts beyond the snippet, the movie trailer or even end credits or “they lived happily ever afters…”
And so much of that is wordless, but the mark of every great story isn’t the ending, but rather the fact that the story never, ever ends. Not really.
As each story we live writes and re-writes itself, each life in our narratives must be just as complex and dynamic.
Happy living, loving, and writing in the Time of COVID-19.
Je te vois
and as always–peace.