William Nicholson on the art of writing a good love story

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film 'Romeo and Juliet'. Picture: Complimentary
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the film 'Romeo and Juliet'. Picture: Complimentary
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I AM A lover of love stories. As a writer, I turn just about everything I do into a love story. My breakthrough work, Shadowlands, was a love story.

I inserted a love story into Gladiator. All my recent novels, including the latest, have a love story at their core. What’s going on?

I could say there’s nothing to explain. Surely all the world loves a love story? But if like me you’re in the business of creating love stories, you need to ask yourself a few questions. What makes a great love story work? What is it we get out of them? What deep needs are they meeting?

Three years ago there was a bestselling book, followed up by a film, called One Day. It’s a charming, funny, touching story of two lovers who can’t live without each other and can’t live with each other. I read it with immense pleasure until the end, when to my dismay – I think I’m allowed this spoiler so long after book and film have come out – the heroine is killed by a bus. For me this broke some fundamental rule of storytelling, and spoiled my enjoyment of the book. Clearly I’m alone in this, judging by the book’s popularity. But it got me thinking. What rule? Are there rules?

My objection was not to the tragic ending. My own Shadowlands ends with a cruel death. The error here, it seemed to me, was the arbitrary nature of the climax. A traffic accident has no meaning, no moral content. It’s just bad luck. To end a 20-year on-off love affair so casually seemed to me to break some unspoken contract with the reader.

This led me to think about the plot structures of love stories. Broadly there are two types: the Thunderbolt, and the Slow Burn. Romeo and Juliet is a Thunderbolt love story. The lovers fall in love at first sight, and the story revolves round the obstacles that keep them apart. The Thunderbolt model requires us, the spectators, to project our own hopes or memories onto the characters and then share their longing for resolution. We don’t ask why Romeo loves Juliet so much: he just does.

I remember years ago the late great director Sydney Pollack telling me a story about his remake of Sabrina. In the original film, Humphrey Bogart falls for Audrey Hepburn. Pollack, reworking the story, puzzled greatly over the underlying motivations. In the end he phoned the ageing director of the original version, Billy Wilder, and asked him straight: ‘Why does Bogart fall for Sabrina?’ Wilder replied: ‘Because she’s Audrey Hepburn.’

The Thunderbolt love story begins where the Slow Burn love story ends. I’m a fan of Slow Burn. The plot commonly presents us with a Loser, a deserving but under-appreciated character, and a Winner, a high-status widely desired character. The pleasure comes from watching the Loser reel in the Winner, and so become a Winner him or herself. And it really does work for either gender. Dowdy nun Maria in The Sound of Music wins rich handsome Captain Von Trapp. Bumbling fat Pierre in War and Peace wins gorgeous Natasha. Sharp tongued Elizabeth Bennett, burdened with an embarrassing mother, wins aloof aristo Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The Slow Burn plot always lets the reader in on the secret: we know Lizzie and Darcy are right for each other long before the characters themselves discover it.

And there lies an important clue: right for each other. It’s not enough for us to be told that the Loser wants to gain the love of the Winner. We must believe he/she deserves it. The happy ending must be earned.

This reveals the love story as a moral tale. In order to believe the protagonists deserve their love, we need to believe in their inherent goodness. This may seem like an odd claim to make, but it’s all tied in to the way we readers identify with fictional characters. To engage in their story we must be induced to love them as we love ourselves. To love them as ourselves we must believe them to be fundamentally good people – as we believe ourselves to be. This is the hardest part of storytelling: the creation of real but morally admirable characters.

You raise your eyebrows. You think this naive. What, you say, about Scarlet O’Hara, who is bad and selfish? What about Becky Sharp? What about Emma? I answer that you’ve been tricked by the author. These characters are given selfish traits, certainly, but secretly you believe them to be good at heart. This is not your private insight.

The author has planted it. When a writer creates a truly bad character, you may be fascinated by them but you don’t love them. You want to see them punished.

All this leads me to an important conclusion: a successful love story requires authenticity. For the protagonist to possess authentic worth and goodness, the author must possess it too. He can’t paint his characters by numbers. He can’t be cynical about them. This is why even the trashiest of genre romances can only be written by people who believe what they’re writing. When you read a good love story, you’re experiencing the writer’s own power to love.

There’s been some discussion recently on book pages on the subject of likeable characters. Some very distinguished writers have made it clear that they don’t expect readers to like their characters, and suggested that to make such a demand of literary fiction is naive.

I have a problem with this. For me, novels are at their best when most true – not in the photographic sense, but true in their insight into human beings. This can be achieved in tales of magic as much as in documentary realism. And one part of the truth of human beings is our capacity to love. Naturally we should be suspicious of being duped and flattered by easy gratification and unearned happy endings; that is sentimentality. But equally we should be suspicious of the view that a story that is disillusioned about the human condition is therefore more profound. Cynicism is an easy coat to put on. It makes you look mature, no longer ready to be tricked. Stories of knaves and fools pander to the worst in us, the part that wants to believe others are as dissatisfied as we are. But that too is sentimentality – unearned emotion – of another kind.

So I turn back to the love stories, both as a reader and as a writer. I believe with all my heart that people are good, and want to do good. I know – how could I not? – that people are also selfish and can be cruel, that they inflict suffering on each other, and that life is an endless struggle. My task as a writer is to understand these apparent contradictions, to create characters you love and identify with, to show how they cause each other pain and bring each other joy, and in the end to deliver that mysterious profound satisfaction, the true ending.

I do not say “happy ending”. But I do believe that there is no real happiness that is not also true, and that the encounter with truth is always a source of joy.

• William Nicholson’s novel Motherland is published on 14 February, priced £16.99.