What is love, anyway?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

It’s spring, and love is in the air, at least professionally.   This week I go to Columbus to the Romantic Times Booklovers convention, one of the greatest conferences for me, despite what I write.    The week after I’m teaching a full day workshop again in Jacksonville, Florida (which I will never again be able to think of as anything but Flo Rida) for the First Coast Romance Writers (open to the public).

Because RWA (the Romance Writers of America) is so very, very, VERY good about offering craft and professional sessions to its members, both online and in person at their chapter meetings and specially organized events,  I end up teaching my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshops for romance writers more than anyone.   So I’ve started to feel a little guilty about the examples I use in my workshops, which are, well, intense would be the nice word, but homicidal would often fit.

Now, the whole reason I use movie examples to begin with is that most of us have actually SEEN the movies I talk about – it’s an instant frame of reference.   While books are much more hit and miss.   Also, movies are such a compressed form of storytelling that you can look at the structure of a movie much more easily and diagram it (yes, like diagramming a sentence, just don’t ask me to do that).

So even though I’m using Silence of the Lambs and  Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws and Presumed Innocent for the romance writers, they all know exactly what I’m talking about.

But sometimes I feel like a fraud at these things because I read so very, very little romance. 

I had several interesting conversations with a debut author during my last workshop, a wonderful, fantasy weekend in Santa Rosa with the Black Diamond RWA chapter.   She asked me if mystery and thriller writers look down on the romance genre and I said, “Well, yeah, I think they (we) do.”    And I don’t think it’s because of the subject matter, actually, although there are those men who say loftily that if there’s a sex scene in a book they just skip right over that.    (Personally I’ve got to wonder about those men – if they’re any good at all in – well, not just bed, but ANYWHERE.)

I ended up saying that it’s because a lot of romance is badly written.    I know, that’s a huge generalization, but wait, I didn’t leave it at that.   I think there are two pretty good reasons for why there’s so much bad romance out there.    In books, that is –the other is a much longer post.)

One reason for badly written romance books is a lot of people aren’t reading them for the writing.   In the same way that men aren’t “reading” Playboy for the articles.    Those of you who don’t ever read romance don’t necessarily realize that quite a lot of it is soft porn.   Sometimes porn porn.   Sometimes way-out-there fetish porn, too, you really have no idea until you get out there exploring a little.   I mean, I grew up in the Bay Area and am no stranger to strange, but even I have been shocked at the – imaginative – content of books I see at RT, for example.

The second reason is the business model of a lot of romance publishing.    Which is a hard sell of titles for one dedicated month, and then on to the next month of titles.   It’s a kind of disposable attitude.    

And as part of that business model, romance authors are expected to write three, six, even nine books a year.    I’m not saying quality can’t happen under those circumstances, some people are just fast.   Allison, for example,  !@# her.   

But in most cases I think it’s a little less likely to get a great book out of that kind of speed.

And maybe, just maybe, love  is a hard thing to write about because it forces us to confront our deepest desires and fears, things we aren’t even conscious of half the time.

But from my point of view that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do to write a romance book that’s going to endure past the one-month business model hard sell.

And if you’re writing a love story into ANY book, you have to do the same thing.    Yes, I am talking about theme again.    Every time we deal with the subject we’re saying something about it, whether we intend to or not.    If there’s no compelling reason for your characters to be together, if there’s no love theme they’re grappling with, grasping for (and overcoming or not), well, you’re diminishing the meaning of love.   Or saying greatness isn’t necessary in that kind of relationship, maybe.   Not very inspiring, is it?   I don’t think so, anyway.

Well, so how can we bring more meaning to the love relationships in our books, whether we’re writing romance or not?

You know my prescription for everything by now.    Make a list.   What are ten love stories or love plots that are meaningful to you?   Or that have been done particularly well, in your opinion?

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Next Stop Wonderland


Bridget Jones’ Diary

Notting Hill

When Harry Met Sally

Philadelphia Story


Bringing Up Baby

Much Ado About Nothing


Sleepless in Seattle

(I cheated a little with my list because I’m looking for particular examples for my workshops – my personal list would look somewhat different.)

Now that’s a list of both romantic comedy, which is more along the lines of typical romance, which demands a happily ever after ending, and classic romance, Casablanca and Rebecca, and subplot romance, like Notorious.

 Four Weddings and a Funeral and Philadelphia Story are probably my favorites of that list.

Four Weddings appeals to me on a very personal level because writer Richard Curtis, as is his wont, is not just exploring love relationships between two people, or several sets of two people,  but the group love dynamic of a posse of friends.    In fact, in that movie, the group dynamic is one of the factors keeping the hero, Charlie (Hugh Grant) from settling down to marry – and has kept every single one of the others single, except the one truly married couple in the group, the gay couple who can’t legally marry.    (Wonderful, scathing truth, there).   

That group dynamic has always resonated deeply with me, and I imagine it struck a chord for a lot of people.    Also in terms of high concept the film is great, because most of us have experienced  that totally exhausting year that every single person you know gets married and your entire social calendar revolves around weddings.   I certainly could relate at Hugh Grant groaning as yet another embossed linen envelope arrived in the mail.

But the real beauty of Four Weddings is the underlying theme that there is something magical about a wedding that opens the door to love – not just for the couple involved, but potentially for everyone who attends.   The structure of the film is a round-robin, where at each wedding at least two people find the loves of their loves, and we see that wedding next, or the preparation for a wedding, or at least the deepening of the relationship with a promise of marriage.   This is something I think most of us would like to believe about weddings – that there is an encompassing magic there, a kairos that invites something life-changing.

When Harry Met Sally is an enduring romantic comedy not just because of the great chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan and the charming documentary clips of elderly couples talking about how they met and fell in love – but because it explores a strong theme:  Can a man and woman really ever be friends?    And we experience the great treat of watching Billy and Meg both become friends and fall in love.

Next Stop Wonderland and Sleepless in Seattle are examples of the theme of the soulmate – that there is someone out there who is destined for you, and that the Universe will guide you to that person.   Next Stop Wonderland shows two people whose paths cross over and over again, with all kinds of attendant signs that these two people are supposed to be together, but they don’t meet until the last few seconds of the movie.    Sleepless in Seattle explores the same kind of fatedness, and similarly keeps the hero and heroine apart until the end of the movie.   I admit, this kind of thing just turns me inside out – I would love to believe that there is one person who is all that, and that all of life is conspiring to help you find that person.

Notting Hill is an interesting story because there’s no one person who’s the antagonist (even though Alec Baldwin does a charming turn as the movie star boyfriend) – the obstacle to Hugh Grant’s and Julia Roberts’ relationship is her fame, and each sequence explores a different aspect of that celebrity and how it keeps the couple apart.

I love Philadelphia Story, too – it’s an interesting, sophisticated underlying premise, that Cary Grant knows that Katharine Hepburn will never be able to love him fully until she steps off her pedestal and has a roll in the mud.   It’s only after she abandons herself and sleeps with Jimmy Stewart (oh, come on, you know they did), that she is fully human to love Cary.

So how about it, ‘Rati?   What are some love stories or love plots that really do it for you?    What themes have you explored or would like to explore about the meaning or nature of love?   Either in books, or in life…

– Alex


44 thoughts on “What is love, anyway?

  1. Alafair Burke

    I’m just a girl, looking for a boy…

    What does it say about me that my favorite love story movies are more like anti-love stories: 500 Days of Summer, Infidelity, Breathless, should I add Sid and Nancy? Those stories stayed with me because they explore our inability to control love, why love sometimes isn’t enough, and the ability of people to do bad things even to those they love.

    But I suppose those aren’t the kinds of love stories we’re talking about here.

    I like your choices, epecially When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral and would add

    Dirty Dancing
    Love Story
    Brokeback Mountain
    An Affair to Remember

  2. JD Rhoades

    men who say loftily that if there’s a sex scene in a book they just skip right over that.

    Wait, what? Some men actually say this? Man, I bookmark the sex scenes in books I like.

  3. Gar Haywood


    Where the hell is Out of Africa on your list???
    (Just kidding — I know these things are all subjective.)

    Everything I learned about love I learned from watching Casablanca. When Rick breaks down crying at the club thinking about his time with Ilsa in Paris — Humphrey Bogart crying! — I thought to myself, "That’s what I want to feel someday. That’s love."

    Love = Pain (or the potential for it)

    Hard for a male writer to go there because it makes a male character so vulnerable, but if the goal is to keep it real…


    500 Days of Summer was terrific. Never saw a heartbreaking film I loved more. But I’ve noticed something in talking to people who’ve seen it: You have to have experienced a painful breakup with someone you desperately loved to enjoy it. If you haven’t gone through that particular form of agony, you won’t understand what all the fuss is about. Me, I’ve been there, so I got it. And I’m glad I did.

  4. Gayle Carline

    But Jimmy swore they didn’t! How can you doubt Jimmy? (love that movie)

    I like the love story that brews within Groundhog Day. As Bill Murray works his way through living the same day over and over, he moves from the guy who wants to nail Andie McDowell, to the guy who wants her to like him, to the guy who (at last) likes himself and can love and be loved.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Um . . . Jane Eyre?
    That’s one hell of a love story.

    I just saw Love, Actually and thought it was an interesting movie. I think it did a good job of exploring several ways that love manifests and some of the consequences of our choices in those situations. My heart broke with the woman with the unstable brother . . .

    The love between the grandmother and the old magical man in Fanny and Alexander has always stayed with me. It’s understated and incredibly powerful . . . .at least the way I remember it after nearly 30 years.

    We’re going to watch Casablanca tonight as a family. Can’t wait.

  6. JT Ellison

    Awesome, awesome, awesome post, Alex. Your students thank you!

    I was in the mood for something sweet and romantic the other day, so I wanted You’ve Got Mail. I got scolded on Facebook for liking the movie, because it’s about a bookstore conglomerate putting a small bookstore out of business. But it’s about finding true love and freeing yourself to follow your dreams, I argued back. No, it’s about putting bookstores out of business. Sigh. I just wanted my movie. I ended up watching When Harry Met Sally.

    Love stories: Pride and Prejudice, really, the title says it all. Gladiator is a great example of the perversion of love. Under the Tuscan Sun – what love could be if you’re strong enough to let it go.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    You’re going to think I’m crazy (well, okay, that will surprise no one), but I love the love story in The Abyss. (I loathe the cheesy ending, when the aliens’ city rises up. Kills the movie.) [It should be noted that Cameron and spousal unit #1, Gale Anne Hurd, were getting divorced by the end of that movie, and he’d run out of money and she was his producer.]

    Anyway, I love Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (sp?) in that movie.

    500 Days of Summer was terrific. Completely agree with Gar. I knew I was going to love that movie with the opening titles, when it says that this movie "in no way resembles anyone real. Especially you, Jenny… You bitch."

    I love your list, Alex. I’d put every one of those and a few other old 40s films on there. But the one I have gone back to time and again is The Last of the Mohicans. Utterly love that film.

  8. Boyd Morrison

    For something different, how about the love between two friends? I think The Shawshank Redemption is a love story in that respect. When Andy and Red are reunited on the beach at the end of the movie, it’s a three-hankie moment.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    No, no, Alafair, I’m talking about ANY kind of love story. Of course we at this blog are going to have more twisted ones.

    Hmm, I could have sworn I had Dirty Dancing on my list. Also Strictly Ballroom. Also The Crying Game.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, good God, Gar, love is pain? Well then, I don’t have to look any farther.

    Hmm, I guess I need to go find 500 Days of Summer. I love Zooey, anyway.

    Out of Africa never really killed me….

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gayle, Gayle. Jimmy was being a gentleman. That secret goes to the grave, but Cary knows. She had to fall. Fall all the way.

    Totally agree about Groundhog Day. Huge crush on Bill Murray until I die.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, Room With A View is hands down the swooniest movie I’ve ever seen. I may just have to watch that one this afternoon.

    Pari, yeah, I didn’t even want to mention Jane Eyre because it’s too close to my life right now. And that’s probably not a good thing.

    I love :Love Actually – another Richard Curtis film, of course.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, I use You’ve Got Mail a lot. There are several icky moral choices in it, the corporate giant putting an indie bookstore out of business that you mentioned, and also the clear emotional infidelity that starts the e mail relationship between Tom and Meg. And neither of them suffers for that or repents it at all – their partners just conveniently fall in love with other people. That’s not my experience of how those things go down in real life.

    But the totally lovely chemistry between Meg and Tom makes it work. Especially on his side.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Toni, James Cameron is really good at love stories. The first Terminator is just breathtakingly romantic. That love scene? Hot and heartbreaking, just unbeatable. "I came through time for you, Sarah…"

    This is crazy, but I’ve never seen Mohicans. THAT’S what I should do this afternoon. Everyone always wants to talk about that one.

  15. BCB

    Hmmm. Apparently there are an awful lot of movies I haven’t seen. [makes a list]

    I love Philadelphia Story too, and Bringing Up Baby — not so much for the happy resolution and love ever after, but for the banter along the way. I love clever dialog. What’s the name of the movie with Bogart and Hepburn on the river? Love that one.

    I find myself skimming over the final scene in a lot of romances, especially if it ends with a wedding or the promise of one, and feeling impatient with a sort of, "Okay, fine, whatever, I know it has to have this stuff at the end" attitude. It’s the journey that fascinates me. What they go through and how they get there. Maybe I’m not very romantic.

    And I hated You’ve Got Mail. It wasn’t just the big box store destroying the independent bookstore. He destroyed her dream. And she was a total wimp. That’s not love. It makes me happy to envision her coming to her senses in a couple years and stabbing him in his sleep.

    Probably it’s a good thing I realized a few years ago I’m not really cut out to write true romance.

  16. BCB

    Yes! Thank you. I’m so bad with names.

    And I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t believe in HEA. I just find it really hard to stomach that kind of commitment when the characters have only known each other three days. I’m willing to suspend disbelief over the most ridiculous plot elements — really, I’m easy, I’ll go along with almost anything if it’s entertaining — but not that one.

  17. toni mcgee causey

    [aside to BCB… my husband and I knew each other 3 days when he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. We didn’t make the engagement official for a month and a half, and were married at 3 months… 28 years ago. So it can happen. ;)]

  18. Allison Brennan

    Interesting post, Alex, though I will dispute several of your points. Romance isn’t all soft porn. That’s like saying all thrillers are bloody and violent. There are plenty of romance novels out there that don’t have sex in them, or focus on the sexual tension rather than the physical act of sex. There are sexy romance books out there, but there is sex in books that aren’t called romance. The difference is the hero of the book usually dumps the woman he had sex with, or she’s a femme fatale and tries to kill him.

    Second, you need to clarify when you talk about romance that there is a huge difference in the romance genre itself. Category romance novels that are 40-60K words and are offered for one month only. They get one printing, wide distribution, and are pulled at the end of the month to make room for the next books. Some of these are sweet (no sex) some are sexy (lots of sex) and some are more family stories. Single title romance (i.e. I write romantic suspense and my books are 100-120K words) has longer than a one month shelf life. Most of my backlist is available in brick and mortar stores.

    Virtually every paperback original (PBO) only gets one month co-op (front of store space/grocery store space), regardless of genre. If you’re a major author, your backlist is maintained and in stores like Walmart and Target they have planograms with major author shelving just for backlist titles. It doesn’t matter if you’re romance or thriller or suspense, if you’re in paperback you have one month (sometimes two months–I’ve seen my new releases in Walmart and Target for up to two months.)

    Category romance writers, to make a living writing, often write 2-6 books a year. Sometimes more. They are shorter books, not necessarily easier (not everyone can write a romance, or a romance in 50,000 words) with a known target audience and those writers give that very large audience exactly what they want.

    As far as single title romance and all the sub genres, most authors are writing 2 books a year. Some write more. Some write one a year. I don’t think that writing speed affects quality as much as lack of focus and editorial input. I had one book that I think suffered because I had very little time to write it, but for all the other books I have the time I need to make them the best they can be.

    I’ve read plenty of books by author who write one a year that are crappy.

    Anyway, I’m not jumping down your throat (sorry if it seems that way) but there IS an attitude that romance is inferior for whatever reason and I feel a need to stand up for my sisters in quills. πŸ™‚

    As far as movies, I use two when I teach one of my hero’s journey class. Many romance writers don’t think the hero’s journey applies to romance, but I explain that every character is on their own journey, and good romance will have a journey for both the hero, heroine (and in suspense, the villain.) For romance, I use FRENCH KISS which is one of my favorite chick flicks. I also use WORKING GIRL because it has fabulous conflict. Vogler uses ROMANCING THE STONE, which is another good example, but not my favorite movie.

  19. Shizuka

    The Runaways, which I liked way more than I should (it’s pretty flawed), had a sort of love story.
    Joan Jett tries to protect Cheri Currie, the band’s lead singer and her friend/sometimes lover.
    There was something about the relationship and the movie’s ending that really worked.

  20. Alafair Burke

    Proof my brain doesn’t work in the morning: I was wandering around the LA Times Festival of the Book and suddenly thought, "Wait! It’s ‘I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy…’" Also proof of why I shouldn’t go around quoting movies I haven’t seen in a decade.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison, I knew I’d be in trouble with my sweeping generalizations, but I also knew I’d be corrected. The lazy way to research… (and also I was really pressed for time this week.)

    Sorry!! But thanks for all of the clarifications. Now I have a broader idea of some things.

    You keep mentioning French Kiss – I’ve just had a hard time getting it.

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Shizuka, I haven’t seen The Runaways. Seems like it would be fun.

    Alafair, that’s funny. Yeah, it’s "I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her."

    I always kind of squirm at that, though, as they’re both well into their 30’s…..

  23. JT Ellison

    Oh., I adore French Kiss too! And there’s also Princess Bride – now there’s romance if I’ve ever seen it. "A kiss so pure, so perfect…"

    And more currently, all the Twilight movies. I know, I know…

  24. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’ve read some really great romantic suspense novels. I’ve read some really crappy literary novels. I’ve read some fairly ho-hum thrillers.

    I think romance novels are looked down on by others in the industry PRECISELY because of the subject matter. And — I hate to say this — largely because they’re written by women.

    At LATFOB today, I was standing next to the Sisters-in-Crime booth and three guys and a woman walked by. They looked at the banner and one of the guys said, "Ugh, women writers."

    As sad as it is, I think that’s a prejudice that has condemned an entire category of fiction, AND apparently other categories as well. It’s getting better, but it’s a lot like chefs. Most of the stars are men, for no other reason than prejudice.

    That said, there are crappy books written in all genres. And since the sheer VOLUME of novels being put out by the romance industry outweighs just about every other genre, then it only makes sense that there are more crappy romance books.

    But THAT has nothing to do with subject matter.

  25. Allison Brennan

    Rob, you nailed it.

    I’ve also often said that if you’re a woman writing in the suspense/thriller genre (straight mysteries seem to be different), you will 9 times out of 10 be slotted as a romantic suspense writer. I happen to love romantic suspense, but if I was writing a straight thriller, I would likely have had to take a gender neutral pen name or build my name in RS first and break out with a stand-alone suspense (ala Lisa Gardner.)

  26. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, Lisa Gardner writes noir, most of the time. You CAN’T call her romantic suspense, I think – she’s way too dark.

    I thought the distinction was that romantic suspense puts the romance in the forefront and suspense has the thriller plot in the forefront. That seems to be pretty clear in the way libraries and bookstores shelve those books.

  27. Ann Voss Peterson

    Lisa Gardner wrote category romantic suspense for Silhouette Intimate Moments. Her first several stand alone releases after that were definitely romantic suspense (THE PERFECT HUSBAND, THE OTHER DAUGHTER…). Romantic suspense can get quite dark. RS can also feature the plot as strongly as the romance.

    Other than that, what Allison and Rob said. πŸ™‚

    See you at RT!

  28. Ann Voss Peterson

    Oh, and movies. I knew I forgot something!

    How about Witness? They don’t end up together at the end, but it’s a fabulous love story. That is one tightly-structured movie.

    Like Alafair, I also like anti-romances. Body Heat is one of my faves.


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