How to write a love story

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16 September 2022
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Acclaimed Irish novelist Andrew Meehan explores creating romantic relationships in fiction

In Writing The Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit, one of the world’s leading analysts of the genre, describes the shape of a good love story as ‘meet, lose, get’. If that’s not quite how my new novel Instant Fires works, it also depends on what we understand of the words get and lose.

Alice Munro’s quiet tale of thwarted infidelity, The Bear Came Over The Mountain, is a meet-lose-get. Elisabeth Strout’s heartbreaking Olive Kitteridge is a meet-lose-get. My first novel One Star Awake, the story of a young amnesiac rediscovering themselves, is a meet-lose-get-lose. My second novel The Mystery of Love, a fictional account of the marriage of Constance and Oscar Wilde, is a meet-get-lose-get.

Meet, get, lose. Meet, lose, get. There are the shapes of any love story.

My own romantic history used to be a case of meet, lose, lose. Then, almost the week of my 40th birthday, I met my current partner, Áine. Soon afterwards I moved with her to Heidelberg, where Instant Fires is set. If your forties are a little late for first love, what characterises my life story, and so many others, is another ingredient. It is useful to consider the fact that love is so often about self-deception and indecision.  

Instant Fires contains a lot of fretting, and a bit of blundering. Both are good to work with. Self-deception certainly allows the narrators, Ute Pfeiffer and Seanie Donnellan, the freedom to elide and rewrite their own family histories and romantic pasts. They have both come from relationships in which they’ve asked: this could be worse, but why isn’t it better? Now they are asking: is this as good as I think it is? ‘I hope this never ends’ soon becomes ‘when will this be over?’ and back again to ‘I hope this never ends’.

So how do you begin to express their confusion with any clarity? It’s a little like asking where or how you begin to writing a novel. Just draw breath and start typing—I might try it sometime; but I’ve found it’s better to start with a person and give them a predicament. Just as a clinician may offer a diagnosis of a patient to consider prescribing medication, a novelist comes to discover and understand what they’re trying to do by putting by their characters through a quasi-diagnostic process of questioning.
Who is this person and what is wrong with them? What is their predicament, and does it get fixed or not? Love stories are so often about power. One person has it, the other doesn’t. Somebody wants something they can’t have. So we can also ask who’s in charge, and how it changes and does it change? But this is not to pathologise your characters, which would suggest a very fixed sense of ‘treatment’, but to understand the process of self-deception and self-consciousness that comes with falling in love.

In The Mess Inside, the philosopher Peter Goldie presents the beguiling notion of narrative thought: ‘It is the sense that one has of oneself in narrative thinking, as having a past, a present, and a future’.  And I’d like to suggest that that when it comes to love, and especially new love, most people behave like they are in a love story. This means a lot of indecision.

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At the beginning of Instant Fires, Ute and Seanie are either engaged in partial recollection of past disasters or in fretful planning for bothersome futures. At first, they regard each other as they are from different planets. They have just ended relationships. Failed relationships both—or relationships that have come to unforeseen ends. If not all relationships fail, one way or another they do end. In other words,  before they even begin, all love affairs have a defined shape: one that is already formed and thus ripe for re-formation.

This means that all stories of romantic love can be recounted in vastly varying degrees of detail. One can summarise the events of a marriage in ten seconds, or it can take an hour to say what happened in the last twenty‚Äźfour hours. Instant Fires takes three hundred pages to cover a week. Just long enough to meet, get, lose, lose, lose, get, lose—and that’s just the first few chapters.

Instant Fires by Andrew Meehan is published by New Island Books

 

Inspired by the idea of writing about love? Read this lovely piece by Jenny Valentine.