Saturday, February 11, 2012

Love Stories for Valentine's Day

Here it is Valentine’s week, and it’s hard to avoid thinking about love during weeks like this. That’s a good, warm thing to think about in the depths of winter, although love in some senses is not always a good magic. More about that in a moment. First, as promised, four 55-word love stories:
These Things Take Time
“No relationship for me,” I told her. “I just went through a messy divorce.”
“Me neither,” she said. “I’m a grieving widow.”
“Glad that’s settled,” I said. “Now we can be friends.”
Twelve years and three kids later, we’re still best friends.
Someday, if I get up my nerve, I’m gonna buy her some flowers.

Ain’t We Got Fun
We met in the park. She shared her beer with me, and I helped unsnarl her hair. Then I took her to my favorite dumpster for dinner.
Later we walked miles along the railroad tracks, then cuddled in the bushes to keep warm.
“I feel rich,” she said.
“We’ll never be homeless again,” I replied.

Seventeenth Summer
My first affair was with the tennis pro at the club. Then I found out he was also serving aces to three other members.
“Sweetheart,” he sighed, “in the game of tennis, ‘love’ means nothing.”
Older but wiser, I quit tennis and signed up for golf lessons. The golf pro had a better stroke anyway.

A Purfect Union
“Homosexuals violate the sanctity of marriage,” grumbled Reverend Pulpit, undressing for bed.
His beloved Madeline gazed up at him adoringly. He lay down beside her and continued, “God intended marriage for man and woman.”
Madeline nuzzled his cheek, and he stroked her tigerstriped back.
She purred.
“Ah Madeline,” he sighed. “Madeline, love of my life...”

The following post is, I confess, a retread, borrowed from my blog archive, and it was originally published in my book Structure, Style and Truth: Elements of the Story. The tile of the piece there was “Magnetic Dogs: How to Write Relationship Fiction.” Here goes:
The word "relationship" can mean many things; in fact it's vague enough to mean just about anything where two or more anythings enjoy some sort of relativity. But for the purpose of this essay, "relationship" refers to what goes on between two human beings. Specifically I'm referring to the dyad of love, the coupling that often (but not always) results in sex and/or marriage. The cast of characters is often (but not always) a woman and a man. Adam and Eve.
The relationship of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most common theme of short fiction. It also accounts for a good share of movies, plays, novels, and operas, and almost all popular songs. As for short fiction, I can think of no other theme or category more popular. Love, for short story writers and readers, and for almost everybody else, for that matter, makes the world go 'round.
(Love, as I've just illustrated, is also a minefield of clichés. I'll get to that later.)
It makes sense. We all come from coupling, and we all seek coupling or enjoy being coupled. We may enter this world alone, and we will departed it alone, but most of the time in between we're interested in, concerned with, often even obsessed by, the process of relationship. No wonder we need a break now and then-go to a movie, read a story. And no wonder so many movies and so many stories are about love.
The world "love," by the way, can name a wide range of emotions, including its own opposite, hate.
A relationship is made up of components physical, mental, and emotional. Body, mind and spirit, the triumvirate of elements that make us all human and define us individually as well.
I'll steer clear of defining the ideal relationship. Bookstore shelves are full of books that will tell you about successful relationship. If I knew how to make love work perfectly every time, I'd write one of those books and retire. But I don't know how to make love work right every time, or what makes a perfect, successful relationship. (I expect the authors of pop psychology don't either.) To tell you the truth, I don't think a perfectly happy relationship really exists, since any couple is made up of two less-than-perfect parts.
Furthermore, if a perfectly happy relationship did exist, it wouldn't make good fiction.
Plot requires conflict, and fiction about relationship focuses on the flaws in the relationship. Why is it we know nothing about the married life of Eve and Adam before they decided to break the rules? Because they were probably the one couple (unencumbered as they were by parents or former lovers) who had a perfect relationship, a relationship so happy it wasn't worth writing about. Perfectly dull. Their story only gets interesting with the introduction of relationship static: a tree of forbidden delights, a serpent seducer, a guilt-tripping God. At that point the story gets good-so good that we've been re-enacting it ever since, in our fiction and in our lives.
Conflict in relationship fiction, as in real-life relationships, can come in an inexhaustible variety of forms.
All of us have had relationships, or at least have dreamed of having relationships. Furthermore, we've all read countless stories about relationship; our culture is soaking with relationship plots. So there's no excuse for not being inspired to write about relationship. We all have plenty of experience and ideas to work with.
The challenge is to do something original. And being original is especially important in this arena.
Avoid clichés. Love is such a common experience, and fiction about love is so omnipresent in our culture, that we're tempted to rely on stereotypes and plot formulae. The lazy writer will use stale language ("heaving bosom," "pulsing manhood") or hackneyed situations ("My wife doesn't understand me." "You mean you're married?") or stock characters (boy next door, whore with a heart of gold), and count on the reader to fill in the blanks. If ever there were a place to remember to show rather than tell, it's in the well-explored realm of relationship fiction, where the challenge is to find something original to say or an original way to say it.
Here's an essential rule for being original: Respect your characters as individuals. They're not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures; they're people. Your reader must meet and spend time with them, so make your characters different and memorable, so that your reader will always remember them. This goes for the good guys and bad guys as well. If the woman is mean, make her mean in her own unique way; if she's kind, make it a special kindness we haven't seen before. And the more original they are, the realer they will be.
The same rule goes for your secondary characters: respect them as individuals. They're not just filling pages, they're real people too.
Having said that relationship fiction must focus on the problem areas in the relationship, let me now say that to make the story truly satisfying it should have some other elements as well. There should be more to the relationship than just the conflict, and there should be more to the story than just the relationship. These other elements, which may show up in the setting or the plot or the character development, will help make your story original.
Among the ingredients of any good short story are the elements of choice and change. These requirements are especially important in the area of relationship fiction. The characters, Adam and Eve, must make important choices, together and separately—to eat or not to eat, that is the question—and as a consequence of those choices, they will change as individuals and the relationship will change as well.
Since good fiction about relationship focuses on the problems in the relationship, the burning question (flaming brightly or smoldering quietly) is: can this marriage be saved? Will this couple make it? Will they fall apart and go separate ways? Will they be better off or worse off as a couple at the end of the story?
So the conflict in relationship fiction is not just between two lovers as adversaries, but also between the couple and the circumstances.


  1. As always, great stories and an intriguing post.


  2. You have a unique talent, John. I have to work to keep my sentences under 55 words. You can do stories with that many, and they actually make sense.


  3. John,
    Your 55 word stories just keep getting better and better. I'm hard pressed to pick a favorite but, if I must, the story with the homeless couple made quite an impression on me.

  4. Thanks, Marilyn. Thanks, Mike. And thanks Patricia. So good to hear from you all. And thanks for encouraging my addiction to writing these little tales.

  5. I don't know how long you take to write these, John, but I do keep them in mind for a long while. They are always thought provoking and make for a strong impression.

  6. Oh, John, sorry I'm late to the party, catching up today. LOVED the LOVE Stories!

    BTW, Valentine's Day is my anniversary--a lot of years!


  7. Theresa, it doesn't take long to write them, but the rewrites can take hours! Thanks, Jackie, I'm glad you're enjoying them. You too, Madeline, and Happy Anniversary!

  8. Well, John, you'll be with me on Tuesday at my Valentine's Day memoir writing workshop where I'll share your 55-worders (I'll give you full credit, of course). I wonder if you've read "The Diaries of Adam and Eve" by Mark Twain. He/they will be in class, too. Have a wonderful Happy Valentine's Day.

  9. John, you seem to have found a mini-niche for yourself with these 55 worders. Keep them coming. And thanks for explaining love. Now, can you explain women to me?

  10. John, you are such a delight...what more should I say? What a Blessing the day we all became part of the Posse, sometimes I wonder if Sunny knows what she has created. Thanks for taking the time to share. Augie Hicks