Boy meets girl is the standard romantic trope that has evolved into variations that go beyond sexual identity, desire and age. Whether it is two monsters in love on a new born planet or a woman seeking to extend her connection with her soulmate beyond life as we know it – with a little imagination, the possibilities are endless.
Yet the standard response is there are only two types of stories: A stranger arrives in town. A man goes on a journey. Neither one of those plot lines needs romance. But Valentine’s Day is about to arrive, and romance is on my mind. Plus I am thinking about the release of the new anthology, Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts edited by Louise Zedda-Sampson and Chris Mason, A Things In The Well Publication, a special edition to raise funds to support the Red Cross/Victims of Australian Wildfires. Subtitled Dark and Dangerous Valentine’s Day Tales, this excellent collection of stories and poems costs only $3 to purchase and supports a worthy cause.
So where did the idea of two plots comes from? In John Gardner’s posthumously published book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, he included a writing opening exercise that instructs the student to establish voice and then “As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning). As often happens with good ideas, his simple writing prompt evolved into a generalized statement that the standard plot of a novel is either: A stranger arrives in town or A man goes on a journey. This statement, by the way, has been attributed to a several other writers in addition to Gardner, including Dostoyevsky and Hemingway. Goodreads attributes the quote to Leo Tolstoy.
It’s a good place to start, but it’s just a beginning. Add obstacles, including a little romance, and then tension builds and things get complicated.
Pages and pages have been written about what constitutes a story. Currently I am reading Rachel Cusk’s provocative novel Outline, framed as a work of autofiction, and am noticing her character grapples with the question of what is a story in just about every chapter.
A story entertains. A story I keep thinking about and want to read again, is a story worthy of publication. A beginning that sets out the challenges to be faced, helps the writer to advance plot trajectory. The addition of romantic love adds complications: conflict, desire, frustration, remorse, sadness, anger.
A stranger arrives in town. A man goes on a journey.
What happens when that stranger who comes to town is really an old flame, someone the protagonist knew and previously lost? What if a woman goes on a journey and meets someone who is the wrong age, social class or gender, but they fall in love anyway? What if the stranger who arrived in town does something heroic which causes two people to battle for her affection?
I love to read just as much as I love to write. So here is my pitch to encourage you to spend $3 to purchase Burning Love and Bleeding Hearts. Yes, it is true that I have a story included in the anthology, “Geometric Dilemma or Made for Each Other?” but I can also say that I had the opportunity to preview the entire magazine and I was impressed. Sixty stories and poems—over 120 pages of content. Buy one for yourself and give one as a gift.