The three most important words

This week I want to talk about the three most important words in romance. While part of me is tempted to say they are “I brought guacamole” or “Let’s have champagne,” I’m talking about the declaration of love that is expected at the end of every romance novel and movie. How can a writer create a good build-up that makes it plausible and satisfying when a character says, “I love you”?

In my most recently completed novel (which I will plug ad nauseum once the publisher says I can officially do so), the events take place in the span of one day. Following the “one crazy night” trope of movies like It Happened One Night or even Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, my story has two characters meeting and encountering some crazy adventures across the Midwest, falling in love, and the next morning admitting they love each other.

It Happened One Night is a 1934 rom com directed by Frank Capra and starring Claudette Colbert (left) and Clark Gable (right). In this iconic image from the movie, Colbert flashes some skin when she needs to hitchhike.

The “one crazy night” trope is my favorite, but it’s admittedly hard to sell two people professing their love after such a short time together.

On the other extreme of the romance spectrum, the “slow burn” trope has a similar problem. Although “slow burn” means characters spend a lot of time getting to know each other and letting their feelings build up, it can still be difficult to have them declare their love convincingly. Why, after so many months, would they suddenly be willing to admit something they’ve known for so long but kept quiet? Or, if they didn’t know they were in love before their declaration, what suddenly made them fall in love after so much time with the other person? These are some of the challenges romance writers face in creating believable declaration scenes.

When Harry Met Sally is a 1989 rom com starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal and directed by Rob Reiner. By today’s standards, the movie has a lot of annoying assumptions about gender and sexuality, but it is an undeniable slow burn as Harry and Sally meet, separate, become friends, separate again, and eventually after many years declare their love for each other.

Whether the two characters have just met or have known each other for a long time, the moment at which they finally acknowledge their feelings for each other is the most satisfying and, I’d argue, the most important moment in romance. From the first page of a novel or scene of a movie, it’s what we have been expecting, and it’s our reward for sitting through two hundred pages or two hours of conflict and separation. So it has to be good, and it has to make us feel that two characters truly belong together.

In the case of my novel, I hope readers will understand that the crazy night of adventures has shown both characters that everything they thought about their lives, what they thought they wanted and valued, was wrong. What they actually need and want, what will actually make them happy is something they didn’t even know was possible. I tried to be mindful that a contemporary audience might find it unbelievable for people who just met to say, “I love you.” I would. And since I want to my characters to be people who aren’t fools for love, I have them instead give a softer declaration: “I think I’m falling for you.”

I love this. It sets up possibilities for the future. Do you remember when you first started dating someone new and everything they did and said was exciting because you didn’t yet know them well? Do you remember fantasizing about where your relationship might go? “I think I’m falling for you” gives that sense of possibility. It promises they will fall – because, after all, this is romance – but doesn’t make them seem immature or idiotic enough to think real love can exist for someone after a few hours.

The current novel I’m writing also covers a short time span – a week this time. And although I can’t reveal many details yet, I’m excited to tell you that there will be two major declarations at the end. Not only will a character profess love for another, but they will also realize they love themselves.

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