In every love story there’s one crucial scene, the scene where the lights start to come on, where the hero and heroine look into each other’s eyes and they Know. They might not even know what it is they Know, but they Know.
When I started writing fiction myself, I looked at the best Scences When They Know and tried to figure out how it works.
“The Sound of Music” is the winner. It’s the one. It’s the Laendler scene, where she’s out on the patio dancing with the kids, and he comes out in his tongue-lolling uniform, taps his kid on the head and says, “Do allow me, will you?”
The best version I could find online:
So why does it work? 3 Things, I think:
1. They’re sharing something greater than themselves, that unites them. In the SoM scene, it’s the patriotism of the laendler. She learned it when she was a little girl. It’s the national folk dance of Austria. He’s already had to confront the Nazi flag in his home. They’re not just dancing, they’re expressing their shared love for their homeland.
2. Physical contact is required. Dancing. Their hands touch, they stand in close physical proximity, when he has never touched her before. They still don’t touch skin-to-skin because he’s wearing gloves, but that actually makes it hotter. Which brings me to…
3. There’s some stigma against the two of them getting together. In this case it’s a class difference, but it could equally be a religious difference, or in historicals it could be a race difference, in sci fi it can be a species difference or one of them is a ghost or from a different time, or it could be that they are on opposite sides of a political or social issue. Anything. Gender. One of them has a commitment elsewhere (though you have to be careful with that one.)
They could also fix a house or a car or a garden that’s abused or neglected and important somehow to both of them but they’ve disagreed about it. Kids are a good one for this – you can both of you care about a kid but strongly disagree about how to help the kid.
Intellectual things are great as Greater Than Ourselves. You can easily disagree, and disagree passionately, and still both be good, likable people, which is important. Making that physical takes creativity, but you can do it.
Cooking or baking or eating, these are all excellent. Easy for them to share a passion, a very sensuous activity, and power dynamics are almost inevitable when kitchens are involved, I find.
Bad stories use cheap tricks as stigmas. Her Pride and Independence is a big one. His Fear of Intimacy. These can work if you’re willing to take the time to make the characters 3 dimensional, but mostly writers don’t bother, leaving it up to the reader to flesh out a signpost of a character.
With so many barriers lowered these days, it’s hard to generate compelling and original reasons for your hero and heroine NOT to get together. I think sci fi romance, vamp stories, werewolf stories, shapeshifter stories are so popular because you can invent all kinds of rules about how risky it is for a human to mate with a whatever or who knows. And historicals, where you can use the rules of society that USED to keep people apart but don’t anymore.
Dorothy Sayers needed three novels – two of them VERY long – to disentangle her hero and heroine from their stigma. He saved her life; it’s a problem. 5 years later he allowed her to risk it, thus giving her life back to her. Her “Greater Than Themselves”? Detection, murder investigations and, under that, the truth at all costs. Her big “They Know” scene takes place in a punt on the Isis in Oxford, where they both went to school and which represents intellectual refuge from the discord and bitterness of the human world.
So now you know the trick to falling in love… if you’re fictional.