Many many movies and books call themselves love stories. They are held up as a sort of idealistic image of what love can be, but I put it to you that these stories are nothing but fantasy. I think we all know that, right? We’re all adults here, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasy and wish-fulfillment, but don’t call The Lord of the Rings a war story. Likewise, don’t call this sort of fanciful and inhuman form of “romance” a love story. Unfortunately, we’ve come to accept the Fabio book equivalent to love in film. I’m here to challenge that notion.

My favorite love story of all time is Rocky. And yes, it is a love story. It’s not a boxing story. It’s not a redemption story. No, at heart, this great classic is a love story, and you can tell that by what changes the man. What does Rocky want? What is his original conflict? He gets no respect. He’s lonely. He’s a loser, and yet, in the arms of Adrian, whether he beats the champ or not, he is a winner. This is a beautiful example of a love story, and it’s my personal favorite.

You might ask, what makes Rocky a love story and not A Walk to Remember? I’m sad that you have to ask that, but I will explain as best I can. See, it starts with character. What does Rocky need/want? We’ve already established that. He is a man stuck in the lowly depths of depression and feels that there is no way out. Oddly enough, Rocky isn’t so different from Cinderella, yet what makes Rocky more interesting is his internal conflict. It isn’t an evil stepmother or cancer that has him down. No, his greatest enemy is himself … something in him prevents him from finding love, and it is Adrian, who struggles with the “disease of shyness,” that finds love with him despite himself.

What makes Rocky a transcendent love story is that there is mutuality in the love. One character does not come along and save the other. As Rocky famously says of their relationship to his friend, Paulie, “I got gaps. She got gaps. We fill gaps.” And this mutuality only appears if both characters are broken, both with deep internal conflicts. And both struggle with outside interference, from an abusive family member to a shameful profession. This is an ugly and messy love story. At times during the film it is cringeworthy and, some might think, disgusting. And that’s just it: love isn’t always pretty. There is no ideal in this portrayal of love. These are two broken people trying to get by as best they can, and they find that closeness, that broken kinship, in each other’s arms, and that let’s them face the champions of the world.

So, you want to write a great love story? Don’t make it pretty. Don’t make it perfect. Don’t make it about one character coming down from heaven and saving the other. There needs to be a mutuality in the lovers, a recognition that something as beautiful as love still must emerge from the gritty and broken world we come from. Savers are tropes. Bad ones. So are victims. Stop it. Some of the best love stories in history are those that never become consumated, yet how much the character is willing to sacrifice for it makes us wish for success. Forget Fabio. Forget Nicholas Sparks. Forget soap operas. Make real people with deep internal conflicts come together and work to see if each can overcome those ponderous psychological and emotional chains. The characters cannot be types. They must be real and complex. Put these distinct characters together in a room or on a train or at a park and see what happens.

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