Wednesday, June 14, 2006

How to Write a Love Story, Part III

3. Develop a conflict.

So: Jack and Rita at the Brick Oven Inn – no, just the Brick Oven. Jack would have a thick steak, well done, with a baked potato soaked in butter, asparagus and home-baked bread. (Bill’s stomach rumbled again, but he ignored it.) Rita – Rita would want a salad with honey-mustard, a chicken breast, rice, asparagus, more bread. Would she think the worse of Jack for not watching his diet? But Jack ran two miles every morning. They’d talk about that. Rita did step aerobics. She looked good in Lycra. She was wearing a soft pink shirt and a navy skirt, and beneath that, a white silk teddy with spaghetti straps… Bill stopped his train of thought. He couldn't include that detail on the first date; Jack was a good guy, he waited until at least the second. But was Rita a good girl? Yes, he decided firmly. He didn’t want Sarah to think that all he was interested in was sex. But the longer he sat before the screen, the farther his thoughts strayed from the Brick Oven; and at last he stood up again and paced around his small office.

Maybe what he needed to do first was a warm-up exercise, one of Madame’s short weekly assignments. These were usually a little off-the-wall: “You’re a vegetarian frog. Discuss your dilemma in the first person.” “A priest, a rabbi and an ayatollah sit down in the same train compartment. What happens next?” Bill couldn’t recall the subject of this week’s piece. He looked around for his writing folder; he’d taken it to work on Friday and... it was still there. The building was no doubt locked up for the weekend. There’d be no way he could get in.

Everyone was expected to share at least a sentence during the first five minutes of class. He could simply keep his mouth shut or make something up on the spot, but he realized suddenly that this was the perfect opportunity: He could call Sarah. Besides Madame Markley, she was the only person he knew by name in the class; the phone book listed five Markleys and only one McElderry: She was the obvious choice. Jubilantly, nervously, he punched the keys. It was 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon... She probably wouldn’t be home.


“Sarah? Hi, this is Bill from your short story class. On Sundays?” He felt like he was back in fifth grade, calling a girl for the first time. His palm holding the phone was actually sweating.

“Of course, Bill. How are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” he said in a rush. “And you?”

“Great.” She waited.

“I wanted to ask you about this week’s assignment, the writing exercise. I left my sheet at the office, so I was hoping you could tell me--”

“Sure, just a minute.” He heard her put the phone down. So far, so good, he thought, and tried to make himself relax. Two minutes passed. He worried briefly that she’d forgotten him, but at just that moment she came back on the line.

“Sorry about the wait – it was buried under a pile of books on the sofa. This was our last week of school and the kids were insane, so I’ve been too tired to do much housecleaning.”

“Congratulations on finishing,” he said. “What are you planning to do this summer?”

“Oh, lots of reading and writing, and I’ll go up and see my sister in Michigan, but that’s about it. Here’s the assignment.” She read it off to him – a plot exercise that had to involve a horse-drawn carriage, a bouquet of roses, Britney Spears, and a bomb. He thanked her when he finished writing it down.

“My pleasure. How’s your story coming?”

“Not very well,” he said. “That’s why I needed the assignment – I’m hoping it will jump-start my writing.”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“The assignment?”

“Your story.”

“I, uh, don’t really have that much yet. Just these characters…”

“What are their names?” she said gently.

“Jack and Rita.” He described what he knew about them, omitting the details about Jack’s sex life.

“How did they meet? Through work?”

“Uh… Jack’s sister,” he said, knowing it as he spoke. “She works with Rita.”

“He doesn’t work for CompuMed?”

“That would be easier,” he admitted. “But there’s this arcane policy against employee dating…”

“Ah, but what a conflict,” she said. “Love among the cubicles. Romeo and Juliet meet Dilbert!” They laughed. This was going better than he could have imagined – better even than conversations he had imagined. “But that’s not the story you want to tell,” she continued seriously. “Where do you begin? With their first meeting or first date or what?”

“The first date,” he answered.

“And how will it go?”

"It'll go well," he said. He didn’t want a failed love story.

“Well how?” she asked. “Does she go home with him, do they run off to Vegas, do they just decide to go out again a week later?” He was silent. “What made you decide to write this story?” He couldn’t answer. “What’s your point?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” and he sounded so helpless she laughed.

“All right. Well, that might be a place to begin.” There was a brief pause while he wrote POINT in all caps beneath the instructions for the assignment, then Sarah said, “I’m sorry if I sound condescending, like I know everything about short-story writing. Trust me, I don’t.”

“You know more than I do,” he assured her. “Your response to the assignment last week was really fun.”

“Oh, the White-Out thing? That was a one-off in the fifteen minutes before class. Thanks though.”

“Do you usually write that quickly?”

“The first time through, yeah. I don’t even think about it much – I just have to get it all down.”

"I can’t do that," he said. "I think it's because I work so much with technical material -- every detail has to be perfect, so I can’t stand to have anything out of place.”

“Really? Maybe I ought to try that, given what Madame said about my last story.” The bitterness in her voice surprised him, and he didn’t know how to respond, especially since he had thought it was a great piece. Maybe he had no judgment in these things and his own story was going to crash and burn. He could hear her waiting for him to speak, and he knew what he wanted to say – “Are you free tonight? Do you have any plans for tomorrow?” – but that might sound like he wasn’t taking her confidence about writing seriously, and what if he asked her out for tomorrow night and she accepted and then heard his story and didn’t want to go? The awkwardness, the excuses. He could see nothing but disaster, already beginning with this silence and getting worse and worse...

“Well, I guess I better let you go,” she said.

He was both disappointed and relieved. “It’s back to the computer for me.”

“That’s right. Good luck with it.”

“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”


  1. You probably want to change "ayatollah" to "imam." An Ayatollah is a high rank given to major Shi'a clerics. An imam is the equivalent of a priest and rabbi. If you had said "Pope" and not "priest," perhaps then you could leave "ayatollah" in there.

  2. great "how to" you should checkout I bet you would do a great job reviewing other peoples work as well as get other people's opinions on the stories you write.