by I.A. Watson
A couple of years ago I learned the word ‘meet-cute’, a scripting term referring to the first encounter of a couple who will later have some romantic entanglement. Done right a romance can add a much-needed emotional depth to a storyline. That initial meeting has to grab the audience’s interest in seeing the potential partners get together. We want the readers to be pulling for those two crazy kids.
But ‘boy meets girl’ is one of the archetypal story forms, and launching off that narrative relationship has been done a million times before. What are the go-to classics, what doesn’t work as well now as it once did, and is there still something new to put on the page?
Here are some of the oldies-but-goodies:
The Clash – He and she just don’t get on for some reason. She thinks he’s boorish and annoying. He thinks she’s shrill and irritating. There’s a massive row. He may wreck her carefully-planned social event. She may call him out for being a bully or a coward. They may well spend the next half of the story insulting each other; that’s how we know they’re attracted. Sometimes everyone else in the cast can see their attraction but they remain blind to it.
The Misunderstanding – Perhaps it’s mistaken identity. Perhaps she’s believed the villain’s lies about him. Perhaps he thinks she’s his best friend’s out-of-bounds wife. Perhaps each believes the other to be the person who wronged them. Sometimes its comedy, occasionally it’s deadly serious, but at their first meeting the future lovers get entirely the wrong idea about each other. Sometimes the misunderstanding links together with ‘the Clash’ for extra mayhem.
Opposites Attract – They’re a real odd couple, different in upbringing, manners, expectations, personality types. Maybe they’ve going to Clash. But somehow their widely different character types and skillsets compliment each other, making the other one complete. There will be fireworks along the way, but it’s going to turn out that each is what the other desperately needs.
hen he should really be standing up for himself, little knowing what he really spends his nights doing. He thinks she’s just the serving maid when she’s really the princess. This often involves the less-clued-in partner making outrageous statements to the other one about the other one. Eventual revelation is often the spur to the happy couple coming together at last.
The Rescue – Nothing makes an impression on a girl like being saved from her would-be ravager by a sudden handsome hero. Nothing screams romantic female lead like a heroine dragging a guy from his dungeon pit. This is one of the oldest kinds of tropes and sometimes feels hokey in an age where main cast, especially female ones, are expected to have some agency themselves. It also dredges up a very old “now he deserves to take a kiss – or more” undertone implicit in a lot of ancient stories. Handle with care.
First Sight – He sees her from afar. She’s the most amazing thing ever. Or she spots him as he does his daring deeds and knows he’s the one. Or their eyes meet across a crowded room. He can’t get her out of his head. She keeps thinking about him all day. They might not meet until another scene, might even have a second ‘meet-cute’ when that happens, but first sight is how the story signals the reader to watch these two together. Nowadays love at first sight, possibly based on appearance alone, can seem shallow or unmotivated, so extra care is required to set up this kind of meeting these days.
Forbidden Love – The attraction is there, but they should be enemies. Their families are at war with each other. Their allegiances are at odds. Their love would never be sanctioned and might cost them everything. Yet somehow those problems don’t matter because these two are attracted like fridge magnets. It’s going to be them against the world. Extra points with this trope if the lovers-to-be recognise that they can never be together and are self-sacrificingly noble about it – until their next scene together.
The Third Party Complication – At first meeting one (or both) of the couple are already linked with someone else, even a spouse. Quite often that third person is unsuited or unworthy of the hero or heroine; a domestic abuser, coward, traitor or whatever. Subsequent story shows how the hooked-up lover is freed from the “wrong” relationship. Sometimes the problem is handled more subtly and the story squeezes quite a bit of agony out of the cast as hard emotional choices must be made.
Arranged Hook-Up – Boy and girl are embarrassed by their friends’ matchmaking. They have no interest in being together except that their families/best friends/dynastic royal treaty demands it. They have every reason to buck against the pairing, and that’s their first thing in common. United against the pressure of being a couple they suddenly discover – often much later in the story – that they want to be a couple. A special mention goes to those “we have to pretend we’re married” undercover plotlines.
The Interrupted Meeting – Just when things are getting interesting, perhaps because of one of the ‘meet-cutes’ listed above, the newly-met couple are prematurely separated. He’s knocked out and kidnapped. A strict guardian drags her away. Everyone else arrives with news from the front lines. The car arrives to take her to her wedding. A sudden realisation about what the villain is doing right now means he has to make his feeble excuses and run. The reader is left wanting more – and so are he and she.
The Difficult Situation – They’re forced together by danger or mishap. They’re handcuffed together and hunted. They’re locked in the cellar alone except for the other. They wake up in bed together and meet for the first time (that they remember). He stumbles through her door, bleeding and hunted, the police a step behind him. She’s shut out of her hotel room in nothing but a towel and he’s got the room opposite. Through circumstances dramatic or humorous they are forced to work together and so come to know each other in ways they might not otherwise at a first encounter.
Just a Spark – Here’s a bit of a catchall, referring to when two characters meet and just click together. Perhaps the banter is really fun. Maybe they find a unifying purpose. Sometimes it just feels right. This kind of meeting seems to work especially well when two previously-established characters occupy the same scene at last. It’s a common occurrence for secondary characters, especially when the protagonist isn’t likely to be the settling down type.
There’s lots more of these, of course. Boys and girls have been meeting, on and off the page, for a long time. All sorts of combinations of the various tropes have been tried out. I’m not sure there’s a fresh untried meeting type to chronicle.
What can be new and fresh is the way that meeting is done: new media – first meeting via text or video; modern moralities of sexual and gender politics; recombinant genres allowing variant circumstances; contemporary writing techniques including first person, split perspective, and shifting voices.
And sometimes it doesn’t have to be new or fresh to be good. It just has to be well done. There’s a reason these kinds of first romantic meetings have played so often across literature. Sometimes it’s not cliché, it’s archetype.
Sometimes the world just stops and there’s nobody else in it except for him or her.
I.A. Watson has just received the Pulp Ark Award for Best Author 2016. His most recent work appears in SHERLOCK HOLMES: CONSULTING DETECTIVE volume 8, currently shortlisted for Best Short Story in the Pulp Factory Awards and in the Pulp Ark Best Anthology winner LEGENDS OF NEW PULP FICTION. His new novels, HOLMES AND HOUDINI and LABOURS OF HERCULES are both due out in the next three months. A full list of his publications is available at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/iawatsonhome.htm