Welcome to the month of candy hearts and rom-coms. Whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day or not, this seems like a good time to explore what makes a compelling love story.

When I say “love story,” I mean a slightly larger category than “romance.” What I have in mind is stories about love of all kinds—a child, friend, lover, or even a pet.

(1) Flawed protagonist meets a counterpart.

Stories are mostly about transformation. In a love story, the protagonist usually has an obvious gap or flaw, something they’re missing or struggling with. Meeting a counterpart will suggest to the reader how the two might complete each other. In Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character struggles with loneliness until she meets her first friend: a dog.

(2) The relationship encounters a complication.

It’s not going to be a very compelling story if everything goes smoothly, is it? A complication can be an illness or war or natural disaster. In romances, a complication often arrives in the form of a love triangle.

(3) They break up, separate, or argue.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy stumbles a bit when he tries to confess his love. Essentially, he tells Elizabeth Bennett that, against his better judgment, he will make her dreams come true by accepting her as his wife. Elizabeth hasn’t learned her lesson yet either and attacks not only his personality but also his social class, assuring him he would be the last man she would ever love.

(4) One or both does something to profess their love.

The characters are beginning to see the error of their ways. But to turn things around, sometimes a big gesture is needed.

For example, in Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, Maddy buys a plane ticket for New York to find Olly. Sometimes proof of love involves a personal sacrifice. Picture the harried business woman leaving an important meeting to attend her daughter’s ballet performance.

(5) Look at us now.

The takeaway of many love stories is this: we are different people after spending time together. Often, in happier love stories, the protagonist and his/her counterpart reunite—and they do so in a way that reveals how they’ve transformed over the course of the story. Even when they don’t stay together in a happily ever after, such as in (spoiler alert) John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, they’ve been changed for the better.

For more info, check out:

Save the Cat: “Buddy Love” https://savethecat.com/buddy-love