Madelaine Lucas on How to Write a Love Story
“The middle of the story—like the middle of love—is where complexity and intimacy dwell.”
I’ve heard it said that stories are like relationships: people remember how they begin and how they end. But over the past few years I’ve spent teaching fiction and working on my debut novel, Thirst for Salt, I’ve come to feel that the emphasis on authoritative openings and surprising-yet-inevitable endings has obscured that the heart of a narrative lies in what happens in between, in the middle. The middle of the story—like the middle of love—is where complexity and intimacy dwell.
When I first started thinking about the characters in Thirst for Salt a decade ago, I knew that the love affair between my narrator and Jude—a local man she meets while on holiday with her mother in a small Australian beach town, who is 42 to her 24—would not last. I was interested in heartbreak as an experience that shapes the self and can illuminate larger existential truths about memory, grief, longing, desire, and abandonment. One might trace this preoccupation with endings back to my own origins.
My parents separated before my third birthday, and I grew up in the long shadow of their love, surrounded by evidence of a history I had no memory of. My mother’s paintings and my father’s songs, which documented the phases of their relationship, remained like artifacts from a now abandoned city, testament to a time I was not around to witness. The first thing I learned about romantic love was that it ended.
The art I gravitated towards as a teenager and young writer—everything from The Great Gatsby to Paris, Texas—confirmed to me that there was romance in love’s ruin. But as I continued working on my novel, I found myself less compelled by the heartbreak of endings and their aftermath and increasingly drawn towards writing scenes from the relationship’s middle. I myself was deep in the middle of a relationship: I was three years married to a man I’d already been with for a decade, having met when I was 19 and he was 21. I began to question the authority I had to talk about new romance or break-ups. What I knew of love was bound up in the daily rhythms, the variations of mood and feeling, phases of tension and tenderness, of sharing a home with someone. This is where love existed for me, and I believed that’s where it could exist for my characters as well.My own marriage has taught me that the middle of love is not static, but a rich emotional territory that reveals the complexity of daily intimacy.
And so, as I wrote, I became increasingly absorbed in capturing the specific textural details of my fictional couple’s day-to-day life together: breakfast in bed, toast crumbs sticking to bare skin. The narrator sitting in the front of Jude’s antique shop, the heater by her feet for warmth, listening to the sounds from his workshop out back—the drifting static of the radio, the high-pitched hum of the circular saw. Or back at home, cutting his hair with kitchen scissors beneath the bathroom’s waning bulb. Walking their dog along the beach in the evenings, hands in each other’s fleece-lined pockets.
Rather than the heightened moments of passion that mark the start of a love affair or the arguments and betrayals that portend its demise, it was these moments of in-between that felt to me most resonant and alive. I gravitated to these moments in other books, too. Elizabeth in Lynn Steger Strong’s Want seeing her husband “rumpled, no bag, coat unzipped and open” at the airport baggage claim after a particularly painful visit to see her parents and knowing, in that moment, that she was home. Or the protagonist of Maggie Millner’s Couplets playing house with her new girlfriend on a trip to a converted stable in Maine:
“I kneaded dough while she redecorated,
switching the table and the cellarette,
changing lightbulbs, swapping rugs, and from a cupboard
ferreting out dishware she preferred.”
In the middle of their all-consuming love affair, it is a rare moment of equilibrium: a week spent eating dinner by the light of an oil lamp, spending evenings flinging frisbees and reading Linda Gregg by the fire, thinking “life could really be like this.”
Or the narrator of Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness waking up on Christmas morning to discover his boyfriend, R, had rearranged things in the night: “He had moved the table to the middle of the room, and had placed my winter boots on top of it, beside the little tree we had bought earlier that week. Sticking up from the boots were packages wrapped in newspaper, his Christmas gifts for me…” The gifts are not a grand or desperate gesture—in fact, it is the simplicity of this expression of love and recognizing the “commonness” of his feeling that moves the narrator most: “I felt some stubborn strangeness in me ease, I felt like part of the human race.”
If intimacy is built through an accumulation of moments, it’s attention to the ordinary as well as the dramatic that gives a portrait of loves emotional complexity. These daily gestures and small acts of care become profound when rendered on the page in their particularity.
It occurs to me that these scenes of habitual intimacy—both on the page and in my life—might have a particular charge for me because I have no memory of my parent’s shared domestic world. The routines and rituals that shaped the space of their home exist only in my imagination and will always be a source of mystery.
My own marriage has taught me that the middle of love is not static, but a rich emotional territory that reveals the complexity of daily intimacy—the moments of connection and disconnection, ebbs and flows of feeling, subtle shifts in dynamic. When examined closely, the in-between scenes of everyday love gain gravity, evoking the textures of a shared life in all their grit and beauty.