Separation Anxiety: How Far is Too Far in Fictional Love?

When crafting a love story, a certain amount of physical or emotional separation is germane to the narrative. Perhaps you want to build tension. Perhaps there is a task that must be completed — someone is off fighting a war or must slay a dragon. Maybe the characters just need to grow up, and grow into their love for each other. But, after a good amount of pages or season-long arcs, there comes a point where keeping your lovers apart is just separation for the sake of separation…needless dithering that does nothing to move the story forward. Indeed, in a lot of cases, it just traps the story in limbo.

Take a look at ABC’s Castle, which is so determined to keep from falling victim to what many TV aficionados call “the Moonlighting curse” that it is actually creating a trap of its own…a moat, if you will. The show spent x amount of years building Kate and Rick’s affection for each other from friendship to a slow-simmering love. Now, the characters actually know that a love exists between them. Rick said the words when Kate was shot, and she remembered it! Why are we spending the entire season after that climactic reveal pretending it didn’t happen? You cannot go back to a status quo after a game-changer. It’s a bad storytelling decision, because it insults your audience’s intelligence. You’re asking them, right along with the characters, to pretend they never saw the Cupid behind the curtain…and, sorry, but once you’ve pulled the trigger on the story point, you can’t un-fire that gun.

On Gossip Girl, the showrunners aren’t trying to un-fire the gun so much as they keep clicking through the empty barrel looking for a bullet. Chuck and Blair are, arguably, the show’s signature couple. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, at this point you know they’re the end game (sorry, Dan and Blair fans; I feel your pain). They’ve had a number of different love interests, grown up and grown apart, but always seem to reunite. So why not put the characters and those watching out of their collective misery and just stop the game? There is no need to keep playing Russian roulette if they’ve said all their “I love you”s, had all their growth, and aren’t going off to fight Napoleon. On the heels of Chuck trying to become a better man for Blair and reconciling her relationship with someone else, GG now has Blair sacrificing her happiness and swearing to marry someone else in absurdist deal with God. Um, that’s not nobility on the parts of these particular characters…it’s just stupid. This is Gossip Girl, not O. Henry, and Chuck and Blair should’ve gotten all their Magi gifting out of their systems years ago.

Not so much an O. Henry as a “Hai Bhagwan!” is the split between Arnav and Khushi on the Hindi serial Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon. Though the couple is still, safely, in the pre-“I love you” stages of their story, the show is conflating heightening romantic tension with the tossing of silly, nonsensical, roadblocks into their path. Months after a number of emotionally and physically charged moments, and weeks after the departure of Arnav’s longtime girlfriend Lavanya, the duo is stuck playing childish games of one-upmanship, acting like a near-kiss and sharing of vulnerabilities didn’t occur. Much like with Castle, the writers hope viewers will just blithely go along, feigning ignorance that a shift has happened. And, again, that doesn’t work. We know they’re connected, they know, and denial doesn’t serve the narrative. Having them poke at each other like school kids only undermines the evolution of their relationship!

So, as writers, how do we gauge when distance is no longer necessary? How do you know it’s time to wrap up the first part of the journey and get your characters to the next leg?

Well, I think a good indicator is definitely when you start trumping up ludicrous scenarios to keep people on opposing sides. Petty misunderstandings, wacky one-off characters (I love you, IPKKND’s Nanda Kishore, but come on!), grossly out-of-character behavior…if you have to reach to justify why Character A and Character B aren’t united, you’re expending too much effort. That’s energy better served in telling story about them as a couple. Because being a couple — or at least getting those pesky initial “I love you”s and “I want you”s out of the way — doesn’t mean your conflict ends.

Rick and Kate will still have to contend with fighting crime while loving one another. That’s not a cakewalk. In fact, it would ramp up the tension every time they’re in danger! Gossip Girl has already proven that Chuck and Blair make a fearsome power couple when they’re at their scheming best. If they’re going to rule their circle of friends in their 30s and 40s anyway, why not have them do it now? IPKKND’s Arnav and Khushi still have myriad class issues, not to mention their opposing philosophies, to deal with. One of them admitting how they feel is only going to feed those plot points.

So, what’s the basic lesson here? Don’t starve your audience when you have a veritable feast of possibilities on your hands!

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