Cutting to the chase here (because I got a little overexcited with my samples below):
Saying “I love you” for the first time is one of the most vulnerable and universal experiences known to man. As a writer, “I love you” moments are pivotal. What better opportunity do you have to engage your reader’s sympathy than to draw them into a moment which reveals your characters’ vulnerability and universality? The result of that sympathy can be anything, joy, anger, disgust, regret, amusement. The point is, if one of your characters says the words “I love you,” your reader should care.
Here are 6 kinds of literary “I love you”s that have stolen my heart in the past:
1.The Breathless Confession
I’m not sure about the rest of you, but my sentences rarely come out like the crisp, straight lines in which dialogue is often written. This is especially true when I’m emotional. That’s why I love dialogue with a slight, built-in stammer. It sounds so true to life and instantly gains my sympathy!
For an example of breathtaking breathlessness, check out Matthew Macfadyen playing Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (Austen enthusiasts, please don’t sentence me to the stake! I promise I’ve read the book 11 times too!)
When Darcy approaches the elusive Elizabeth Bennett to make a renewal of his offer of marriage, he begins and ends with a stutter:
You must know, surely you must know, it was all for you. You are too generous to trifle with me. I believe you spoke with my aunt last night, and it has taught me to hope as I’d scarcely allowed myself before. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes have not changed, but one word from you will silence me forever. If, however, your feelings have changed, I would have to tell you: you have bewitched me, body and soul, and I love… I love… I love you.
2. The Oops!
So, this is how I first told my husband “I love you.” We were jumping on the bed, and the words just bounced right out, a little too early, a little too carefree-ly; I think I clamped both hands over my mouth. Good thing Felipe thinks it’s cute when I blush!
Personal nostalgia aside, I am a sucker for the innocence of a character who accidentally spills the love beans. It takes a spirit with little baggage and inherent optimism to pop over the “I love you!” barrier without prior planning or pressing circumstances.
I’m pulling an example from a gorgeous young adult book, Eleanor & Park. If you haven’t read Eleanor & Park, do yourself a favor: stop reading this blog post, go read Eleanor & Park, then come back here and leave a comment so we can gush over it together.
“Damn, damn, damn,” she said. “I never said why I like you, and now I have to go.”
“That’s okay,” he said.
“It’s because you’re kind,” she said. “And because you get all my jokes…”
“Okay.” He laughed.
“And you’re smarter than I am.”
“I am not.”
“And you look like a protagonist.” She was talking as fast as she could think. “You look like the person who wins in the end. You’re so pretty, and so good. You have magic eyes,” she whispered. “And you make me feel like a cannibal.”
“I have to go.” She leaned over so the receiver was close to the base.
“Eleanor – wait,” Park said. She could hear her dad in the kitchen and her heartbeat everywhere. “Eleanor – wait – I love you.”
How cute is that? Can’t think of anything else to say to keep her on the phone, so he just blurts out “I love you.”
Note: No relation to the title character of my own novel, Eleanor, except that I slightly wanted to throw Eleanor & Park out of a moving vehicle for setting the bar so high for writing about “Eleanor.”
3. The Last Words
This approach to “I love you” might be becoming a bit of a trope, but I have to confess that it still gets me every time. I’m already keyed up by some destructive force, which is lying in wait for a character, so the “I love you” goes straight to my nerves.
A stellar example here comes from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Spoiler alert! Owen Meany is about to cut off his best friend’s finger to prevent him from being drafted into the Vietnam War.
“Don’t look at the blade, and don’t look at your finger,” he told me. “Look right at me.” I shut my eyes when he put the safety goggles in place. “Don’t shut your eyes-that might make you dizzy,” he said. “Keep looking at me. The only think you should be afraid of is moving-just don’t move,” he said. “By the time you feel anything, it will be over.”
“I can’t do it,” I said.
The lenses of the safety goggles were very clean; his eyes were very clear.
“I love you,” Owen told me. “Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”
The first time I read this, it had a physical effect on me, like I was the one who was about to have my finger cut off by a diamond saw!
4. The Hopeless Case
Unrequited love is the denim of literature; you can find it in the closet of almost every story. Many of the most touching instances of un-requited love (eg. Quaismodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the title character in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, Marian, Izz, and Retty in Tess of the d’Urbervilles) don’t include an “I love you” moment; the love is contained silently for the entire story.
A certain amount of grace has to go into a declaration of love made by someone who knows his/her case is hopeless. Otherwise, it just sounds whiny.
The hopeless confession of Eponine, in Les Miserables, is heart-rending in its wry understatement (and the fact that she is dying, see above).
All at once, at the very moment when Marius fancied her asleep forever, she slowly opened her eyes, in which appeared the sombre profundity of death, and said to him in a tone whose sweetness seemed already to proceed from another world:–‘And by the way, Monsieur Marius, I believe that I was a little bit in love with you.’ She tried to smile once more and expired
5. The Domineering Declaration
Love in literature is seldom straightforward, but there have been a few characters who had the chops to set their tangled love-interests straight once and for all. Their demands for requital tap straight into the readers’ emotions, creating a sense of relief for the clarity they offer and rebelliousness against their brusque manners at the same time. It’s a memorable cocktail!
And of course, who could forget Rhett Butler? The excerpt I have chosen here is somewhere in between Rhett’s first declaration of love for Scarlett “Here’s one thing I do know, and that is that I love you, Scarlett. In spite of you and me and the whole silly world going to pieces around us, I love you” and his final, legendary line, “Frankly, my darling, I don’t give a damn.” In the following, he has come to claim Scarlett as his bride:
“So I’ll change the subject and say what I came to say.”
“Say it, then, and get out! What is it?”
“That I can’t go on any longer without you.”
“You are the most ill-bred man to come here at a time like this with your filthy-”
“I made up my mind that you were the only woman for me the first day I saw you at Twelve Oaks. Now that you’ve got the lumber mill and Frank’s money you won’t come to me as you did to the jail. So I see I shall have to marry you.”
“I never heard of such bad taste.”
“Would you be more convinced if I fell to my knees?”
“Turn me loose, you varmint, and get out of here!”
“Forgive me for startling you with the impetuosity of my sentiments my dear Scarlett. I mean, my dear Mrs. Kennedy. But it cannot have escaped your notice that for some time past the friendship I have felt for you has ripened into a deeper feeling. A feeling more beautiful, more pure, more sacred. Dare I name it? Can it be love?”
“Get up off your knees. I don’t like your common jokes.”
“This is an honorable proposal of marriage made at what I consider a most opportune moment. I can’t go all my life waiting to catch you between husbands.”
“You’re coarse, and you’re conceited. And I think this conversation has gone far enough. Besides, I shall never marry again.”
” Oh, yes, you will, and you’ll marry me.” […]
“You’re a fool, Rhett Butler, when you know I shall always love another man.”
“Stop it! Do you hear me Scarlett? Stop it! No more of that talk.”
“Rhett, don’t, I shall faint.”
“I want you to faint. This is what you were meant for. None of the fools you’ve known have kissed you like this, have they? Your Charles, or your Frank, or your stupid Ashley. Say you’re going to marry me. Say yes. Say yes.”
As a reader, it’s hard to know whether to hate-to-love or love-to-hate Rhett Butler, but one thing’s for certain, his badgering love never makes a neutral impression!
6. The Platonic Twist
I have to say, this might be the “I love you” that warms my heart to its farthest corners. I’ve come across many a book with excellent setup and delivery of a romantic “I love you,” but “I love you”s between family members or friends are more often tossed lightly around, taken for granted.
A platonic “I love you,” given the same platform and spotlight as a romantic “I love you,” always makes an impression on me.
Turning it over to Winnie the Pooh here.
“If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart…I’ll always be with you.”
Well, I cheated. He didn’t say “I love you,” but could those words be more strongly implied? And please, if you have children, read Winnie the Pooh to them. Winnie the Pooh and The Giving Tree. Those two books contain everything a person really needs to know about life.