The “Doomed Love” Trope(And Why It’s Awesome)
You’ve seen it before.
Two starstruck lovers fall into such a perfect, idealized form of true love that their passion for each other could burn out the sun if it was one kilowatt brighter. These two youngsters resemble all of our romantic hopes and dreams, and we want them to overcome every obstacle in their path in order to be together.
But, of course, their love is doomed due to timing (The Titanic), class differences (Shakespeare in Love), general misunderstandings (Casablanca), perceived incompatibility (500 Days of Summer), or the fact that they’re being pursued by the law (Bonnie and Clyde).
What sets these stories apart is that the leading couple doesn’t end up together by fade out. Love doesn’t triumph over all, but its transformative powers still make life worth living for both parties even after they’ve split, or died in a hail of gunfire.
It’s a beautiful message, one that resonates in our own life because it capitalizes on our fears that we will never be in a romantic relationship that works out for the best.
In Which I Praise Pirates and Gangsters
Now, I have my issues with the fourth installment of the otherwise fantastic Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but you can’t deny the moments of storytelling brilliance to be found within the original trilogy. The initial trilogy’s arc for the love story went like this: Elizabeth Swann went from being a buttoned-up high society woman engaged to a man she didn’t love to a pirate king who was fighting alongside the dashing Will Turner, to whom she gets married to during an epic swordfight. Will gets stabbed during said swordfight, but instead of being killed for good, he stabs Davy Jones’ heart and becomes immortal. This means he can only visit Elizabeth every twelve years or something, but it’s totally cool and stuff because they’re still madly in love and she’ll wait for him no matter what.
It’s one of my favorite modern love stories, especially because the final post-credits scene between Elizabeth and Will is so bittersweet: she waits for him on the beach, holding the hand of her son, while his ship appears on the horizon. The ending of the third movie is in fact stronger than the ending of the first, because everything isn’t fine and dandy for the couple, but they’re making it work anyways and still quite in love.
The Doomed Love trope can also be used to underscore darker themes. In Bonnie and Clyde, we’re alerted via foreshadowing to the fact that their love will only live on in another life, and is doomed only by human mortality. The freeze frame ending seen in buddy Westerns such as Thelma and Louise and Butch Cassidy could never have worked with this movie because the film wasn’t simply a vicarious joyride. It was something with much darker undertones, and the reality of fatal consequence was something that could not have been brushed aside.
3 Reasons Why the Doomed Love Trope is So Effective:
- Identifiable themes. We all want a happy ending, but life doesn’t always turn out that way. Love transforms, even if it doesn’t always endure — and that’s a beautiful thing to keep in mind if relationships don’t work out.
- It’s a bold choice. If the audience wants to see two people end up together, then the storyteller is risking an unsatisfying ending and an angry audience by keeping them apart. There must be a reason as to why you’re ending it this way — and it better be a good reason. But, when done correctly, the audience will say, “ah, yes, this is the only way things could end for these two. Any other way would have been inauthentic. This fits the story.” That’s more powerful than any happy ending.
- It makes the protagonists even more sympathetic. You see these two starstruck lovers struggle to be together for the entire film, and then suddenly they realize that they will never be together in this life, and that they have to move on. They must take what they’ve learned through their torrid love affair and become stronger by it so that they can persevere and move on. It takes Summer breaking up with Tom for him to realize his dream of becoming an architect. It is Shakespeare’s affair with Viola that leaves them both better off, even as they travel their separate ways. These people have braved the rocky storms, lost everything, and yet they’re still moving ahead with their lives in the face of all that adversity. If that’s not a way to build sympathy for your characters, I don’t know what is.
Now go forth and write your own doomed love story!