What Modern Love Can Teach Us About Storytelling
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Modern Love is a New York Times column featuring stories about love, heartache, loss, and redemption. The column was started in 2004 by the editor Daniel Jones. It has since inspired a podcast, a TV show, and numerous book deals. The success is real.
Getting published in Modern Love is the accomplishment of a lifetime for many writers. Daniel receives 5,000 to 9,000 essays a year (!). Among them, about 100 weekly submissions are good enough for publication, and of these 100 essays, only one will make the cut. I’m no mathematician, but it’s clear that the odds of getting published are low.
The published essays are of incredible quality but also very moving. Some are even life-changing, and I’m not putting this lightly. Reading the curated collection allowed me to better appreciate some key storytelling principles that apply to all mediums, and I'd like to share them with you today.
Modern love is about conveying a story in a way that leaves the audience deeply moved, changed, and better equipped to face life’s ups and downs. Isn't this what we storytellers are all trying to achieve?
Is there a common structure?
For starters, I’d love to tell you that there is a secret formula to a winning essay — a Save the Cat! structure of some sort... Unfortunately, that’s not the case. All Modern Love essays I’ve read have a beginning, middle, and end — like every good story — but that’s about it. Some have a very logical, almost academic structure, whereas others are more free-flowing.
Now that structure is off the table, let’s take a look at what every Modern Love essays have in common:
A strong theme
The theme is always crystal clear. In film and TV shows, the theme isn’t always clearly stated — it’s often open to interpretations. That’s not the case in Modern Love. Sure, the column itself has a theme: love. But each essay explores that theme in a different way, each unique and clearly identifiable.
For example, in “Uh, Honey, That’s Not Your Line,” Brian Rea discovers through a painful breakup that real-life relationships have little to do with what he learned from his favorite movies. This story is about the author’s perception of love through the lens of pop culture and how it affects his dating choices.
Each essay is about the main character’s relationship with that theme — how they “learn their lesson” and change accordingly (or not).
A life-changing lesson
Circling back to the theme, most Modern Love stories are about a hard-learned lesson writers share with readers through the retelling of a particular story. Some stories are about dating in the age of Tinder, while others explore the struggles of grief, loss, and redemption. All are honest sharings of hard-learned life lessons — be it learning to let people go, to love better, to forgive, or even to heal a marriage.
There’s a takeaway in every story, a key learning that sometimes hits close to home. I bet that for every story published, at least one person could relate so much that the lesson deeply impacted their life.
According to David Jones, what makes him want to publish a story isn’t related to structure. Is this a deeply moving story? Is this the most important story of the writer’s life? This is what he looks for in Modern Love submissions.
For Emilie Poplett, writing her Modern Love story was a cathartic exercise — and she believes that’s what all Modern Love writers have in common. When writing her essay, she wasn’t thinking about sharing it with anyone — let alone publishing it in the New York Times. This exercise was a way for her to process and make sense of one of the most difficult times of her life.
I can’t tell you what worked for other people, but I can tell you what worked for me, and it was writing by ear. Writing because I wanted to make sense of what had happened to me. Writing until I felt like I had a story that moved and breathed and said what it needed to say, for no other reason than I needed to have said it. — Emilie Poplett in “Making Modern Love”
This is true for any storytelling medium. Can you make someone else feel deeply about your story and your characters? The way readers feel when reading your piece is really the only thing that matters. And to move someone else, you must be honest and true to yourself. You must bring your authentic self to the story.
A flawed character
Speaking of authenticity, there’s a reason why audiences always root for the underdog. Shiny, heroic characters are nice, but no one can really relate to them. What most people can relate to though is a deeply flawed, unperfect (anti-)hero trying to survive in our world.
This is especially true for personal stories. Readers want to know how a normal, random person managed to survive a situation (random or ordinary) that they may go through as well. This could be grieving a loved one, being ghosted by your newest date, or divorcing a spouse.
Final words and resources
To sum up, authenticity, honesty, and raw emotions are what can help you make it to Modern Love (and probably anywhere else). Every essay is a life lesson in itself, which is what made Modern Love so successful.
What people really look for in stories are clues to make sense of the world themselves, to be better equipped to face tomorrow. If you can deliver this humbly through fiction by bringing your experience and authentic self to it, then you’re likely to write a great story.
If you’d like to learn more about Modern Love, I encourage you to read this interview with Editor Daniel Jones.
If you’re considering submitting an essay of yours, be sure to read his list of tips as you edit.
And finally, this post from a Modern Love alum about getting published is a must-read.
Is the End of Password-Sharing the End of Netflix?
As you have probably heard, the streaming giant is tinkering over its password-sharing rules. After facing a huge backlash, Netflix affirmed that it was just “testing” this new setup in selected markets (Chile, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, and Portugal. The company is counting on these new restrictions to increase its subscriber count, yet only 9% of customers said they’ll add more accounts if the new rules were enforced. 56% said they’d cancel their subscription, and 33% will “work around the limits” or turn to pirate content.
This is an incredibly risky move for Netflix, as only 7% of media subscribers say they’re “planning to stick with the service they now have.” They’re so many alternatives: Disney +, Prime Video, Paramount +, HBO Max, and Hulu, just to name a few. And they’re just waiting to pick up the pieces.
The way Netflix defines a “family” has also shed a lot of ink. What is a family, according to the company? (—> excellent article from The Atlantic) Many think their definition is outdated if not outrageous. A family is rarely made of four people living together under the same roof. Sometimes it’s parents in the family home and siblings abroad. Sometimes every family member lives in a different country. Sometimes former roommates can be a family, and still share the same Netflix account after five years. There are plenty of families to which the traditional views of the company don’t apply. It’s 2023, not 1920.
We’ll discuss the TV adaptation of Modern Love later down the road. Next week, we’ll talk about the pilot episode of I May Destroy You.
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