The Science Behind the Meet-Cute
Originally published by me at Writer Unboxed
At the WU Unconference last fall, I gave a presentation on the “meet-cute.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s that moment when your characters meet for the first time. Sometimes they click immediately (Titanic; 50 First Dates), other times they don’t (Pride & Prejudice; When Harry Met Sally).
Regardless, some kind of chemistry is established between them that makes the reader want to root for the characters as a couple. It’s a typical element of every romance novel, but it can manifest in other ways in other genres. The typical meet-cute goes a little something like this:
Sarah walked onto campus as a new freshman. While she wrestled one-handed with the campus map, her Human Anatomy textbook slipped from her hands and fell open on the sidewalk to a page her mother would have censored. Embarrassed, Sarah quickly crouched to retrieve the book before anyone saw, just as someone knelt to help her. She looked up and locked eyes with the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Sarah’s heart raced.
When I say this example reflects the typical meet-cute, I mean really, really typical. Too many meet-cutes I read are all about racing hearts, or some other obvious go-to like stammering, sweaty palms, or stumbling over words and/or feet. These common crutches got me thinking. How can we better delve into our own personal experiences to come up with more unique and inspired ways to demonstrate the interior landscape of a scene? How can we show our characters’ feelings through more unique physical reactions to those feelings?
According to a team of scientists at Rutgers University, romantic love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each of these categories is characterized by its own set of chemicals (or hormones) that manifest in physical ways.
With lust, the hypothalamus stimulates the production of the sex hormones, which shut off the prefrontal cortex, the origin of rational behavior. Sexual arousal also appears to turn off parts of the brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior. The younger and more outrageously hormonal you are, the more irrational you may act. (Romeo & Juliet, anyone?).
With attraction, the hypothalamus stimulates the production of dopamine. Dopamine is released when we do things that feel good to us, and it controls “reward” behavior, which partly explains why the beginning of a new relationship can be so exciting. When dopamine gets released at high levels, it triggers physical reactions such as giddiness, increased energy, euphoria, stress, and even an increased fight or flight response. (e.g., Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Love Actually or Notting Hill).
Finally, attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships. The hypothalamus stimulates the production of oxytocin—a bonding hormone—which has also been nicknamed the “cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin reinforces the positive feelings we already have for the people we love most in our lives.
Okay, you say. Thanks for the science lesson. Now what?
Well, one way to write more creative meet-cutes is to step away from the actual meet-cute scene itself and instead look at other types of scenes that trigger the same chemical reactions as lust, attraction, and/or attachment. What I’m suggesting is that we write about those other things, then use those writing exercises to enrich the meet-cute scenes when we’re ready to return to them.
For example, while lust triggers the production of testosterone, so does the need to protect one’s territory (e.g., playing in a football game, witnessing someone bully your child; or confronting a colleague who stole your idea during a business meeting). A surge of estrogen can make one experience quick and totally inexplicable changes in emotion. Imagine another setting where you might have that same experience, for example laughing at a funeral. What happened? How did others around you react? How did that make you feel?
While attraction triggers a release of dopamine, so does lying in the sun on vacation, going on a long run, experiencing a drug high, listening to your favorite music, or eating chocolate.
Oxytocin can be triggered by attachment, but also by giving someone 100% of your listening attention, watching someone open a gift you’ve put a lot of thought into, riding a roller coaster, or petting your dog/cat.
So here’s the writing experiment you’ve been waiting for: Write a scene about one of the alternative prompts above (e.g., sunbathing on vacation), then incorporate the details of that scene to enrich your meet-cute scene. For example:
Write a Short Scene About Lying on the Beach (Dopamine/Attraction):
Waves pulsed against the shoreline, the rushing sound filling my ears. The sun beat down on me, warming my skin and washing away all the stress of the day. All thoughts of work, and deadlines disappeared. Beside me, the melting ice in my margarita glass shifted with a clink. My head felt swimmy and light from too much tequila. Or maybe it was exactly enough.
Then Return to that Original Meet-Cute Scene, but Use the Beach Details to Enhance it:
Sarah walked onto campus as a new freshman. While she wrestled one-handed with the campus map, her Human Anatomy textbook slipped from her hands and fell open on the sidewalk to a page her mother would have censored. Embarrassed, Sarah quickly crouched to retrieve the book before anyone saw, just as someone knelt to help her. She looked up and locked eyes with the most handsome man she’d ever seen. A rushing sound filled her ears, and her skin warmed. All anxiety about making it to class on time washed away. There was a shift inside her, like ice cubes melting in a glass, and her head felt swimmy and light from too much male beauty. Or maybe, just maybe, it was exactly enough.
So, what do you think? You might even find that writing unrelated scenes triggers new and exciting metaphors, or unique ideas about where the meet-cute can take place (e.g., on a football field, or at a funeral). If you give it a shot, I’d love to see some short examples in the comments.