“Who’s there?” is the very first line of Hamlet and has the first line of anything managed quite as much? Putting aside all the arguments for and against Shakespeare,
is both a beginning and an end. It’s a portent. It asks that those we are starting with come forward and suggests that we may not end with everyone present.
Also, right now, in the audience, all through our own hearts, who’s there?
Because, the question is for us, as well. Who is with us? Whose hand are we holding? Whose head is in our lap? Whose mouth working over our skin? Whose ghosts are at our shoulder?
This is the place to start, how we have started our days as children in school, a roll call, which is actually an accounting of the stakes at hand.
Who is here, right now, as the action begins, as the day begins, as the night begins, as this love begins? At every turning point, every plot twist, every revelation, every confession, every secret, we must ask again, who’s there?
I mean, of course, death, and that an accounting of who is present is the suggestion that they may not always be. The stakes of love are, in fact, always death.
It’s been a difficult world to live in lately. Terrible losses of humanity in terrible ways. It’s news that sends us into the arms of those we love; it’s these kind of events that shut down cellular communication with those we love because the very first thoughts we have, when something unthinkable has happened—I must hear their voice. We’re familiar now, with this awful routine—the news, the hours of busy signals while we refresh our browsers until some virtual way station is set up.
I have a post-it stuck where I write and it says, it is always loss. I wrote it as the answer to any question I might have as I make a story. Even the joy is loss, because joy isn’t possible without sacrifice.
If loss is the answer, the most useful question after who’s there is what do you want? In fact, it is best if we simply start any paragraph we’re not sure of with I want, he wants, she wants, I wanted, he wanted, she wanted. Because if you start there, you will know what this character requires to make it through the next part of their life.
And you will also know what it is that will devastate them.
I want to hold you in my arms.
I want to kiss you.
I want to tell you about my day at the end of every one.
I want to take you into my bed, and make love to you.
I want to see the world with you.
I want to grow old with you.
I want you to understand me.
I want you to hear me.
The echo is both the loss of fulfillment and the loss implied in the sacrifice. To hold you, the world must have physical hold on you, there must be life and presence and a heart pumping blood. To hold someone also means you have been given trust and consent. The losses you accept when you claim “I want to hold you in my arms,” are nothing less than the loss of life, the losses of trust and permission. If you are to be fulfilled, you are also to accept inevitable loss. Even if you are able to hold onto trust, to love, none of us can hold onto life. What’s more, to have received a love in your arms, you have already made significant sacrifices that will become more significant over time. No one is exempt from grief, even if it comes late.
It is always loss.
So the writer must not only catalog, for her reader, what it is her character wants, but the losses inherent in these desires. Our readers do not want to guess what it is these losses are. We must grieve for these losses, we must recognize the potential depth and breadth of these losses, even if the character doesn’t, or cannot, or it isn’t a time in the character’s life where he or she has the perspective to grieve over what he or she has lost or will lose.
When we say, then, as readers that we want our love stories to have real stakes, we must understand that true stakes are not material, nor do they require explanation. When we say that we don’t feel a love story we are reading has true stakes, I believe what we mean is that the writer did not explicitly state the ordinary stakes of love—which is something we need reminding of, is something we need to hear in repetition. He loves her, and he will lose her. If not now, inevitably. She loves him, and she will lose him, if not now, inevitably.
If we build our story explaining, then, the specific nature of our characters’ love, the stakes will have no choice but to rise. The more invested we are in the love, in who wants the love and what kind of love they want, the more invested we are in the delay of loss and grief.
Who’s there? It is a roll call, and every response to this call is a place for us to lay stakes. Hamlet’s last words in his play are the rest is silence. Everything that is left will fail to answer a call—either because we have lost them, or because they are concealing themselves from loss.
O, I die, Hamlet begins this final speech. The stakes of his love have always been death. And death is represented large in this tragedy—skulls and ghosts and murder. It is tragedy, so we are to be invested in death in order to understand how Hamlet loves.
I write romances, and I must represent death, too. Except, I do so by investing my readers in love, by cataloging who is there, by stating as plainly as I can what it is my characters want and describing with terrible, investing beauty the precise nature of their love. If I write love, the echo will be its loss.
And it is always loss, the stakes of love.
That’s why when we are confronted with terrible losses in our world, when our loved ones are in danger, when we are in danger ourselves, we reach for our loves. We must be reassured that our own losses have been delayed, just a little longer. For those who have finally met grief, we grieve by loving our own.
So, I have to ask writers, when they tell us what it is their characters want, so that we can know what they stand to lose, please help me also understand how it is they might grieve. Is there love such, that when they face their inevitable loss, they will lose themselves? Or is this a love that when lost, will link to other loves, loves these characters have found together, or made the other ready for?
Whose hand are we holding? Whose head is in our lap? Who’s there?