The Science Behind the Meet-Cute

From 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 & PrejudiceWhen 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.

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[O]ne 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.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed