Despite Hollywood’s love of movies that condemn immature goofballs for being afraid of true love, nobody has more commitment issues than the audience themselves. In the dark, we all crave an emotionally withholding lover. Sure, we want to see two people get together, but first we want them to want to get together for a good long while. After all, wanting love is a far more universal emotion than having love.
Ideally, the hero and heroine will never say, “I love you,” because it’s so much more appealing to watch them dance around the issue. But if they have to, the key thing is to make sure that there’s a healthy delay. Getting hit with the L-bomb too soon onscreen feels just as alienating and manipulative as it does in real life.
Of course, the exception is when the hero or heroine suddenly blurts out “I love you” as soon as they meet somebody special—and then starts kicking themselves, which is endearing because the whole point is what a big mistake it is. But I once wrote a screenplay in which the hero earnestly entreated his crush with pleas of love before they ever kissed, which was supposed to seem winningly romantic, boy oh boy did it freeze my audience out.
Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost almost lost Demi Moore because he didn’t realize that she found “ditto” more convincing than an actual “I love you”. Harrison Ford, while shooting Empire Strikes Back, was smart enough to realize that the way to make both Leia and the audience melt was to answer her “I love you” with “I know,” rather than the scripted line. Likewise, we love it when Ms. Kubelik simply says “Shut up and deal.” Call us masochists, but we demand that our onscreen lovers leave us wanting more.