Prompted by the very sad death of that wonderful (Screen)writer NORA EPHRON, I’ve been thinking about ROM-COM’s and what makes successful rom-com’s.
In my work as script consultant I receive and read a fair smattering of rom-com’s and they’re often among the scripts I enjoy most.
It seems to me the structural uniqueness of the rom-com – and the structural difficulty – is the predictability \ inevitability factor, which is at the heart of all rom-com’s.
In other words, generally speaking, we know how they’re going to end. In fact, on a deep, sub-conscious level, we all know, as an audience, how they work – BOY MEETS GIRL (or any other gender variation!), BOY LOSES GIRL, BOY WINS GIRL BACK, THEY LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
So once (and necessarily from very early in the story) as viewer \ reader you’ve identified the pair of lovers, you pretty much know where it’s going – the challenge of writing a good rom-com is being sufficiently surprising and challenging within this structural strait-jacket so that you keep your audience hooked \ guessing.
I’ve read a number of very interesting rom-com’s in the last couple of years –
For example – a cross – generational, lesbian rom-com set on a university campus between a student and her lecturer’s wife – which was a cracking idea – great setting – rites of passage for the student and attempt to break out of the constraints of unhappy marriage by the prof’s wife, and two characters with very different attitudes. The culture clash between them generated a lot of the obstacles \ conflict you needed to keep them apart.
Because that’s the issue at the heart of a good rom-com.
The audience – while on a deep, generic level knowing that the lovers will sure as eggs is eggs end up together at the end of the movie also need to believe through the journey of the film that, conversely, this happy ending doesn’t seem inevitable.
So the obstacles you as a writer place in their way need to be sufficiently substantial that the outcome is in doubt – the audience want to feel fear and anxiety for their characters while at the same time knowing somehow that however great the odds you stack against your two lovers getting together, sure enough, by the end, they will be together.
(And woe betide you if you let the audience down on this score – they would walk away from the film feeling royally let down!)
In fact one of the joys of a good rom-com is wondering how on earth the writer is going to bring two disparate characters together when circumstances seem so stacked against them.
As an audience we anticipate with glee that generic race to the airport (or its equivalent) as the spurned lover leaves for their new unhappy lives – only to be stopped at the last possible moment and reunited for the ultimate happy ending – think Woody Allen racing through the streets in ‘Manhattan‘ to be reunited with 17 year old Mariel Hemmingway after he realises that what makes him happiest is ‘Tracy’s face’. (Although the historical perspective of real life events took some of ‘the rom’ out of that particular rom-com!)
And in Nora Ephron’s genre-defining ‘When Harry Met Sally‘, it’s the final, inevitable coming together of the eponymous couple at a New Year’s Eve party. Pure slush, but the writer so earned that wonderful closing sequence with the fantastic set-up of the 90 minutes leading up to this moment.
Nora Ephron went on to write two more rom-com’s that also worked their magic at the box office – ‘Sleepless In Seattle‘ and ‘You’ve Got Mail‘. Neither got the critical response or lasting reputation of WHMS but both were still IMHO both great examples of the genre – lovely, funny, heart-warming movies that are still wonderfully enjoyable.
Both are notable for strong twists \ ideas at the heart of them – in SIS the idea of two bereaved lovers at the opposite end of the country communicating over the radio – the odds against them even meeting are so huge that this is what the audience hold onto – the curiosity to see how the writer is going to engineer the coming together of this couple against all the odds ; and in YGM you have a man and woman who hate the idea of each other in real life (he’s a big businessman who’s trying to put her small bookshop out of business) but who trade emails, not knowing who each other is and fall in love online – a great setup for all sorts of complications and reversals.
All good rom-com’s need their own original spin on the genre – a completely mis-matched couple; a geographical distance between them; a jealous spouse; a domestic tie that won’t let them break free etc etc.
This week I saw ‘YOUR SISTER’S SISTER‘ a US indie rom-com, but a rom-com nonetheless. This film is pretty much a three-hander centred in and around one isolated house by a lake. So there are three characters – a girl whose lover died a year ago, her lesbian sister and the brother of the dead man. And the character who(se absence) drives the plot is the dead brother. How can the girl and the brother start living again with the dead man’s shadow hanging over them? Doesn’t sound very funny does it and I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it – but there are some wonderful comic complications, which very enjoyably delay the inevitable.
Which is what good rom-com’s are all about – delaying the inevitable.
Finally a couple of quotes to enjoy from the great Nora Ephron :-
“I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
– Harry, When Harry Met Sally
“To state the obvious, romantic comedies have to be funny and they have to be romantic. But one of the most important things, for me anyway, is that they be about two strong people finding their way to love.“
Until Next Week
All the best
July 6th 2012
PS A quick word on behalf of my course-teaching colleague, screenwriter Phil Gladwin. This is the last week of entries for his screenwritinggoldmine script competition so don’t miss out!