Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure)

For some reason it never occurs to me to write short posts on a specific topic or story example, but I don’t know why not. There’s always stuff I leave out of the long ones that comes to me later and I never get around to because I don’t know where to put it.

But it’s my blog, isn’t it? There’s no post length police. That I know of.

So let’s try it.

In the last post, we were talking about common elements in Act II:2, and there’s something I forgot to mention.

I have been watching more romantic comedies for examples to use here, since I know a lot of you people write in the romance genre. And I’ve noticed that there’s a very typical scene, usually in the very last part of Act II:2, but sometimes in Act III, that I’ll call “The Lover Makes a Stand” (Takes a stand? Makes a stand? Looking it up. Okay, it’s “makes a stand.”).

Well, but before I talk about that scene, I guess I’m going to have to backtrack and explain what I mean by “the Lover”. Maybe this isn’t going to be such a short post.

There’s a saying I’m sure you’ve heard that in a relationship there is always a lover and a loved one. Whether that’s actually true in life, I’m not sure I want to know; one would hope these things would be somewhat equal. But I know this Lover/Loved One dymanic tends to be the case in romantic comedy (the romance readers/writers will have to tell me if it’s the case in romance fiction, I’d love to know your thoughts.). Either way, it’s a useful model for writing romance.

In most stories, for most of the story, there’s an imbalance between the hero and heroine, or hero/hero, or heroine/heroine… the two lovers, whatever gender and orientation they may be. (I’m not going to get into the subgenre of ménages today, sorry.)

At first what this looks like is that there’s a Pursuer and a Pursued - but the pursuer might not be the one who loves most deeply. The pursuit might be ego-based, or to win a bet, or obviously, just sexual conquest - any number of things.

Now, the two characters might equally hate each other at first: as in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, YOU’VE GOT MAIL.

But pretty quickly in most romantic comedies, one of the characters becomes more interested in the other, and becomes the pursuer.

Note that the protagonist can be either the pursuer or the pursued. In NOTTING HILL, Hugh Grant is the pursuer (in that diffident English way, of course...). In IT’S COMPLICATED, Meryl Streep is the pursued.

In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, Harry is the pursuer. In YOU’VE GOT MAIL, Tom Hanks is the pursuer. In PHILADEPHIA STORY, Katharine Hepburn is the pursued. (arguably in these three films there is no true protagonist; the hero/heroine characters are about as equal as characters ever get in a story)

Hmm, do we see a pattern here? Male pursues, female is pursued. Maybe biology really IS destiny. No, wait - in BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, Bridget is the pursuer. In BRINGING UP BABY, Katharine Hepburn is the pursuer (but not the protagonist). And I’m sure you can think of a lot of other examples.)

But the pursuer is not the same as the Lover, necessarily. In NOTTING HILL, Hugh is both the pursuer and the lover (he is definitely the one who feels most deeply in the tentative dance going on between him and Julia Roberts). In IT’S COMPLICATED, Alec Baldwin is very much the pursuer, Meryl Streep is the pursued, and Steve Martin is the lover (also a pursuer, but overwhelmed by Alec Baldwin’s intense pursuit. But clearly in this trio, Steve Martin is most clear about who and what he wants.).

In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, Harry is the pursuer, but not the lover. At a certain point, it’s Sally who realizes that she wants more than friendship. She becomes the lover.

In PHILADELPHIA STORY, Cary Grant is the pursuer and also the lover, but interestingly, he’s coming from much more of a position of strength than the lover usually comes from; from the beginning, he has no intention of compromising.

All right, I’m realizing I could do about three posts in a row on these dynamics, and I haven’t even gotten to the short observation I started out wanting to make. But is what I’m saying above making sense? Pursued and pursuer, lover and loved one, different combinations of and variations on those dynamics?

Now we come to the Lover Makes a Stand scene. As I said, this seems almost always to come in the very last part of Act II:2, but sometimes in Act III. Basically, it’s the crux of Sequence Six or Sequence Seven.

And in this scene the Lover, or whoever has become the Lover by this point, the one who loves most deeply, basically says to the Loved One - “I’m not going to take your bullshit any more. Make up your mind. Either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.”

Steve Martin tells Meryl Streep that she’s not done with Alec yet, and he doesn’t want to see her while she’s still emotionally involved with him. Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts in the bookstore that between her “vicious temper” and his far more inexperienced heart, he doesn’t think he would recover from being discarded again, and turns down her offer to date. Sally refuses Harry’s offer to go to the New Year’s party as a friendly date because “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry.”

Cary Grant – well, in PHILADELPHIA STORY Cary makes his stand at the very beginning, in action, not words. The whole movie is about him creating a situation that will force Katharine Hepburn to look at herself clearly and choose what and whom she really wants. Cary never begs. He manipulates, then stands back and watches until she falls, and in falling becomes the whole woman he always knew she could be, but he will not accept less than.

(And that is the sort of thing that makes a person Cary Grant, btw...)

In Eat Pray Love, Javier Bardem (who is the Lover and the Pursuer in the "Love" portion of the movie) Makes A Stand on the beach, with boat packed. And of course, Julia doesn't get on the boat. Yet.

In all of the above scenes, the Lover’s Stand forces the Loved One to step up and commit just as deeply as the Lover is committed. But it seems that very, very, very often, it’s one character, the Lover, who has to force the issue.

It’s such a common scene, I’m going to have to stick it in my Story Elements Checklist, right around Sequence 6 or Sequence 7.

Now, sometimes there’s a different scene at this juncture, which I will call The Declaration. A very good example is in BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, when Bridget races to the party to tell Colin Firth she loves him, only to find that his parents have thrown the party to announce his engagement and departure for America. Then she makes her Declaration – a mangled sort of toast that Colin understands is her desperate confession of love. It’s not the same as a Make a Stand scene because it’s not saying, “I’ve had it, I’m walking.” But it does put the cards on the table so the Loved One will have to make a decision, one way or another.

(Okay, so maybe I don’t write short posts because as they say - the less time I have, the longer I write. )

Anyway, what do you think, all you romance writers out there who are far more qualified to write this post than I am? Am I on to something, here?

Any examples of Pursuer/Pursued, Lover/Loved One? Or examples of The Lover Makes A Stand scenes or Declaration scenes for us?

- Alex


Online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop:

I am teaching an online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop from July 15-30. These online workshops are a fantastic deal, just $20 for two weeks, and here's where you can get one-on-one feedback on these techniques as they apply to your own story. All genres welcome!

Register here.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


Sonja Foust said...

I can see where you're on to something. I think in romance novel land, we usually call that the dark moment, because when the lover makes the declaration, the loved one is usually not in a position to respond the way the lover would like, and all is lost. Of course, the loved one eventually comes around, and usually grovels a little to make up for being such a weenie about it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hah, Sonja, yes, I've noticed the groveling aspect. I hate to include that in a list of must-haves, though...

Interesting to hear that's called the "dark moment". I guess you could say that all is lost in the love relationship, at that point, but the Makes a Stand scene is always coming from such a position of strength and self-knowledge, too. You know at that point that the Lover is going to be fine, with or without the weenie Loved One.

I love how forces the Loved One to make her or his own declaration.

Sonja Foust said...

Well, for romance novels, the relationship and the love is the main thing-- the payoff, the goal. The characters being fine on their own is kind of a secondary goal. So yeah, I stand by it being the dark moment.

The characters still arc, but in a good romance, they arc, they learn to be ok alone, but they find that they are even better together.

This totally happens in Romancing the Stone. Joan goes back to New York, writes a fabulous book, and is FINE on her own (and so much less dysfunctional than she was at the beginning of the movie), but we still cheer when Jack comes back with a boat and his alligator boots.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, Sonja, I agree with everything you've said, and the RTS treatment of the issue is about the best I've ever seen.

It's just when you say "dark" to me... well, my mind goes places no romantic comedy should go. ;)

Josie Thames said...

Thanks for the great post! It's always so great to see structures of different genres!

Scott Michael said...

I would add that I believe the groveling is necessary redemption; it's usually pretty fair recompense for the loved one's past deeds.

Another distinction is that the lover, the heart of the story, is waiting for the loved one/pursuer to work through their ego issues - which produces the dramatic hijinks of the story, the *fun* - so they can just love. Once you have/realize love, there is no longer a need to pursue... or a story to tell.

I learned from Mernit and/or Snyder that we have to believe the loved one blew it completely at that point, and there is no way they are going to repair this damage. Though we can clearly see they are perfect for each other, alas, all is lost...

As for being fine on our own... I think most of us know on some (unconscious?) level that the best love relationships are where we are able to see in others the best aspects of ourselves. It's not as romantic as saying "You complete me" but is perhaps handy knowledge for writers, in my humble opinion.

That said, I love you all and what you're doing here! :)

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I think Moulin Rouge has some good examples.

Christian is the lover and pursuer for much of the movie. He makes his Declaration to Satine when she visits him to deny their love so he won’t have to see her die from TB.

After this scene, the roles reverse as she becomes the lover as a consequence of her denial which pushes her to, during the climax, sing their secret song to him.

I think that this scene could be interpreted as the Lover making a Stand as much as a Declaration because her stand is being made against fast approaching death.
She wants Christian to know she loves him before tuberculosis kills her.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Scott, thanks for all the great observations!
I totally agree that the ideal would be that in the "dark moment" it really does look like there's no hope for the relationship. But in reality... I rarely see a film that pulls that off. In Philadelphia Story, you can almost see Katharine Hepburn choosing Jimmy Stewart, but that's about as close as it gets.

Although Alec Baldwin made a great case for himself in It's Complicated. It seems to take the really great actors to pull off the kind of ambiguity you need in these dynamics.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Josie. Of course all these different genre structures can translate to other genres - I love mixing and matching.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That’s a good example, Greg – haven’t thought of that film in a while. This discussion is reminding me why I don’t write romantic comedy. All of that push-pull of romance, changing roles… losing everything... it’s exhausting enough in real life.

ssas said...

So what about putting this sort of moment in a thriller with a side love story. I'd say mine comes in Act 3, right before the climax, in fact, it amounts to my character's emotional climax when he must forsake all to go save the world. But is that really the same thing or am I off base?

laughingwolf said...

a lotta info here from everyone!

thx so much :)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

In GROUNDHOG DAY, the scene with the accumlated slaps, does that count as making a stand?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Starbucks, you can definitely have a scene like this as part of a love subplot; in fact, being aware of common climactic moments of other genres and knowing how to give those scenes weight will help you build tension in your own genre.

Sounds like your hero is making a choice between love and duty, always a great dramatic tension, and choosing duty over love is one of the things that sometimes makes a person more lovable, right? As in Casablanca...!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, what a great example! I think that's a slightly different kind of stand that Andie MacDowell is making, but worth noting all on its own.

I think I'd call it more of an "I wouldn't be with you if you were the last person on earth, asshole" stand. But in a lot of romantic comedies, it takes just that harsh of a stand for the protagonist to wake up to his own bullshit. That scene starts Bill Murray's truly fantastic road to self-discovery, and I love it that Andie senses the bullshit game he's playing even though logically, she doesn't know what he's doing.

Brilliant scene, and brilliant film.

The Words Crafter said...

Your blog was suggested to my by Laughingwolf and I'm so glad he did! I'm not a romance writer. In fact, I'm on my very first WIP, but it will have romance in it-beginning in the second book and ending in the final third one. I really look forward to reading your posts and congratulations on the new release!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Welcome, WC! You'll see when you start reading back posts - I'm not a romance writer either. All genres welcome, and cross-genres encouraged.

We can all learn all kinds of things from each other.

Gayle Carline said...

Alex - how would we break down Moonstruck in that Lover-Makes-a-Stand? I can see that Nicolas Cage makes a stand after they go see La Boheme and he reveals that he doesn't want to keep their bargain, of never seeing her again (I love his rant of "we are here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people"). Cher finally stops trying to do the right thing logically and submits to her feelings. But I never see a moment when all might be lost. What would be your take on its structure?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, it's such a great movie but I haven't seen it in way too long.

I imagine the all is lost moment comes when the brother gets back into town, and probably there's some huge Italian style guilt and angst over it, but I don't remember it - of course the scenes everyone remembers are the "We are here to love the wrong people" and "You're a wolf without a foot/Bride without a head" scenes.

Patricia McLinn said...

I think in some stories where the romance is a subplot, you can have neither party pursuing, because the circumstances throw them together. That can heighten the sexual tension because both might want, but both have reluctance to act. For example, WITNESS. If circumstances didn’t keep them together, neither character would have pursued the relationship.

Of course, when the romance is the main plot, SOMEBODY’s got to do something or you’re going to have a very short and/or boring story :-)

Thinking of examples with the woman pursuing and the man the pursued, brings me to CHARADE. Where Audrey Hepburn is the pursuer/lover and Cary Grant the pursued/loved. It’s interesting to think of that movie in light of the Make a Stand concept, because she makes serial stands – one for each of his names.