Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Stealing Hollywood: Love Story Elements

How about a love story post for Valentine’s Day?

I spend a lot of time here and in my Stealing Hollywood  workshops breaking down story  elements that are applicable to any genre.
But there are other story element, just as important, that are specific to whatever genre or genres you’re writing in, and also elements that are specific to the KIND of story you’re writing.

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I really had that driven home for me as I was writing Writing Love (Screenwriting Tricks II). I made a master list of ten love stories in different subgenres (in this case not always my favorites, because I wanted to have a broad range of romantic stories for analysis and discussion) and broke them down in depth to find the key story elements specific to that umbrella genre. And oh, did it turn the lights on for me.

I’m going to share some of those with you now, because whether or not you write romance or romantic comedy, you’ll almost always have a love plot in your story, so it’s useful for writers of all genres to be aware of common love story elements.

The following are some scenes and setups that are very typical in romance and romantic comedy. You can do a similar list of specific elements for any genre, and I highly encourage you to do so — it’s another way to master your craft.

I’ve tried to focus mostly on plot points or premises instead of just gags or bits — that is, these are actual story elements that can help you build a story if you use them wisely. And these elements will often overlap with the key story elements we’ve been discussing: that is, the CALL TO ADVENTURE in a love story might be a case of FATE INTERVENES; THE PLAN might be to PRETEND WE’RE MARRIED; THE HERO/INE’S GHOST might show up at the MIDPOINT and radically shift the dynamics of the story, and so on.

Now, any of these love story elements can be done badly and devolve into the worst kind of cliché. The point of knowing the common elements is to be aware they’ve been done before and find your own unique ways of using them, if you’re going to use them.

I’m not going to waste time on the clichés, for which there probably is no hope, ever, but here’s my own partial list of those clunkers, which I’m sure you can add to:

The hardboiled career woman who needs thawing
• The heroine working as a book or magazine editor (Really? Another one?)
The heroine loosening up in a drunk scene (and recently, promptly vomiting on the hero’s shoes)
The hero/ine spilling something on the love interest (truly vomit-inducing, usually a pathetic version of “meet cute”)
 The African American or gay best friend who has no other purpose in life but to support the hero/ine (and of course, show how wonderfully open-minded the hero/ine is)
The climactic race to the airport to stop the loved one from leaving (like there’s not another plane leaving in an hour or two?)

I’m already nauseated just making that much of a list, but you get the point. Let’s go on to some common elements that are much used, but still useful, used wisely.


In a love story, while the INCITING INCIDENT that starts off the story action may be a job offer, a wedding invitation, a mis-booked hotel room, or any other inciting incident common to any genre, the actual CALL TO ADVENTURE in a love story is very, very often that first look at the beloved. This is why so often that first look seems on the surface to be HATE AT FIRST SIGHT — it’s a variation on the RELUCTANT HERO/INE (or REFUSAL OF THE CALL). When we meet that true love, there’s often as much or more fear and panic involved as joy and relief. Life is never going to be the same, and we know it.


An example of MISAPPREHENSION, which is a form of MISTAKEN IDENTITY. Bridget Jones’ Diary, New in Town.


In a love story, the Ghost or Wound is most often related to love and attachment, obviously: the heroine’s parents died when she was a child (The Proposal), the hero’s father has had a succession of failed marriages (Made of Honor, You’ve Got Mail), the heroine’s father was always chasing rainbows, impoverishing the family (Leap Year).

The Ghost often comes out deep into the story in a confessional scene in which the hero/ine reveals to the love interest WHY I’M LIKE THIS (often at the MIDPOINT), but it’s generally better storytelling to dramatize it. For example, in You’ve Got Mail, when Tom Hanks’ father leaves his much younger wife and moves in with Tom in his temporary crash pad (boat), we see Tom realize he doesn’t want to be like his father and that he loves Meg (which in this story is THE ACT TWO CLIMAX/REVELATION into the FINAL BATTLE).


In Romancing the Stone, Joan needs Jack to take her out of the jungle and back to Cartagena; Jack needs Joan’s money because he’s just lost all the rare birds he was smuggling. In The Proposal, Margaret needs Andrew to pretend he’s married to her so she won’t be deported, and she threatens him with career annihilation if he refuses; Andrew agrees to do it if Margaret promotes him and publishes a book he loves.

In Leap Year, Anna needs Declan to take her to Dublin; Declan needs Anna’s money to save his pub from foreclosure. In What Happens in Vegas, a judge orders Cameron Diaz and Aston Kutcher to remain married for six months if they want to split the three million dollar casino payoff they won together. (This story beat is also often an OFFER S/HE CAN’T REFUSE.)

A common variation on Handcuffing the Couple Together is:


It’s amazing how often romantic comedy uses this device. Fate, very often in the form of the weather, prevents the hero/ine from leaving town (New in Town, Groundhog Day) or deposits them on the opposite side of the country from where they are supposed to be (Leap Year) so that the hero/ine can meet his or her true love.

This is especially well done in Groundhog Day, as I talk about at length in my breakdown of that classic film— I swear, those clouds are scheming.


A plot point that usually comes early in the first act: the hero/ine is locked into a situation because his/her boss or family or a judge gives them an ultimatum — e.g. in The Proposal, if Margaret does not fake a marriage with Andrew, she will be deported. Also see New in Town, Leap Year, What Happens in Vegas.


False identity was a staple for Shakespeare’s comedies, and is still widely used in romantic comedy, sometimes as a scene or sequence (pretending to be a sister or a fiancée), sometimes as the whole premise of the story: While You Were Sleeping, Tootsie.


I don’t have to explain this one, do I? It’s the first time the hero and heroine let down their respective guards and start to spill personal information. It’s very often done very badly, as an information dump.


A staple of romantic comedy; it can be a scene, as in Leap Year where Anna and Declan must pretend to be married in order to get a room for the night at a bed & breakfast owned by religiously conservative proprietors, or it can be the whole premise of the story: whether it’s to get an inheritance or some other large chunk of money (What Happens in Vegas), or get a green card (The Proposal, Green Card).


A different kind of scene, more spontaneous — in which the couple find themselves digging in a garden or working well together in a kitchen (Leap Year) or one of them talks the other off an emotional ledge (Sally gently calming Harry down after he explodes in front of their best friends in When Harry Met Sally), and we get a glimpse of the well-matched couple they would be.


A staple of all genres, often used very unconvincingly, so be careful. Some good examples: In Leap Year, Anna needs to get to Dublin by Leap Day to propose to her reluctant boyfriend. In The Proposal, Margaret and Andrew have four days to get to know each other well enough to convincingly pass themselves off as married to a suspicious INS agent. At the climax of When Harry Met Sally, Harry is desperate to get to a New Year’s Eve party in time to kiss Sally at the stroke of midnight, something he utterly failed to do the year before.


Can be a scene, or a whole premise, in which the hero/ine bets friends that s/he — usually he — can bed or dump a lover in a certain timeframe (How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days). Or some other bet that leads to a romantic entanglement (Pygmalion, My Fair Lady).


Sometimes the second time is the charm. Or not. Sweet Home Alabama, Philadelphia Story, It’s Complicated.


The idea that there is a magical day, or hour, or place, that will lead magically to true love and/or marriage. Leap Year has a heroine racing across Ireland in order to propose to her reluctant boyfriend on Leap Day, when traditionally men are obliged to accept any proposal they receive. Four Weddings and a Funeral plays with the idea that a wedding is a magical moment in time in which not only the bridal couple but anyone in attendance can find true love.


This is appallingly lacking in most love stories: some indicator of why we’re supposed to want this couple to get together to begin with. I know, love is a hard thing to define, but please, give us something! Some common explanations:

Opposites attract (Leap Year, Groundhog Day)
A shared passion (New in Town)
In a class by themselves (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story)
They bring out each other’s best selves (Sense and Sensibility)
They make each other laugh
 They understand and support each other’s most cherished dreams (While You Were Sleeping, Sense and Sensibility)
          • They’re best friends (The Thin Man series)

I’m sure you can think of lots of others. In fact, why not spend a minute now and:


This is one of the most crucial scenes in any romance or romantic subplot, and one that goes a long way toward explaining WHY THEM? The Dance is a scene in which we see that two people are perfect for each other: they have the same rhythm, they work around each other’s flaws, they have the same passion, they complete each other. One of my favorites is the beautiful scene in Sense and Sensibility in which Edward and Elinor coax Elinor’s younger sister, Margaret, out from where she has been hiding under the library table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile. We see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly matched: both intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together, and we are totally committed to the relationship by the end of the short scene. So much more meaningful than “Meet Cute”!

In fact, I’m going to end right there because THE DANCE is just that important to get right! How about it –

Can you identify THE DANCE in Notting Hill? In Groundhog Day? In The Proposal?

Even better, can you give me some examples of THE DANCE, maybe in your favorite romantic movie? Extra bonus points for Youtube links to clips!!

And have a wonderful, romantic day.

- Alex 


Want more? Get full story structure breakdowns of ten movies in each of my workbooks.


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                                            STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


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Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

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