Monday, January 30, 2012

Owning Our Strengths

By Marilyn Brant

So often, a sign of maturity is our ability to own up to our weaknesses. To learn to admit when we're playing at something that's out of our depth, so we can genuinely take the steps we need to improve and move forward.

But there's more than one way in which we can skitter at the edges of honesty and hide the truth from ourselves. The world won't be as quick to criticize or to call us out if we're downplaying a strength and, more than likely, we'll even get praise for our modesty. But, just as we should never be foolish enough to believe our own press or fail to see the publicity spinning wheel for what it is, we, likewise, shouldn't make a habit of internalizing our self-depricating statements, particularly when we know we don't mean them.

I think about this sometimes, especially when I'm actively trying to deny an ability I have. My high-school years were marked by two such assertions: (1) that I wasn't athletic and (2) that I wasn't a storyteller. In moments where I was quiet enough to listen to the inner voices and be honest about my actual gifts and flaws, I knew I was wrong to fight so hard against both of these. To keep claiming again and again that I was exactly who I said I was. Someone who hated gym. (Wasn't this proof enough of my lack of athleticism? Sure, I might love to dance, but didn't REAL athletes freakishly enjoy running laps and playing games like softball?) And someone who couldn't tell a story to save her life. (A TRUE storyteller would be able to express an anecdote aloud with ease, not just write it down, wouldn't she? And she wouldn't need to burn through half a dozen drafts to get the paper version just right either...)

So, I ignored any signs that might contradict these two arguments, even though there was a persistent side of me that suspected if I really challenged my denials -- point by point -- my claims wouldn't entirely hold up.

But I know now why I did it. Why, in many ways, I'm still denying these two areas to be strengths, despite having been a competent enough dancer to be chosen to tour Europe with a performing group one summer during college...or a decent enough storyteller to be multi-published in fiction. Because to own up to having some natural abilities -- to really embrace them as strengths -- would require my having to take full responsibility for developing them. If I tried but failed in some way (i.e., didn't get a place on the team or had a manuscript rejected), my ego couldn't soften the blow of defeat by blaming it on my lack of aptitude. But if I could insist that I had no gifts at all in these areas, then any small bit of progress I made was a triumph. I could pat myself on the back for overcoming great obstacles and doing something not remotely innate. I could convince myself that, of course, I'd have to work 3x harder than those natural athletes or storytellers. If I succeeded, then it was only as a result of my work ethic. But if I didn't succeed, well, I'd have a ready excuse to justify that failure, wouldn't I?

It's difficult for me to fight this tendency to immediately negate a gift just because I'm terrified of the personal/societal expectations of owning it. Better to think of myself as an overachiever than to suspect the reverse: That for too many years I may have actually been underachieving. That I possessed more strengths than it was comfortable for me to admit, and that I even squandered them at times because I wasn't willing to believe they existed. That my greatest weakness had nothing to do with either athletics or storytelling, but being too afraid to tell myself the truth about what I could really do well and what was genuinely out of my grasp.

In A RETURN TO LOVE, Marianne Williamson wrote something famous and beautiful on this subject, which even Nelson Mandela quoted her on. She said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ... Your playing small does not serve the world."

Perhaps not every person who reads this will have experienced something similar. (I don't doubt I carry around more fears than most, LOL.) But I'm hoping there are some of you out there who'll immediately think of a gift of your own that you've struggled to openly claim. Maybe it's baking or painting or playing a killer game of Texas Hold 'Em. Having an aptitude for poetry, math, tennis or jewelry design. Possessing more musical talent or more computer knowledge than you ever use. Whatever it may be, telling yourself you don't have it -- when you do -- doesn't make it disappear. So take that first frightening step...whisper it aloud. Say, "Yes, this gift is, what am I going to do with it?"

Marilyn Brant writes contemporary women's fiction and romantic comedy. Her latest novel, A SUMMER IN EUROPE, came out from Kensington Books in December 2011. About the story, A Bookish Affair wrote, "Oh this book is like sitting in the sun in the middle of a Roman piazza while eating a big scoop of gelato. It's lovely and something to be savored... Sigh, this was so good; like a vacation in a book!" (Marilyn likes this quote a lot and hopes it's true. :)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hopping the "E" Train by Melissa Clark

Inspired by many of The Girlfriends, I am hopping the train to epubbing town. I've always been very old school about my book aesthetics. I like to hold, turn, flip pages, thumb through and feel a book. There is no denying the fact that technology has changed things, and now that I finally own an iPad I can see why. The first ebook I purchased (after downloading a free chapter of my own novel - that was fun!) was Joan Didion's latest, "Blue Nights". A few clicks and there it was. What a thrill.

My novel "Imperfect" has been 'passed on' (so much better than 'rejected') 27 times. The tears stopped after the 10th or so pass about a year ago and the hard wall was constructed around my psyche. Out of those 27 lovely-but-painful responses, 16 editors wanted to buy it but couldn't get the support they needed (most blamed the Marketing Departments). I am not, nor have ever been, a 'committee' writer. "Imperfect" follows two characters - a woman who has developed a cat purr as well as a hoarder. It is a coming-of-age, coming-to-terms-with-yourself type story, and while it is definitely quirky, I like to think it is also universal. I am positive that my first novel, about a woman getting pregnant from a lazy sperm, would never have passed the 'committee' had I written it today.

So, what does one do when they are voted off by the committee? Start their own! Thankfully, that has already been done. The writers I know who have gone this route feel empowered. They are able to set their own prices, have say in their covers (some even design them themselves), edit as needed and reap the financial rewards.  Based on the authors I've spoken to and heard speak on panels, this landscape almost feels like the Gold Rush. The neurotic in me assumes the committees will eventually find a way to steal back the gold, to squeeze the power out of the author, but until then, I am joining all the other renegades out there who are throwing their stories into the atmosphere and seeing what flies.

Melissa Clark is the author of "Swimming Upstream, Slowly." In Spring, 2013 her piece "Rachael Ray Saved My Life" will appear in a food anthology to be published by Shambhala Publications.  Please follow her here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Navigating the Bumps

A friend gave me a copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It wasn’t something that would have attracted my attention otherwise – I don’t watch her TV show or Saturday Night Live, did see a few clips of her as Sara Palin, but really, though I was sure it was good for a few laughs, I didn’t think I’d find the book very relatable to me. The book is about her struggles as a woman in a male-dominated industry. I’ve already been there done that and fled the corporate tower. It is also about learning to be an effective boss. Again, the advice comes a bit late for me. She covers balancing work and motherhood, one game I left and the other I never entered. And of course the book is about the rarefied air of a comedienne’s life. Probably some interesting anecdotes and jokes, but trust me, I won’t be needing advice on that career choice. I’m not funny except sometimes in a punny, wry way. Really.

I have a theory that it takes two talents to tell a good joke: Comedic timing and the ability to remember the joke and the punchline. Blessed are they that have both. Woe to them (and everyone around them) who has one of these talents but not the other – don't we all have the uncle or person on our cocktail circuit who fits this category. I, too, am blessed. I have neither talent. I don’t even have a cocktail circuit.

Then I was stuck in bed and figured a few laughs wouldn’t hurt (actually they did- try not to laugh if your ribs are sore. Or breathe.) and picked up Tina’s (yes, we’re on first name basis now, though I haven’t accepted her facebook friend request) book. It really is a good read. Even removed from every aspect of her life, I found some of the things she says applicable to anyone’s anylife. And yes, it is funny.

Her chapter on how to deal with assholes particularly jumped out at me. We all have those in our lives or can apply her advice to situational assholery. Which is what I did. I was reading that section at a time when I had been beating my head against a brick wall that wasn’t going to move out of my way.  Tina’s advice: harken (she probably didn’t say “harken” but you get the idea) back to your Sesame Street days. The show had a song to teach kids about prepositions, filmed with toddlers crawling around a construction site (always safe, clean fun) going under, over, around and through various pieces of equipment and pieces of building. Sometimes you are going to find an asshole (or brick wall) blocking your path. You’re not likely going to change the person or knock down the wall, so Tina says to figure out a way to get past the asshole and move on.  For some reason, this tidbit has stuck with me. I’ve chanted it to myself on several occasions – we did just have holiday time with families after all.  Tense situation: Can’t change it. Go over, under, around or through. Drunk or handsy relative: Slapping the crap out of him would be quite satisfying but will cause an uproar, so just go over, under, around or through.

So now here comes the writing part – you knew I’d get here eventually. When I finally crawled out of bed and back to the computer, my brain was still peanut butter. I was trying to write but kept bumping up against scenes or words (seriously, who forgets the word “bench”?) And lo and behold, the chant managed to slog through the peanut butter – it makes the acronym “AUTO” if your own brain can’t even remember the chant. Instead of stopping and beating my head against a particular metaphorical brick wall, I just moved on. To another scene, another word. Forget the excuse of writer’s block; just keep circumnavigating those bumps. I mark my bumps with [brackets], sometimes empty, sometimes with a clue (that of course I later will not be able to decipher) about what I was working toward, because they are easy to search for in a Word document. You can use whatever works for you, just keep going under around, over or through. And read Tina’s book. It really is quite entertaining.

Amy Bourret is the author of Mothers and Other Liars, a Target stores Breakout Book. She is still slogging through the peanut butter of her next novel and laughing at other people's jokes. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Looking for Bad Writing Habits? Have a Baby by Lori L. Tharps

Hi Girlfriends,

It's been awhile, but I have a really good excuse. I was busy having a baby and I'm just now crawling back to the land of the living. When did my little bundle of joy arrive, you ask? Last month? Over the winter holidays? No, I admit, babygirl arrived in the heat of summer, but it still feels like yesterday. And I don't mean that nostalgically. I mean that I still can't quite figure out how to manage a newborn, two older kids, a job and all the other stuff that comes with the aforementioned trappings of this woman's life and find time to start my next book.

I find it absolutely hilarious, however, that the main character in my novel, Substitute Me, didn't have such problems. She transitioned from new mom to working mom with ease and grace. She found the perfect nanny and breezed right back into her whirlwind life as a corporate PR exec. How is it possible that I could create such a character, yet can't imitate her ways? I guess I didn't realize I was writing fantasy fiction. Then again, my character's nanny kind of destroys her life so I guess, I'm not totally jealous.

So, without further ado, here are five things you should never, ever, do, if you want to cultivate a productive writing life:

1. Have Children. At all. They are a major time suck. Even when they're sleeping you might, like me, have to stay in their room and watch them breathe to make sure they are actually asleep and not in a coma.

2. Get Cable. Like children, cable television will absolutely steal all of your time. Marathon episodes of A Baby Story are particularly addictive and may even lead to you accidentally getting knocked up which would mean you'd have children. (See #1 above).

3. Have Access to the Internet. The Internet is like that boy who always used to pull your hair in second grade. It is a major distraction and you won't be able to ignore it. Email, texting, tweeting, will always demand your immediate attention. The Internet is almost worse than children. But at least, you can unplug it for days at a time. There's no off button on your kids (sigh)

4. Think About All of the Money and Fame You Will Achieve From Your As Yet Unwritten Book. I don't think this really requires any explanation, but for those of you who still think you're going to pen the next Harry Potter or Twilight Series, it's probably not going to happen. Instead, you must write for the sheer joy of writing so that when you do publish your beautiful work of art and only make modest amounts for your effort, you feel overjoyed not betrayed.

5. Have an Attractive, Loving Husband/Boyfriend. He may mean well, but he will never understand why he has to shut up while you agonize in front of your computer for hours, sometimes days on end. He will pout and groan and complain that you are ignoring him. And to make him feel better (and perhaps it will make you feel better too) you will appease him with mercy sex. This in turn could lead to you getting knocked up (see #1 as to why this isn't a good idea).

So, there you have it girlfriends. Heed my warnings and you'll be on the right track to being very productive writers this year. Good luck!

Lori L. Tharps is actually in love with all three of her children and writes about them a lot on her blog at My American

Good Writing Habits by Megan Crane

I spend so much of my time writing that it can be easy to fall into some bad habits without really noticing, like anything else.  And one of my resolutions this year is to really cultivate good writing habits, the better to support myself as I try to write at least five books between now and next New Year’s Eve. 

But what are good writing habits?

Good writing habits grow over time, according to each writer’s individual needs.  There is no prescription.  There’s no one way.  The only way to tell that your writing habits are “good” are the pages you produce.  If you aren’t producing anything, chances are, you have some bad habits.  If you’re doing things that others may think are crazy but you’re writing a lot and you’re proud of it?  That’s probably good.  When I talk about “good,” I’m talking about being productive—but when I’m talking about being productive, I don’t mean at the expense of your sanity, your life, your relationships, or your health.  As we know, that can be a pretty fine line sometimes!

Some authors sit in their chairs every day from 9-5 (at least) and treat their writing like a very serious day job.  Other authors write a line here, a line there, as the mood strikes.  Still other authors squeeze their writing in around the other things that demand their attention—a day job, their kids, the complexities of their particular respnsibilties. 

We all have to do what we can do, and try to make space in our lives for our writing as best we can.  We have to honor our deadlines and our commitments, no matter who is waiting for us to deliver that book—ourselves or our publisher.  Because the easiest thing in the world is to talk about writing.  The hardest thing in the world is to do it. 

We can do it.  It just takes those good habits I mentioned.

Here are my thoughts on how to cultivate good writing habits:

  • The best thing you can do for your writing is to read.  Read widely.  Read everything you can get your hands on in your favorite genre, and then read beyond it.  Read for pleasure, for escape, for inspiration.  It’s often more useful to read a book you hate and fume about it, react to it, write something to counter it, than it is to read a book you love and just want to sigh happily about.  Pay attention to your passions, your obsessions, as you read and as you live.  All of these things inform your writing.
  • At certain points you should indulge the muse.  Make self-indulgent mixes of songs that speak to your characters’ issues.  Lounge around and day dream.  Take long walks.  Think.  Dream.  Wait for that shimmering almost-idea to crystallize into something clear: a line, a thought, a character.  Think some more.  Dream some more.  Let your mind go wherever it likes.  Observe.  Imagine. 
  • At other points you should be a disciplinarian.  You have to force yourself to sit down in your chair and write.  Set goals for yourself, like a certain amount of words or hours of writing per day.  Don’t get up until you finish.  Hold yourself to your own promises.  Be a fierce advocate for your own dreams.
  • The best writing habit for you is your personal mixture of all of the above.  Learn how to trust yourself and your instincts, about words, about stories, about how your time is best spent, and you will grow as a writer.  (And possibly also as a person!  Win/win!)

The more you write, the more you read, the more you will find your way.  I promise.

I’m hoping that my way this year involves more balance, more books, and more overall satisfaction.  Your way will probably be different, and that’s okay.  I can’t wait to read what you write!

Megan Crane is the author of more than twenty novels, most of which she managed to write while wallowing in what can only be described as truly terrible if not embarrassing habits. She has great dreams of changing this, becoming self-actualized and serene, capable of writing whole books while garbed in flowing white caftans, etc.  Hope springs eternal.  She also teaches writing in places like UCLA Extension's Writers' Program. You can find out more about her at

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guest post: Alexandra Sokoloff
by Brenda Janowitz

I've invited the fabulous Alexandra Sokoloff here today to chat.  You may know her as the author of such thrillers as The Space Between or Book of Shadows.  Or you may know her as the structure guru responsible for Screenwriting Tricks for Authors or Writing Love.

Today, we're lucky enough to have her here talking to us about the elements of a love story.  I've learned so much from Alex, be it in her workshop or through her blog.  And the best part is: this afternoon, she'll be back to answer any questions you leave in the comments section.  See?  I told you were we lucky.

Take it away, Alex!

I met Brenda on line in a writing workshop and learned a ton from her during it and since about romance writing. So I was extra happy to guest on Girlfriends, because I figure I’m going to learn even more about it from all the rest of you, today!

I thought today I’d talk about Love Story Elements,  because it’s fun, but also you all are already experts on it and I can’t pass up the opportunity to make YOU work for ME.  ;)

The whole basis of what I teach in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors books and workshops is that we learn the most when we look at the stories that have had the greatest impact on us, personally—look at them in-depth to really figure out what those storytellers are doing to create that impact.  And I teach writing through looking at movies because movies are such a stripped-down form of storytelling that it’s often easier to see structure patterns by analyzing movies than it is to analyze books. Plus, since we’ve seen so many of the same movies, it’s just an easier focus for discussion.

What I am always pushing to my classes and readers is the idea making a list of ten movies and books (at least five movies) that are structurally similar to the book (or script) that you’re writing.

One of the most illuminating AND most fun discoveries you make when you do this list is that you immediately see patterns and key elements of stories in your genre (or cross-genres).  And this is invaluable when you’re writing a book, even more when you’re editing a book, because these are the elements your readers unconsciously EXPECT to be in a story like yours; even elements they actually crave,  and you can get all kinds of great ideas about what you might be missing in your story.

When I was writing the second book in my Screenwriting Tricks series, Writing Love I quickly discovered these recurring scenes and setups that are very typical in romance and romantic comedy. The following are just a partial list. 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 that I’m also always writing about: 

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. Part of 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 just for example of those clunkers, here’s my own partial list, 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. I’m sorry, this is comedy?)
- The hero/ine meeting the love interest by spilling something on them (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 they are)
- The climactic race to the airport to stop the loved one from leaving
Okay, I’m already nauseous 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.

Okay, I lied.  There’s nothing useful about this one. Please, please don’t do it. Instead, why not try thinking about what it really is to meet the One – to see someone for the first time who might just change your entire destiny. Go into your own life, and the lives of everyone around you, and really ask yourself what that moment is. You can dress it up with comedy, that’s totally fine, but find something real and meaningful about it.  Otherwise, why even bother?

In a love story, while the INCITING INCIDENT that starts off the story action may be a job offer, a wedding invitation, a misbooked 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.

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: 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) Tom realizes 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 heroine from leaving town (New In TownGroundhog 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.

A plot point that usually comes early in the first act: the hero/ine is locked into a situation because their boss or family or a judge gives them an ultimatum – eg. in The Proposal, if Margaret does not fake a marriage with Andrew, she will be deported. 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, Mulan).

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 B & B 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. Or some other bet that leads to a romantic entanglement.  (My Fair Lady)

Sometimes the second time is the charm. Or not. Sweet Home Alabama, 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. Groundhog Day – well, it isn’t pretty, but it’s that day, repeated over and over, that changes surly Phil Connor’s life.

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 here:
- 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)
I’m sure you can think of lots of others – I’d love to hear them!

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”!

It’s very common to have a scene or sequence where we see the hero/ine falling in love with the loved one’s entire family (While You Were Sleeping, The Proposal).  A variation of this is FALLING IN LOVE 

You know this one: the hero/ine thinks s/he’s happily engaged until – uh oh – s/he meets the loved one’s brother or sister (While You Were Sleeping, Holiday).

Not to be confused with Hitchcock’s “Wrong Man” story, about an innocent falsely accused (or set up). What I mean here is, in a story where the hero/ine is dating or engaged to the wrong person, there are going to be scenes that demonstrate clearly that this is the WRONG MAN, or WRONG WOMAN. I would venture to say these scenes are going to happen in virtually every love story in which there is a rival for the hero/ine’s love interest’s love.

Obviously, having an old flame around makes for conflict and sometimes dramatic suspense in a love story, but it also often makes for good comedy. Four Weddings And A Funeral has not just one, but two great examples of this scene: at one wedding dinner Hugh Grant is seated at a table with four of his exes, comically dramatizing his problem of chronic serial monogamy. Then later his love interest Andie McDowell has a great monologue about her exes, all 33 of them.

The hero or love interest scathes the heroine, or vice-versa, and knowingly or unknowingly hits the nail squarely on the head about what the hero/ine’s problem is. (While You Were Sleeping, and there are several good zingers in Leap Year.)

This is of course a visual, but I’m including it for the screenwriters (and some authors do it wonderfully on the page – Helen Fielding being a good example). Since the early screwball comedies, romantic comedy heroines have been falling over. This can be tiresome, but good physical comedians/comediennes can make it sublime – Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, and Meg Ryan perfected the art.

Another staple of physical comedy, but it’s one you can use on the page. The wrong person shows up at the wrong time and the hero/ine is forced to hide someone in the closet, under the bed, on the windowsill, etc. Another component of this is more people keep showing up to complicate the deception. This is a variation on:

Another staple of comedy. In Four Weddings And A Funeral: Charlie gets caught in the bridal suite just as the bridal couple decide to consummate their new marriage.

While real-life lovers often play word games, the catchphrase is a dangerous thing, not often pulled off. “You had me at hello” from Jerry Maguire is one of the best. The Proposal doesn’t do too badly with “We’re just two people who weren’t supposed to fall in love, but did.” Try a making a Top Ten list for inspiration!

Sometimes the love interest asks a thematic question that the hero/ine finally comes to understand, usually at the climax of the story – an interesting fairy tale touch (Leap Year).

It’s very typical to show the hero/ine looking longingly after children or show the hero/ine noticing how good the hero/ine is with kids: Ashton Kutcher coaching Little League in What Happens In Vegas, Meg Ryan reading aloud to preschoolers in You’ve Got Mail. A much funnier scene – Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy being run ragged by Jessica Lange’s baby daughter in Tootsie.

This can be a terrible cliché, so be careful. For an example of how to do this right, look at Romancing The Stone, which has wonderful fun taking Joan Wilder’s expensive but mousy wardrobe and shredding it until she’s dressed in a good approximation of her romantic alter-ego Angelina’s buckskins and bodices. New in Town and The Proposal realistically depict their heroines’ wardrobes changing from executive stiffness to a more practical and appealing softness.

It’s kind of amazing to me how often a romantic comedy will have a scene like this.  Forced to kiss? How do writers come up with these things?

Look at that! This hotel room has only one bed!

The couple is forced to stay overnight in an isolated place. There a nice variation on this one in Romancing The Stone, where the “cabin” is the wreck of an airplane that crashed in the jungle – carrying a cargo of marijuana. Which Jack promptly uses to build a fire…

All of the above often leads to this – that’s sex at 60 minutes in a movie, or the Midpoint, meaning it’s around page 200 in a 400-page book. This is common to find in all genres, even more common in romantic comedy. Yes, it can be almost sex at sixty.  If there is actual sex at sixty, it usually crashes the relationship immediately.

This is different from the DECLARATION below. The confession is where the hero or heroine or both open up about their childhood, ghosts, fears, hopes – their INNER DESIRES opposed to their OUTER DESIRES. It often occurs at the MIDPOINT.

Often during the confession scene, the hero and heroine will express a long-held, secret dream (Jack’s is to own a boat in Romancing The Stone. In While You Were Sleeping another Jack’s is to start his own business. In Sense And Sensibility Edward’s is to be the vicar of a small parsonage) and the loved one totally gets it and supports it, when no one else (usually the hero’s family) ever has. I don’t think it’s accidental that I’ve listed a bunch of male secret dreams that the heroines support; women have a long history of being better supporters that way.
This beat is separate from:

The scene where the hero and heroine bond over some song or piece of poetry or dog or combination of foods that only the loved one could ever understand. (This kind of improbably works in The Proposal.)

Many romances have a scene or whole sequence at someone else’s wedding – throwing the hero and/or heroine right into that crucible to show their reactions to the whole idea in general. Not just romantic comedies, but romantic suspense will do this; see Sea Of Love.

Another version of going to a wedding, and usually involves a MAKEOVER. The original Arthur does this well, with John Gielgud as the world’s most charming (in a deadpan way) fairy godmother.

This is usually done by mistake, for comic effect (and it’s often not funny at all, be careful). But sometimes it’s a deliberate act, as in:

Can be one scene, but it can also be the whole premise of the story, as in Philadelphia Story and My Best Friend’s Wedding, or Made Of Honor.

Speaking of interrupting weddings - very often once the couple is at someone else’s wedding, some kind of disturbance will occur just at this critical juncture in the ceremony. Often it turns into a plot point (in the climax of Four Weddings And A Funeral). 

In Four Weddings And A Funeral – one of the last things Gareth says to his circle of friends before he dies of a heart attack is: “I want to see you all married. Go forth and find husbands and wives.” Of course Hugh Grant takes that to heart…

This scene 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. In this scene the Lover, the one who loves most deeply, 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.” It’s often the ALL IS LOST MOMENT.

It’s Complicated: 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. Notting Hill: Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts in the bookstore that between her “foul 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. When Harry Met Sally: 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.”

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. And that finally leads to another scene:

Yes, it’s essential to have a well-written declaration of love, it’s one of the biggest payoffs of the genre. I suggest you make a Top Ten List of your favorites for inspiration:  try Julia Roberts’ “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy” in Notting Hill, Hugh Grant stammering through “I think I love you” in Four Weddings And A Funeral, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie: “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man;” Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally:  “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start right now;” Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.”

In a love story, the declaration very often is the FINAL BATTLE. And, oh, right – it’s very often a PROPOSAL.

It is also often a public declaration, in front of as many people can be crowded into the scene. But that’s become so much of a cliché I would really suggest avoiding it, if at all possible.
And remember, if the lover has behaved particularly badly, the audience or reader probably wants to see a little GROVELING.

I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? Well, let me just say: in love stories there are usually two key kisses: one someplace around the MIDPOINT, or at the Midpoint, where the couple have a first kiss and both suddenly realize, usually separately, that they’re in deep trouble. This is often the COUPLE FORCED TO KISS scene.

Then the very end of the movie or book, or the Act III climax, is the prolonged, never coming up for air, make the audience or reader really feel it kiss. Unfortunately in lesser stories this often substitutes for a real ending.

And then of course there’s the INTERRUPTED KISS, a way of building sexual tension before that first real kiss.

This is truly an essential beat to get right in a romance, and nothing beats Romancing The Stone for this moment – wouldn’t anyone want the life Joan and Jack are sailing off to? And somehow it’s much more delicious because the yacht is not on the ocean, but parked on that Manhattan street. It’s the ultimate romantic gesture by a bad boy with a wicked sense of humor.
I also love seeing Hugh Grant shyly hitting the red carpet in Notting Hill, and the flip side of their life, the payoff of the two sprawled on that inscribed garden bench.
But yes, sometimes a kiss will do it, too, especially if it’s Colin Firth doing the kissing, as in Bridget Jones’ Diary.

As you may have guessed, I’ve made up a lot of those names for the above elements. You can call those scenes, moments and setups something else entirely, and hopefully you’ll be adding lots of observations of your own to an ever-growing list.
So what have I left out? And/or what are examples of movies and books that do some of these elements particularly well?


Thanks so much for stopping by, Alex!  Doesn't this post just inspire you to go and write?!  But before you do that, leave your questions and comments below for Alex.  She's teaching a workshop this morning, but will be back in the afternoon to answer all of your questions!

I’m the author of Scot on the Rocks and Jack with a Twist.  My work’s also appeared in the New York Post and Publisher’s Weekly.  You can find me at