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 brendajanowitz.com.


  1. I have Alex's e-book on writing love and it's amazing1 A must have for any writer that has love story elements in her plot. Thanks, Brenda, for bringing her to the blog.

    1. Thanks for this tip! Will definitely get her ebook

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  3. Yes, Karin! Alex's books are the best. I've learned so much from them.

    My favorite makeover scenes are in PRINCESS DIARIES and MISS CONGENIALITY. So adorable and clever!!

    1. I love Alex's blog so I'm very happy to have her join us at GBC! Thanks to both of you for doing this!

  4. Wow! What great info you've posted today! Thanks so much for being our guest! Off to check out your screenwriting books (I love books that tie storytelling together so succinctly)

    1. Hey Jenny, thank YOU for having me. Great post on indie publishing this week, that was really helpful.

  5. Oh my gosh Alex, my head is totally spinning! Any thoughts on the place of romance in crime fiction--especially series--and how to keep dragging it out so there's suspense over a couple of books? (And I don't mean TORN BETWEEN TWO LOVERS, as in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books...)

  6. Alex, I love your blog! I have a question: What about writing break ups? In my WIP the heroine realizes she shouldn't be with the love interest but not because there's a rival. Does your Writing Love ebook cover when love goes bad too? The leaving-him scene right now is a bit like Bridgett Jones when she leaves Hugh Grant's character. She finds self love, not love for another. If you have any tips for setting up and paying off that type of story, do let me know. I'm rewriting/revising now. Thanks for guesting here!

  7. One more thing. THANK YOU for the Why Them? plot point! It seems like lately the answer from Hollywood is like something your mom would say. "Because I said so." Well, sorry Mr or Ms Director/Screenwriter/Producer, but that's not good enough!

  8. Thanks for having me, Karin and Carleen and all! I'm just checking in at my workshop break - will be MORE back in two hours or so.

  9. Brenda, those are two great makeover scenes. It adds comedy when the heroine is reluctant to be made over (but pleased with the result...)

  10. Lucy, great question. As Brenda can tell you, my answer for EVERY story problem is to make a list of 10 (okay, you can start with 5) movies, TV series, or books that do that particular thing well. Your favorite storytellers are your best teachers. I am currently watching the British TV series WIRE IN THE BLOOD, based on the great Val McDermid's crime series, and the sexual tension between Tony Hill and Carol Jordan (and later, her replacement, Alex whatshername (drawing a blank) - is EXCRUCIATING. The evil they fight has made them nearly incapable of normal relationships. I know they're never going to get together and it's killing me.

    Another great example is Mr. Bates and Anna Smith in DOWNTOWN ABBEY - it's not a crime drama but Bates' demons and his criminal and addictive past keeps tearing them apart and I'm reduced to a sobbing mess at the end of nearly every episode.

    See what I mean? Take a look at stories where this element WORKS for you, and let that be your inspiration.

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  12. Carleen, same answer for your question: make a list (like, right now!) of some movies/books/series that do that scene or build up well.

    MADE OF HONOR was a pretty mediocre romantic comedy but I think that film did a good job of setting up a legitimate romantic rival to the hero - and had a great payoff scene of the heroine realizing why he was WRONG for her - at the bridal dinner where the groom has killed everything on the table. It was played for comedy, but that would be a real sticking point for me, and I thought the two leads played their mutual horror over it very well.

    And OH do I agree about the WHY THEM being missing in almost all romantic comedies coming out these days!

  13. Hi, Alex--great to have you here today! Thanks for the wonderful post.

    My least favorite cliché: kissing in the rain as the final scene.

    Loved the movies you've mentioned. Another movie that I'd add that I think handles the elements of romance well is Speed (the first one!)

  14. I loved this! Thank you so much, Brenda and Alex!

  15. I'm so glad everyone's liking this post! I had so much fun learning from Alex, and I'm a huge fan of her books and her blog.

    The best part is that when you watch movies now, you're really doing homework for your own writing! I just HAD to stare at young Harrison Ford over and over again until I could figure out all of the sequences in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Look a while because young Indy kept distracting me, but I was very committed to finishing the assignment. :)

  16. Hey Sara and Lauren! So nice to see both of you (well, you know what I mean.)

    Sara, you're right about that rain scene, and the funny thing is - you could write the hell out of a final scene in the rain if you really DID the rain, committed all out to the sensuality of it. If you did it right you'd have people dropping the book and running to find their significant others. It's not COMMITTING to the sensual experience of rain that makes most of those scenes such cliches....

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  18. Hah, so true, Brenda. Just like I'm being forced to watch Sherlock over and over and stare at Benedict Cumberbatch to... right, find the sequences.

  19. One of the biggest challenges in a love story, I think, is coming up with the reason that the couple can't just be together in the first place.

    Alex, what are some good examples of this, do you think?

    1. Do you mean the couple that is NOT supposed to be together, as Carleen was saying, or the couple that is supposed to be together but there's an obstacle to their love?

  20. Alex,

    Why do think so many romantic comedies are so bad? Where do screenwriters go wrong?

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    2. Karin, just saw this - am not used to the threaded comments you have here.

      It's not usually the screenwriters who go wrong. It's the development process in Hollywood in which everyone thinks they know how to write better than the screenwriters. Most people don't realize that three dozen writers might write drafts of the same movie, but only three writers (or teams) are allowed to be listed in the final credits.

      Well, you can imagine what MUSH happens when three dozen people try to "improve" on an original script that had an original vision but then was rewritten to service the ego of every single other person on a movie.

      One of the best examples I can think of is BENNY AND JOON. That was one of the most excellent scripts I ever read when I worked in development - a razor sharp, hysterically funny screwball comedy. Can you even remember a word of the movie that finally came out of it?


  21. Alex,

    Why do think so many romantic comedies are so bad? Where do screenwriters go wrong?

  22. I mean there is an obstacle. Like in Bridget Jones, the obstacle is Bridget getting in her own way. Or in Miss Congeniality, where Sandra Bullock HATES Benjamin Bratt. (Ha! As if that would ever happen!)

    I find it hard to make these obstacles believable. You know from the start of the book who the love interest is, so how do you keep the reader interested and really guessing whether or not they'll get together?

  23. Oh, WOW, Alex!! Thank you so much for sharing all of these love story elements. The Philadelphia Story, When Harry Met Sally and While You Were Sleeping are three of my favorite romantic comedies, and you pinpointed several moments that I especially loved in them. Really enjoyed reading this!

    1. Thanks Marilyn - three of my favorites as well!! You can learn so much from what those three movies do so right.

  24. Okay, reread and I think you're talking about the couple who is supposed to be together.

    One of the games of romance and romantic comedy is that WE ARE OUR OWN WORST ENEMIES IN LOVE. So usually the reason a couple can't just get together from the outset is that the protagonist, or point of view character if both characters are pretty equal, has a wound or ghost that is keeping him or her from allowing herself to be happy. The ghost can be from the past, like a parent's bad marriage that has tainted the hero/ine about love (you see this done badly in movies like MADE OF HONOR) or in the present (a living obstacle in the form of a sister or brother that the love interest is already engaged to (I love HOLIDAY for that).

    An effective ghost is to have had the couple already married or involved, and they were wretched to each other. (PHILADELPHIA STORY).

    I prefer darker ghosts, myself, as in the WIRE IN THE BLOOD and DOWNTON ABBEY examples I gave Carleen, or stories with a huge antagonist, like Jane Austen's depictions of class differences as the antagonist.

    But another effective storyline is that either or both the hero or heroine DOESN'T DESERVE the other person - yet - and has to change to become worthy of that person. Because - shouldn't we all have to work a bit for the real thing?

  25. BTW, if you haven't seen DOWNTON ABBEY, that show is wonderful for creating believable obstacles for its couples. Lady Mary is a great example of someone who is not at all worthy of her love interest, William (?? Brain dead on character names today) at the beginning of the show, but who suffers from her bad choices and learns from them, and from the hardship of the war, and becomes worthy of him through those trials.

  26. Oh, yes, I was! I got confused because I thought Carleen was asking about the cad-- the guy our protag isn't supposed to be with, but can't help herself because he's so darn sexy!! (Paging Hugh Grant....)

    You make SUCH a great point- yes, we do have to work for the real thing!! And that is so true to life.

    1. Sorry, I meant the examples I gave Lucy about romance in a crime series.

  27. I love Karin's question about why so many romantic comedies are bad. I really love romantic comedies and it makes me sad that so many of them are poorly done. I agree with everyone who threw WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING some love. That movie still holds up!!

  28. Oh, and of course Groudhog Day is a great comic example of a hero who doesn't deserve his love interest and who REALLY has to change to deserve her.

  29. Great blog, Alexandra. I have your Screenwriting Tips for Authors but now must get this new book too. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us today :) And thanks to Brenda for inviting you!

    1. Thanks, Maria! Yes, it's always good to go through structure steps with a focus on just one genre.

  30. Hi Alex, Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful and informative post! I admit, I read rather indulgently, as the revisions for my next book are just about done. I've always matched movies in my head to things I'm working on. One of my favorites is from the 80's closet, The Sure Thing. I love the ebb and flow of this story. I enjoyed reading through your list, (I'm sure i'll be printing it out) checking off many points as I went! Thanks for the great post!

    1. I hear you on the revision focus, Laura. I'm right there myself.

      Now THAT'S a great example of a "what's keeping them apart" story! This is SUCH a true obstacle in love: that someone has a fantasy idea of the perfect person in their head that is getting in the way of the flesh-and-blood person right in front of them.

  31. Ah, yes, Groundhog Day! Always forget about that one.

    According to Twitter, I am the only person in America not watching Downtown Abbey.

  32. Yes, I believe you are that one holdout. But all your answers are right there. Just saying.

  33. There certainly is a theme to the comments, here, have you all noticed? Everyone wants to know about realistic obstacles to love.

    Well, I'd suggest that the answer is in looking at what your PERSONAL thematic preferences are on this subject. Make a list. What are movies and books that say something true to you about love, and why it's so hard? Make the list off the top of your head, love stories that are meaningful TO YOU, and then spend some time really definining what those stories say thematically - TO YOU. That's how you will come to understand what YOU want to say about love in YOUR book.

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  35. Hi, Alex. Thanks for all this terrific info. I was wondering if you'll ever publish your Screenwriting Tricks for Authors book as a hardcopy book. I downloaded the Kindle version on my PC, but I would KILL for actual book I could dog-ear and flip through!


    1. Ellen, I swear I will make this happen at some point this year, I am just so backed up on my fiction contracts that I'm already having anxiety attacks.

      The great thing about e books is that I can sell them to you all for practically nothing and still make money, and they're endlessly revisable.

      I WILL do the hardcopy, I swear.

      In the meantime, you do know that you can get pdfs of both books on Smashwords for $2.99 and print them out, right? Not exactly the same as a bound book but still, it's hardcopy.





    2. Thanks so much! Perhaps I'll do the smashwords download. :)

      Btw, Mary's love interest in Downton Abbey is (thumpity-thump) Matthew.

    3. Matthew!! I knew I was wrong on that one. Name file just got deleted, today. William is the other beautiful blond.

      Yeah, Matthew is doing it for me, too. But my heart belongs to Mr. Bates. It's always the haunted ones...

    4. I hear you, but Mr. Bates's virtue is starting to get a little boring for me. Matthew, on the other hand, is like a British Gary Cooper. *swoon*

    5. Gary Cooper! Funny, Matthew is reminding me of a younger Hugh Grant. His diction is EXACTLY Grant's, so often. Of course, he doesn't quite have Grant's total bad boy side, just a milder hint of it.

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  37. So great to know, Alex! I love a hard copy, too.

  38. I'm coming late to this party but I loved reading all this. Picked up your e-book because of an earlier post, Alex, and used it to revise my WIP...and it really helped. Thanks so much for coming to visit us!

  39. Thanks, for having me, Sheila and everyone - and it's always great to know the book is helping!

  40. Hi Brenda,
    I do appreciate your writing in this topic.

    Bad esn