Writing The Romantic Comedy, 20th Anniversary  Expanded and Updated Edition
eBook - ePub

Writing The Romantic Comedy, 20th Anniversary Expanded and Updated Edition

The Art of Crafting Funny Love Stories for the Screen

Billy Mernit

  1. 464 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (adapté aux mobiles)
  4. Disponible sur iOS et Android
eBook - ePub

Writing The Romantic Comedy, 20th Anniversary Expanded and Updated Edition

The Art of Crafting Funny Love Stories for the Screen

Billy Mernit

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À propos de ce livre

"Writing the Romantic Comedy is so much fun to read it could pop a champagne cork." —Alexa Junge, writer and producer of Friends

Revised and expanded to celebrate a new generation of romantic comedies, Billy Mernit's insightful look into the mechanics of writing Hollywood's most enduring genre features case studies that reveal the screenwriting secrets behind classics new and old.

Whether you're a first-time screenwriter, an intermediate marooned in the rewriting process, or a professional wanting to explore the latest genre trends, this thoroughly charming and insightful guide to the basics of crafting a winning and innovative script will take you step by step from "meet cute" all the way to "joyous defeat." You'll learn the screenwriting secrets behind some of the funniest scenes ever written; how to create characters and dialogue that getsparks flying; why some bedroom scenes sizzle and others fall flat; and much more.

Written in a refreshingly accessible style and updated and expanded to recognize the contributions of a fresh generation of romantic comedies, this newly revised 20 th Anniversary edition of Writing the Romantic Comedy features case studies drawn from beloved romantic classics such as When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, Tootsie, and The Lady Eve to modern-day favorites including Hitch, (500) Days of Summer, Bridesmaids, and Silver Linings Playbook. Field-tested writing exercises are also included, guaranteed to short-circuit potential mistakes and ensure inspiration.

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Part 1

Getting Started


Storytelling Fundamentals

If you’re reading this book, you probably have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what constitutes a good screenplay. Chances are, you’ve heard of the three-act structure and you know that the average script is supposed to be under two hours. Many of you may be already itching to skip to the next chapter. But so that all of us can share a common ground of concepts to build on, let’s do a quick review of the basics.
A perusal of the field yields, by common consensus, seven essential components of storytelling: Character, Plot, Theme, Imagery, Dialogue, Point of View, and World. Everybody has his or her own variations on these elements, but they’re as essential to a good movie as love is to a good marriage. Put them all to good use, and you’re loaded for bear; abandon even one, and your movie will be handicapped.
Here’s an odd instance of what might be called Oscar prescience: I once predicted who would win Best Actor before the movie was shot. That was when a friend slipped me a copy of the Mark Andrus/James L. Brooks script for As Good as It Gets, then in preproduction under another title. When I finished the read and dried my tears (besides being moved, I was crying because there was probably no way I’d ever write dialogue as good as Brooks does), I opined that whoever played the part of Melvin was going to win an Academy Award. Told that Jack Nicholson had been cast, I said, “In that case, I’ll put money on it.”
Today, some find the produced film hokey and even offensive. But on the page then, it was that good a part, that good a character—and every now and then, in a rare moment of honest humility, you’ll hear an award-winning actor credit the role for the win. They’re no dummies, and any working writer knows that this story component is perhaps the most important of them all. One such scribe nailed it a few thousand years ago (Heraclitus), when he said, “Character is destiny.” Plot comes from people.
Some say that a story is merely the reaction of characters to crisis and/or conflict. It’s certainly true that a story lacking in credible, complex, empathetic people who have strong desires is a story that no amount of sex, violence, or technology can fix. Think of the many memorable movies named after their protagonists—Wall-E, Thelma and Louise, Arthur, to highlight a few—and hundreds of actors’ careers were virtually created by a seminal role. Where would Harrison Ford be without Han Solo? Seth Rogen without . . . Hey, dude, what’s the name of that guy you played in Knocked Up?
Still, you’d be surprised by how often this vital storytelling element gets neglected in your average spec screenplay. All the star power in the world doesn’t make a difference if the characters aren’t on the page—and you can’t get to the stars who’d want to be those characters if they’re missing in action. That’s why this story component is going to get a lot of serious attention in the pages ahead.
Character is only half the dynamics of a story. A given situation is the other half. Unlike a title such as Thelma and Louise, the movie about how one romantic couple came to be isn’t called simply Harry and Sally, it’s called When Harry Met Sally. . . . Nice title, because it immediately suggests more than a general story (i.e., everything you need to know about Harry and Sally). It indicates plot—which is, as we’ve posited, how a particular character deals with a given situation (e.g., when Harry met Sally . . . what happened?). How your characters act (or choose not to) generally constitutes dramatic development.
Plot is the specific sequence of events that illuminates your story. Structure is your means of organizing that sequence.
A good plot sustains our interest in a story, making us ask “What happens next?” through a canny manipulation of intriguing complications and escalating conflicts. Regarding structure, cinematic master Jean-Luc Godard once said that every movie needed a beginning, a middle, and an end—but not necessarily in that order. And true, some classics like Sunset Boulevard begin with the ending (e.g., the hero found dead in a swimming pool), and some go backward and forward in time simultaneously (e.g., (500) Days of Summer). But whatever the organizing plan that a story uses, if it’s going to satisfy an audience, its plot is generally presented in three viable acts.
Funny thing about threes. Maybe it’s hardwired into our consciousness, but three seems to be the magic number (as in morning, noon, and night, the Holy Trinity, etc.). You know the feeling when a movie’s first act stumbles, when a second act falls apart, or worst of all, when an ending disappoints; the resulting alienation is fatal. Clearly, a well-structured plot is a critical component of good storytelling, and we’ll be scrutinizing the ways and means of achieving it.
If there’s one question that gives every screenwriter I know the willies, it’s the one that some executives ask—often at the end of a fine-tuned pitch, a model of first-rate storytelling that’s just outlined a movie in vivid, you-can-see-it detail. “Sounds great,” they say, “but what’s the movie about?”
Like it or not, it’s the question every good storyteller has to answer. If character is the element that tells us who, and plot/structure the element that explores what, then theme is the necessary story component that addresses why. Why are you telling us this story? Why these characters in this particular situation? Why is it significant? Why does your viewer care about this story?
Discussing theme, the astute writer and teacher Janet Burroway said (in Writing Fiction): “A story speculates on a possible truth.” And the test of time shows us that the works that last, on page or screen, do exactly that; they resonate with an idea—an observation, a proposed argument, some concept about the way we live our lives—that gets explored in the course of the story. A movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a purpose, some reason for being, that’s palpable; it draws us into its dark depths because it gets at provocative truths. So does a seeming one-joke farce like Groundhog Day (by now having earned its props as A Great American Classic); both films reward return trips with fresh insights.
Having an idea to be explored is what separates the fluff from the beloved favorites. And it’s the secret story-component weapon of the best romantic comedies made to date, as we’ll see when we analyze When Harry Met Sally. . . .
Though Shakespeare in Love has been justly praised for its wordplay, what many people remember from it isn’t a line, but a moment of visual poetry: a luminescent Viola spinning round and round as her poet/playwright lover joyfully unwinds for the first time the cloth that’s been binding her femininity. And There’s Something About Mary is defined in most people’s minds by a shot of a smiling Mary, crowned with a uniquely hair-gelled hairdo.
These two wildly disparate romantic comedies from the same year are cited to make a simple point: imagery is the very substance of good storytelling, from whichever end of the genre spectrum. Pictorial storytelling has been with us from the dawn of the form (garden, snake, apple), but it’s inarguable that a movie without imagery—either imaginative visual metaphors or compelling pictures, period—isn’t much of a movie at all.
Think about how much of Moonstruck’s charm came from that moon, or how a cheap motel room’s blanket hung across a clothesline to separate Gable from Colbert has etched It Happened One Night in moviegoing history, and you’ll have some idea how potent a tool imagery can be. Sadly, great visual storytelling has long been too scarce in romantic comedy, a genre prone to talking-heads scenes. So we’ll be paying special attention to imagery as a means of crafting a sit-up-and-take-notice script.
If you remember the stellar opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral, you’ll recall that what engendered instant laughs was the repeated use of a certain four-letter word. In fact, the only conversation heard in the movie’s first few minutes is that single expletive, uttered by the overslept Hugh Grant and his roommate as they rush to attend a good friend’s nuptials.
Weddings is also a movie that features a classic run-on, humiliatingly nonstop confession-of-love monologue (“. . . in the words of David Cassidy, in fact, while he was still with the Partridge Family . . .”), so you’re not being urged to employ only curse words in your script. This is just to note the one story component that’s an exception to the rules. You don’t have to have great dialogue to make a great movie (as Keaton’s and Chaplin’s best works amply illustrate). But modern audiences expect the spoken word to be part of their moviegoing experience, and skillful use of it has certainly enlivened our genre. So we’ll explore getting the most out of dialogue.
If you were to simply meet Bridget Jones in one of her pre–Self-Esteem Epiphany moments, as opposed to reading her diary, you might not find her quite as much fun: the first-person voice-over in that movie is a necessity. Yet seeing Shaun’s world from outside his personal perceptions is what makes Shaun of the Dead so funny: for the first half of the story, Shaun thinks he’s living in a romantic comedy, while we know for sure he’s in a horror movie. Lost in Translation with Bill Murray’s character as its primary protagonist would be a different story than the one told by ScarJo’s character, so writer-director Sofia Coppola’s choice—to divvy up the movie’s POV between them—is a big part of what makes that movie work.
Whose story is it? For screenwriters, this is a central question. When we speak of point of view, we’re encompassing both the literal (if the director’s choice of camera angle puts us in the physical position of a given character) and the metaphorical (meaning through whose psychology are we participating in the story’s events?). Who are we identifying with, and why are we seeing the story largely through their eyes?
Romantic comedy often offers dual points of view. There’s still great debate in rom-com circles about who’s the “real” lead in both Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. . . . The guy gets my vote in both cases: even though the females seem equal with the males in the actual balance of material, we’re with the male character in the beginning and end of both films, and it’s the guy who goes through the greater arc of inner change. Regardless, the choice and maintaining of a POV is a potent component that all successful screenplays utilize, either subtly (the shifting viewpoints of Hannah and Her Sisters) or with in-your-face panache (the narration in Clueless); it’s the necessary glue that attaches us to the protagonist and gets us involved in the story.
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the movie Fargo (although some may immediately go to that woodchipper) is most probably a pregnant policewoman in the snow—snow, ice, wind, and more snow. Try to imagine Lawrence wi...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Introduction
  6. Part 1: Getting Started
  7. Part 2: Into the Thick of It
  8. Part 3: The Finer Points
  9. Part 4: Completing Your Draft and After
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. Appendix A: 125 Noteworthy Films of the Romantic Comedy Genre and Beyond
  12. Appendix B: Some Relevant Lists
  13. Selected Bibliography
  14. Index
  15. About the Author
  16. Copyright
  17. About the Publisher