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Passionate Plays
by Patrick Storck

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A great romantic film is hard to find. Attempts at romantic films are probably taking up 20% of the screens at the multiplex on any given day. They're cheaper to make than the big action films, and act as good counter-programming to said spectaculars. Generally you get two tickets sold for every one person who wants to see the movie. The downside of that, for the theater, is that couples generally eat before or after the movie, and "chick flicks" are notoriously tough on concessions sales. Because they follow a fairly traditional narrative, you don't have to be Charlie Kaufman to come up with a story that can fill ninety minutes.

Just like many hopeless romantics dream of finding true love someday, so do they hope that every time they buy a ticket to something featuring Diane Lane finding the one right when she was ready to give up, they will be touched and inspired. As writers, especially ones with unsold stories, late nights shutting the world off to crank out fifteen pages, and probably more than a few bad habits, the desire to inspire people can fall secondary to seeing stuff blow up.

The good news is, you can still get out lots of venom, cynicism, and anger when writing a romantic film. You know you need a happy ending to be marketable, so think of a big romantic ending that can be as cheesy, corny, or over the top as you'd like. Make fun of the concept if that's how you justify it to yourself. Just get two people who are in love together in some huge way. Then comes the fun part.

A happy ending implies an unhappy beginning and middle. That means you can take the image in your head of these two people so in love it makes you sick, and let bad things happen to them. Sickness, fights, cheating, werewolves, anything you can think of. Your job is to keep them from being happy for as long as you can. The worse you make it for them, the more happy that ending will feel in comparison.

The rule Billy Wilder established is to figure out what keeps our leads apart. If they're together the whole time, in body and spirit, that's a happy beginning. I've always had a problem with GREASE because they get together way too early in the film, then the rest of the "story" is more a string of set-pieces. They bicker, sure, but they're together. At the end we assume it's happy because they might keep doing the same? You need to keep the two leads apart.

Nora Ephron has made a killing by keeping her leads (often Meg Ryan and some comedian trying to be seen as more versatile) apart. With SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE and YOU'VE GOT MAIL, she makes sure they're practically never in the same room, or even city. With a setup like that you don't even have to worry about chemistry between your leads. By the time they get together it can naturally feel awkward because they've been apart so long. It's a really great trick to use for lack of a better one.

The quest is fun because you can make an action film, a science fiction, fantasy, or any combo of the above. Send the guy out on a mission, place the girl in peril she must overcome herself, and let them both become stronger individually until they reunite. Send them on a quest together, but let them bicker on the path to a greater good. Let them share their victory in the kiss that lets them finally admit they made a good team.

If your story feels fake and forced to you, just remember that it is. This is fiction, and all fiction is fake to some degree or it would be nonfiction. More importantly, love doesn't happen like it happens in the movies. There is no real "happily ever after," because ever after is the continuing lives of two people. They may have bad days, health issues, divorce, death, flat tires, any number of things that will mean they don't go to bed each night in complete bliss.

The reason you start with the ending is because you need to set yourself a place to shut up and stop telling the story. Everyone watching the movie inherently understands that happiness is not permanent. That's why they're going to see a movie that will make them feel happy. If they were already uplifted they could sit in the park, stare off into the distance, and save ten bucks. You need to bring them down so they can relate to the fact that things don't always go smoothly, then give them that moment where we remember things can get better, and leave them with that.

The final moment of the story, after all, is not actually a "happy ending." Sure it is happy, and the end of the narrative window presented. Truthfully, though, it is a moment of hope. We hope things go well for our leads. We hope they've been through the worst times they'll ever see. We'll hope they look at each other like that over morning breakfast years from now, remembering the great years they've had. We hope it for them because we hope it for ourselves. By relating to the crap they've been through we can let us project our hope for ourselves onto them without feeling foolish or disappointed when life acts like the roller coaster of ups and downs it is.

Love is real, love exists, love makes people do strange things, love hurts, love is all of the clichés because clichés exist out of a shared truth. Love is something deep and involving, and goes well beyond fireworks, flowers, and knowing the right thing to say. For the sake of your story, remember this: Love is hard. Romance is easy.

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Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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