I am a bit of structure geek; I love thinking about narrative formulas. Recently I read Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, which talks about the Seven Basic Romantic Comedy Beats in screen writing. These are rules for film obviously, but they can apply just as well to books. In fact, I found that I’d used them in my own books, without knowing exactly what I was doing or why I was doing it.
Obviously, it takes much more than a formula to write a successful story, whether on page or screen. But I think it’s still important to know the rules, so that you can break or subvert them; even the most unconventional indie films do this. ‘Formulaic’ is of course the ultimate insult. But a symphony uses a formula; so does a ballet. Depending on the execution, a formula can be painting-by-numbers or it can be a magic spell. There’s something deeply coded in these patterns that we respond to, the same way we do when hearing music or watching a dance. We don’t quite know the rules, but we instinctively recognize them in action.
As an example, I’ll take Jilly Cooper’s Prudence, one of her fabulous early romances which you must read if you haven’t already. I would bet that Jilly has never heard of the Seven Beats of the romantic comedy but she knows exactly what they are, and uses them to brilliant effect.
- Set Up:
This is what it sounds like. We meet the heroine and hero* and learn what their problems are. Pru is a scatty, jokey girl who goes away with her uptight barrister boyfriend Pendle, to visit his family in their crumbling Lake District house. His step-brother Ace is a successful journalist and widower, recently returned from South America. The family, who are a load of overspending party animals, are terrified he’s going to whip them into shape. So the set up is: Opposites Attract. Prudence is fun-loving but looking for love. Ace is too serious for his own good – can he find love again?
- Meet cute/Catalyst:
Thanks to The Holiday, we all know about the meet cute: it’s the memorable first encounter between hero and heroine. Here, Ace walks in just as Pru is kissing Jack, Pendle’s other brother. Not all meet-cutes have to be cute; sometimes they introduce the central conflict. Here, it’s that Ace thinks Prudence is a flirtatious lightweight and Pru thinks Ace is an overbearing bully. Who’s right? They both are! I love rom coms.
- Sexy complication/Turning-point 1:
I think of this as the scene where the two characters have their first proper clash, or where the conflict between them first comes out in the open. In When Harry Met Sally, it happens during their drive to New York, where Harry makes his famous observation about how men and women can’t be friends. Sally is outraged because she thinks that he’s making a pass at her although he’s going out with ‘my good friend Amanda’ (who she later totally loses touch with).
In Prudence, it’s a reiteration of the initial conflict, but stepped up a notch. Pru is devastated that Pendle, who’s meant to be her boyfriend, is clearly still in love with his ex Maggie. After a fireworks party where Pru wears a very outrageous culotte dress (so Jilly Cooper) and flirts with Jack throughout, Ace takes her to one side and warns her off Jack. Pru is too proud to tell him about Pendle and screams at him instead. It’s their initial conflict all over again, with added chemistry. I always like it when you get a sense, in these clashes, that both of them are right. It’s not a question of one of them having to change to fit in with the other; both of them will have to change.
- The Hook: Midpoint
I think of this as the ‘he’s not that bad’ moment – the moment when the heroine first sees something she really values in the hero, which takes her by surprise. Or when she first feels a glimmer of real attraction to him. Ideally, you’ll have both. When you have a flicker of attraction, that’s immediately damped down, you know you’re at the Midpoint.
This can also be the moment when two ‘friends’ first see each other in a new light. In When Harry Met Sally, the hook is the famous orgasm scene. After Sally’s amazing display (however faked) Harry is forced to see her in a new light, as a sexual being. Now he wants what she’s having.
In Prudence, it’s a moment of vulnerability that brings out the hero’s caring side. Poor old Prudence develops flu. Ace surprises her by being incredibly kind and even brings her a kitten from the stables to cheer her up. SOLD. Prudence tries to tell herself, ‘He won’t be nearly as attractive when his suntan fades’. HOOKED!
Note: sometimes these beats are singles scenes, sometimes they’re whole sequences. It’s definitely the latter in Prudence. Ace does a few kind things for Prudence but it’s the kitten that stands out … Irresponsible pet ownership but very romantic. He also learns a lot about Prudence: like, how kind she is to his neglected niece Lucasta, how intelligent she really is, and that she and Pendle are definitely over. In The Out of Office Girl, there are a whole series of Hooks, where the attraction and friendship between Alice and Sam gradually builds and builds – culminating in the infamous (to me anyway) Pool Scene.
Tomorrow, I’ll post about the last 3 classic romantic beats, as defined by Billy Mernit: the Swivel, the All is Lost Moment and the Joyful Defeat.
*Note: I’m using ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ in this but obviously that’s subject to change.