After writing in a vacuum for years, thinking I was so different from everyone else and feeling alone, it’s wonderful to be part of RWA and Southern Magic, and to find out that I have much more in common with other writers than I ever would have thought. So it was gratifying but not really surprising to read Paula’s post on Writing Cinematically, because I use some of the same techniques. I write romantic comedy, but my favorite example of this genre isn’t a novel at all but a movie: The Sure Thing, directed by Rob Reiner and starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga. And one of my favorite books on writing is Writing the Romantic Comedy--we’re talking screenplay, not novel--by Billy Mernit.
What this book offers is a roadmap for plotting a screenplay (or book). It sounds a lot like Paula’s three-act structure of screenplays, or like Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan, or like the Discovering Story Magic plan that the members of Southern Magic have fallen in love with. All these roadmaps have many features in common, because they’re all describing a similar satisfying plot. Maybe it’s because Writing the Romantic Comedy is specific to the genre I write, but something about the language of this roadmap clicks for me better than any of the other roadmaps I’ve seen. A summary:
1. The Chemical Equation: Setup--A scene or sequence identifying the exterior and/or interior conflict (i.e., unfulfilled desire), the “what’s wrong with this picture” implied in the protagonist’s (and/or the antagonist’s) current status quo.
In The Sure Thing, we see John Cusack’s 18-year-old character, Gib, strike out with girls at his New England college. At the same college, Daphne Zuniga’s character, Allison, misses her long-time boyfriend across the country.
2. Cute Meet: Catalyst--The inciting incident that brings man and woman together and into conflict; an inventive but credible contrivance, often amusing, which in some way sets the tone for the action to come.
Gib and Allison have a study date that goes terribly wrong. Now he thinks she’s uptight, and she thinks he’s a pervert.
3. A Sexy Complication: Turning Point--Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 1, a new development that raises story stakes and clearly defines the protagonist’s goal; most successful when it sets man and woman at cross-purposes and/or their inner emotions at odds with the goal.
At Christmas, Gib hitches a ride across the country to visit his high school friend (Anthony Edwards) who has lined up a beautiful “sure thing” for him (Nicollette Sheridan). Allison hitches the same ride to visit her boyfriend. Forced proximity! Also, the driver (Tim Robbins) is hilarious and, to Gib and Allison, very annoying. It’s worth it to rent this movie just to hear him sing show tunes.
4. The Hook: Midpoint--A situation that irrevocably binds the protagonist with the antagonist (often while tweaking sexual tensions) and has further implications for the outcome of the relationship.
Gib and Allison find that, rather than fantasizing about Gib’s sure thing and Allison’s boyfriend, they have begun fantasizing about each other.
5. Swivel: Second Turning Point--Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 2, stakes reach their highest point as the romantic relationship’s importance jeopardizes the protagonist’s chance to succeed at his stated goal--or vice versa--and his goal shifts.
Allison overhears Gib tell the truck driver with whom they’re hitching a ride that he has a sure thing waiting for him.
6. The Dark Moment: Crisis Climax--Wherein the consequences of the swivel decision yield disaster; generally the humiliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever.
After trying to make each other jealous at a college party, Gib leaves with his sure thing, Allison with her boyfriend. But, still wanting each other, neither follows through.
7. Joyful Defeat: Resolution--A reconciliation that reaffirms the primal importance of the relationship; usually a happy ending that implies marriage or a serious commitment, often at the cost of some personal sacrifice to the protagonist.
Gib and Allison return to their New England college after the holidays and get together--in freshman English class. Perfect!