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Pulling characters together and pushing them apart: Meet cutes and obstacles to romance
I’m writing a romantic movie, but the last days I have been thinking if the story is credible or not. What do I have to do to write a credible romantic story?
— Stefano Vettorazzi Campos
You have to make us care whether the two lead characters end up together, which is really two requirements:
Characters we give a shit about. They don’t need to be likable, necessarily, but they need to be compelling. We need to be curious about what they’re going to do next.
A credible reason to keep them apart. This could be almost anything — war, prejudice, a sinking boat — but if we don’t buy it, you’re toast.
I’d argue that #2 is actually more important than #1.
Cast some attractive actors and we’ll want to see them kiss. But I get angry watching romances in which the hurdles are set too low. If there’s nothing stopping the characters from running off to live happily ever after at the midpoint, why bother?
John: Let’s take a look at the rom-com meet-cute and then let’s generalize it back out to any two characters meeting each other, because that’s going to happen in all of our scripts. We’ll start with rom-coms.
There’s basically four different patterns you can see with this character meets that character and what is the dynamic there. Sometimes they immediately have chemistry. You can see, oh, they should be together and there’s an obstacle in the way. A great example of that would be Her. You have Joaquin Phoenix’s character and you have the AI character, and they clearly have a spark, but she’s just an AI, so there’s an obstacle in the way there.
There’s also the mutual hatred of each other. When Harry Met Sally is a great example of that. We meet the two characters at the same time. They just do not like each other.
Another dynamic that’s common is one is really into the other, and the other can’t stand the first person. The Notebook is very much that, where he’s a stalker pursuing her and eventually wears her down.
Then the fourth dynamic I’d say is when they don’t know who the other person is. That’s what they did in Big Fish. That’s also Romeo and Juliet, where these two characters have this immediate spark. They don’t recognize what the obstacle is between the two of them. They can’t find each other.
Craig: All of these are way outside the bounds of normal human relationships. It’s actually quite rare that people meet each other and hate each other instantly or people meet each other and one hates the other instantly. The only time in my life I think I met somebody and hated them instantly was Ted Cruz. Instantly. Does that count as a meet-cute?
John: It would count if ultimately you did, down the road, fall in love together.
Craig: What we like about these circumstances is the notion that we as humans just can’t quite get to where we belong, and so God or fate is going to nudge us together, because like most of the stories, ultimately it boils down to fear. I’m afraid of something, and so I am not living the best life I can. I’m living according to a different theory. Fate smushes me together with another person. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be a story. It actually has to be hard.
The point is, the nature of the meet-cute sets up, or exemplifies, the problem that one or the other or both people have. That meet-cute is a little microcosm of why they are not with somebody that they love. By the end of the movie, they will overcome their problems and be with each other.
John: In any rom-com or any romantic movie, the premise of the whole thing is that central relationship. It’s understandable that there’s such a spotlight on how those two characters meet. Of course, all of our scripts and all of our stories have characters meeting each other for the first time.
Let’s think about the situations in which characters meet. The most common one is that the audience knows one character, generally your hero, and is being introduced to the second character. That’s going to happen not in every scene, but so many scenes, where we’re getting information about this new character the same time our hero is getting information about it. As a writer, we can just choose what information we want to get out, because we don’t need to tell the audience anything new about our hero necessarily. Our hero is pulling information out of this other character, or if anything, we are seeing some new side about our hero about how they are describing themselves, how they are introducing themselves to this new character.
Craig: Are there examples or would it be advisable at this point, given how many meet-cutes there have been and how now—like Megana says, there’s a meta meet-cute discussion that happens in these movies—to meet not cute? Even to disregard or violate the rule that George Axelrod laid out and say meet boring? Is there value in a meet-boring?
John: Megana and I were talking about this. I think there’s an example of characters who know each other, but over the course of the story, that overlooked character or recontextualized character becomes important. That red shirt in Star Trek who actually does have a name and becomes useful, Hermione when she shows up in the dress. She was always just a friend. Now you’re seeing her now as a romantic character. Paul Rudd’s character in Clueless, which is that he wasn’t perceived as being a romantic character, so therefore he doesn’t get a meet-cute really as we introduce him into the story, I think very cleverly, not making him seem like a potential love interest down the road.
Craig: That’s an interesting method. It’s not so much about a meet-boring, it’s about a not-meet-at-all, that even though characters are meeting, there are meetings and there are meetings. If you happen to be introduced to somebody, along with three other people in a scene, then you haven’t met that person in a meet scene. Now you just know them. That’s an interesting notion of just avoiding. It’s not so much the cute you might want to consider avoiding. It’s the meet itself.
John: Now, we were trying to think of examples of situations where we as an audience meet both of our central characters at the same time. This is how we’re getting information now. When Harry Met Sally is basically that situation. We’re with Billy Crystal for moments before they get in the car together. Licorice Pizza literally just is this long tracking shot where we’re meeting both of these characters for the first time. They have this very long conversation, where we’re getting all the information about both of them. That’s an example of they really are setting this up as a two-hander, like these are the two people we’re going to follow and we’re starting this on equal footing.
Craig: As we get smarter and more sophisticated, because we have seen more versions of the same things over and over, the idea that maybe the way we approach shopworn but necessary moments like two characters meeting is to just fling ourselves in one direction or the other really far, just triple down or underplay it completely, because I don’t know if there’s room any more for Matthew McConaughey to bump into Jennifer Lopez in the middle of the street.
John: There’s no way to do it without making it feel like it’s that kind of moment, where just you can hear the music behind it. I was watching Worst Person in the World. I absolutely loved it. Norwegian film. Everyone should check it out. It does a really interesting thing about the two love interests, the two men that she meets up with and connects with over the course of the movie. Both of those meet-cutes are handled in… The first one’s just an offhanded way. She’s just talking to different people, and she talks to this guy, and that becomes the guy. The second one is a much bigger spotlight on this meet-cute moment that just extends and extends and extends in a way that’s really rewarding. The example of the first one slips in through the back door and the second one is just really aware of the tropes that they’re entering into, which is fun.
Craig: That’s good, because I think smart filmmakers, smart television makers are aware, at least in part, of all the stuff that’s come before them. It’s harder and harder to say I’m doing something in a new way that hasn’t been done before, but that’s not necessary. Sometimes you just need to let the audience know that you know.
John: The last scenario is where the audience knows both characters separately, and then we see the characters meet each other for the first time. This happens a fair amount. It happens if you’ve seen the villain separately, and you’ve seen the hero separately, and they’re suddenly crossing paths. Think about Jack and Rose in Titanic. We establish both of those characters for a long time separately before we see them together.
It’s strange how we are so ahead of the characters in that moment, that if they were to talk about where they came from, what this stuff was, it’s not interesting to us, unless you can find a way to make that interesting, because all that we’re learning new about the characters is how they interact with this character we’ve already established.
Craig: It’s funny, I was just thinking about one of the strangest and most effective meet-cutes in cinematic history is in Titanic. I don’t think you would be able to do it like that today.
Rose is going to kill herself. She’s preparing to throw herself into the ocean to avoid having to marry this awful man. She is seconds away from committing suicide. Then Leonardo DiCaprio wanders out, being all cool and everything and like, “It would sure be a shame for you to suicide yourself there.” Then he pulls her back and she’s like, “Oh, sir.” The thing is, I don’t think you could do that today. On the other hand, for the tone of that movie it was perfection, just utter perfection.
John: Everything being elevated to where it was going.
Craig: You got the sense that she wasn’t actually going to jump, that she actually suddenly panicked and didn’t want to jump, which I think was very important for the tone of that, but you remember it.
John: It’s got that iconic imagery there. Takeaways from meet-cuting, I think it’s useful to think about all the ways characters meet in rom-coms, because if you’re writing a romantic comedy or something that deals in the general space of a rom-com, you’re going to be dealing with all the expectations of what that initial meeting’s going to be, but then to just generalize it back out to your characters are always meeting each other, so what are the situations that they’re meeting, and can or should this be an interesting, unlikely, surprising way of these two characters meeting, or should you deliberately not do that, because otherwise it sets this expectation of some kind of future for this relationship which may not be realistic.
Craig: Certainly don’t think that you are limited to this question for romances. There are meet-cutes across almost every genre, but in particular, when there are people that are partnering on a job together, when they are thrown into some sort of collective dramatic scenario that they didn’t know each other and now they do, whatever it is, it doesn’t have anything to do with romance.
It’s really about relationship. It’s about two people who are going to have a relationship. It doesn’t matter if there’s romance. It doesn’t matter what their age is, gender, any of that stuff. Think about the meet-cuteness of things and how to apply it to the specific situation that your characters are in, as it relates to who they are and what their damage is.
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