Monday Motivation: What to write when its all be written before
We’ve been devising a workshop on a very particular aspect of romantic comedies. Every romcom is obliged to include a particular scene. You’ll recognize it the moment you see it: it’s when the two love interests meet.
Hollywood originally called this scene “the cute meet”* but over time it evolved into the slightly more knowing “meet cute”.
The stereotypical meet cute involves two characters who, while recognizing at some level their mutual attraction, push away from each other for any one of a number of reasons.
The encounter might take any form at all: The man might just have spilled his martini over the woman… Or zipped her dress up in his flies when, realizing that he hadn’t zipped, does so just as she squeezes past him in a crowded foyer…Or she watches him impatiently while he shares a long and very wet kiss with his current girlfriend.
This last of course is the meet cute scene that kicks the story of When Harry Met Sally into life. The screenplay is the work of the legendary Nora Ephron, who wrote it in collaboration with the director, Rob Reiner.
The challenge of the meet cute scene is the fact that it’s been done so many times before. It has, in other words, become a minefield of cliché.
This is a problem that confronts writers whatever they write – although it’s particularly acute when you’re writing genre fiction. What should your alien look like? Who should you include on your heist team when you’re planning to rob Fort Knox?
It’s a bit like finding yourself at the end of a three-kilometer-long queue of climbers waiting to summit Everest.
So how Ephron solved the problem in When Harry Met Sally should be of interest to all of us.
The meet cute takes place when Sally arrives to pick up Harry, who’s dating her best friend, Amanda. Amanda has suggested they share the 16-hour drive to New York, where they both intend to settle. Sally comes across Harry and Amanda kissing. The kiss goes on and on. Sitting in her car, she toots her horn to alert them to her presence. They pay no attention. She coughs. At last they notice her. Exchanging declarations of eternal love for Amanda, Harry climbs into Sally’s car.
The scene is funny because we’re immediately aware of the difference between these two characters: for Sally, punctuality is a virtue; for Harry not so much. Sally wants to hit the road; Harry wants to go on kissing Amanda.
The scenes on the road that follow underscore and accentuate their differences. They talk about men and women, about relationships, about sex. Harry believes that men and women can’t be friends, because sex will always “get in the way”. Sally believes that men and women can be friends.
There is absolutely no sense of sexual attraction between Harry and Sally. If anything, Sally finds Harry’s attitudes reptilian; while Harry clearly despises her for what he thinks is her naivety.
So far so good. But not so very different from scores of other romcoms. So what does Ephron pull out of her hat next?
Well, she lets the years slip away. After they get to New York, five of them pass before the next scene opens – and so she contrives to have a second cute meet. Now Harry and Sally are working stiffs. She’s involved with Joe, and he with Helen. They meet this time at an airport (where they don’t acknowledge remembering each other) and then occupy neighbouring seats on the same plane. They talk. Her opinion of Harry is confirmed: he’s a man best avoided. They part without regret.
Is this relationship ever going to get into gear?
Ephron, thinking no doubt that you can’t have enough of a good thing, has them meet up again, five years later, after their relationships (with Joe and with Helen) have collapsed. This time, friendship results – confirming Sally’s original belief that men and women can be friends without sex getting in the way of things.
Three cute meets should be enough for any screenwriter. Ephron, though, lays it on even thicker. She has Harry and Sally arrange an evening out to introduce to each other, as potential romantic partners, their best friends. The stratagem fails spectacularly when their respective best friends fall, not for Harry and Sally, but for each other: the awkward evening turns into their cute meet.
And as if that’s not enough, Ephron peppers the film with mockumentary interviews with a series of older couples who describe the cute meets that ushered in their long-standing relationships.
And, of course, she called her film by the name she could have given that introductory scene: When Harry Met Sally identifies the meet cute quite unambiguously.
So what can we learn from this?
First of all, be aware, whatever you’re writing, that similar stories have in all likehood been written before. Be aware, too, that if your characters are stereotypes, then they will have strutted across the pages of fiction thousands of times already. Be aware, finally, that the great set scenes of fiction – weddings, funerals, declarations of love, sex, et cetera, et cetera – need to be approached with great caution. Can you make this deathbed scene, funny? Or this sex scene, awkward? Or this wedding, lugubrious? Can you give a twist to the otherwise predictable march of incident? Can you have your female character burst into laughter when her beau proposes marriage? Or tears? Or giggles? Or hiccups?
And then, perhaps most importantly of all, while you can’t avoid treading in others’ footsteps when it comes to plot, the details you devise can be all your own.
* The name emerged, it’s believed, during the making of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, an Ernst Lubitsch film of a screenplay co-written by Billy Wilder, and starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert. Their cute meet takes place in a French department store where Cooper’s character is trying to buy a pair of pajama tops (he never wears bottoms); and Colbert’s character agrees to buy the matching tops. Very cute.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: We care about people, not events‘