(Minor spoilers: Along Came Polly, Sleepless in Seattle, Notorious, The Fighter, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Wedding Crashers)
They’re Meant to be Together
The first thing you need to do is get the audience rooting for the two characters to be together. We need to understand why this particular person is right for our hero and vice versa or it won’t feel like there’s much at stake in the romance. Too often movies rely on the fact there will be two attractive movie stars in the roles. Or in an action movie with a romantic subplot, the love interest may be the only female in the film so of course the hero will fall for her. But that’s hardly compelling.
The trick here is that each character should fulfill something the other character needs on a psychological level. One common version of this in romantic comedies is the uptight guy who needs to loosen up and the free spirited woman who needs someone to ground her (Along Came Polly (written by John Hamburg) would be a good example).
The deeper these psychological needs, the better in my opinion. Though it’s very popular, I’m not a big fan of Sleepless in Seattle (story by Jeff Arch, screenplay by Nora Ephron and David S. Ward and Jeff Arch) largely because the reasons given for the characters to be together are pretty superficial. We’re to believe Annie is meant for Sam mainly because she peels an apple the same way his deceased wife did? The devices used to indicate the romantic rivals are wrong for our movie stars are similarly shallow: one has allergies and the other has an annoying laugh.
On the other hand in the classic Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), Alicia needs someone to believe she’s good at heart while Devlin needs someone to awaken his dormant emotional side. Devlin sees Alicia for who she really is – someone with a strong moral core despite her reputation, and Alicia’s passion brings out Devlin’s emotions. The result is one of the most romantic movies ever.
But Something Stands in the Way
In real life when two people are attracted to each other they generally start dating and are very happy. But for drama we need obstacles. This can take two forms: internal and external.
External obstacles are things like a rival suitor (see below), social convention and competing interests. Social convention is a tried and true obstacle but is getting harder as society becomes more progressive. These days mixed race and mixed class romances are more accepted - good for humanity, bad for screenwriters. Arthur (written by Steve Gordon) is an example of a movie that uses class differences as an obstacle to the romance. Going the Distance (written by Geoff LaTulippe) uses competing interests as an obstacle – in this case career goals that force a long distance relationship.
The Fighter (story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington, screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson) demonstrates a more unique external obstacle. In this case, Micky’s mother fears losing influence over him. She opposes his romance with Charlene because Charlene encourages Micky to do what’s right for him even if it means disappointing his family (his need). So the family fights back.
Internal obstacles come from the character needing to overcome a psychological flaw to have a successful relationship. Maybe it’s the womanizing hero who needs to give up his bad boy ways, or the workaholic who has to get his priorities straight. In Notorious it’s Devlin’s stubbornness and loyalty to his job.
You can have multiple obstacles to the romance, but it’s usually smart to have one primary obstacle so the movie stays focused. If you’re working in a romantic genre, often the external obstacle is the A story and an internal obstacle will be the B story or vice versa. This adds complexity without diluting the focus. For example, in 50 First Dates (written by George Wing) the A obstacle is Lucy’s unusual form of amnesia, while the B story is Henry’s fear of commitment.
The Love Triangle Problem
One of the most common obstacles is the alternate suitor – often known as a love triangle. But there’s a pitfall here. You want to have the audience rooting for one suitor over another so many writers make one good and the other bad. But if the choice is obvious and our hero or heroine doesn’t see that, we start to lose respect for them. In Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher) for example, Claire is with Sack who is such a jerk we start to wonder about Claire. Do we really want John to end up with a woman who would date a guy like that?
One solution that has become cliché is the rival cheating on the love interest. In this case the hero and audience learns of this but the love interest is oblivious. This can work, but if the rival isn’t really good at hiding his philandering we’ll again wonder about the love interest’s intelligence.
This is where using the character’s need can solve your problem. This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie needs to reconcile with her past to be truly happy. Andrew represents a fantasy life that ignores her roots. Jake represents her roots but also her aspiration to something more. Jake is the right person for her, but first she will have to overcome the guilt and fear she has about her past. She will have to be honest with herself. Neither guy is “bad,” but one is right for her and the other is not.
By the way, Sweet Home Alabama is now available on Blu-Ray! It's a special 10th Anniversary Edition.