(Minor spoilers: The Theory of Everything, Along Came Polly, Notorious, The Fighter, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Wedding Crashers)
Love stories are common in film. They are the A plot in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and often in melodrama; and they are often the B story in other genres. But romantic storylines can be tricky. Here are three common flaws to watch out for – and ways to fix them.
1. The characters love each other because it’s a movie.
Too often filmmakers assume that if they cast two attractive movie stars, we will believe they are in love. 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, right? But neither of those scenarios makes the romance truly compelling. You want the audience rooting for the two characters to be together, and for that to happen we need to understand why these people need each other. Otherwise it won’t feel like there’s much at stake in the romance.
Try asking yourself how each character makes the other better. Ideally, the characters fulfill some psychological or emotional need of their partner. One common approach 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).
In The Theory of Everything (screenplay by Anthony McCarten), Jane gives the shiftless Stephen ambition – at first to take physics seriously and later to fight his disease. In return, Stephen opens Jane’s eyes to the wonder and beauty of the universe. He’s drawn to her inner strength and she’s drawn to his brilliance.
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.
Be sure to do this for both sides of the love story. I’ve seen some stories where it’s obvious why the main character would fall for the love interest, but not so clear why the love interest would reciprocate.
2. We spend Act Two watching them be happy.
There’s an old writing adage: Happy people are boring. For drama we need obstacles to the romance. This can take two forms: internal and external.
External obstacles are things like a rival suitor, 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 managed to use class differences as an obstacle to the romance.
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. 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.
In The Theory of Everything, the obstacle may appear to be Stephen’s disease (external), and that’s part of it, but the bigger challenge to the relationship is Stephen taking Jane for granted and not recognizing how much she’s sacrificing for him. Ultimately it’s not the disease that sends Jane away, it’s the lack of emotional fulfillment.
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.
3. The obviously bad romantic rival.
One of the most common obstacles is the alternate suitor – known as a love triangle. But there’s a pitfall here. In order to get the audience rooting for one suitor over another, 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 learn of the infidelity 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 it becomes important to show why two characters are right for each other. You can have one suitor help the character be a better person, while the other suitor encourages their less desirable behavior. Neither suitor needs to be bad per se, but one is right for the character while the other is not.
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.
Great romances can draw out powerful emotion in the audience – as long as you avoid these traps.