I recently watched a clip on YouTube about a study that claims that watching too many romantic comedies will ruin your love life.
Nevermind that this smacks of those “experts” who claim that the reason some guy went nuts and stabbed 20 people is because he watched one too many slasher flicks…
What is so terrible about people getting inspired by a movie and believing that they can find passionate, deep love?
Oh, right, because it “doesn’t exist.” Actually, it does. I know you know at least one happy couple, and probably you know quite a few. Perhaps the more bitter of us think it’s an act or that one of them must be cheating. Sometimes, that is the case. Sometimes isn’t always.
Anyway, you know I’m a big advocate for the romantic comedy, so in its defense, here are a few things to keep in mind when watching and “comparing” to real life.
1. Romantic Comedies are not stories about relationships. The typical structure of a romantic comedy screenplay starts the movie where two people meet and finishes with those people deciding to start a relationship. The end. The “happily ever after” is an assumption. How do you actually know that Richard Gere and Julia Roberts never fought about whose turn it was to take out the trash years after he climbed up on that fire escape with flowers? Romantic Comedies are stories about people finding someone to love, not about how to maintain that love relationship, which brings me to…
2. Romantic Comedies do not actually promote the idea that love is effortless. It’s my belief that when people wish that love was “easy like in the movies” they are really wishing that love was “easy like watching a movie.” Next time you watch a romantic comedy, pay attention to what the characters ACTUALLY go through to find love. The trials will vary from movie to movie, and these will be the common themes: Taking great risks, taking action (like the cliche race to the altar/airport), getting your heart broken, and growing as a person (which, in screenwriting, is called a character arc). If a character is willing to go through all of these changes, then he or she is rewarded with love. The same is true in life. If you want to find love, you have to make an effort.
3. Movies will always look more exciting than life. They have to. If they don’t, then what are you paying to see? The key word here is “see.” You can have an exciting real life if you choose to; however, that excitement is an internal emotional state. Your life might be a lot of fun, and that doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch. Movies have to be fun to watch. Hence the car chases, montages, crazy comedy sequences, and all that good stuff. You can lead an extraordinary life with great love even if you never race to meet someone at the top of the Empire State Building.
4. Something can still exist even if it doesn’t last. I’m not sure when we, as a culture, decided that love “isn’t real” if it doesn’t last. When we go through a break up, we often say things like, “Oh, it felt so real, but I guess it was all just a joke.” Newsflash: if it felt real, it WAS. We don’t expect any other emotion to last forever. If someone cuts you off on the freeway, you might feel angry. If you aren’t still angry about it 50 years from now, does that mean the anger wasn’t real? We like to roll our eyes at romantic comedy movie characters who fall in love “at first sight” or after knowing each other for a matter of days. We are convinced it can’t be real because it hasn’t been long enough. Have you ever stopped to consider that time is a really arbitrary way to measure how “real” love is? If you feel it, then you feel it. So what if you don’t feel it a year from now or even five minutes from now? In that moment, that love did exist.
The couples that last forever do so because they know that emotions are fleeting so they continually pour effort into making their partner fall in love again and again. The couples that don’t stay together are the ones that assume that love “should just last” and so they stop trying in their relationships.
5. Movies have to have conflict, drama, and high stakes to be entertaining. Relationships Don’t. Most screenwriting books will tell you, one way or another, that story IS conflict. This is absolutely true. When writing a screenplay, you have to put conflict in every single scene. The more the better. This is what keeps the story moving. Now, when was the last time you heard of a real-life relationship working out because the couple decided to put conflict in every interaction, the more the better? If you want your actual relationship to last, you need to find another way to have fun together.
High stakes are also essential elements of drama that wreck real relationships. See, in order for a romantic comedy to hold an audience’s attention, the screenwriter has to create the sense that these two people must be together or their lives will be ruined. These are the high stakes: what the characters stand to lose if they lose each other. In a romantic comedy, the stakes are usually something like “they will lose their only chance at love.” In real life, if you are carrying around the believe that “I must have so-and-so or my life is over” then you are entering a world of unnecessary pain. In romantic comedies, there are two people that must be together or else. In real life, there are plenty of fish in the sea.
6. Chemistry is the start of great love, not the achievement of it. Most people seem to believe that romantic comedies promote the idea that all you have to do is make eye contact with the right person and “feel that lightening bolt” and the rest will take care of itself. If that were true, then there would be no such thing as a romantic comedy movie. Why? Because in typical romantic comedy screenplay structure, the “cute-meet” is around page 10. Given that the standard is 1 page = 1 minute of screen time, if meeting and feeling that spark is really all it takes to have love, then we’d have a lot of ten minute movies. In fact, in both rom-coms and in real life, that chemistry is only the beginning. Then, the characters have to do “hard things” like overcome obstacles, tackle inner demons, and open their hearts to love. This goes back to the earlier point that onscreen love is never really portrayed as completely effortless. That lightening bolt is a wonderful sign that there is the potential for love. However, without further action, potential is useless.
7. Forget Fate; Love is a Choice. Ok, yes, there are more than a few rom-coms where two people are “destined” for each other. My latest favorite is Slumdog Millionaire (not really a chick flick but definitely about starcrossed lovers). This sense of destiny is often a result of the screenwriter successfully creating the “high stakes.” In real life, even astrologers, psychics, and the like will tell you that you have many potential soulmates on this planet, not just THE ONE.
Love is always a choice. This is certainly true in life, and, if you look closely, this is also true in romance and romantic comedy movies. A producer friend of mine said recently, “Given the choice between the cash and the girl, you know, in real life, we’d all take the cash, but this is a movie, so of course he’s gonna take the girl.” Billy Mernit, author of Writing the Romantic Comedy, says that romantic comedies can be boiled down to a choice between security and passion. In the movies, the character always chooses passion. In life, we often choose security, then wonder why our lives are devoid of passion and romance.
See, it’s my believe that romantic comedies don’t set up expectations for love that are too high. Rather, in our own lives, we often set up expectations for love that are much, much too low. You have a choice. You can either keep rolling your eyes at chick flicks, congratulating yourself for being to smart to “fall for that stuff.” Or you can believe in love. Personally, I find the latter to be much more fun.