Sunday, April 24, 2016
Book Examples Needed, Part 4: "I Understand You" moments
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with her love interest or primary emotional partner?
We’ve all had the experience. You’re sure you’ve met your perfect match. You rhapsodize for hours about everything that made you fall head over heels, but at the end, your friend just shrugs and says, “Are you kidding me?”
The problem, of course, is your hormonal response is distorting your reality, and your cool-eyed friends are evaluating the shelf-life of this new relationship dispassionately, asking: Do these two have enough in common? Will they treat each other well? Do they need each other?
It’s great to capture the subjective experience of falling in love, of course, though novelists have a much better chance of doing that than screenwriters.
Screenwriters can try to cheat, like West Side Story did, by using subjective camera effects to capture Tony’s besotted vision of Maria, but even back then, viewers just rolled their eyes. The camera eye is not the hero’s eye, and we will always see more than he sees, no matter how much Vaseline you smear on the lens.
But in some ways the screenwriter has the advantage, because a well-written story, in any medium, will capture both the subjective experience and an objective perspective on this relationship. Allow the audience to be both the besotted hero and the dubious friend.
So this is one case where you don’t want to “write what you know.” Don’t trust your own distorted memories of love and/or heartbreak. Instead, think back to your friends’ relationships. Which relationships did you root for and which infuriated you? Which ones endangered your friends and which saved them? Most importantly, how did you know they were right for each other, maybe even before they did?
Whether your first draft is one huge love story or the romance is a minor element, once you’ve gotten some notes, you may be shocked to discover that nobody sees what you see in the love interest.
The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but the series has a huge flaw: Nowhere in the course of these seven massive books does Rowling ever put in a single “I understand you” scene between either of the main couples: Harry/Ginny or Ron/Hermione! Ginny is especially thin; she’s basically just “the girlfriend.” Finally, years later, Rowling acknowledged her mistake publicly: Hermione is the one who understands Harry, and they should have ended up together.
Of course, given that your hero starts off with a false goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character lecturing your hero from the start. But then, you risk drifting into another category of alienating character: Just as you don’t want a hero who just says no, likewise you don’t want a stick-in-the-mud love interest, such as the kind you find in Old School, and many other manchild comedies.
Better “I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for the Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.
Sometimes, you can establish they understand each other before they even meet. We know in advance that the heroes in Friends with Benefits will bond because we see they have an ironically shared dislike of relationships. And what could be more romantic than the song that drifts from Maurice Chavalier in the city out to Jeanette MacDonald in the country in Love Me Tonight, uniting their hearts before either knows the other exists?
Just as you must occasionally check with your friends to make sure you’re not blinded by love in real life, you must get notes to find out how well your fictional romance is playing with your readers. Don’t be surprised if you need to give it a firmer foundation.