Monday, August 28, 2023

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a 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 that 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 important, 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 that the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but the series has a big 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.” Hermione is the one who understands Harry, and they should have ended up together. Finally, years later, Rowling acknowledged her mistake in an interview with Wonderland magazine.
  • I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron. 
Of course, given that your hero starts with a false goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character who lectures 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 man-child 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 Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes the hero finally meets someone who sees the world his way: In 1984, Winston truly falls in love with Julia when he’s feeling sympathy for the beaten-down old cleaning lady and Julia surprises him by saying that she finds the woman beautiful. She sees what he sees.

Sometimes you can establish that the two characters 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.

Rulebook Casefile: The “I Understand You” Moment in Rushmore
In Rushmore, Max Fisher wants to manufacture a romance with his crush Miss Cross as quickly as possible, so this becomes another one of his elaborate schemes. Like any great writer, Max knows that he must create an “I Understand You” moment: a moment that makes her say, almost despite herself, “Oh, look, there’s a bit of kismet here, maybe we should be together.”

You can see him endeavoring to do this in his feigned “chance encounter” early in the movie. She is on the bleachers reading, so he just happens to choose the same bleachers for his own reading. He wants to seem to be a serious, thoughtful adult like her, so he gets out from the library “The Powers That Be” by David Halberstam, a forgotten icon of parlor-room intellectuals of a generation before. He’s hoping she’ll say, “Wow, this is no kid, this is a serious adult like me, and I’ve just met my soulmate.” But of course, it doesn’t work. He’s no adult, and it’s not going to happen.

Max finally meets a real romantic prospect towards the end of the film. At first, he sees that Margaret Yang is drawn to his energy, as many kids are, and so he uses her in his play without taking her interest seriously, ignoring her when she comes to his house. It’s only later, in a chance encounter, that he realizes that this is a kindred spirit.

He’s flying kites with his acolyte Dirk, only to discover that Margaret is flying her remote control plane in the same field. He then sees that she has made an adorable flight plan, much like the kind of thing he would make. That’s the “I understand you” moment, but what happens next really seals the deal: he finds out that she almost defrauded the navy into buying a science project that she faked. She is more mature and compassionate than Max, but she is, at heart, a dreamer and a schemer just like him.

For practical reasons, Margaret is the only real prospect for Max in the movie, but she can’t just be “the love interest” or else we will reject her. We the audience must decide for ourselves that they belong together, preferably before Max does. That way, we get the thrill of watching our hero belatedly make the right romantic choice, fulfilling our desires, not just his own.

An “I understand you” moment will sometimes consist of one character entreating another for love and proving his or her case, but just as often, it sneaks up on both characters, unexpectedly proving to the both of them that they belong together (In this case, before he’s ready to hear it, and after she’s already given up.) 
Rulebook Casefile: An I Understand You Moment in Humans of New York

I think I’ll spend this week looking at lessons that can be drawn from “Humans of New York” posts. I’ll  start with this one, which is one of my favorites:

This exemplifies two rules: The importance of an “I understand you” moment at the beginning of a romance, and the importance of ironic positive developments. Presumably, both men came to the party determined to be antisocial sticks-in-the-mud, and then the two sticks saw each other across a crowded room. (Fun fact: I used to write songs in college, and one had the chorus “I don’t care and you don’t care so let’s not care together”)

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Villains Can Create Fake “I Understand You” Moments
Well, folks I thought we were all done with Frozen, but I got an interesting comment on the original checklist post and I thought it deserved its own post. Jane says:
  • I feel like one major problem with Frozen is that Hans and Anna actually have way better ‘I understand you’ moments than Kristoff and Anna do. They both connect over feeling ignored by their siblings, and their song is full of lines where they intuitively understand one another's way of looking at things (‘Jinx!’ ‘Jinx again!’). Every time they talk about finishing each other's sandwiches, I think, Maybe those two crazy kids can work it out.
I would go further to point out that Hans even “understands” the expectations Anna had before she ever met him: “I suddenly see him standing there, a beautiful stranger tall and fair…Then we laugh and talk all evening, which is totally bizarre, nothing like the life I’ve lived so far…”

Then she meets Hans and, as Jane says, they seem to be in total synchronicity. The filmmakers know that we’re primed to respond to “I understand you” moments, so they pile them on here, not just tricking Anna into falling for Hans, but tricking the audience, too. (“Aha, they understand each other’s childhood insecurities, and in movies that means we’ve found the real love interest.”)

But of course it’s all a lie. Hans is a psychopath, and he’s “mirroring” Anna: reflecting back to her magnified, fake versions of her own thoughts and feelings. He’s “reading” her to find out what she wants, deep down, and then instantly transforming himself into her ideal, in order to steal her throne.

The Frozen filmmakers are playing chess while we’re playing checkers. They understand our narrative expectations better than we do, and they’re masterfully manipulating us, just as Hans manipulates Anna. They know that we and she both crave “I understand you” moments, and they’re warning us against too-easy storytelling choices just as surely as they’re warning girls against psychopathic guys.

It’s interesting that there’s no one moment that we revisit in retrospect and say, “Aha, that was the clue that he was evil!” Even when we know the twist, the foreshadowing is almost invisible. But it’s there. In their duet, Anna is talking about love, but Hans is saying “I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” which turns out to have a different meaning: He’s been looking for a throne to steal.

When we watch the movie for the first time, it all seems real, and we’re happy for Anna, but we’re also a little deflated: It was too easy, so there’s a suspicion in the back of our minds that maybe this isn’t really the one.

As we said before, Elsa’s love is hard, closed-door love and Hans’s “love” is easy, open-door love, and the movie is making it clear (eventually) that easy love is usually a bad thing.

And this is true in real love and real life: If it comes too easy, it’s probably fake. I noticed this when pitching screenplays: When I walked out of the meeting saying, “That could not have gone better!”, then it was always a pass. They would puff me up, tell me exactly what I wanted to hear, and then whisk me out the door so that they never had to see me again. When a meeting actually went well, it was grueling, as they picked at and poked and prodded my work, trying to figure out why they kinda maybe liked it. When you’re pitching, you want tough closed-door-open-a-crack love, not easy open-door love, which means you’re being blown off.

In movies, life, and love, if someone really understands you, then they’re not going to tell you everything you want to hear. 
Rulebook Casefile: The Lack of a False “I Understand You” Moment in Star Trek Beyond
I just watched Star Trek Beyond and boy is it limp. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not an utter horrorshow like the last one— If I had to pick one word to describe it, I would just choose “lazy.”

We start off with an unexciting cold open, played for laughs, in which Kirk, standing still, gets attacked by little creatures. This ends quickly without any real jeopardy, then we have a dreadful 15 minutes of “character scenes” in which Kirk wallows in vague ennui. Then an alien woman shows up asking that the Enterprise save her planet (or something, it’s not clear.) As soon as the Enterprise shows up at her planet, it gets attacked and destroyed by some bad guys. Escaping to the planet below, Kirk realizes that the woman who asked them to come there did so knowing that they were being lured into a trap to be destroyed. At first she claims she had to do so to save her crew, and then she seems to be working with the bad guys maybe, and then she’s killed off unceremoniously.

The movie’s biggest problem is that this alien woman makes no impression on us before she betrays our heroes. Helping her is the entire motivation for the movie! In the whole epic scene in which the Enterprise gets destroyed, they’re sacrificing everything to save her, but she’s barely had any lines!

This movie needs what Frozen had: a fake “I understand you” moment. Kirk should be hesitant to help her until she reaches out to him with an impassioned cry of the heart that makes him care so much that he’s even willing to sacrifice his ship to help her in her cause (whatever that cause was. Again, it was unclear). They should bond deeply, and we in the audience should feel moved by her story.

Of course, it’s tricky, you don’t just want an unfair fake-out. As with Hans in Frozen, you want to be able to rewatch the movie and realize “Oh, I can see how she’s faking him out, and how what she’s saying can actually be taken either way.” But even the unfair version would be better than what they have. You can’t just assume that the audience will sympathize with a victim because we’re told (falsely) that she’s a victim. You have to make us feel that, or we won’t care (with good reason, in this case.)

(Another problem here is that the movie decides that, after 50 successful years of Star Trek, they’re suddenly going to worry about the language translation problem, so they have the woman speaking in her alien language, with a little automatic translator on her lapel repeating the words in English. Before this, for all intents and purposes, everybody in the Trek universe just spoke English, and that worked just fine. Why mess with success? The way they do it makes it even more impossible to empathize with her.)

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Trish proposes waiting on sex. 



An Education

YES. Sort of: With her teacher. 

The Babadook

YES. she and her son have it out. 

Blazing Saddles

YES. He and the Cisco kid bond while discussing their pasts. 

Blue Velvet

NO. Not really.  Nobody ever gets him. 

The Bourne Identity

YES. He and Marie have several.


YES. with Lillian. 


YES. they have it out. 


YES. When Evelyn tries to overcome his reluctance to talk about Chinatown.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  ironically with Lefty, when they talk in the car. 

Do the Right Thing

NO. nobody really understands Mookie.

The Farewell

YES. Her Nai Nai perceptively sees her problems, and her uncle sees her flaws.  

The Fighter

YES. Very much so, after the first date. 


YES. When Kristoff points out to her that she barely knows Hans, and he clearly has her number.

The Fugitive

YES. the very end between Girard and Kimble

Get Out

YES. Well, there are several false “I understand you” moments.

Groundhog Day

YES. Phil keeps trying to engineer false “I understand you” moments with Rita, but ultiamtely they have real ones once he tells her.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. at sunset.

In a Lonely Place

NO. They never really understand each other. 

Iron Man

YES. At the party

Lady Bird

YES. She and her mom each reach out to the other in one-way ways, her mom with the letters she didn’t intend to send, the daughter with a phone message.  Maybe Metcalf would have won that Oscar if she’d picked up the phone at the end. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Many


YES. He tries to create fake moments with Ms. Cross, but then he has a genuine one with Margaret Yang, when he finds that she's created an adorable flight plan for her model plane just like he would make.



The Shining

Just between Danny and Halloran


YES. a few. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Very much so: the lambs scene.

Star Wars

NO, which is why the sequel writers decided not to get them together after all. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. between he and Betty talking about their pasts.

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