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By Britton Perelman · February 9, 2021
When it comes to Nora Ephron, we all want what she’s having.
Ephron’s writing always crackled with wit, humor, and honesty, but never more so than in her signature film, fan-favorite When Harry Met Sally…
In the three decades since it premiered, When Harry Met Sally… has been the gold standard by which all rom-coms are compared. So what exactly can screenwriters learn from the classic?
Download the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally… and read on for lessons to apply in your own writing.
“I’m a writer. I know dialogue and that’s particularly harsh.”
From the very first scenes of the film, it’s clear that Harry, Sally, and their friends talk like normal, everyday people. They use sarcasm, they repeat things with incredulity (“You made a woman meow?”), they poke fun one second and say something utterly serious the next.
Ephron’s true talent is in combining this realistic dialogue with memorable, clever lines that are far more cinematic than anything real people ever say aloud. Let’s be honest, most of the time people aren’t very well-written in real life and no one wants to watch an exact replica of the messy way people talk to each other in everyday conversations. Therein lies the key for screenwriters — you must find the delicate balance between dialogue that feels true to life and dialogue that is written well for the screen.
“You realize of course that we could never be friends.”
One of the pitfalls far too many rom-com writers fall prey to is the nasty, contrived love triangle. Though they make for easy on-screen drama, love triangles aren’t exactly realistic. When was the last time you had to choose between two people that you were equally in love with and who happened to both be fawning over you?
In When Harry Met Sally… Ephron expertly avoids the dreaded love triangle cliché. In fact, she goes so far in the opposite direction that Harry and Sally actually can’t stand one another for the first 10 years of the story and don’t even contemplate romantic feelings until 50 minutes of the movie. Writers looking to pen the next great romantic-comedy should take note — the couple in question doesn’t have to actually be a “couple” for the majority of the movie, and romantic tension can be found in places that aren’t triangular in shape.
“I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich.”
Those days of the week underpants. Reading the last page of the book. The way everything has to be “on the side.” It’s the fact that Sally looks at each individual envelope before dropping it in the mailbox. And it’s Harry’s theory about Sphynxie the hieroglyphics cartoon cat and the fact that he assumes the car window will be open and therefore spits grape seeds on the window.
These aren’t just fun details Ephron has thrown into the story like pepper on paprikash. They’re revealing characteristics of who Harry and Sally are at their cores. Yes, these specific quirks make us love them even more, but they’re also telling of what drives the story of When Harry Met Sally…
For all this rom-com needs is the tension in Harry and Sally’s competing personalities. Writers, if the drama comes from your characters and not plot points you’ve forced upon them, you’ll always feel as smug as Sally after fake-orgasming in that deli.
“It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk.”
I like comfortable silence as much as the next guy (although obviously not as much as Harry), but it’s no shock that easy silence doesn’t make for good cinema. No one enjoys watching two people sit and simply look at one another, and Nora Ephron is the bonified queen of ensuring that her characters are doing something while carrying on interesting conversations.
The second time Harry and Sally meet, their primary interaction — a continuation of the can-men-and-women-be-friends debate — takes place while they’re on the move through an airport, dodging other passengers as they traverse a moving sidewalk. When Harry tells his best friend, Jess, about the breakup of his marriage, every few sentences are interrupted by the fans at a football game participating in the wave.
While the action doesn’t necessarily impact the conversation or story in any way, having characters in action during a story primarily based in dialogue is a smart way to keep your audiences engaged through the entirety of the film.
“Someone is staring at you in ‘personal growth.’”
If romantic comedies were made in a kitchen, the rowdy action sequences, special effects, and overly complicated plot points would typically be left on the side. The entrée would be, of course, the couple at the center of the story, and the main ingredient is something highly individual — personal growth.
When Harry and Sally first meet, nothing is more symbolic of the differences in their personalities than their opposite opinions about the ending of Casablanca. Their Bergman/Bogart discussion eventually leads to the debate that provides the backbone for the entire movie — can men and women be friends, or does the sex thing always get in the way?
Then, by returning to Casablanca later in the movie, Ephron shows viewers how much Harry and Sally have changed. Harry is more forgiving about his ideals, Sally more realistic about her expectations. The thing Ephron understands — and that all writers must learn — is that in order for a rom-com to work, the two leading characters must undergo some kind of individual, personal change for the happy ending to feel earned. Because if Harry and Sally stayed the same stubborn, ornery people they were when they met, would they really deserve that tiered coconut cake (with the chocolate sauce on the side)?
“And then we fell in love.”
At the start of the movie, Harry and Sally are both moving to New York City, poised to start their careers in the post-college graduation glow of early 20-something adulthood. When Harry hops in the passenger seat and Sally drives them off the University of Chicago campus, both are full, completely realized characters. They each have personal histories, quirks and characteristics, and life experiences that the audience knows nothing about — and will never know about.
One of the most important things Ephron knows as a screenwriter is that writers don’t have to explain absolutely everything. She never tells the audience where Sally and Harry are going on that airplane. We never find out how Sally and Marie met, or when Harry and Jess became such good buds. There are penguins all over Sally’s apartment, yet this detail isn’t even acknowledged, let alone explained.
Screenwriters must know that it’s okay if some things are only hinted at, others simply mentioned and then forgotten, or left out entirely. In fact, it’s good! It means your story is real, that it has legs and a life of its own.
Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are magic. New York City is as compelling as ever. The romantic debate is stimulating. But When Harry Met Sally… would be nothing without the expert writing by scribe Nora Ephron.
And these six lessons are by no means the only takeaways screenwriters can gather from the classic romantic-comedy; there’s always something to learn from Harry and Sally.
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