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By Shanee Edwards · May 3, 2023
Sex therapist Jack Morin once calculated the secret to erotic desire in this simple equation: attraction + obstacle = excitement. This is also the basic structure of a romantic comedy, but in a film, there is one crucial event in the story called the “meet cute” (also called a “cute meet”) that is necessary to set everything in motion.
A meet-cute is the pivotal scene when your two lovers meet, sparks fly, tension starts to build due to the overwhelming obstacles keeping them apart and their romantic journey begins. Once they meet cute, there’s no going back! The best meet cutes happen under the most embarrassing or awkward circumstances, often causing the lovers to initially despise each other, because everyone knows love and hate are two sides of the same coin, and as Dr. Morin declared, there must be a stumbling block to overcome. The more hurdles, the bigger the desire – just do the math!
A meet cute should function as your script’s inciting incident happening no later than page 17. If it can happen by page 10, that’s even better to get the love story rolling. The moment should be unexpected and take your protagonist(s) by surprise. The circumstances under which your lovers meet should set up the main conflict in their relationship. Each lover is a catalyst for the other, igniting each other’s flaws that can only be overcome by the lovers coming together. Each character should eventually discover they are each other’s missing piece and if they can learn to integrate that piece into their life, they can fall in love and become whole.
The cute-meet should be original and memorable and should create a situation where the audience roots for the potential couple to fall in love. Let’s look at some examples.
Read More: The Good Genre Guide: Rom-Coms
Now that you get the gist of what a meet cute is, let’s go over some of the most classic and recognizable meet cutes in cinema.
Everyone loves this film, likely because of the bittersweet romantic journey Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes on as a result of meeting Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Summer and Tom’s cute-meet happens in an elevator as he’s listening to The Smith’s There’s a Light That Never Goes Out through his headphones. She tells him how much she also loves The Smiths and they connect in a big way.
The song itself foreshadows the type of relationship they will have. The song lyrics detail a man romanticizing getting hit by a 10-ton truck with his lover, saying, “To die by your side is a heavenly way to die.” Clearly the man in the song, just like Tom, is in love with love itself – and is not emotionally mature enough to deal with all the complexities real love brings. So while the lovers don’t get hit by a mack truck, Tom sure does feel like it towards the end of the film.
Read More: From Script to Screen: (500) Days of Summer
This is a terrific example because the meet cute is literally in the title of the movie!!! Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) cute-meet when they drive together from Illinois to New York City to begin their post-college life. Both are young, inexperienced in life and terribly insecure. On the long drive, Harry tells Sally, “Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally staunchly disagrees, setting up the divide in their individual outlooks on life.
The two characters then spend the rest of the film testing his hypothesis over and over until they finally are so exhausted at failing at being friends, they have no choice but to fall in love.
Read More: 6 Lessons from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally…
This film is certainly a comedy but has heavy dramatic elements. Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) are both dealing with mental illness and keep emotional distance from each other when they meet at a friend’s dinner. At first, the insults fly as they feel each other out, seeing who has the upper hand. But once Tiffany asks, “What meds are you on?” they form a genuine connection. It’s one of the best lines in the film because no prudent person would ask that question of someone they just met but it hooks the audience into their journey.
It becomes clear how vulnerable each character is and that vulnerability is what will allow Pat and Tiffany to connect with and combat each other. Knowing a person’s weakness (mental illness in this case) is a blessing and a curse, especially when you have the same weakness as your love interest.
Read More: 5 Plot Point Breakdown: Silver Linings Playbook
The Big Sick is a romantic comedy film based on the real-life love story of Kumail Nanjiani and his (now) wife, Emily V. Gordon. The title refers to the biggest obstacle between the two lovers.
In the movie, Kumail is performing at one of his stand-up comedy shows, where Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) heckles him from the audience. He’s annoyed by her until he realizes she can go toe-to-toe with him with witty banter and suddenly the sexual tension is through the roof.
There are several obstacles in their romantic equation, including his traditional Indian culture that dictates he marry an Indian woman of his parents’ choosing. But their relationship becomes even more complicated when Emily falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail must navigate his feelings for Emily while dealing with her parents and his own Pakistani family’s expectations for his arranged marriage.
Read More: 5 Lessons from the Writers of “The Big Sick”
Moving away from rom/coms for a moment, let’s look at a meet cute from the dramatic film Titanic. When Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Rose (Kate Winslet) the conflict is quite serious and foreshadows Jack’s fate. Rose, feeling hopeless, stands at the edge of the ship contemplating suicide. Jack intervenes, saving her life and their (short) romantic journey begins. Though Rose is the one on the edge of death at the beginning of the film, it’s Jack who doesn’t make it off the ill-fated ship alive.
The iceberg is the biggest physical obstacle in this movie, making a metaphor for the risks and dangers of falling in love. Jack’s sacrifice of letting Rose float on the door (whether they could both fit or not) is his way of showing his true love. This story is a romantic tragedy, but the cute-meet is just as important as in a rom/com.
Read More: Titanic (3D): Technology Scores Balanced Effect
When you write your own meet cute, keep in mind that it is more than a fun, embarrassing moment between two potential lovers. It also sets up the central conflict in the movie and represents the bridge or obstacles the two must cross to be together.
If it seems too easy for your lovers to be together, throw in more obstacles! The more difficult the journey is for your protagonists, the more your audience will celebrate when they finally fall in love.
Read More: The Art of the Meet Cute: How to Write a Romantic Introduction Scene