By: Travis Maiuro
Love is complicated – and in screenwriting, even more so. Many writers struggle with showcasing romance in a way that feels real and effortless. It comes off clumsy, awkward, forced. Or, on the flip-side, it can come off overly mushy and sentimental. Either way is fairly cringe-inducing and enough to make many a writer avoid meet-cutes and long professions of love altogether. Who knew love could be so frightening?
We’re here to help. Not with your own love life, but rather with the love life in your script. The following are go-to techniques and examples to use when in doubt of your script’s romantic believability.
Simply Don’t Talk
Examples: Wall-E, La La Land
Avoiding dialogue altogether is typically a smart move in any genre of script, as what we’re writing for is a visual medium; what is seen is usually more powerful than what is heard. This should come as a relief for some. A chance to dodge potentially on-the-nose and stiff exchanges of romantic dialogue? Sign me up.
In Wall-E, for the two robot main characters, dialogue isn’t really an option. Their conversations generally consist of repeating their own names back and forth, which may be enticing pillow talk for some (to each their own), but let’s face it: that only goes so far. Therefore, actions speak louder than words here. We see the first seeds of Wall-E and Eve’s love blossoming during their starlit dance in space with a fire extinguisher. And again towards the end when, back on earth, it looks like Wall-E’s lost all of his lovable personality after essentially being brought back to life. Eve’s distraught – and with a silent “robot kiss” of a surge of electricity between the two, the Wall-E we’ve come to know and the one Eve has fallen for returns.
But this can also work with non-robots, too! In La La Land, we see this method work perfectly well with human beings. It’s through Sebastian and Mia’s choreography that they showcase their quickly growing feelings for one another, or at least their mutual attraction. And then we have the end of the movie, in which Mia stumbles into Seb’s jazz cafe and sees him up on stage and Seb sees her in the crowd. And they lock eyes – too far away to speak to one another. We cut to a (perhaps now infamous) montage of what their life could have been and then transition back to the present. Mia leaves, turns back one last time and meets Seb’s eyes again. And, wordlessly, they acknowledge their love – the love they had, the love they always will have. No dialogue necessary.
Example: When Harry Met Sally
The complete opposite of the above method, this is your script’s moment to craft that Oscar-worthy chunk of dialogue for your protagonist. You’ll want to find the right balance of lengthy without being overlong. Nora Ephron captured it wonderfully in When Harry Met Sally.
Frustrated that Sally isn’t responding to his initial admission of love, Harry lets it all out. In rapid-fire, lover-quarrel-mode, he begins listing all of the things he loves about Sally. The things are random, yes, but not random to us – some of the idiosyncrasies he lists are callbacks to things we’ve already seen from Sally, things we’ve learned about her over the course of the past hour and a half. And the moment avoids being melodramatic or sappy because there’s a nice dosage of irony attached: Harry’s listing things that used to (or maybe still do) annoy him but that he’s grown to love. Which, of course, is how you know the love is real.
Examples: Notting Hill, Pitch Perfect (and countless others)
This is probably the most popular of all, a rom-com staple. It can range from snarky to heartfelt, and choosing which one best suits your script obviously depends on the overall tone. Embracing the more heartfelt, we see Julia Roberts’ character trying to make her case to Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill. The Hugh Grant character seems to have made up his mind: she’s a celebrity, he’s not, it couldn’t possibly work out. And all she needs to do is hit him with this line: “Don’t forget, I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” One simple line to explain that the fame doesn’t define her, that she’s still a human being, capable of feelings – feelings for him.
Embracing the more sarcastic, is Pitch Perfect, which falls in line with the rest of the film’s tone. After the climactic performance on stage, Beca runs out into the audience after seeing Jesse among them. This is following a rough patch in their budding love, mind you. Him showing up means something. Before their passionate kiss, she replies to his line with zip: “You’re such a weirdo.” On the surface, the line may not be much to look at, but it’s powerful in its own way because it captures the essence of their relationship. Their respective weirdness is, in a way, why the fell for each other. “You’re such a weirdo” roughly translates to “I love you” without actually having to say it.
The Foolhardy Quest
Examples: The Graduate, The Notebook
Another dialogue-free option embraces the old adage that love makes us do crazy things. Well, that’s convenient – doing crazy things always makes for entertaining action in a script. So let’s take a look at the foolhardy quest – a decision a character makes that really is no turning back from, all in the act of love.
The Graduate is a classic for a reason, and Ben’s young-and-in-love, borderline stupid quest to crash Elaine’s wedding is one of the reasons why. It’s this act, one can argue, that proves his love for her. And in The Notebook, Noah’s foolhardy quest of renovating and rebuilding a dream home doesn’t quite rack up the same amount of miles that Ben Braddock’s does, but it still proves his love. After all, by renovating this old house, he’s fulfilling a promise to a woman he is no longer with and no longer in contact with. But this is stubborn love we’re dealing with here and if he can no longer love this woman in person, he can do it through the rebuilding of a house. Doing crazy things out of love can go a long way in your script.
If you’re struggling with expressing love in your script, or avoiding it all together, try these methods to help you along. Remember, love is complicated, but it doesn’t have to be while writing.