Feb 20, 2007
Music and Lyrics is an average romantic comedy. But compared to other recent films in the genre, it sparkles like a diamond. And, it has a few techniques that are instructive. Romantic comedy is extremely deceptive; it looks light and easy, but is incredibly hard. Part of the problem comes from the fact that the form is highly choreographed, with about 12 unique story beats the writer must hit to satisfy the audience. By the same token, the form is very contrived, so expressing real feeling - and a love story better have real feeling - is a big challenge.
The romantic comedy form has fallen on hard times recently. But it continues to be one of Hollywood's most popular forms, and if you can write a good one, your script will be very popular as well. I go into extensive detail about how to write a good romantic comedy in both my Comedy and Love Story classes. But let's focus here on a few of the techniques that Music and Lyrics does well.
Music and Lyrics is, first and foremost, based on a premise that gives the story a huge structural advantage. By doing a romantic comedy between two songwriters, writer Marc Lawrence gets the benefits of a musical without dealing with the inherent structural nightmares that the musical form brings. The lead characters can use music to express emotion more intensely, but Lawrence doesn't have to deal with the awkward, reality-blowing fact of people bursting into song.
What about some specific techniques? The first is what I call the "love endpoint." This is a technique I explain in the Great Screenwriting and Love Story Classes. To make the characters develop the way you want, and to make sure the plot comes from the characters, you have to start at the structural endpoint of your story and work backwards. There are many structural elements that determine this endpoint, and it has nothing to do with the actual plot beat that ends the story. In love stories the endpoint is not the love between the two people but rather proper love. In other words, the love of two people who have grown. That means beginning your story by establishing two people who have weaknesses, and these weaknesses are so severe that the two characters are closed down and experiencing a miserable life.
A second technique the writer uses in Music and Lyrics is "mutual need." In this technique, both characters exhibit a variation on the same need. Don't get me wrong; you don't have to use mutual need to write a great story. But it's an especially useful technique in love stories, because love stories are founded on the concept of two people learning from each other. Giving two characters a variation of the same need helps the audience better understand how the characters are closed off at the beginning and how they blossom at the end.
In Music and Lyrics, both characters are experiencing some form of stunted creativity. Alex is a has-been who has tried to fix his creative failure by writing soulless, formulaic songs. Sophie is a writer who was dumped by a famous novelist who told her she had no originality. Each must find their creativity before they can find love with the other. And each becomes creative because of the help they receive from the other.
Romantic comedies may be tired right now, but use that to your advantage. The writer who finds his or her own creativity in this form will find the audience beating a path to their door.