Feb 20, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

I often find that the easiest films from which to learn professional storytelling techniques are the mediocre ones, where both strengths and weaknesses are clear. Certainly that’s the case with Definitely, Maybe, a romantic comedy that offers us all kinds of lessons. This is the story of a man who tells his young daughter about the three most important women in his love life, and she in turn must guess which one is her mother.

The storyteller device is one of the most misused techniques in screenwriting. I talk extensively about proper use of the storyteller in the Advanced Screenwriting Class and in my book, The Anatomy of Story. For a couple of reasons, the storyteller device in Definitely, Maybe is often painful to watch. First, the daughter is 10 going on 30, and few things are more grating than watching phony mature dialogue coming out of the mouth of a child. Second, it is inconceivable that this girl knows nothing about the identity of her mother.

So the love story/mystery frame almost kills the film before it starts. Why then does writer Adam Brooks use it? Because the love story/mystery structure it sets up has so many benefits. The most important has to do with transcending the standard love story. In all my genre classes, I talk about how crucial it is that you not only hit the basic story beats of your form but also twist them in an original way so your script stands above the crowd.

The average Hollywood love story is structured as an action story. There is a single courtship line in which the man chases the woman and eventually wins her through sheer relentless pressure. Besides the fact that this structure is anything but romantic, it has no basis in reality, so the standard love story comes across as a contrived, phony mess.

By combining the love story with the detective form, Brooks can show the audience three women the hero has loved in his life, each in different ways and for different reasons. Instead of tracking a short courtship line, Brooks can expose the ups and downs of a person’s love life over a 10-15 year period.

The main reason most writers stick with the single courtship line is that it’s easy to create a unified story. One lover + short time period = tight script. A story with three lovers over a 15-year period could easily become hopelessly episodic. Which brings us back to the love story/mystery structure and the storyteller frame. Instead of an episodic sequence where one woman follows another, the frame allows Brooks to weave the three lines and bring each woman back over the entire story. And the precocious daughter, who almost kills the film up front, gives the ending an extra emotional payoff when the hero discovers his one best love.

Romantic comedy may be the most difficult of all genres to write well. Which makes it even more imperative that you come up with an original take and invent a unique story structure that will make your romantic comedy one of a kind.