I’m at that intriguing development stage of my new script (of which more later). I’ve got the characters, the basic story arc and the big moments and set pieces. But to tie it all together I still have to identify the key ingredient: why does it matter? Why does an audience care? As with CHALET GIRL – and most of the romantic comedies I have written in the past – this is not a life or death scenario we are talking about. The fate of the civilised world does not depend on our hero’s actions, nor are the lives of thirty orphans in jeopardy. And yet, as every screenwriting manual will tell you, the story needs to be hugely significant in the life of our protagonist (or protagonists, as there is an ensemble element to this script) – otherwise, why does it need to be told?
The key here is that it matters to them. And if it matters to them, it will matter to the audience.
Look at sport. I don’t much like football, but I will always watch the World Cup Final because you know that winning it means absolutely everything to each man on the pitch. It is literally their lives, in ninety minutes: they will either be winners, or nearly men. That’s awesome. And it doesn’t need to be the World Cup Final. Maybe Yeovil Town have got through to an FA cup fourth round match against Manchester United, and somehow they’re 1-0 up with ten minutes to go. That’s exciting, isn’t it? I remember watching some bizarre sports at the Winter OIympics earlier this year (online, when I should have been working). What do I know about curling, or the luge, or the biathlon? Nothing, other than the fact that these contestants have been training for years, have probably had to win a load of tournaments just to qualify, and this hour, or five minutes, or ninety seconds, is their one chance of glory. It mattered to them and so, amazingly, it mattered to me.
Returning to writing, there are some wonderfully judged pieces that might seem (to me) to be the dramatic equivalents of curling, and yet they are totally absorbing because of the way the writers show us what is at stake for their characters. Two old plays I remember studying at school (and both have been turned into films a couple of times each) demonstrate this point well. The Winslow Boy is ostensibly about the theft of a five shilling postal order by a school boy. But the amount wasn’t important, nor even the petty theft – it was the dishonour that the accusation did to the boy, and his family, and his family’s name, which gave the story huge power. It meant the world to them, and so their fight to clear their name mattered to us. Likewise in The Browning Version, young Taplow’s innocent inscription in the copy of Agamemnon that he gives to the crusty teacher Crocker-Harris (“God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master”) is enough to bring the fierce old man to tears. It is a tiny moment of narrative, but one with vast emotional resonance: the boy’s opinion matters greatly to the school master. Some of the works of Ian McEwan, particularly Atonement and On Chesil Beach, turn on similar beats – to an outsider, nothing much seems to be going on, but to the characters in question, and to the reader or viewer, the aftershocks are massive. The irony is that these small moments, rooted in character, often generate more dramatic power than Bruce Willis saving the planet or (god forbid) Ben Affleck exacting revenge for Pearl Harbour.
Maybe I’m over-thinking this. After all, romantic comedies are pretty simple, aren’t they? Boy meets girl, and so on – isn’t that enough? It’s true, love is probably the greatest of all dramatic stakes, and a good example of what we are talking about here. The world might not shift on its axis if this couple don’t get together, but it’s the most important thing in their lives right now, which makes it interesting for us. But a kiss on its own is not enough. Most of the best romantic comedies have more going on than just a love story, and are building up to more than just a kiss. Done well – and of course this goes for any genre – they are about a character going on a fundamental, transformative emotional journey. Look at JERRY MAGUIRE or FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or THE APARTMENT or MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. They are all good for lots of reasons, but they are all great because of the character journeys that lie at their heart.
At the start of CHALET GIRL, our heroine has lost her mother, and her self-confidence. She faces various challenges through the course of the story – professional, sporting, romantic – but they all boil down to a question of whether she can lay her mother’s memory to rest and regain the confidence she had before her mum died. That means – at least we hope – that all the obstacles she faces have greater significance, because they are part of a bigger picture: her journey. So it’s not just about pretty boys and girls playing around in a ski resort, which is one version of the movie that we could have made (the bad one). It’s about Kim, our chalet girl, making some decisions that will literally change how the rest of her life will play out. The last line of the movie confirms this “this girl’s got a great future ahead of her”. She has now, but she might not have. That is our story. The drama is in her journey: the kiss is the reward.
(Sidebar gripe: in the development and financing stage, various people turned down CHALET GIRL for the reason suggested at above: “why should I care about a load of posh people dicking around in the snow?” It’s a valid question, except it’s not what the film is about. For one thing Kim isn’t posh, and for another thing we’re not just dicking around – this is important to her. I bet FOUR WEDDINGS got a load of similar gripes, ditto DOWNTON ABBEY. There is a particularly British feeling that rich people can’t have real problems, presumably based on a moral relativism which states that we can’t care too much because they will be alright in the end. As Spike says in NOTTING HILL (there’s another one): “What he’s going to say next is there are people starving in the Sudan...” – so nothing really matters, right? In my opinion, not right. We can – or should be able to – care about anybody, anywhere, anywhen. It’s the writer’s job to make us care and perhaps it’s harder to make us care about a privileged person than someone at the bottom who really does have nowhere else to turn to. But just because it’s harder, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And if this post has argued anything – has it? – it’s that what is happening inside a character is immeasurably more interesting than what is going on in the world around them.)
So in my new script I have to keep reminding myself: why does it matter to these characters? If it doesn’t matter to them, if they fail and can shrug it off and go ‘ah well, maybe next time’ then it absolutely won’t matter to the audience. But if it does, then it will. And if I am addressing that question honestly and ruthlessly on every page, then I’m heading in the right direction.