Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Romantic Comedy Tropes

I'm feeling slightly off-kilter today, probably because I had a disorienting night. I fell asleep quickly and slept deeply, then woke up thinking it was morning and I'd slept all night. It wasn't a well-rested and ready to hop out of bed feeling, though, more like a "please don't make me get up yet" feeling. I finally forced myself to peel an eye open and look at the clock, only to find that it was just a couple of hours after I went to sleep. Then it happened again later in the night. I had a hard time convincing myself that it really was morning when I finally woke up in the morning. Maybe I'm dreaming now. But I'd better pull myself together because today is a business-type day when I have to actually interact with other people in a professional manner.

I spent yesterday afternoon doing a kind of brainstorming retreat on the next book. One thing I like to do when starting a book is watch movies or TV shows that remind me in some way of the story -- similar setting, similar storyline, similar mood or theme, characters that remind me of mine, etc. This isn't really to steal or copy ideas but to spur my thinking. I think of it as kind of like looking at a map when planning a route. You may already know how to get where you're going, but when you look at a map, you can see other possibilities. I may play mental games like putting my characters in the story I'm watching and figuring out what they'd do and how they'd react, or I may try putting the characters from the thing I'm watching into my situation and imagining it. Or sometimes it triggers an association chain, where something I'm watching will make me think of something that reminds me of something that triggers an idea. I came up with a biggie yesterday from a combination of association and "what would my character do here?" that I think amps up my story idea considerably. Those "oooooh!" moments are so exciting.

When I was getting ready to write Kiss and Spell, my retreat took on a different purpose because I was going to be deliberately spoofing the romantic comedy genre for a kind of story-within-a-story that happens as the result of a spell. That meant I watched a lot of movies, looking for tropes. Some of those tropes I wanted to truly skewer as a way of pointing out how silly they are. Some I wanted to pay loving homage to. Some I wanted to play with as how they might feel to the people living them if they were taken literally. For instance, so much plot and character development in the worst of these movies seems to happen in montages -- we see bits of moments as set to a pop song that tells us the couple is falling in love. What would it feel like to have your life pass in a montage?

Some of the cliches are fairly recent. For instance, the infamous RomCom Dash, in which a character realizes he or she is really in love with someone and has to make the mad dash across town to tell them Right Now. Sometimes they at least throw in a reason why it has to be done at that moment, like the person is about to leave the country, though in that case I have to wonder what the person at the airport feels when someone who's been giving him/her the brushoff up to that point suddenly arrives to disrupt all the plans. If someone shows up at the airport to try to stop me from going somewhere when I've already bought a ticket, I'm probably not going to be favorably inclined. I think this trope originated with When Harry Met Sally, when Harry is alone on New Year's Eve and remembers the pledge he made the year before that if he and Sally are alone then, they should spend the time together, and then he races to reach her before midnight. The closest I can think of previously to that is in Breakfast at Tiffany's, where she races to find her cat in time. But since When Harry Met Sally, there's been all sorts of crazy driving, barrier leaping and pleading of aid from strangers in order to reach the True Love in time for the big, dramatic declaration of true feelings.

That's another thing that's become a trope, the public declaration of feelings, often in a way that's humiliating. Jennifer Crusie has said that she thinks this trope may have something to do with the fact that marriage no longer really has the same importance in society as it once had, but the public declaration of feelings works in that way because it's a public commitment in front of the community. I'm not a fan of humiliation humor, so I don't like those cringeworthy moments. That's what ruins Notting Hill for me. I'm okay up until the end, but it bothers me that he's the one who has to make a fool of himself in public when their whole story has been about her, as the person with the power in the relationship because of her fame, denying him in public. It seems like for the arc to work, she should have to be the one to make a public statement acknowledging him as the man she loves when previously she's tried to keep their relationship a secret.

One trope that goes way back is the third wheel -- the Mr./Miss Wrong. Generally, the wrong person is the one who's right for who the hero or heroine is trying or pretending to be but who's totally wrong for his/her true self. And most romantic comedies seem to have some element of a character striving to be something that isn't authentic, something they think they ought to be or ought to want but that isn't true to the inner self. The problem is that this trope is used badly, without understanding the reason for it, so you're left with the hero or heroine looking like an idiot for ever thinking this person could be the right one. Maybe they were under a spell … (Hmmmm….)

No comments: