Even if you’re not a romance writer, there are very few books or scripts that don’t have love plots, at least subplots—and who doesn’t want to up their love story game? So at this romantic time of year, why not put yourself in the mood for love and in the mood to write—by making a Master List: ten of your favorite romantic movies that are similar in genre, structure, setting, character—or some other way—to your own book or script.
Sure, it means you’ll know what you want to watch on or around The Night.
But if you take some time to actually work with that list, you will be adding an indispensible tool to your writing toolbox.
If you’re not into Valentine’s Day (and I get that, I’m much more of a Carnival reveler myself)— all the more reason to get some good practical work out of it.
For those just joining, these are two of the most important things I could ever say about the process of writing:
– It is far, far easier and faster to learn the mechanics and other tricks of writing from movies than from books or a TV series.
– Your favorite storytellers are your best writing teachers
So my teaching list will be useful, but what’s really going to help you write your best love story is to start by making a movie list of your own.
Try it. What have you got to lose?
Sit quietly with a pen or pencil and paper (it’s much more sensual, and brings out a different kind of creativity than a screen!). Think of your book or script, and the lovers in it (their chemistry, their dynamics, their hopes, their wounds, their obstacles, that thing they do that always seems to get in their way….) and let the names of movies (and a few books) come to you.
Here are some of my favorite teaching romances and love stories.
Sleepless in Seattle
Romancing the Stone
Room With a View
Wings of the Dove
Sense and Sensibility
What I’ve made there is half a teaching list and half a personal list. For me, a teaching movie is one that most people in a workshop have seen, that handles basic story elements extremely well, so I can use examples that writers will recognize. So of course I include these classics:
Princess Bride – not only one of the wittiest, character-rich and endlessly delightful romances of all time, it is also a fantastic movie to watch to learn Hollywood’s Three (really four) Act, Eight-Sequence structure. Which is pretty much the best trick you can learn as a screenwriter or a novelist.
In Princess Bride, novelist and screenwriting legend William Goldman literally breaks at the sequence climaxes (cutting back and forth between the framing story and the fairy tale the grandfather is narrating), in a masterly demonstration of how to use Act and Sequence Climaxes, and Setpieces, to create suspense.
Sleepless in Seattle— a favorite of mine because of its HIGH CONCEPT PREMISE (two lonely people on opposite sides of the country fall in love without ever actually meeting until the last scene) – perfectly executed by the filmmakers and cast. I always use it in workshops in the hope of weaning writers off the tiresome “Meet Cute” scene. If instead you want to create a classic MEET THE LOVE INTEREST (or LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT) scene, watch Sleepless for one of the best examples I know.
Sleepless is also very personal to me because my own real life love story is a very long distance romance (New York to Seattle? Hah! Try Los Angeles to Scotland) and I know firsthand how love demolishes a small obstacle like mileage.
The Proposal– I love to use this one in romance workshops, because most romance writers have seen it and it is a such a clear example of so many essential story elements, including one of the best examples of that crucial plot element that drives that long Act II: THE HERO/INE’S PLAN.
Groundhog Day– I went into detail on this one for, you know, Groundhog Day. A gem of a teaching movie from start to finish, and a great life lesson on how to become a person worthy of your lover.
Romancing the Stone– (or, How to write a romance that men will love, too.) An excellent teaching movie because everyone’s seen it, it’s a flawless example of how to write cross-genre (romance, comedy, adventure), and hits as many love story tropes as Groundhog Day does, with equally sparkling originality.
So those are great movies to screen to learn the general structure, rhythm, tropes, audience expectations, and tricks of love stories.
But now—go deeper. Find the movies on your list that maybe aren’t so obvious. What about those more offbeat love plots speaks to you and your book or script?
Here are a few I listed that are more specific to my WIP.
Room With a View
Wings of the Dove
My new series is set in the last decades of the 1800’s and first decade of 1900, and I’m doing a deep dive into the period (and soaking up period detail from these brilliant production designers, art directors, costume designers). I’m also in love with Italy, longing to go again—and the third side of a romance is very often the location, used to swoony lusciousness and extremely different thematic effect in both of these adaptations of classic novels. Plus, Wings of the Dove is really a twisty crime story!
If you’re scratching your head about those two, remember I write crime, and specifically I write from my anger about how crime (and the criminal “justice” system) ravages and traumatizes its victims. Among many other themes, Moonlight and Beloved detail how love, the loving kindness of good people, can heal even the wounds caused by systemic evil. And again, Beloved puts me deeply into the period I’m writing.
And since we’re on historicals and systemic evil…
Sense and Sensibility – beautifully comic and romantic and yet more hard-hitting than most Austen adaptations in portraying the evil of patriarchy and the truth for women of all periods—that one wrong step at the wrong time can plunge her into the living hell of prostitution. (Honestly, I dislike Henry James in general for being so obtuse about it.) Also a great teaching example of a dual protagonist.
If you actually DO this exercise, make your list, and then dig into why those movies and how they do what they do, you will advance your own story’s love plot, and every love story you write from now on. Guaranteed.
(Just in the time it took me to write this article, I’ve realized why I’ve been drawn to re-watch and reread Wings of the Dove for one of my own current love plots, and am far more clear about how to move forward.)
Make your list. Ask yourself why those love stories speak to you, especially in regard to your own book or script.
Of course, I’d love to hear your lists and whys!
If you need a prompting list of what’s easily available to stream, this one is surprisingly good.
If you want to go deeper into some of these movies, I do full story breakdowns (Act by Act, Story Element by Story Element) of Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, The Proposal and more in