By Noelle Sterne
photography by Leeta Harding
Taking a break from writing, I flip the television channels, and my eyes and remote land at a bright-screen urban setting with bubbly music, slick high-rises, and smartly dressed people hurrying about. I stay on the channel, grateful for some upbeat mindlessness. But watching the fluff, my writer’s/editor’s brain can’t shut off.
Having watched (too) many of these, I recognize the formula. If you want to try writing one of these movies or the novels they come from, here are the essential ingredients. For your other writing, they may also serve as cautionary lessons in cliché-avoidance.
25-35 years old. Slim, fashionable, able to run and bound up office stairs in sexy stiletto heels. Wears dresses that end at high thigh. Always tossing loose long hair, perfectly casual-curled, that reaches to her coccyx. Blonde preferred, although an occasional brunette and even a redhead have been seen parading. High, nasal voice, fetching giggle. All sentences, whatever the emotion, end on questioning inflections, and are rattled off at lightning speed (I use captions). Laughs way too much and bares way too many teeth, usually with too much gum.
Employed in well-paying, responsible corporate/legal/fashion/real estate/media high position and with fabulous apartment. But stressed and unhappy. Longs for love, although previously devastated by dastardly boyfriend and cannot trust.
28-38 years old. Slim, strong, ruggedly handsome, in shape (we never see him working out). Receives the ultimate compliment from heroine’s best friend/sister/mother (see below): he’s “cute.” Chin stubble, crew cut, or naughty longer hair. Workingman casual clothes, usually same in every scene. Recently dropped out of corporate/establishment/prestigious/high-paying position to pursue passion (woodcarving, beekeeping, curio-shop owning, llama-raising). Maverick, daring, flings protocol out the pickup-truck window. Whenever with heroine, laughs way too much, baring too many teeth.
Starts in big bad city (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia). On whatever pretext (parents’ failing pumpkin farm, fiancé’s dumping her two days before wedding, threatened corporate takeover of cozy quaint charming inn), heroine moves to small cozy quaint charming small town with plenty of scenery (Finnegan’s Falls, Appletree Valley, Sweet Pear Dale, Harry’s Hamlet, Calm Swell Cove).
Hero is sent by profit-minded corporation to assess and recommend destruction of major business (bakery, diner, handmade toy factory, B&B with town and family history) to build shopping supermall, ten-star resort, or luxury multi-story condo development to spur local dying economy and guarantee jobs to all townsfolk.
How They (Cute) Meet
In coffee shop, waiting on line heroine, texting, bumps into hero. In car, hero on cell phone hits heroine’s rear bumper. In airport, rushing hero knocks down heroine. In department store, rushing heroine knocks down hero.
Has been in relationship with heroine/hero. Assumes they are a couple and makes plans for weekend trips (flashing tickets) and European jaunts (flashing tickets). Hints at marriage (flashing smile). Heroine/hero keeps smiling and reluctantly agreeing to dates but furrows brow and sighs deeply in restroom.
Other Man: Good looking enough, stable, straight-laced, successful professionally and financially, always wears suits, hair slicked back. Basically decent but often self-centered and career-oriented. Wants relationship because “we make a great team; you’re just what I need to get ahead.” Heroine’s mother thinks he’s perfect.
Other Woman: Stunning, thin, stylish, hard, bossy, professionally and financially successful, always wears high-fashion outfits to die for, beats out heroine’s stilettos. Self-centered and career-oriented. Wants relationship with hero because “We’ll be the ultimate power couple. In two years, we can take over the company.” Hero’s mother doesn’t like her.
Best Friend/Sister/ (sometimes Office Assistant; hero often has male counterpart) Somewhat frumpy (may wear glasses) so as not to outshine heroine. No heels. May be in stable relationship or married as role model to heroine. BF/S’s husband/boyfriend appears tangentially with affectionate squeezes of BF/S while she listens to heroine pouring out misgivings in kitchen. Also has high nasal voice and has taken lessons, like heroine, in delivering lines at impossible-to-understand speed.
Long-term confidante of heroine. Sane, sensible, sees heroine’s attraction to hero long before she can admit it. Advice-giver, clothes consultant, and pep-talker to heroine about taking the Big Leap of Faith.
Somewhat stylish but never outshines heroine. Low heels. Shorter hair by at least two inches than heroine but also can be long and loose and inappropriate. Also overprotective, varying judgments (heroine’s hair, heels, weight, lifestyle, single status). Has career as bridal boutique-cookie shop-event planning business owner, in city or small town. Secretly wants heroine to come into the business. Also wants grandchildren and, if father has passed, keeps referring to “your father, and I miss him every day. We had a wonderful thirty-two years together,” implying why can’t heroine snag a similar man. Heroine: “I want what you and Daddy had.” Good-hearted, face-lifted.
Heroine or hero’s child of marriage (spouse tragically passed) or divorce (spouse monstrously walked out). Kid is anywhere from six to fourteen. Cute to make your teeth grate. Constant extraordinarily wise observations of heroine/hero’s actions, nonactions, body language, and clothes quandaries before first date with hero. May have an equally teeth-gratingly-adorable dog. Calls it like it is, to all adults’ acute embarrassment. Reluctant to bond, but hero/heroine eventually wins her/him over.
Coincidences that stretch credulity. Heroine’s best friend’s sister-in-law knew hero in college and worshipped him. Hero dated heroine’s third cousin at summer camp and heard all about heroine. Heroine and hero shared nap blankies in pre-pre-school. H/H are exes from high school 2,000 miles ago.
Always sparkles with sameness.
Heroine’s cell phone rings: “I have to take this,” and walks away.
Anyone’s reaction to unveiling of gorgeous gown, genius painting, four-layer cupcake, prize pumpkin: “Amazing!”
Answer/question to any statement of (supposed) fact: “You know that how?”
Response to any piece of news and in quick succession: “Wait—what?”
Heroine after best friend/sister/mother notices her glow talking about hero: “I do not like him!”
Heroine falls six stories into industrial waste dumpster or crashes into tourist trolley. Hero runs over: “Are you okay?”
Any comment from Kid: “Cool.”
Fourteen minutes from movie’s end, after a few dates in which they both laugh too much, heroine and hero clash, fueled by a misunderstanding, misinterpretation, unspoken doubts, spiteful rumors by jealous Other Woman, or all four. Heroine refuses to listen to hero’s alibi. Hero refuses to apologize. Both refuse to listen to each other or explain. Turn their backs on each other, muttering “Impossible!” You’re sure it’s all over.
Five and a half minutes from movie’s end, best friend/sister/mother convinces heroine to give him another chance. There’s often a mad dash to the airport to stop H/H from boarding and flying out forever. Or a “chance” meeting is arranged, and they face each other. Both stutter, talk at the same time, look at their shoes, clear their throats. “You mean . . . ?” “You mean . . . ?” Best friend/sister/mother/kid beams in background.
Sex: Never. Closest they get is fingertips sticking over cotton candy at county fair.
Kiss: Several close calls in last third of movie but interrupted by hopeful mother, precocious child, or child’s annoying dog. After reconciliation, the only real kiss takes place four seconds before zoom-out. Requirements: Clinch moderately strong, never mouth-devouring, and never, never with heroine’s leg wrapped around hero’s waist. At lip-meet, camera pulls back over arching trees in full bloom, butterflies flitting, violins crescendoing. Fade out and credits from Canada. They live HEA (happily ever after).
After Blowup and stammering Reconciliation, heroine finds her “calling” and gives up city corporate life, moves to the small town of her hunky farmer fiancé, organizes the weekly Sunday farmer’s festival, and commandeers the harvest, also working remotely at her corporate PR job.
But what happens when the harvest is harvested and the sex wears off? Will growing prize tomatoes suffice?
And what about the hero’s dream of becoming an entomologist? Will he take an online course and turn the barn into an ant farm? Will he have time for farming?
The heroine’s mother: Having moved to the cozy town, will she be happy trying to organize bridge games among the farmers’ wives? Will she miss the boutique shops and put designer labels in the general store?
It’s a Wrap
These elements are the basic fondant of TV romance movies and novels. If you want to write them, you may have a good chance of publication, movie-TV rights, and money.
But maybe, like me, you watch these shows so you can get really pissed. (And don’t get me started on the Christmas “variations.”) Their main value is to make you yearn to get back to your serious writing with complex characters, challenging solutions, and no stilettos.
Noelle Sterne is an author, mainstream and academic editor, writing coach, and mentor, who has published over 700 pieces in literary and academic venues, with several monthly columns. Her PhD from Columbia University prepared her for her handbook, which addresses doctoral candidates’ nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. In her spiritual, self-help book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams, she helps readers reach their lifelong yearnings. Continuing with her own, she is completing her third novel. Find our more at https://trustyourlifenow.com.