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This is the second in a series of essays about alternative sources for structure and plotting for screenplays and television series. It is replacing my series of Hey! We All Had to Start Somewhere for a while.
By alternative, I mean sources other than the usual tomes written by the usual gurus, sources you might not immediately think about, that can be used as guides in trying to tell your story, sources that you might not have even considered of any use in this area.
The idea of writing these essays originated with the sudden rise of what is now being called a second golden age of television, as well as a paradigm shift in the way movies are made. There are now so many different ways of telling a story on television, while in movies there has been a swing away from the Hollywood/Studio type of filmmaking, that I believe thinking outside the box when it comes to finding ways to tell stories might be a wise move to make at this time.
However, before proceeding any further, I would also like to say one other thing. You may look at many of my lists and recoil at the hoity-toiteness of them all and even accuse me of being a snob.
Well, what can I say? I am a snob and I’m proud of it.
But I seriously doubt it would hurt anyone’s ability to write if they let a little more snobbishness in. In fact, it might help. You never know, so give it a try.
Today I will focus on romantic comedies, a genre that I believe has fallen on hard times as of late due to what I perceive is more than a sense of misogyny creeping into the telling of stories. Actually, that’s not fully true. In TV, female actors are finding a number of strong and three dimensional roles that don’t depend on being torn down as a member of the opposite sex. But in movies, I feel we are in a crisis mode.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, just some suggestions that reflect my personal preferences. So I apologize if I didn’t include your favorites. But please, do share. The more choices given, the more writers have to choose from.
- Screwball and other romantic comedies in film of the 1930’s and 1940’s: I know, I know, I’m breaking my own rule of only using outside sources, but I can’t help it. This time period was the height of greatness in romantic comedy in cinema, a time in which the battles of the sexes was between an alpha male and alpha female rather than the more modern day conflict of a male with Peter Pan syndrome and a female who is frigid and/or a bitch.
I’m not sure any list could begin to do justice to this treasure trove of men and women making fools of themselves as they try and woo each other, but here is but a wee number:
The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Bringing Up Baby, Woman of the Year, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, His Gal Friday, It Happened One Night, Nothing Sacred, Twentieth Century, Midnight, Easy Living and almost any comic film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturgess, and Charlie Chaplin, as well as any of the musicals of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
And as I said, this is just a small number of gems that these two decades brought us, so start exploring on your own to see what works for you.
- The comedies of William Shakespeare: Shakespeare did have issues with women (he often loved to have a man humiliate them, and then have them graciously forgive the man who did them wrong). At the same time, when it comes to people making utter fools of themselves in trying to win the opposite sex, he is still one of the greatest observers of human folly there has ever been. One of his plays, Much Ado About Nothing, includes that feuding duo Beatrice and Benedict, who hate each other so much, they are obviously in love, which has been the basis of many a TV show (Moonlighting, Northern Exposure and Cheers):
As You Like It; A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream; Much Ado About Nothing; Twelfth Night
- Restoration comedy is a genre that arose when King Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660. The Puritans had banned all stage productions as being sinful and wicked (well, only if they were done right) and when theater came back, it came back with a vengeance. Restoration comedy is especially known for its sexual explicitness and bawdiness and has such fun plotlines as a man pretending that the pox has made him impotent so his male friends will trust him with their wives and he can have sex with them, and an aristocrat who can make love to a scullery maid, but is tongue tied and the king of pratfalls when it comes to respectable women:
William Wycherly’s The Country Wife; Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer; Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals; George Farquhar’s The Beaux’s Stratagem; William Congreve’s The Way of the World; and the first recorded female playwright Aphra Behn, who wrote The Rover, among other works.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the master of almost every area of musical composition and he created two operas that explore the relationship of the sexes to sublime comic effect:
The Magic Flute; The Marriage of Figaro
- Jane Austen is not just one of the greatest of all novelists, but is perhaps the greatest novelist at writing comically about men and women who let pride and other faults get in the way of true love:
Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park; Emma; Northanger Abbey, Persuasion
- The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (or just Tom Jones), by Henry Fielding, is one of the great comic novels of all time. The central plot revolves around one of the most popular romantic issues of the 18th Century, that of a father trying to marry his daughter to someone she doesn’t love, so she runs away. Here Tom Jones, who is illegitimate, and Sophia Western, the daughter of a squire, fall for each other, but social constraints being what they are, they cannot wed. Or can they?
- George Bernard Shaw was a huge proponent of the superman and superwoman theory of relationships. Supermen wanted to stay single, but that is not the way the universe works since the superwomen are driven by the life force to thwart this desire. Men and women can resist, but ultimately it is pointless since the life force will win out almost every time:
Pygmalion; Man and Superman; Candida; The Man of Destiny; How He Lied to Her Husband; Major Barbara; The Millionairess
- Noel Coward had both a more romantic and cynical view of the sexes than his contemporaries. Men and women are driven to love each other and form relationships no matter how much they get on each other’s nerves:
Blithe Spirit; Design for Living; Private Lives
- W. Somerset Maugham is perhaps the most bitter of them all, not having a particularly high opinion of mankind. He wrote few plays, but two fall within the category of romantic comedy, one somewhat lighthearted and seems to foreshadow the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (but written long before), and the other much more cynical and about wealthy women and their gigolos:
The Circle; Our Betters
- La Ronde, by Arthur Schnitzler (also known both as Reigen and The Circle), was written in 1897 (but not publically performed until 1920). A roundelay of a play, it dramatizes a series of sexual encounters: scene one is between Character A and Character B; scene two between Character B and Character C; and so on until the last Character meets up with Character A again. Controversial, sometimes banned, and the subject of anti-Semitic attacks (Schnitzler ultimately wouldn’t let it be performed in German speaking countries), some think that one of the themes of the story is how syphilis is spread.
And just for kicks and giggles:
- The works of Cole Porter, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. His observations on love and the sexes in his works range from deeply romantic to tongue in cheekly cynical, often at the same time. Many of his songs adorn the numerous musicals he wrote and so many more have become standards, it would be impossible to even start a list (but do remember to brush up your Shakespeare).
Remember, “the book you don’t read won’t help”: Jim Rohn
YOU WANT ME TO READ WHAAAAAAT? A Snob’s Guide to Alternative Sources for Structure in Plotting for Screenplay and TV Writing
Part I: Epic Stories http://ow.ly/U6Mao