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Complications Ensue:
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Alan Lopuszinski poses an interesting question in his blog Burbanked: if you have your romantic comedy hero/ine leave his or her fiancée at the altar, are you obliged to mop up the jilted never-to-be-spouse's sad story?
Let's face it: leaving your intended at the altar - regardless of the fact that you're the movie's main character and that's what you've got to do in order for the movie to work out correctly - would be a pretty rotten, messy thing to do in the real world, right? And rarely in the movies do we get to see the scene where the characters actually resolve this! [...]

Of course, there are several options for how screenwriters can figure a way out of this narrative mess:
  • Make the supporting characters-to-be-jilted absolute jerks so that we don't care that they get dumped - but then we have to wonder why our protagonists were with them in the first place.
  • Resolve the plight of the characters-to-be-jilted by providing them with an alternate fallback lover - but this can come across as extremely contrived.
  • Actually include the scene where our protagonist works it out with their soon-to-be-ex and they both come to understand that it's not going to work out.
I think most rom-com writers would consider any of these patches to be "opening a can of worms". The more you try to resolve the question of the ex, the more new questions you raise. And in the latter two cases, you're either complicating or slowing down your story to do damage control when all you wanted was a precipitating incident. That's why movies like Serendipity leave the fianc´/e at the altar and never look back.

My response is: let's be done with the leaving-the-fiancé/e at the altar bit. We've seen it oh so many times. The Friends pilot. The Runaway Bride. The aforementioned Serendipity. The trope goes back to at least The Philadelphia Story which had the good grace to ditch the fiancé while the Wedding March was playing but before Kate Hepburn got to the altar. (She had class y'know.)

And yes, it implies that your protagonist is flaky and horribly selfish.

But worse, who does that??? Practically no one. (I'm sure there are examples, but in a continent of 400 million people there are examples of almost anything.) Because you're not just breaking the heart of your spouse-to-be, whom you will likely never see again; you are spoiling the biggest and most expensive party you are ever likely to throw, filled with everyone else in your life who matters.

So it's kinda lame.

Why not find a cleverer, more truthful, more unique way to get rid of Mr. or Ms. Wrong?

If you must have a wedding, why not have the girl say, blushing, "I do," then smash cut to the government office where they're signing the annulment papers. Y'know, like real people do?

Or write a fun scene where they're cooing over the seating chart months before the event, and they start disagreeing about something trivial, and then picking at each other, and soon they're bringing up everything they hate about each other. And then they realize they're being stupid, they kiss, they have the great makeup sex, and in the morning they wake up and quietly start talking about joint custody for the cat?

Or skip the wedding idea entirely. Or have your character just coming out of a divorce.

If you're having a lot of trouble with a certain plot point, e.g. how to deal with the stood-up fiancé/e, it may not be the plot point that's wrong. It may be the plot point before -- e.g. the leaving him or her behind on the altar.

And if you have a nagging sensation that won't go away that a plot point is not quite right, there is a good chance it is fundamentally wrong. In that case, any attempt to patch it up will leave you with a structural problem. Consider throwing the plot point out entirely and replacing it with something more original and truer -- which is usually funnier as well.

This is also, incidentally, good advice about relationships...


Good point. I left my fiance two months before the wedding. I think the final straw came when I was sitting in front of the $500 invitations addressing the envelopes for the $5,000 ceremony and sighing.

Telling someone you care about that you don't want to marry them is about the most gut-wrenching thing a person can do.

Telling your mom she spent all that money for nothing is almost as bad.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:57 AM  

I liked the solution to the issue in 'In and Out' - the guy is not a jerk, but gay. The out for the fabulous Joan Cusak is a movie star who had a crush on her in High School. And Matt Dillon! Sweet!

It was done in a way that wasn't terribly awkward. But I don't know if it would work like that in a rom-com that's not about someone being closeted.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:10 PM  

I would direct you to the fine little comedy The Baxter, which is the adventure of precisely that unfortunate fella. It's like the romantic comedy version of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDERNSTERN ARE DEAD.

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:34 PM  

OK, I have actually been at a wedding where the bride didn't show. It was pretty awful. So it does happen. Not as much as, say, murder. But it happens.

By Blogger ME, at 7:01 PM  

I also have to chime in and say, "This is a movie, people." A Rom-Com at that. It should be about extremes in behaviour and character. To have a character in a comedic movie do the safe, right thing- the "less painful" thing - is a violation of the form.

Leave the bride at the altar. Run away with the bride's maid in a stolen car, or if this is a gay rom-com, run off with the best man.

If it's a zom-com, go off and die and come back to chew the love of your life's flesh off the bone.

And maybe it should happen more often than murder... there would be less murder.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:38 PM  

Last resort to nearly any problem, you can always kill 'em off.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:11 AM  

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