The Three-Goddesses Chat: Romantic Comedy

This is the first in a series of Three Goddess Chats, brought to you by Krissie (Anne Stuart), Lucy (Lucy March aka Lani Diane Rich), and Jenny (Jenny Crusie), who meet every now and then in a chat-room called ThreeGoddesses to talk about everything. Krissie doesn’t write romantic comedy so this is actually a Two-Goddess post, but she’ll be here tomorrow for the supernatural romance chat. This one is Lucy and Jenny trying to synthesize everything they learned watching romantic comedy movies for nine months for their Popcorn Dialogues podcasts, although they tend to veer off into talking about writing romance in general.

Jenny: So what have we learned from nine months of PopD, Lucy? First: character. Character, character, character.

Lucy: Character is sacred. Always.

Jenny: In a rom com, it’s because it sells why we should want these two characters to be together, and why we care desperately if they’re not. In It Happened One Night, you really want them together, especially after the scene in the motel where they pretend to be married. I think that’s key, making the reader really need for these two people to be together.

Lucy: Absolutely. And how is the humor handled. It should come from character, not from jokes. That’s a comedy with a romance tacked on.

Jenny: A shared sense of humor is one way to show they’re in sync. They’re laughing at the same things. Think It Happened One Night, Desk Set, Two Weeks Notice. That’s one way to keep the reader wanting them together: they’re not just working together, they’re fun to be with, both for each other and for the reader.

Lucy: Laughing at the same things – not at each other. No humiliation (Two Weeks Notice, I’m looking at you.)

Jenny: Yes, but HE didn’t humiliate her.

Lucy: You’re right; he didn’t humiliate her, the writers did. Grrrr. If you’re talking about writing romantic comedy, I think you need to have an awareness of where the humor comes from.

Jenny: If we’re talking about the relationship, that was a good one. They understood each other. And not just the sense of humor. They had a short hand when they talked. The whole beets-beets-beets thing. So what have we learned from this, Dorothy? We have to care about the people. Which means the people have to be human (Allegra and Albert, not Hitch and Whosis from Hitch)

Lucy: Sara. Hitch and Sara. Not that we cared. Anyway, one of the big oh-my-god moments while we were doing PopD for me was that the characters had to work well together. It wasn’t enough to have I’m hot-you’re-hot-let’s-be-hot-together. I wanted to see them working together and enjoying each other, being good apart but better together.

Jenny:Yes. That’s one way the relationship develops: working together, shared sense of humor, establishment of in-jokes/private language.

Lucy: It Happened One Night was the first time I consciously realized that, but we saw it in a lot of other movies as well, and it was always great. It’s important to have obstacles, have antagonists and things getting in the way, but if two people default to a positive, strong and competent working relationship, it’s wonderful.

Jenny:If they stick together when they hit the bumps, that’s great.

Lucy: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. When they went on the roof to talk business and eat their sandwiches, it was a thing of beauty.

Jenny: I think that’s why the Big Misunderstanding never works. If they were really in sync, they’d solve the Big Misunderstanding right away.

Lucy: Yeah, when obstacles make the relationship stronger, it’s wonderful. When they pull together instead of apart.

Jenny: Desk Set is a shining example of that Working Together Rule.

Lucy: That’s exactly why the Big Misunderstanding—along with The Big Lie—drives me crazy. I don’t want them together in that case.

Jenny:Oh, lies are off the table. I hate liars. So let’s get practical. How did you use that in A Little Night Magic. No spoilers.

Lucy: It’s funny, because I was writing A Little Night Magic while we were doing PopD, so I was constantly looking at that relationship with Liv and Tobias. They actually worked together, so they had a nice rapport, even in the first scene when an unexpected customer comes in and sets off the events of the book. He’s a short-order cook, and she’s a waitress. But when the magic hits, they work well with that, too, and the understood each other. There’s a moment in the climax that I just love, which I won’t talk about because it’s in the climax and SPOILERS, but they read each other without words and it’s that working together that saves the day.

Jenny: That was a great relationship right from the start. I was always rooting for Tobias, even when you were going to have Liv end up with somebody else. I just loved the way they worked and joked together in that first scene.

Lucy: Yeah, I went through a lot of variations on that book! But Tobias won out; everyone was rooting for him!

Jenny: Talk about that first scene, how you established that relationship through work.

Lucy: The opening scene starts with Liv and Tobias closing up together. They do their work quietly, while having an intense discussion about something else entirely… actually, about Liv’s feelings for Tobias, which she acknowledges to him right from the start. It’s because she’s crazy about him and thinks he’ll never feel the same about her that she’s leaving town, which has him upset. And that, of course, moves us into the “Always Honest” part of the discussion…

Jenny: I loved how comfortable they were with each other, right from the start. And the working together thing, serving people food, which is nurturing and not the way romance heroes are usually introduced. Tobias is just a great guy and a great match for Liv. I can’t believe you though she was going to end up with somebody else.

Lucy: They also work really well together when it comes to the magic; he knows a lot more about it than she does, has more experience with it, so that’s where they do really well. So, your characters in You Again, how are they working together? It’s Zelda and Sam, right?

Jenny: Well, it’s Zelda and somebody. The name “Sam” isn’t working, possibly because I already wrote a Sam. But yes, Zelda and her Significant Other work together in You Again. It’s a three part structure, and in the first part, Zelda doesn’t want anything to do with him, but they have to go grocery shopping together, and the way they work that is a good foreshadowing, I think. They’re shopping for a family dinner, and the family is nuts, so they have to figure out what’s going to make everybody happy plus please a very fussy cook. It was fun, mostly because I could move them from not-in-sync–neither one of them wants to grocery shop–to catching each other’s rhythms and laughing. Then in the second and third acts they’re working together to find out who Zelda’s father is and who’s trying to kill her while also working out a relationship that’s become sexual and compelling. So it’s an escalating work relationship that echoes the sexual relationship. I love work relationships: they’re really fun to do because it’s such a great structure to build the romance on, beyond the damn-you’re-hot method which doesn’t really work without that emotional component.

Lucy: Yeah, you see so much of the “I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s be hot together,” thing that I wonder who that works for. It has to be about who they are; being hot doesn’t make a good couple. Something so simple like grocery shopping—or the beets-beets-beets thing in Two Weeks Notice—can give you so much insight into how two people work together. It doesn’t even have to be the focus of the scene, it’s just how they work together, how you show the relationship growing.

Jenny:Well, being hot works in real life for Friday night. And in reality, we are first attracted to the physical. But that lasts about two seconds once the other person speaks or acts. Mel Gibson is still technically good-looking, but he makes my skin crawl. William Macy is not handsome, but I’ll watch him in anything. Personality. And when you have two people with very attractive personalities, then you have fun watching them connect.

Lucy: Yeah, which is why I can’t get behind a whole relationship that’s based on pretty. And it’s also why, I think, the Beauty and the Beast trope works so well, because it’s about what’s underneath. Of course, in the end, he’s hot, but… what are you gonna do?

Jenny: I loved Liv because she was so positive without being a Pollyanna. She was just a good person, taking care of her customers. And then Tobias was another really good person, working hard, looking out for Liv. They were relaxed together, and it was just lovely to be with them on the page.

Lucy: And in a book, what we really see are the personalities together. A reader can make them look however they want in her head; when you’re reading and getting into someone’s deep thoughts, the personality has to be there.

Jenny: Well, the thing is, in the end, the loved one is hot even if he doesn’t transform into a prince. He’s hot or she’s hot because you’re in love.

Lucy: Absolutely; it’s the love that makes them hot. Which is why it’s fun to work with female characters who have, like most of us, body image issues. When he loves her not despite her looks, but because it’s part of the whole package that is her, it’s wonderful.

Jenny: Exactly. “She’s really cute” on the page is not the same as watching Emma Stone shut down Justin Timberlake with “It’s not you, it’s me. I don’t like you anymore.” Although come to think of it, that’s speech again. If she’d been a humorless bitch, I wouldn’t have liked her even though she’s beautiful. Speech and action. The whole looks thing is a non-starter in fiction anyway because readers imagine their own character images. I can say a hero is not that good-looking, but they’ll imagine him handsome anyway because he’s got a great personality.

Lucy: So, you have an advantage; you’ve read A Little Night Magic, and I haven’t read any of the new You Again. Sam and Zelda are great characters; how are their personalities coming out on the page?

Jenny: Do you realize I started that book in 2003?

Lucy: I know, and I adored the stuff you wrote then. I still remember it; Zelda and James (he was James then) sitting on a roof with their backs against each other. After eight years, I remember that. That’s good writing.

Jenny: Oh, the backs thing was when they were teenagers; it was a memory. Wow, you’re good.

Lucy: No, you’re good. I don’t remember just anything. So, how are Zelda and Sam different now?

Jenny:Well, Sam is getting a name change again. You know it’s tough coming up with names after twenty-some books. I don’t know how Krissie does now that she’s well over a hundred stories. Anyway, the hero used to be long-suffering James, a lawyer. Then he was smart-mouthed Sam, a hostage negotiator because, as he said, with his family he got his training early. Now, I don’t know, I just can’t seem to get him. I can see him, I just can’t quite get him. The good thing is, he’s loosened up, much more relaxed. Zelda, on the other hand, has tightened up: before she didn’t want things. She didn’t want to go to Rosemore, she didn’t want to stay, she didn’t want . . . Negative goals. So I had a Schmoo for a hero and a negative heroine. Surprisingly, they didn’t really connect on the page. Also, not funny. And now, no name.

Lucy: Names are critical. I think people who aren’t writers can be surprised by that. I once had a character I couldn’t write until I changed her name from Emma to Flynn. And you had that with Maybe This Time, you had to change Emmeline to Andie, right?

Jenny: Yes. I really had to wrestle that character to the ground, but the name made all the difference. Character again.

Lucy: Zelda and Sam knew each other before, when they were kids, right? I love a story with history. Does that familiarity help them work well together?

Jenny:Well, the whole I-loved-you-once is really powerful because it means they connected before so their connection this time is going to have a path to follow. But you still have to show it on the page, show why they connect. In this case, it’s because they’re both fixers, they take care of things. That’s a really lonely job if there’s one of you, but if there’s two, it becomes a power structure, a bond, and the work brings you closer. It’s that working together thing again.

Lucy: Which brings us to another topic for building great romcom characters – competence. Zelda and Sam are both good at what they do, and that matters. Seeing how people conduct themselves in their arenas is really important.

Jenny: I agree: what characters do makes a difference. (Mimes, anyone?) I love that Tobias and Liv work to feed people. I usually pay attention to what my characters do, but the whole PopD thing made me pay attention to how their careers work off of each other.

Lucy: Well, it feeds in to who they are. Hildy and Walter from His Girl Friday are a great example of that.

Jenny: Oh, absolutely, their working relationship is key. I love that way of evolving a relationship in rom com. You nailed it coming out of the gate in A Little Night Magic: Liv and Tobias feed people and take care of the town. That’s so powerful.

Lucy: With Tobias and Liv, their jobs are about being part of the community. They both live at the heartbeat of the community, and when the community is in trouble, that’s when they come out together to save it. It was fun having them in that role.

Jenny: I loved the fact that the pancake house is the center of the town. People go there to eat and to talk to Liv and Tobias. So it’s my two favorite things in romance plots: community and working together.

Lucy: So what else do we know about romantic comedy? I think where the humor comes from is a big thing. It has to come from character, I think. Like your line from Sam: He got his hostage negotiator training in early from his family. That says so much about him, and it’s so funny, but it’s not a joke.

Jenny: Absolutely, humor has to come from the characters’ sense of humor. Humor can be dangerous. You can’t have your romcom protagonists making fun of anybody unless he or she REALLY deserves it. Makes them too mean. But humor as a defense works just fine; they don’t get mad, they crack jokes. The big thing about that in rom com, I think, is that shared sense of humor.

Lucy: One of my favorite scenes in A Little Night Magic is when Tobias is trying to feed waffles to Liv. She keeps eating, because they’re delicious, but arguing with herself the whole way about the calories and how much she’ll have to work out to make up for it, and he just looks at her and says, “Is this the way women really think?” and she informs him that it’s varsity-level self-loathing, and Tobias just makes her eat. It was really fun, because it was so Liv, and it’s fun to have that banter which isn’t based on mutual antagonism.

Jenny: I love that. Well, men feeding women is always great, but that caretaking role. “Someone to watch over me,” but not in a controlling way, somebody who laughs with the heroine. It’s that shared moment that’s not sex but love. Sometimes I look at what I’m writing and think, “This isn’t funny. I’m supposed to be funny.” But you can’t add humor to a story, it’s either in there, in the characters, or it’s not.

Lucy: Humor is so tied to how you see the world. If they don’t find the same things funny, they won’t make it. It’s fun to have those moments where they’re getting to know each other, and they fall into the banter honestly, in sync. I can’t connect with the banter where people snipe at each other; it’s more fun when it’s done with affection.

Jenny: Absolutely. Banter is a co-operative thing, not a battle. It’s a game.

Lucy: You can’t focus on the jokes, and you can’t try to be funny. When you’re trying to be funny, you run the risk of sacrificing character for the joke–making them do something they’d never do, which breaks the book–and that isn’t funny in the end, anyway. Humor grows organically. Like mold.

Jenny: Don’t say mold. Mold is expensive. Say “like kudzu”. Or something. But I like the humor in conversations where they’re discussing/arguing, too. I think using humor while you’re trying to understand somebody is another way to communicate. “I don’t understand a damn thing you’ve told me, but I’m trying.”

Lucy: Oh, sorry. I touched on a soft spot for the new homeowner. Poor baby. I think having humor is great, but when you think, “I need to be funny!” you get in trouble. Or, at least, I do. I don’t try to be funny; my characters amuse me, and I catch it on the page sometimes. That’s the best I can do.

Jenny: There’s a scene in You Again where Sam hits on Zelda for the first time. And she explains to him that she finds him very attractive but the whole sex thing is such a hassle and she has enough problems right now, plus they’re not going to see each other again because she’s leaving tomorrow, so what’s the point? And Sam says, “What’s the point? Really?”

Lucy: See THAT’S funny, because it says so much about both of them.

Jenny: And they go from there and because of the conversation and the way it goes, Zelda really does weaken because he’s funny and he’s listening to her. She still says no, but it’s a good clue for the reader that Sam’s going to get to the point.

Lucy: And it also shows that Zelda has not had really good sex. Because I’m with Sam on that one.

Jenny: It’s not that Zelda hasn’t had good sex. It’s that she’s trapped in a house where people are trying to use her, and she’s fighting with her best friend, and she’s trying to find out who her dad is because she has a blood disease, and twenty people want her to fix something, and now this guy she hasn’t seen in fifteen years wants to have sex and that’s another damn thing she’d have to deal with. And she’s leaving the next day, so what’s the point? She just doesn’t have the time or the energy. Priorities.

Lucy: Still with Sam.

Jenny: I think they’re both right, but I like it that they end up seeing each other’s point, and that it moves them closer together than having a quickie in the pantry would.

Lucy: This is true, and it’s fun to be in on the ride from A to B. So, here’s another thing we got from the Romantic Comedy Store – the Big Declaration. What do you think about that?

Jenny: Well, I think there has to be a Big Declaration because that’s the climax. Not as sure about the Public Declaration. We had a discussion here on Argh about that, and I’m actually torn. I think some of the declarations in movies are stupid because they’re out of character, but I do think there’s value in stating your intentions before the community. That pretty much burns any break-up bridges.

Lucy: Here’s the thing about the Big Declaration and I’m not sure if this is legit, but it’s a thought I had. The man has to make the Big Declaration because unless he’s willing to say it big and say it in public (after a Rom Com Run, of course) it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just words, and a guy can say ‘I love you,’ but in order to be really believed, he has to show it. Again, not sure I agree with that entirely, but it’s a theory I’m playing with to explain why it’s so prevalent. What do you think?

Jenny: I agree. When Sam stands up at a family dinner and announces that he’s spending the rest of his life with Zelda, it complicates my plot nicely but it also says he’s serious. I like that in a guy. Of course, Zelda wishes he’d asked her first but it’s in character for him. The ones I object to are the ones that make no sense or that violate character. The ones that work, work because the story and the character demands it.

Lucy: Yes, many of them are out of character, or ridiculous, but I do think there’s a place for the Big Gesture/Public Declaration.

Jenny: Like the press conference declaration in Notting Hill. It’s the only way he can get to her, plus he’s hurt her badly, so even though he’s a very reticent guy, he’s going to have to put it out there to get her back. That one works for me. I’m not sure it’s always the man, though. There’s that thing from Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford about in every relationship, there is one who kisses and one who is kissed. And I think it’s powerful if it’s the one who is kissed who makes the declaration. It balances all the chasing.

Lucy: Seems like it’s usually the guy, isn’t it?

Jenny: Yeah, I think it is usually the guy, although there have been some awful Girl Declarations.

Lucy: Interesting. I always thought it had to be the guy because he wants sex, and he’s getting sex, and saying he loves her gets him the sex, so he’ll say it whether he means it or not. He needs the Public Declaration because that’s the proof. Again, not certain about it yet… just chewing it over.

Jenny: That whole I’ll-do-anything-to-get-sex is interesting; I’ve watched two TV shows in the past week that had that: an episode of The Big Bang Theory and an episode of The Unusuals. And in both cases, when the guy confessed he’d done something so she’d like him and go to bed with him, the girl said, “You’d have gotten sex anyway.” Although in The Big Bang Theory, Leonard goes on to say, “You’d have had sex with me after I made you watch a documentary on dams?” and Penny says, “No. No woman would.” I love that show.

Lucy: LOL. I need to watch that.

Jenny: So does Liv declare at the end or does Tobias? It’s no spoiler that they’re going to get together; it would be too cruel if they didn’t.

Lucy: Well, obviously they get together. And throughout the story, she’s in love with him and they both know it. What they don’t know is that he’s in love with her. There’s nothing terribly public, but he makes a big gesture at the end, which would be spoilery if I told you, and once he does that, there’s no question that he loves her. And she ends up declaring herself to him at the end, so they sort of share it. But he’s not big on talking, so it’s his actions that speak. He says he loves her, too, but that’s just words. I like for my characters to show it in their actions; that’s more important to me.

Jenny: Ah, Public Declaration Through Action. Much better.

Lucy: Action is really where the truth is. People lie with words, but actions don’t lie.

Jenny: Especially for guys.

Lucy: Right.

Jenny: So you mentioned the Rom Com Run awhile back. The big action finish. I never do those in fiction. Do you? The run to tell the other person he or she is loved?

Lucy: Yes, the Rom Com Run. At midnight. Extra points for New Year’s Eve. I can’t think of a time I’ve done that, no. But maybe it’s more in film than books? It’s a visual thing.

Jenny: You’re a Harry-Met-Sally slut, aren’t you? I still say that was stupid.

Lucy: But there’s that sudden realization, and I must tell you now!

Jenny: But we’re talking about action. I think it’s because the run is basically stupid.

Lucy: Yes, I love When Harry Met Sally. No, I would not classify myself as a slut. Yes, it was kinda dumb. I love it anyway. Plblblblbbbt.

Jenny: The actions that matter are those that have meaning, not just running to tell somebody something. Catch a cab, for god’s sake.

Lucy: Honestly. You think she’s going to want to kiss you when you’re all sweaty? Please.

Jenny: They can be really exciting on film but they die on paper.

Lucy: They do.

Jenny: Or the run in Morning Glory where it’s 10AM and she’s running through NYC in a prom dress and heels. I love that movie but that was a stupid Rom Com Run.

Lucy: I think it’s a movie thing. The visual urgency of it.

Jenny: But there is a scene in that movie that I think might be comparable, when she realizes what an idiot she’s been walking out on Patrick Wilson. You don’t see her running to the apartment, you just see him opening the door, and she hits him full tilt and knocks him back against the wall, kissing him. That’s the kind of rom com run you can put on paper. But I don’t think I ever have.

Lucy: Yeah, and that was fun. I liked that. I don’t think I have, either.

Jenny: At the end of the first Liz book, Liz is in physical danger and Vince comes running in to save her, but it’s to save her, not to tell her he loves her.

Lucy: Rushing to save her is different. That’s the action of the book. I’ve had a couple running to rescues, but not running to declare. My guys are a little more laid back about that. They declare in their own good time.

Jenny: But at the end of the book, in the resolution, Liz is leaving town, and he pulls her over (he’s a cop) because she was leaving without saying good-bye, and he gives her something she’d asked for at the beginning of the book. She still leaves, but his actions make her realize she’s going to have to come back to him. So that’s a kind of rom com run. With sirens. Sirens are always good, I think.

Lucy: Sirens are excellent. Oh, I did have a midnight run on New Year’s Eve! In The Fortune Quilt. But she took a cab. I guess that counts.

Jenny: That counts. The Run part is symbolic.

Lucy: Oh, good! I get the extra points!

Jenny: Yes, Lucy, you get the extra points.

Lucy: Yay!

Jenny: Jeez.

Lucy: What? I’m competitive. I like points.

Jenny: So let’s talk about how we learned to avoid shopping at The Rom Com Store, buying into the cliches that make rom com readers scream. There’s The Rom Com Run, The Big Misunderstanding, The Cute Dorky Heroine We Like To Make Fun Of . . .

Lucy: You mean the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Played in everyone’s heads by Zooey Deschanel?

Jenny: No, I’m okay with the MPDG because sometimes she works. I mean the heroine who’s Too Dumb Too Live with a Side Order of Klutz so that the reader laughs at her.

Lucy: Oh, yeah. She’s bad.

Jenny: Perfect example: The dinner scene in The Ugly Truth where she’s wearing the vibrator panties and loses the remote and the kid at the next table picks it up . . . I just threw up in my mouth a little typing that. Don’t make fun of your heroine. Stupid is not funny, it’s sad.

Lucy: Absolutely. I think using anyone as the butt of a joke is bad – mean-spirited humor reveals a mean spirit in the book, and that’s no fun – but humiliating your heroine undercuts her as the protagonist.

Jenny: And it’s also demeaning to women. I’m talking heroines. You can have all the stupid supporting character you want. Well, the hero and heroine can’t make fun of stupid people. Other people in the book can. We’re not writing The Book of Saints here.

Lucy: You absolutely can, although I have a hard time with making fun of people in general. I mean, if you have an ass for a supporting character, and they make their own problems, that’s one thing. But I hate mean-spirited humor; the fat jokes, the ugly jokes, the stupid jokes. They bug me.

Jenny: Sam’s youngest cousin in You Again, Ruby, is one of those people who was born without a filter: she thinks it, she says it. The rest of the family get exasperated with her, but Sam and Zelda both just accept that that’s Ruby.

Lucy: I think bad people bring their karma on themselves, and they get what they deserve. I don’t like it when someone’s vulnerable, and they’re used as the butt of jokes. Like the fat cheerleader scene in Dodgeball. That’s what I’m talking about.

Jenny: Right, but having a character make the fat jokes can characterize that character. You want a bad guy, have him make a fat joke. Although I had a bad guy make a mean joke in Welcome to Temptation and a lot of people thought it was funny. Of course the person he made the joke about deserved it. Hmmmm. Just can’t be the protagonists.

Lucy: Yes, exactly. But in that case, it’s supposed to be bad. When the POV characters do stuff like that, for the sake of a joke, I think it undercuts them. I’m not about writing saints; they annoy me. But mean-spirited humor will make me not respect them anymore.

Jenny: Oh, the Dodgeball cheerleader. One of two flaws in an otherwise perfect movie. Dodgeball is a good example because it violated the spirit of the movie. A movie about the underdog was making fun of the underdog. So you have to make sure that if you’re making a fat joke or whatever, that it’s clear that it’s from a character the world of the book doesn’t approve of, that that character violates the worldview of the story/protagonists.

Lucy: Exactly; that’s why you have to be careful about where your humor comes from. When you’re trying for jokes, you can fall prey to that kind of humor. Humor grows organically. Like… kudzu.

Jenny: But you know, you’re right. You have to be careful even then.

Lucy: Did you see how I didn’t mention the mold? See how sensitive I’m being?

Jenny:You’re trying hard. STOP SAYING “MOLD.”

Lucy: Okay. I’ll stop saying mold. Whoops.

Jenny: Fortunately, I have learned patience rooming with you. How about The Big Misunderstanding? I hate that one. By the end, if these two people haven’t learned to communicate, they’re never going to.

Lucy: The Big Misunderstanding/The Lie. Let’s talk about that. About NOT doing that. That drives me crazy.

Jenny: Well, lies are off the table. Anybody who lies in a relationship is stabbing it in the heart.

Lucy: I had so much fun in A Little Night Magic making Liv completely straightforward about everything. She never lies to Tobias, or to anyone. She lays everything out, and I really enjoyed writing her that way.

Jenny: I know. Liz never lies. Ever. I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be until I started writing it because she doesn’t even do the white lies, but it’s one of the things that fascinates Vince. She never ever lies.

Lucy: The Big Misunderstanding is also a false form of conflict. If the conflict between two people can be cleared up by a conversation, it’s bad conflict. “That woman I had my arm around? That’s what you were so upset about? That was my SISTER!” Argh. Friends played really nicely with that once. A guy Rachel was dating had a woman in his apartment, and it was cleared up right away that she was his sister, but then he was REALLY creepily inappropriate with her. That was funny.

Jenny: I remember that. It was. It was funnier because it played with that stupid trope, turned it on its head. There was a scene in an episode of The Unusuals where the protagonist is told that somebody saw her guy out with another woman the night before. And the next scene is her meeting said guy at a restaurant and saying, “Who were you out with last night?” I love that protagonist.

Lucy: I loved The Unusuals. I’m still heartbroken about that getting cancelled.

Jenny: Me, too. Plus then you get to real conflict. In that Unusuals episode, the guy said, “Look, we never said we were exclusive, and you hate going out to expensive restaurants. You hate my life. That’s not good for me.” And he was right. Real problems trump fake problems.

Lucy: Have your characters be direct; there’s so much more opportunity for fun there.

Jenny: Absolutely.

Lucy: Oh! And that terrible scene in Friends with Benefits where she overhears him saying things he doesn’t mean to his sister, and then leaves and doesn’t tell him she heard, all the while hiding in his nephew’s saw-the-woman-in-half box. And then we had to sit through a bunch of stupid magic tricks to set it up. Blech.

Jenny: Oh, dear god, that was awful. Terrible start to that move, great middle, terrible ending. Of course, without the Big M, you have to come up with real conflict. In You Again, Sam and Zelda are really up front with each other and therefore have no problems. Thank God somebody’s trying to kill her.

Lucy: Which is why you need an antagonist.

Jenny: Exactly. Come to think of it, somebody’s trying to kill Liz, too. And isn’t somebody trying to kill Liv? Take something from her that will kill her? What every rom com needs: a homicidal maniac.

Lucy: Absolutely. Threat of imminent death does a lot to move a romance along. We don’t have all day here. The Big Bads in A Little Night Magic aren’t really trying to kill Liv, so much as Liv dying is a consequence of what they’re trying to do. So she needs Tobias’s protection, and he’s trying to stay level-headed without getting involved. But he loves her. He can’t help it.

Jenny: But does he know she’s going to die if he doesn’t stop them?

Lucy: He can’t stop them; only she can. He can help her. Which is another thing I like; no one rescues Liv. She rescues herself. But Tobias needs to help her, and he always lets her find her own strength. I love that about him.

Jenny: And real conflict tends to blot out Big Misunderstandings anyway. “Somebody’s trying to kill me and you’re saving me: I don’t give a rat’s ass who you might have had dinner with last night.” The Big Misunderstanding is almost always a patch to cover the There’s-No-Conflict hole.

Lucy: Right. It’s a relative scale. If your biggest problem is that your boyfriend had dinner with a woman who may or may not have been his sister last night, you don’t have big problems.

Jenny: It really goes back to that working together thing. If you’ve worked with somebody and you know them, you’re less likely to be dumb about misunderstandings.

Lucy: The Big Misunderstanding is jazz hands. There’s no conflict here. Ta-daaaaaaaaa.

Jenny: LOL. I thought snappy patter was jazz hands.

Lucy: Well, if there’s any trust in the relationship, you don’t have Big Misunderstandings. You ask. “Hey, who’d you have dinner with last night?” Boom. Done. On to bigger things. Like the crazy person who wants me dead.

Jenny: It’s more of “This is not the conflict you were looking for.”

Lucy: Yes, the Jedi mind trick of RomCom.

Jenny: Exactly. Can you think of anything else?

Lucy: Respecting each other is a huge thing.

Jenny: Absolutely. And trusting each other. Oh, light bulb moment. The Big Misunderstanding doesn’t work because it shows a lack of trust and respect.

Lucy: If she thinks he’s an oaf, it’s done. If he thinks she’s an idiot, it’s done. Absolutely. It’s all connected together. Like that big mushroom.

Jenny: If either one thinks the other would cheat, they’re done. What big mushroom? There’s a mushroom?

Lucy: The big mushroom. The one that goes for miles and it looks like a bunch of different mushrooms, but it’s really one big organism under the earth. Trust, respect, and no misunderstandings; one big mushroom. And hey, I didn’t say mold.

Jenny: I was not previously aware of this mushroom.

Lucy: Dude. Scientific American.

Jenny: You read Scientific American?

Lucy: No. But I read blogs by people who read Scientific American.

Jenny: Ah.

Lucy: You know six degrees of separation? I’m two degrees of smart.

Jenny: Excellent.

Lucy: I find a low bar benefits everyone.

Jenny: Well, the internet is a low bar. Especially the way I use it.

Lucy: Hey, you subscribe to Psychology Today. I’ve seen it in the kitchen.

Jenny: That’s for fiction. You can get some pretty fine character ideas in that sucker.

Lucy: Still. Smart. You have to be. You’re most of my one degree.

Jenny: We never see anybody else. We’re most of both of our degrees. We should get out more.

Lucy: We really should.

Jenny: So what we learned from PopD: Character first. Working together. Shares senses of humor. Trust. No Big Misunderstandings. RomCom Runs only if absolutely necessary and in character. Humor from character. Public declarations from character. Banter as a game, not a battle. Is that it?

Lucy: Well, that and remember: It’s all one big mushroom.

Lucy March’s A Little Night Magic will be out from St. Martin’s Press on January 31, 2012.

Jenny Crusie’s You Again and Lavender’s Blue will be out from St. Martin’s Press a year after she finishes them; when is anybody’s guess.

48 thoughts on “The Three-Goddesses Chat: Romantic Comedy

  1. Okay, that was fun and interesting. I should be getting ready for work; instead, I read every word.

    I once argued with a boss that it was possible to live without lying. I lasted eighteen months, I believe. I did fine until…telemarketers. “Are you over eighteen?” “No.”

  2. Love the mushroom. (Isn’t it under most of Wisconsin or something?) Trust, respect, honesty.

    1. I think it’s under Oregon. Which is completely in character. I bet it’s what they based that one X-Files episode on, now that I think about it.

  3. Wow! Thank you so much! I learned so much here – it was nice to see this as a concluding piece to the podcasts.

  4. This is an amazing and really, really, helpful chat. Humor is such a strange thing. What one person thinks is hilarious, another might think is cute, and yet another will think it’s mean-spirited. I like most humor except bathroom humor because that’s a cheap shot at being funny, and I love it when a character says something that cracks me up, especially when it was unexpected and gives me insight into who they are.
    Thank you. I learn so much from you two.
    Looking forward to reading A Little Night Magic later this month, and You Again, and Lavender’s Blue…well, whenever. No pressure or anything. : )

  5. Wow, this conversation was fantastic! I’m walking away (as much as anyone sitting on a couch with a laptop is walking anywhere) with some thoughts on how to make the current Big Project smarter and stronger. I’m a degree closer to smart now, too!

    I am finding the conversation about lies and the Big Misunderstanding. One of my favoritest movies ever is Pillow Talk (I haven’t checked PopD to see if you’ve talked about this one yet) and it seems that lies and the Big Misunderstandings drive the story. Yet it works. What about that deviates from the rule?

    1. Hey, Diana! We did Pillow Talk on PopD ( and were not kind, alas. There’s a lot of charm in that movie, but it was the big lightbulb for me about how misunderstandings and lies can really kneecap a film. Give it a listen and let us know what your thoughts are; a passionate defense can be a lot of fun!

      1. I will take a look at it later tonight. Thanks for pointing out the link! I’ll be back, either waving the white flag or waiving my sword screaming, “But *I’m* right, dammit!”

        1. (-: I want to see Diana’s perspective on Pillow Talk. Rock Hudson is handsome, but his character was the biggest jerk . . . . Although, I’m glad I saw the movie, because it totally helped put “Down with Love” (Renee Zelleweger) in perspective.

          1. I want Diana’s perspective, too! You know, I don’t believe you should ever have to defend what you love. If you love it, you love it. We did The Philadelphia Story, one of my all-time faves, and when it came down to it, I had to admit it was horribly flawed. But I still love it. When you love something, you should just love it, and never have to explain why.

            But, if Diana’s in the mood, I’d love to be told why we’re wrong. I always enjoy that. 🙂

  6. The Lie and The Big Misunderstanding is why there are a lot of romances I detest. For example: The Truth About Cats and Dogs. And most of the romances from the late 70s and early 80s. 🙂 Okay, not most, because I’ve only read some as Harlequins at that time period or some others since, but those that I’ve read have … um … disappointed me greatly we’ll say. That and the mean, overbearing, exceptionally domineering guy. Those were books I threw against the walls. I didn’t throw Cats and Dogs against the wall because it wasn’t my video tape. 🙂

    I learned a lot from this. Not just straight rom coms, but any kind of com (SF com, fantasy com, etc.) can benefit from this information. You really need to read Connie Willis if you haven’t. She’s got it. As do the two of you, of course!

    1. ?? Isn’t her major plotting device the Big Misunderstanding? I’ve only read three of her books (To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Blackout/All Clear), and I felt her use of romance was much like a 50s housewife use of garlic: very sparingly, and preferrable dried out and powdered.

      (-: Please prove me wrong. I adore getting a different perspective on things. And I really wish I liked her books better; so many people praise her.

      1. To Say Nothing of the Dog was AMAZING and I think the BigMisU *might* be a neccesity of the Wodehouse type genre, and she does it so well. And the whole thing is a farce. Haven’t thought it through, but thats my gut reaction.
        (IMHO, Blackout/AllClear should have been reduced to one book, shorter than either one – but thats just me.)
        In non-farce, “real” situations, the BMU is stupid, IMHO.

      2. Bellweather has the best romance of the Willis books I’ve read – there’s no big misunderstanding and it’s a lot of fun. I loved TSNotD (and Doomsday Book) but couldn’t get through Blackout, just to show you my taste. I agree that Willis isn’t a romance writer – even in Bellweather the romance is similar to what’s in a lot of older mystery novels – the romance isn’t well developed, just a few glances and whatnots and then, poof, they’re in love, just in time for the end of the book.

      3. Read TSNotD, didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as most people seem to. It was ok. It took me two attempts to get into it enough to finish it though, and the humor didn’t hit my funny bone either, so the thing that people love about it didn’t make me love it.

        Kind of like recipes that depend on cilantro. It might be your favorite thing ever, but to me it will only taste like shampoo. Which reminds me. What I really wanted to comment about is that the characters have to be better together than independently. We have to like them as individuals, and like them better as a couple. In real life, most of my friends marriages have worked out like this, for which I’m quite grateful.

    1. Well said. Whenever Jenny posts, she tends to do that. Jenny, please take that as read, and as reward for posting. Say “I posted, I made people happy today”.
      That’s (one reason) why we’re all here.

  7. I went looking for Wrapup in PopD, couldn’t find it. Now, overnight, it’s here. Scary. But oh, boy and oh, omen. Just about to start (okay: started yesterday) a Story. All this wrapped wisdom will help me with what happens. Thank you. You two are so good to us. Esp., “But you can’t add humor to a story, it’s either in there, in the characters, or it’s not.” So no pressure — just find the humor and write it.

  8. I’m feeling a little smarter now myself. And, like Briana, a little happier. Thanks for this. Also, this seems a little presumptuous but it’s stuck in my head. Have you written an Adam? Zelda and Adam. Adam and Zelda. I’ve always liked that A to Z thing. Aaron? Aidan?

    1. Lani’s ex is named Adam. Can’t do it.
      Can’t use Jack, either, which is a great hero name. Father and brother are both named Jack.

      1. I can see why Adam is a definite “stay away from” name. Funny how important main character names are, though. Can’t imagine Cal and Min or Sophie and Phin having any other monikers. Or Shane and Agnes, or……well, any of the couples we know and love. Maybe Sam’s mother has a great maiden name that would suit a laid-back hostage negotiator. If you like the already used Jack, maybe Mack? Do most of your male protagonists have one syllable names? Wait, I’m forgetting Davy. And C. L. And J. T. Never mind.

  9. Wonderful chat. I left a clever and charming comment over at Lucy March. But the blog ate it. And that was my entire quota of clever and charming for the day. So I’ll just say I loved it, and leave it at that 🙂

  10. This was fun. Didn’t know about the mushroom, now I have to go look it up. Your chat also summarizes why one of my mom’s favorite authors really does not work for me. Practically all of her conflict comes from Lies (although generally by people other than the hero and heroine) and Misunderstandings (usually more than one, and often quite stupid). I pretty much always want to leap into the book and scream at those people, “WILL YOU JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY!” So, in short, I agree with you.

  11. You guys wrote this for me, didn’t you? It’s okay, you can admit it and I can take it. My characters need work. The “thing” keeping them apart needs work. (I’m actually taking some time off work to develop the story and WRITE!)

    But seeing the examples, “Listening” to you discuss this stuff is very helpful. And kind of exciting. I really want to get back into the stories. And I can hardly wait until A Little Night Magic arrives on my kindle. I already bought it. Now to go back and read the comments…

  12. Great post–lots to think about.

    Love the name Zelda! But I always seem to like names where there’s a dearth of them in that letter of the alphabet. What about Zac? Or Zeb–no forget Zeb. It looks awful in black and white…too Zebra.

    Coming back to Zac. If they went to school together they would’ve spent a lot of time at the back of lines paired up. And they’d both get the thing with having few others around with Z names. One year I wanted a J name–most of the class that year had J names. Jadd, Julie, Jill, Jenny, Jennifer, Joni, Johnny, John, Jonathon, Janey, Joshua, James…but no Jack.

    Actually Zac might not work with father and brother Jack. Jack–Zac-Jack.

    1. I already did a Zack. In my third novel. The penalty of writing 20+ novels: the good names are gone. Although I used Nick twice. I like Nick. Nick’s a good guy. You can depend on Nick. Well, I depended on him twice.

        1. I’d nominate Alfred – I know, it is Batman’s butler, but it is also three people I know, two of them ancient, who are prepared, clever, and subversively funny. (Come to think of it, Batman’s butler is all those things as well.) One of the old ones noted to the younger one “It’s nice to know there is a younger Alfred around to take on the mantle.”

          Plus, he can introduce himself “you can call me Al.” A Paul Simon shout-out, for epic win!!

    2. Must be careful with having too many names in a story start with the same letter or sound alike. People reading can get confused.

  13. (-: Extremely entertaining . . . I love the degrees of smartness (-:. Also, it was a timely reminder to pre-order Lani’s new book. Thanks!

  14. Fab roundup. Thanks, ladies.

    And I recently watched Pillow Talk. Was willing to play along with the misunderstanding–suspension of disbelief & all that–but the ending kills it for me. Wont’s give away any spoilers, but oy. Even taken in the spirit of the time period the movie was made, this ending irked me. Could understand why you love it, though, Diana. It’s fun up until that point. If I watch it again, I plan to skip that bit:)

  15. Thanks for this. I love reading about the creative process and how people think about their art / writing. I agree that the Big Misunderstanding doesn’t usually work well, but, um, it worked in Bet Me. How did you do that? That’s one of the miraculous things about that book to me.

  16. I loved the mushroom thing. You don’t have to read Scientific American, though – I love it, but rarely sit down to read it – I’m pretty sure it’s been on NPR numerous times, too.

    My dad is an Al (from Alden, though) and he is a retired engineer, not a bookie. Mark? Max? Zephaniah? If he has an awful name (since he has an awful family), that he, perhaps, negotiated to something tolerable, it might show him both beginning to negotiate and removing himself from some of the toxic effects of his family. There are so many awful names – whether because they are dowdy and dweebish or just too Old Testament for this millenium, let alone the fashions of the 20th/ 21st century (btw, Cameron seems a little too young to me, which probably means it’s about right, since I am well into middle age).

    1. My cat’s name is Zephaniah and his sister is Sophia but more often they are called Zep & Sophie.

  17. Wow, this made me want to read A Little Night Magic SO BADLY. I am now immensely sad that I’ll have to wait all the way to the end of the month to get it. Amazon pre-order as soon as I get my next paycheck, oh yes – I just love how you (both) described Liv and Tobias working together and caring about each other. Must. Read. Now.

    Also, this whole conversation was really helpful in clarifying some of the issues bugging this story I’ve been trying to write for, oh, about a decade now. Comedy from character. Working together. Respect. Positive goals. No g**d!*#*% Big Misunderstandings. SO helpful. Going off to write now…thank you both!

  18. This chat was really fun reading for all that it’s educational and all. Thanks for sharing, that was a good idea for a blog post.

    Completely agree about big misunderstandings. I did actually like FWB quite a lot until the BM. Hrm. Maybe we can call it dropping the deuce on the relationship?

    Just saw another episode of Big Bang Theory with my fav Kuthripali line – “So, you say you can’t pay your rent?” to the visiting scientist who is trying to role play. So wonderful, after he’s jacked himself up on nyquil so he can talk to girls.

    You’re also right about names being important. Zelda’s a hard one to match. And people looking more attractive when they have attractive personalities. I have that experience over and over. “ooh, he’s hot” turns quickly into “uugh, he’s not” if he’s just awful. Maybe you can write these as rules, like the mystery has rules (although some are negative rules…) and send them to every screenwriter in hollywood…

  19. Really enjoyed reading this recap. It reminded me that I saw a French romantic comedy recently that I wished had been part of Pop Dialogues – ‘Heartbreaker’ with Romain Duris – and it’s available from Netflix streaming.

    Two reasons I’m mentioning it: 1) It’s hilarious. Everyone I’ve told about it has loved it and my brother-in-law even said that he couldn’t believe Hollywood hadn’t made its own version. So, watch it sometime. It’s good and it’s interesting.

    2) They did really interesting things with The Big Lie in the film. This is my Most Hated gimmick, but in this film it worked for me. My sisters and I had a long conversation about how they made it work and I’ve thought about it at length, since. I would have been interested to hear/read what your thoughts were. If it worked for you and how it worked.

  20. Because Lucy’s story has a diner (pancake house, whatever), and because I know Jenny appreciates a book soundtrack, I wanted to share a song you might both enjoy:

    It’s called Diner, by Robbie Schaefer, and it’s about a diner waitress and a regular who fall in love:

    “They fell in love with the radio on,
    And kissed through the walls
    that they built in between.”

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