How to Craft Stories – the Hallmark Movie Way

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I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Hallmark movies. I’ve been watching that channel on and off now for at least five years. Especially during the holiday season, I am glued to Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, losing more than two months of my life as I immerse myself into their holiday rom-coms.

As I watch their productions, however, I notice a pattern in story telling, which really isn’t hard to do. Hallmark movies follow their own story structure, though it isn’t that different from other types of films or from romance novels. Hallmark gets a bad rap for its formulaic story structure, but that’s what makes them so popular with their viewers, who come to expect those feel-good stories. After you’ve watched as many as I have, one story looks and sounds just like the next.

That said, I enjoy these movies because they make me feel good at the end. As a hopeful romantic (why they call it hopeless, I’ll never understand), I’m always rooting for the couple to get together. I like to see that two people can find happiness despite the obstacles thrown in their path.

I also enjoy these movies for the pure escapism they provide from the everyday world. I suppose if the outside world didn’t seem so dark and hostile at times, Hallmark wouldn’t be as popular. Further, I like what they have done for my imagination, which keeps spilling out a stream of story ideas that may or may not fit the Hallmark structure.

But as a writer, I recognize the pitfalls of these films too, such as the predictable plot structure. I also dislike how they engross me so much that I lose time away from writing. Since Hallmark began showing their annual barrage of Christmas movies in late October (another aspect I dislike — way too early, in my opinion), I’ve made little progress toward my own writing projects. I’m ready for January when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

As I mentioned, there is a set structure to these stories. I’ve outlined the basic elements below, based on my own observations as well as comments from screenwriters and producers who presented at a Story Summit workshop recently.

1. Start with a strong protagonist. Rom-coms feature female leads who enjoy an aspirational career, such as a lawyer, a bakery owner, florist or nurse. While she seems content with her career, she has one great desire to achieve something within her career or outside of it. She feels her life is complete just as it is and is NOT looking for love.

2. Surround the protagonist with a supporting cast. The female protagonist usually has one or two close companions who are her confidants. They provide counsel and advice when they see she needs it, and encourage her when she feels down. In addition, she may be part of a larger group of friends or colleagues at work or in the community.

3. Some incident sets the action into motion. This is true for all stories, not just Hallmark rom-coms. The female lead might get a plum assignment, get engaged or break off a relationship, or maybe she receives an inheritance. Something significant happens that sets her on a course that puts her in the path of her love interest.

4. Create a compelling love interest. No Hallmark rom-com would be complete without the love interest. He may not get along with the female lead at first. They likely clash over conflicting goals or they’re fighting for the same thing but in different ways. However, he complements the female lead in ways that may not be obvious at first. He provides a skill or specialized knowledge that helps her achieve a goal, and occasionally, she does the same for him.

5. Allow the couple to grow together over time. The two leads are thrown together to work toward a common goal – planning a fundraiser, putting on a production, or solving a mystery. The more they work together, the closer they get and the more attracted they become to the other person. They each provide the other with a perspective they’re lacking. They keep fighting the attraction, however. Further, one or the both of them are harboring a secret that could tear them apart.

6. Create confrontation by revealing the protagonist’s secret. Once the secret is revealed, a confrontation ensues and the leads wonder if they can trust the other person. All seems lost. But through the separation, the female lead begins to realize what’s really important to her.

7. Save the kiss for last. They see the fruits of their labors in the final scenes – they reach their fundraising goals, the production takes place and they solve the mystery. The couple reconciles their differences because they each realize they are better together than they are apart. They finally come together for a kiss, which takes place in the very last scene.

A couple of other pointers: For Christmas-themed stories, either the protagonist or love interest lacks the holiday spirit, so the other person helps them regain it by engaging them in Christmas activities. That said, there are so many times I can watch scenes of playful snowball fights, baking cookies or Christmas tree lightings.

I will leave with one more bit of advice, and this stems from a personal pet peeve. Keep the title short and pithy, which will be easier for readers and viewers to remember. I find the longer movie titles are distracting and do nothing to entice me to watch.

As a writer, I’ve begun to look at movies the same way I experience books. I pay more attention to the key elements, like the characters, plot, setting and dialogue. I observe how the story unfolds, the relationship of the characters and I consider different ways I can tell my stories. This can either be helpful to me or a distraction. That said, I notice that when I’m immersed in the movie or book, I don’t pay attention as much attention to those details because the story is too compelling. That means those elements are working well together.

Whether writing a rom-com novel or a film script, these story telling elements will create happy endings that will make readers feel good.

To learn more:
Inside the TV Networks’ Battle for Christmas Movie Supremacy

Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

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With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.