Storytelling Lessons from Hallmark Movies

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Say what you will about Hallmark movies. You either love them or hate them. Or somewhere in between.

When I discovered Hallmark movies in 2015, I was going through a difficult period of my life. These movies helped me see that there are happy endings to stories. Certainly I could find a happy ending to my own, right?

Still if you’re aspiring writer of fiction, especially romantic fiction, you might want to watch a few of them. You might learn a few tips and tricks about storytelling.

There is nothing scientific about my observations below. They are strictly subjective based on my life perspective. Be free to agree or disagree with these lessons.

  • Create compelling characters. While Hallmark characters might lead idyllic lives compared to our own, they are flawed and often misguided. While their own troubles aren’t nearly as traumatic as some of the ones you or I might face, they are very real to them. For your own fiction stories, create characters with depth – depth of emotions and motivations.  What is their greatest desire? What obstacles stand in their way of getting it? What false belief or assumption have they been living with that prevents them from finding happiness? These are some of the questions you need to ask yourself about your lead characters so you can make them more believable on the page.
  • Create closure for characters. In Hallmark movies, there’s always a happy ending. I like happy endings, especially ones that are wrapped in brightly colored ribbons and bows. I want to see the characters solve their problems in a way that makes sense for them. You may not have a story that ends with a passionate kiss, but it should end with all loose ends tied up.  
  • Find humor in everyday situations. While some of the Hallmark movies border on silliness, the lighthearted spirit of these films appeals to audiences. The best humor comes from everyday —  and sometimes embarrassing – events. Like someone walking out of the bathroom not realizing with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe. That kind of stuff happens in real life, and readers can relate to them.  Even if you’re writing a film noir or a horror story, a little humor can lighten the mood. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer utters a sharp wisecrack just when she’s about to put a stake in a vampire’s heart, it makes for satisfying entertainment. Think about how you use humor in your own stories, but don’t add it just for humor’s sake.
  • Story lines don’t have to be overly complex to be effective. Surely, the plots for Hallmark movies are rather simplistic and not necessarily innovative. But they still work. There’s still an inciting incident (when the two romantic leads meet), a build-up of suspense and a climax when the two romantic leads finally come together.  
  • Avoid predictability. The knock on Hallmark movies has been that they are predictable, often rehashing the same story lines over and over. If you have several manuscripts in various stages of completion, make sure they’re not the same plot rehashed with different characters and settings. Readers expect more than that. Be surprising. Show them a twist that they may not have seen before. Introduce a character with an unusual background or trait. Write something unexpected to keep readers wanting more.
  • The best stories tug at the heart strings. If there’s anything that Hallmark does excel at, it’s creating heart-warming stories. You don’t have to write a romance novel to bring heart into your own story. Any work of fiction should touch the heart of your readers. Start by crating characters that you care about. If you care about them, readers will too. Then add a plot that is real and honest. You’ll have readers following your every word.
  • Create a compelling title. I find most of the Hallmark movie titles either aren’t memorable or they lack connection to the plot. They’re more cute than accurate. When you come up with a  title for your own manuscripts, think of something that adds a meaningful connection to the story and at least hints at what the story is about.

Whether you write romance, mystery, or something else, put a little heart into your stories by including these key elements. Your readers will appreciate you for it.  

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