When Harry Met Sally (1989) + The Power of Simplicity

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Screenwriter: Nora Ephron, Director: Rob Reiner

You know the dreaded feeling of being able to sense exactly where a movie’s headed? The characters too upfront and the plot nearly all exposed? When Harry Met Sally is not that kind of movie. It reigns as a rom-com champ due to the little effort it puts into contriving story. Its pure focus is character development. That’s what makes it’s a classic.

From the opening scene, audiences have no clue as to the purpose of Harry and Sally’s encounter. Even more, we don’t know what will be the nature of their friendship, let alone if they’ll even get together. Honestly, you end up not even caring. The fun of this story is seeing these two in action. They way they nitpick, rejoice and deny truth all while revealing how crazy they are. The story is about character!

Here’s a few ways When Harry Met Sally nailed simplicity.

The currency of time

The flash-forward element is used frequently in this story.

But its calm, non-dramatic. The development of Harry & Sally’s “relationship” goes at a natural pace, structuring it beautifully. And as an undeclared couple, there was little cause to throw them into a one-night stand or quick infatuation.

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*Screenwriters Tip*

In relationship building, use time as an advantage. Consider most real-life relationships take awhile to build momentum, and a screenplay is an analogue of reality. Not a play-by-play.

Don’t rush it, is what I’m saying. Because any good love story needs time on its side to flourish.

Details don’t matter. Moments do.

In today’s world, we all have a little OCD or neuroticism. And as storytellers, it can seep into our stories in very sneaky ways.

When Harry Met Sally doesn’t rely much on details. Surprisingly, only a few key moments matter to the story’s climax.

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Instead, this story invests time exposing characters through different situations, rather than piling on excessive details about their pasts.

The backbone of When Harry Met Sally is in how characters manage to never talk about whatever elephant is in the room. We see these characters react to everything but their obvious discomforts. And thus, their true selves emerge.

The story thus felt light. It was easy to get lost in Harry and Sally’s emotional rhythms. It ensured we wouldn’t buy into any filtered romanticized lens of who Harry and Sally really were as people.

Use funny to expose characters (or why you should avoid entertainment shock value)

In today’s movies, comedic scenes are frequently heightened with silly gags, political jabs or obnoxious character reactions. But you should opt to keep it simple.

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Did you know… the best humor is usually born out of a character’s natural, genuine reaction?

Keep characters serious but use funny situations to reveal their other dimensions. Doing so will serve the dual purpose of entertaining and enlightening audiences, to both your character’s hidden flaws and secrets. But “trying” to make them funny leads to awkwardness or them being obnoxious. It’s problematic. And always poisonous to your script.

Contain your characters emotions – until it really matters

You’ll find a lot of on-screen characters who, as soon as we meet them, divulge into full disclosures of themselves. They’ll confess all their problems, most shameful flaws, and their therapist’s diagnosis. For some stories, learning these details can be kinda relevant. For many more though, it weighs in excessive. It dampens the audience’s imagination to the true essence of these characters.

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In contrast: whenever Harry and Sally got upset, it was really powerful. Their anger wasn’t particularly unique but when it erupted, we saw a side of them not yet hinted at or revealed in the story. Sally never blurts out that she only uses the f-bomb in intense situations or that she stomps her foot like a little girl when angered. She just showed us. It was refreshing to be surprised with such a simple moment, as such when she revealed behavior we didn’t expect.

*Screenwriter’s tip*

Keep your characters simple. And in the moment. Don’t feed audiences the spectrum of your characters emotions all at once. Give characters the opportunity (and situations) to reveal their flaws, and positive attributes. The more your characters keep present (and away from forecasting or self-disclosures), the easier it is to surprise audiences. It’s that simple.

Let audiences catch up to what characters already know

When Harry Met Sally manages screen time almost flawlessly. Very little spoon-feeding occurs. Its scenes consistently bring us in late and leave early, leading us straight into the thick of action. This goes back to details not mattering much.

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Usually, writers get the urge to share everything about a character’s life. And to do that, we make characters talk about themselves. But the funny thing is that characters (who represent real people) already know the story they’re in. Forcing them to seep in their backstory always appears mechanical, and usually wastes time. Audiences are intuitive enough to sense where a character is coming from. We don’t need all the specifics (unless it’s crucial to the plot.) In which case, it’ll naturally find itself into the dialogue. Otherwise, backstory dialogue is almost always stale.

Harry and Sally never share details of their hometown, who they were in high school or any juvenile relationship statistics. We do see and piece together the type of people they are from those experiences via their actions. No backstory needed! (And that’s not to say characters shouldn’t have backstory; it’s a requirement they do. They just don’t ever have to talk about it. Ever. Let them be about it.)

Another small urge with us writers is to present the entire scope of a story from point A to B. But we don’t need to see everything about a character’s life, especially in a rom-com. Instead, drop audiences a little pass the character’s starting point – where the action starts – and let us figure things out.

Remember, we’re intuitive!

When Harry Met Sally nails it with lean, impactful scenes. We aren’t chauffeured through its flat parts. We meet immediately with the action and leave before things get stale. Which leads to a big THANK YOU from audiences.

How to Craft Your Scenes (or how to lead audiences in the wrong right direction)

When Harry Met Sally wisely choose not to cater to our curiosity as to its story’s direction. It wasn’t confusing; simply, it forced us to focus only on the scenes at-hand.

With that, here are four don’t’s when it comes to crafting your own scenes:

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  1. Don’t forecast your plot. Audiences don’t need to know the weather; surprise us and we’ll be thankful.
  2. Don’t ruin your opening scene by overcompensating for the who, what, when, where and how. Focus on a situation and take the time to reveal your characters. Don’t rush us in; let characters drive the scene.
  3. Don’t force characters into excessive self-disclosures in hopes no one will notice your attempt to filter in backstory. Characters come alive when they stay in the moment. Supply backstory only as it relates to a specific situation at-hand.
  4. Don’t distract audiences with unrelated events. Focus on situation and character. If an event isn’t helping to reveal your characters, we don’t need to see it.

A matter of time and place

Lastly, it’s wise to use both time and physical setting to your advantage.

When Harry Met Sally takes place in New York but what really holds up is the era it’s set in. The film was shot in 89′ but the story begins in 77′. We really got a sense of the times & context these characters operated in. The charm of 77′ added to the story.

It’s healthy that character reflect or contrast where current society’s at – in interesting, subtle ways. Use setting to your story’s benefit and avoid leaning too much on your characters operating in a bubble.

It’s a classic but something else, too…

When Harry Met Sally is a good rom-com template because it holds up fantastically to some of screenwriting’s most valuable basics. It excels in character building, simple plotlines, lean scenes and lots and lots of simple, digestible moments. Sure, it’s a classic but it holds the honor because of its simplicity.

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As for the romantic comedy…

It’s good for any rom-com to be at least three things: genuine, authentic and charming. Audiences see through forced stories. Not every romance has to be melodramatic or devastating like The Titanic. And even when it is, it’s the characters that have to be worth watching through the drama.

Harry and Sally were each individually peculiar people thus making their interactions very interesting. And that’s the heart of a good rom-com; dimensional characters. Plot matters, too, but isn’t the icing. Characters are!

When Harry Met Sally is just one blueprint to writing the great rom-com. The structure of its love story can be remixed and changed in many ways to help you create your own masterpiece. But sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to stick to the basics. Peep game!

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