Smarter Story Structure (online course)

Write Addictively Entertaining Stories—Faster

With my online course, Smarter Story Structure, you’ll learn practical tips for overcoming plot problems like these in your screenplay or novel:

  • the story starts too slowly (according to a Goodreads survey, 46.4% of readers abandon novels for this reason)
  • the story doesn’t get going until halfway through (this happened in almost a quarter of scripts read by a studio reader in a year)
  • the middle “runs out of gas” (even John Grisham admits this is a tricky issue)
  • the climax doesn’t deliver fireworks, merely sparklers
  • the story is the right length…but isn’t a good read (uh-oh)

Enroll today and learn how to use story structure to get on audiences’ good side. Click on the button below to learn more:

Script Structure: Lessons from Notting Hill

The plot of Notting Hill

As Hugh Grant said, Notting Hill is a perfectly straightforward romantic comedy. It doesn’t have any of the complicated conceits which abound in (500) Days of Summer.

Yet, despite its simplicity, Notting Hill manged to rake in over $100 million dollars at the box office…and that’s just in the United States. Overseas, it made almost $250 million. So what is Notting Hill’s secret? Its solid structure, of course!

According to Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy, every rom-com shares the same seven beats:

  • the chemical equation: setup
  • the cute meet: catalyst
  • a sexy complication: turning point
  • the hook: midpoint
  • swivel: second turning point
  • dark moment: crisis climax
  • joyful defeat: resolution

These 7 plot beats are basically the 8 major plot points (minus the opening and closing images), adapted specifically for the “two lovers torn asunder” storyline of a romantic comedy.

Notting Hill successfully hits every single one of these beats. Examine the list of plot points below and see if you can identify all of them.

If you want a thorough analysis of the 7 plot beats of a romantic comedy and how they specifically pertain to Notting Hill, read pages 107-119 of Mernit’s wonderful romantic comedy screenwriting guide.

If every romantic comedy has the same plot, then how do you keep your rom-com screenplay fresh? Screenwriter Richard Curtis tweaked the rom-com formula a bit which made his movie feel a little different. First, instead of “boy meets girl,” he started with “boy meets movie star.” That’s a twist which makes his romantic comedy high-concept, elevating his script right out of the gate.

Curtis didn’t stop there, however. He also puts a neat little twist on the “cute meet” plot point, having Will and Anna meet not once–but twice. Curtis’s midpoint scene in which Will comes up to Anna’s Ritz suite only to discover that she has a boyfriend–a boorish American actor no less–added an unexpected surprise to the second act.

This not only injected some freshness to this plot beat but also made the audience more emotionally invested in Will. After his graciousness under pressure, the audience believes that Will deserves a happy ending–and will watch till the very end to see if Will receives one.

When you’re writing your own romantic comedy, see if you can put a little twist on some of the seven standard romantic comedy plot beats. Even though your screenplay will have the same plot as every other rom-com, your script will still come across as fresh.

In my opinion, (500) Days of Summer took that advice a little too much to heart, and tried overly hard to be different. If the audience feels like you’re trying to manipulate them, your romantic comedy loses all of the emotional satisfaction it’s supposed to generate.

Writers of bad thrillers add explosions to every ten pages of their screenplay to mask the hero’s two-dimensional personality or to hide that the plot has more holes than the Augusta National golf course.

Romantic comedy screenwriters can be accused of a similar crime–only instead of explosions, they pepper their screenplay with random acts of…random. A quirky character or an unexpected obstacle will randomly be introduced in the screenplay, in a misguided attempt to inject freshness to the familiar “boy loses girl” storyline of a rom-com.

But if your screenplay has too many random actions and characters, it will come across as too contrived, and your audience will disengage from your story. Instead, use cause and effect to your advantage.

If you examine the obstacles which wrench Anna and Will apart, none of them seem random. The press acts as both an agent which brings them together and an agent which tears them apart–and their presence is perfectly natural, and in keeping with Anna’s status as a major movie star.

Towards the end of the movie, Anna brings Will an original Chagall painting, a painting he so admired he had a replica in his apartment. It is this act which causes Will to have his moment of epiphany, to realize that having Anna in his life now is worth the possibility of future heartache.

And so he launches one last pursuit of his object of affection…and we understand completely how he underwent a change of heart. Because of the painting and its backstory, Will’s decision has the stamp of authenticity. It doesn’t seem like he made this move because it was approaching the end of the third act…and the plot required it.

In Notting Hill, each story beat was borne out of character–Will’s awkward and eternally polite one which paired nicely with Anna’s fiercely private and impulsive nature. If your plot reflects the essence of your characters, then no critic will ever diagnose your screenplay with a case of randomitis.

Look at the plot points from Notting Hill listed below and judge for yourself!

Plot Points from Notting Hill

  1. Meet Anna Scott–she’s a very important movie star.
  2. Meet Will Thacker. He lives in Notting Hill, in a house with a blue door with a weird flatmate, Spike. Will also owns a small bookshop which only sells travel books.
  3. Anna enters Will’s shop and browses travel guides to Turkey. They exchange light banter before Will prevents a shoplifter from stealing the Cadogan Guide to Bali. Anna leaves.
  4. Departing from a cafe, Will spills orange juice all over Anna. She comes to his apartment to change. Will tells her it was “surreal” but nice to meet her. Beguiled by his simple charm, she spontaneously kisses him. Spike returns home and ruins the moment.
  5. Spike and Will watch some of Anna’s movies. It’s clear Will is smitten.
  6. A few days later, Spike remembers that Anna called and asked Will to call her at the Ritz, where she’s staying under the fake name of a cartoon character.
  7. Will arrives at the Ritz with flowers…but he’s followed into the elevator by a reporter. Anna’s assistant, Karen, opens the door of her suite. It’s crowded with reporters who are participating in a press junket. Confused, Will becomes flustered and pretends to be a reporter too–from Horse and Hound magazine.
  8. Will gets face time with Anna. Her PR agent enters and exits several times, and each time, Will asks Anna questions as if he works for a magazine. When the PR guy leaves, Anna apologizes for kissing Will. Will is about to kiss her again, when the PR guy returns. When he leaves, Will asks her if she’s free tonight, but Anna says she has a prior engagement.
  9. Dejected, Will leaves her room, when Karen whisks him away to interview other actors involved Anna’s movie.
  10. All hope is lost, but Will gets another chance with Anna who has canceled her plans. Will remembers that he also has a prior engagement–his sister’s birthday party–and Anna volunteers to attend as his date.
  11. Will’s friends, Max and Bella, play it cool when they see Will with a famous movie star. But his sister, Honey, gushes over Anna and declares they could be BFFs. Will’s friend, Bernie, doesn’t immediately recognize Anna and inquires as to her profession and wages.
  12. They have a contest to see who’s the “saddest act.” The prize is the last brownie. Everyone shares their reasons for why they are so pathetic. Bella, who’s in a wheelchair, says she doesn’t have all of her limbs, and now has learned she can’t have a baby either. Everyone is truly sad, and to remove Bella from the spotlight, Anna makes her case of why her life has major drawbacks.
  13. After Will and Anna leave Max’s house, they sneak into a private garden…which is followed by a montage of their developing relationship. At a restaurant, they overhear a group of guys talking about her like she’s a piece of meat. Will intervenes as only a mild-mannered polite Brit could. Of course he is completely unsuccessful. Anna comes to his aide and really tells the group off.
  14. Anna asks if Will wants to come up to her room. They enter her hotel separately; she enters first. When he goes to her room, she tells him her American boyfriend is there. It’s Alec Baldwin (!) who kisses Anna in front of Will who’s clearly in pain, but rallies enough to pretend he is a Ritz waiter so as to explain his presence. Will says good-bye to Anna.
  15. Montage of a heartbroken Will, and everything he sees reminds him of Anna.
  16. Will discusses his woman troubles with Spike, who is not very helpful. Will talks to his friends too, who all knew about the American actor boyfriend from the gossip rags.
  17. Will goes on a series of unsuccessful dates. He finally finds a good match, but he is still reluctant to pursue her.
  18. In tears, Anna arrives on Will’s doorstep. Naked photos taken when she was really young have been published in all the British tabloids.
  19. Engrossed in the very same tabloids, Spike enters the apartment and goes into the bathroom, where Anna is having a bath.
  20. Anna and Will discuss their love lives, or lack thereof. He helps her run her lines from her next screenplay. She admires his Chagall reproduction and shares the nuances of the nudity clauses in her contracts. They spend the night together, and in the morning, Will tells her she’s lovelier than she has ever been.
  21. Their moment of domestic bliss is ruined however by hordes of reporters camped outside of Will’s door. Barely clothed, Spike gleefully gets his picture taken.
  22. Anna fumes at Will. Every time they do a story on her, they will dig up these pictures. She says she will regret this forever.
  23. Seasons pass and Will trudges through them, alone.
  24. Honey gets the phone number of Anna’s agent in London, but Will throws it away. Honey announces her engagement to Spike and Will apologizes for his gloominess. He says he has recovered and promises to be better behaved when Max reveals that Anna is in town, filming on Hampstead Heath.
  25. Will visits Anna on location. She’s doing a Henry James film, something Will suggested to her the last time they were together. She asks him to wait on the set until she’s finished filming. Will overhears her speak dismissively about him to one of her co-stars and he leaves.
  26. Bearing a gift, Anna comes to Will’s bookstore and asks if she could see Will while she’s in London. When Will asks her about her comments to her co-star, she said that the actor is the most indiscreet man in England and of course she wasn’t going to reveal private details to him.
  27. Will’s mother calls, interrupting Will and Anna’s heartfelt conversation. Believing her to be Demi Moore, Will’s assistant compliments Anna and asks her about filming Ghost with Patrick Swayze. After phoning his mom, Will returns and says “no, thanks” to Anna’s offer. Anna says “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her,” and leaves.
  28. Will opens Anna’s gift in front of his friends. It’s the original of the Chagall print she admired in his apartment.
  29. Everyone piles into Max’s car and they speed as fast as they can over to the Ritz where Will asks if any cartoon characters are in residence. The concierge confides that there was a Pocohantas staying there, but she recently checked-out and is currently at a major press conference at the Savoy.
  30. Spike gets out of the car and directs traffic so they can rush to the Savoy.
  31. Will pretends to be a reporter again, and asks Anna questions about the status of their relationship. In front of all of Britain’s press, she forgives him.
  32. They attend a major movie premier. She looks elegant; he looks bemused…but later we see them peacefully sitting together on a bench in the private garden they once sneaked into.

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • S.B. January 24, 2012, 9:53 am

    Another Hugh Grant movie that is fantastic is About a Boy, which has multiple themes/genres (coming of age, friendship, romantic comedy) rolled into one script. That would be worthy of an analysis. Excellent site, keep up the great work.

    • scribemeetsworld January 24, 2012, 6:26 pm

      Hi S.B.

      Thanks for visiting Scribe Meets World! I also like About a Boy — both the movie and book are excellent.

      Funnily enough, I did plan to do an analysis of About a Boy…it’s in the “started but never finished” post pile. Also in there is a draft about comedy screenwriting tips I learned by watching Bridesmaids. Hopefully, I will finish both soon!

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