What to Expect When You’re Expecting is based on a perennial bestseller of the same name–and centers around a topic which is important to every adult on the planet.
It also stars likeable actors including Cameron Diaz, Anna Kendrick, Dennis Quaid, the guy who was an Air Marshal on Bridesmaids, and supermodel Brooklyn Decker (who demonstrated she’s got great comic timing in addition to endless legs).
With that kind of background you’d expect the movie to be an instant blockbuster. Not so much. It grossed $10.5 million during its opening weekend…and ended with $41 million at the US box office. Creating a fictional story from a non-fiction book isn’t exactly an easy task. But as Tina Fey proved with Mean Girls, it can be done–and with excellent box office results.
There are plenty of things to like about What to Expect: Dennis Quaid’s character, Ramsey, is a Jimmy Buffet Parrothead; his wife, Skyler, played by Brooklyn Decker, insists on “mommying” Gary, Ramsey’s grown-up son, even though she’s significantly younger than he is; Gary’s wife, Wendy, played by Elizabeth Banks, is desperately in search of that “pregnancy glow;” and the “Dudes Group” is a veritable fount of humor, if not wisdom.
But, in the end, the multiple POVs detracted from the story, showing once again that ensemble pieces are notoriously difficult to write. If you’re writing an ensemble piece, a comedy, or a romantic comedy, study these screenwriting tips gleaned by analyzing What to Expect When Your Expecting’s mistakes:
Start late; start different
You’re probably familiar with the screenwriting tip of beginning your scenes as late as possible. Be careful though that by cutting your scenes as close as possible…you’re not always starting them the same exact way.
In What to Expect, almost every scene for Rosie’s storyline begins with her locking the back of her food truck, and then tapping the doors to let her colleague know she can drive away…which apparently is a cue for Rosie’s romantic interest in the story, Marco (played by Chace Crawford), to pop out of the shadows.
While I’m all for Chace popping out of the shadows, his entrance needs to be preceded by a different bit of story action. I’m positive there’s a lot more to a thriving food truck operation than locking the truck up for the night and driving it away. Even though the whole process of locking and tapping the truck’s doors took less than five seconds, it’s amazing how annoying those five seconds became through their unnecessary repetition.
That’s not to say that repetition is always bad. While you don’t want to repeat major story beats in your script, repetition is the key to setting up many a classic comedy gag and can also be used to establish a recurring motif in your screenplay. But if your repetitive story beat, line of dialogue, or image never pays off, then you need to cut down on their iterations.
Meet genre expectations
When I clicked play on my instant video rental of What to Expect, I was expecting a romantic comedy. While there were several comic moments in the movie (more on that in a bit), there was little to no romance.
There were a few touching interactions: when Marco gave Rosie a box of homemade caramels (which incurred a major chef burn), when Alex told Holly that he was scared about adopting a baby, when Evan arrived to take care of Jules, who was confined to her bed. But there were never any all-out romantic scenes. (I’d go as far to say that James Bond’s vulnerability in Casino Royale made the thriller far more romantic than What to Expect.)
If you’re writing a romantic comedy, you need to make sure that your script has both components: romance and comedy. You cannot sacrifice one for the other. This seems like the most obvious point in the world, but it’s amazing how many screenplays billing themselves as rom-coms go all out on the comedy and rarely include a stroke of romance. Speaking of comedy…
…it’s possible I misunderstood the movie’s marketing material. And What to Expect was never intended to be a rom-com at all, but a good ole comedy which was supposed to appeal to a primarily female demographic.
And that’s all well and good, except that the movie didn’t produce any deep-belly laughter. While it was filled with lightly humorous moments, there was, with one exception, no major-scale comic set piece. (There’s a great golf cart race between Gary and his dad, 78 minutes in the film, but by then it was too late to make much of an impact.)
What to Expect needed something along the lines of the press junket scene in Notting Hill; if the movie wanted to go less conservative and more raunchy, a scene like the food poisoning one in Bridesmaids could’ve worked too.
But it needed something elaborate, a set piece which centered around the process of preparing for a baby. Maybe the crazy lengths the characters went through in order to babyproof their homes, or for the husbands to dash to the supermarket (which becomes like an obstacle course) to get their wives the last jar of feta-stuffed olives which the women are simultaneously craving.
That’s the beauty of writing a screenplay: this medium enables you to write scenes which are “bigger” than what you’d see on a TV sitcom. And since your audience is paying movie ticket prices, you better make sure you deliver a comedic experience that’s deeper and more intense than what they’d experience by watching Modern Family.
A script is made (or broken) by the details
Specific, unique details distinguish a great movie from a mediocre one; a blockbuster hit from a box office bomb. As a bestselling, 616-page manual on pregnancy, I’m sure the What to Expect book is full of facts and anecdotes moms-to-be won’t find anywhere else. But those unique details didn’t seem to find their way into the movie.
Contrast this with the Devil Wears Prada, which provides the audience with a unique behind-the-scenes look into the world of a high-fashion magazine. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is one where Miranda gives Andy a dressing-down (pardon the pun) about Andy’s hideous blue sweater.
This scene was so great partly because it exposed the chip on Andy’s shoulder. It also provided a look into the way high-fashion affects the masses, getting the audience to think about Miranda’s job in a way they never would have done before. That’s what I expected from What to Expect…to walk away knowing something about the experience of being pregnant that I hadn’t already seen in a hundred other movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Divided plots are likely to fall
In a more traditional script with a single protagonist, story subplots a) intersect with the main storyline in some way and b) are expressions of the movie’s theme. Typically, if the main story involves the hero’s career, then the subplot involves a romantic interest or his relationship with a colleague/family member.
Similarly, if you’re writing an ensemble piece, all the storylines of your characters have to intersect in some way and express variations of your movie’s theme. However, it’s a little trickier to do simply because you have more characters to juggle.
While What to Expect While You’re Expecting was successful in depicting variations on the theme of pregnancy (Wendy’s search for the pregnancy glow was particularly well-done), it failed in connecting the storylines in a way which was more than coincidental.
Holly is a photographer, eventually hired by Skyler to be the Cooper family photographer, but besides that, she has no major connection to anyone else in the film. Several of the female leads like to watch Jules on reality TV, but that connection was too weak to tie together all of the movie’s plot lines. (Jules was also responsible for Gary’s weight loss, but again, that connection was too fleeting to make an impact.)
Rosie’s story was perhaps the one which came most out of left field. At the very end (in the last 5 minutes), it’s revealed that she’s Skyler’s cousin…a connection which was presented too late–and which seemed to be tacked on as an afterthought.
Love it or hate it, the ensemble comedy Valentine’s Day is actually a better model to follow. It managed to connect its leads (all 19 of them) in a way which was credible and satisfying (in a pink cotton candy kind of way). (It also made $110 million at the US box office.)
The strongest connection in What to Expect’s plot lines was between Gary and his dad, Ramsey. Their competitive relationship and the way Ramsey always stole Gary’s thunder also made it the most enjoyable one to watch. If the movie had whittled down the plot lines to Gary, his dad, and one third character (perhaps a neighbor or best friend), the intersection between the three would’ve been clear, increasing the movie’s cohesion…and perhaps, its box office returns.
It also would’ve enabled better development of each of the characters’ emotional journeys…which brings me to the last screenwriting tip I learned from What to Expect When You’re Expecting:
There’s a reason why 3-act structure is king
Three act structure works so well for screenplays because, if done right, it enables you to show the emotional development of your protagonist in a logical and orderly fashion. Your script begins with the inciting incident, which shakes up the world of your protagonist, pushing him into unfamiliar territory which he has to navigate through all of Act Two.
At the end of the second act, he loses everything…but through the changes he underwent during the course of his journey, he rallies for one last showdown at the climax. Even if he loses…he emerges a different person than he was before.
With ensemble pieces, it’s extremely difficult to do justice to your characters’ emotional journeys because you have to constantly flit from story to story. In What to Expect, you get hints of what the emotional roller-coaster ride of being pregnant is like…but, with the exception of Wendy’s storyline, you don’t really feel it. Most characters’ development seemed a little too superficial, a little too pat, because their second act journeys were truncated.
It seemed that Alex forgave his wife for lying to him about her unemployment and became ready to adopt a child in a mere second; Rosie dealt with the loss of her baby conveniently off-screen; and Ramsey didn’t seem to have any qualms about raising twin baby girls even though he’s no longer in his prime.
To solve this, the movie either could’ve reduced the number of storylines to say, three, which would’ve given each couple an adequate amount of screentime to show their development. Alternately, the storylines could’ve connected in meaningful and unexpected ways, in the vein of Crazy Stupid Love.
It is much more difficult to write a good ensemble movie than it looks. If you don’t have a lot of screenplay drafts under your belt, I’d steer clear of them until you feel you’ve mastered the art of plotting, subplots & theme, and structure.
Baby Shoes by Meagan