The first requirement of any genre film is that you hit the unique story beats that define the form. Depending on the genre, you will have anywhere from 8-15 beats that you must include or your audience will be disappointed. The second requirement of any genre film is that you twist these beats in a unique way to make your inherently generic story original.
Most writers fail at the first requirement either because they don’t know the genres they are using or because they haven’t studied their genres sufficiently. More advanced writers tend to fail in the second requirement, and we need look no further than the romantic comedy, The Holiday. The Holiday is what you get when the writer hits the love story beats in the most predictable way possible.
This film seems to have a terrific “high concept” premise. Two women with love troubles, one American and one British, trade houses and find true love in the other’s country. But premises can be deceiving, especially high concept ones. That’s why I go through so many premise techniques in the Great Screenwriting Class. Premise is where 95% of writers fail, because they don’t know how to break down a premise idea and figure out the structural problems they are bound to face.
The premise of The Holiday has a number of hidden flaws that almost guarantee it will be a predictable, phony script. Most importantly, we have two lead characters who cross paths in mid air and play out their stories in separate locations. Notice two crucial effects. First, the writer has half the time for character development for each of the two leads. Second, the story structure is by necessity a cross cut structure. Cross cut highlights comparison between characters. But with each character having half the time for development, the comparison between these two characters only highlights how clichéd and shorthand the writer has drawn them.
A perfect example of this is the ghost and need of the Cameron Diaz character, Amanda. In love stories the ghost and need is always some version of a cycle of fear that is preventing the hero from being able to love. Amanda’s inability to love comes from the fact that her parents split up and left her literally unable to cry. When Amanda explains this ghost and need to her love interest, it’s so phony and on-the-nose that I thought I saw a flashing red sign above her head saying: STORY BEAT ALERT!!! This leads to the phoniest, on-the-nose self-revelation of the year when Amanda discovers that she really is in love with her guy because, you guessed it, SHE CRIES REAL TEARS!!!
Genres are formulaic, but that doesn’t mean you have to write them that way. If you want to know how to meet but also transcend the story beats of the romantic comedy, take a look at either the Love Story Class or the Comedy Class. It’s all about learning your form well enough so you can take a chance on being original and know you have a rock solid story structure to back you up.