Storytelling Tips From Anne Of Green Gables

Revisiting Anne Of Green Gables as an adult reader, several things stick out:

  1. The influence of Cinderella, the rags to riches story which is often counted as one of the ‘six basic plots
  2. The influence of Pride and Prejudice
  3. Anne Of Green Gables has a lot in common with modern YA stories aimed at young women.
a 1945 hardcover edition

THE INFLUENCE OF CINDERELLA

In real life, the character of Anne Shirley would be a lifelong social workers’ project. Her parents died of ‘the fever’ when she was an infant and since then she’s been pushed around from place to place. She has literally no one in her life who really cares for her. Children simply do not thrive when there is no one to care for them. This gives the beginning of the Green Gables saga more in common with a fairytale than realistic fiction.

THE INFLUENCE OF JANE AUSTEN

Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, just shy of 100 years later. I’m in no doubt that L.M. Montgomery grew up reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables is the 1908 Canadian equivalent for slightly younger readers. However, Anne seems to be based on her child self.

L.M. Montgomery

Anne Shirley is basically an Elizabeth Bennett character.

In no particular order:

  1. Diana Barry is Jane — each the sweet and beautiful confidante but ultimately too boring to ever exist as a main character in a novel. Both Jane and Diana are victims — in some ways — of their narrowly prescribed circumstances, being completely devoid of freedom. They do pretty much as they are told and they will have uneventful, reasonably happy but low-drama lives.
  2. Lizzie is closer to her father just as Anne is closer to father figure Matthew Cuthbert at first.
  3. Marilla is much kinder and less comical than Lady Catherine de Bourgh but fulfills some of the same story functions. For example, when Marilla cautions Gilbert Blythe that Anne is still very young this must plant the idea of courting her seriously in his mind, because that’s when he offers to escort her to her reading of The Highway Man. Likewise, it’s when Lady Catherine visits Lizzie at her home telling her that Darcy is already engaged to her sickly daughter that Elizabeth stubbornly refuses to say she is not engaged to Mr Darcy, despite rumours. Ironically, this outwardly event brings to consciousness her suppressed feeling that in fact she does like Darcy very much.
  4. Suppressed affections for the most eligible boy in the village. Both Lizzie and Anne have romantic notions — Anne’s are a little more immature — and their ideas of romance actively stand in the way of them finding love until they overcome their fears.
  5. These fears are thought to be borne of ‘pride‘. I find pridefulness quite an old-fashioned notion. I believe Lizzie and Anne suffered from anxiety, which I can well understand, living as fertile women in an age where sex and love was not discussed openly, but where women died during childbirth in every village, and if you didn’t pick your man wisely? Too bad, you were stuck with him. How could you pick wisely, though, when decorum wouldn’t let you spend any real time alone with him? To the early 1900s reader, however, ‘pridefulness’ as a female weakness was well understood, and made for a good psychological weakness. Bookish girls were often told not to bury their noses in study — Diana Barry is an example of a girl whose parents thought that way — and girls were expected to marry whether they wanted to or not. If they chose not to, they were called stubborn — and Marilla is an example of that, growing old and lonely in her twilight years as she gradually loses her eyesight. “If you don’t get married and have children you’ll live a lonely life,” readers are told. Pride as a psychological weakness is readily understood across cultures, and in Japan we see another quite different culture which nevertheless understands that pridefulness is something to be overcome. See for example Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a Japanese story through and through but echoing strong shades of Jane Austen and Anne of Green Gables nonetheless. Kiki is Anne, Tombo is Gilbert. (By the way, Anne of Green Gables is very popular in Japan. Japanese tourists make up a disproportionate number of tourists to Prince Edward Island each year.)
  6. Unlike L.M. Montgomery, Jane Austen was not under contract to write any more stories if Pride and Prejudice were to take off. Not true of Lucy Maud, who was forced to write an entire series about Anne under contract even though she didn’t seem to want to. I feel her instincts were right — there’s a good reason why Jane Austen never wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and there’s a reason why the sequels to Kiki’s Delivery Service didn’t sell as well. Both Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice are complete stories in their own right. There are of course readers who love the entire Anne series, but others feel quite keenly that the rest of the series pales in comparison. I hesitate to use the word ‘formula’ because Anne of Green Gables, much less Pride and Prejudice, is far from ‘formulaic’, but there is a good reason why Anne of Green Gables works. (See Story Structure, below.)
  7. For more on the similarities between P&P and Anne, see here.

THE INFLUENCE OF L.M. MONTGOMERY ON MODERN STORIES

It has been argued that Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice, just as many other modern YA novels have been influenced by Twilight (not even considering the vampires).

For the younger set, throw in a bit of Anne of Green Gables and there’s an unlimited number of popular and enduring stories that can be made from the pieces:

  1. Go a bit younger and the granddaughters of Anne Shirley are Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones and Clementine. Mischievous, well-meaning, average looking, each of these heroines find themselves in regular scrapes when all they want to do is have fun.
  2. Let these heroines enter adolescence and they will probably have something about their physical appearance they can’t stand. That Anne Shirley so hates her hair makes me think that maybe adolescent self-criticism predates the Mad Men era after all. That said, Anne Shirley had very good reason to hate her red hair. In the 1800s it was genuinely thought that girls with red hair (and green eyes) were — if not exactly witches — at least ‘wicked’. The word ‘wicked’ comes up several times in the book. This was thought to be an innate characteristic that went with red hair, and in fact the idea hasn’t died completely. One day it will seem as archaic as phrenology. Anne Shirley was deemed to have a temper on her because of her red hair, so every time she lost her temper, it was put down to her having red hair. If that isn’t a justifiable reason to be angry in the first place, I don’t know what is.
  3. There is a Josie Pye character in almost every popular middle grade novel aimed at girls, although these days the little enemy girl is less likely to be rich and dressed in frilly dresses but more likely to be a class president, by-the-books type. (I don’t think this is a great development in children’s literature.)
  4. Young adult novels for girls will almost always have a romantic subplot if not romance as a main plot, and increasingly, middle grade fiction has a hint of romance too. (The boy and girl will probably start as enemies, end as sort-of-friends.) Romantic stories with drama as the wrapper tend to endure across generations and area also more respected by critics.
  5. I also see the influence of Anne of Green Gables in a popular TV show such as Gilmore girls. Stars Hollow is a modern day American Avonlea. Both are genuine utopias. Apart from death — which happens in a romantic way — falling over in the middle of a field and passing swiftly —  nothing really truly bad happens in Avonlea. Rory is smart and bookish like Anne, but overall more of the Diana character. The mother of Gilmore girls is feisty enough in her own right to provide some interest and conflict. Also like Gilmore girls, Rory has a bit of a rags to riches arc — she was never truly destitute, but because her grandparents are wealthy she is able to pursue her academic dreams.

STORY WORLD

Often a measure of a novel’s success, in its depiction of a particular place, occurs when readers feel they know it, they recognize it, or, better yet, they want to visit. Such has been the case with the perennial favorite, Anne of Green Gables. Since its publication in 1908, fans of Anne Shirley have sought out the small island in eastern Canada, keen to meet the character and tour the landscapes she made memorable—The Lake of Shining Waters, the Haunted Wood, Lover’s Lane, the Birch Path. Like the free-spirited Anne, who loves and names almost every tree and flower she encounters, they, too, want to know the place that had such an influence on her. For lovers of the Anne novels (Maud Montgomery wrote an additional seven for the series), much of the magic seems rooted in the very land Anne roamed.

Visitors to Prince Edward Island will find much to love in its natural beauty—a narrow strip of rolling hills in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with lush fields, quiet coves, and miles of white sand beaches. But its pastoral, timeless feel can’t quite explain its powerful draw. While the summers are mild, its winters are long, and two of the primary industries—fishing and agriculture—can be tough to pursue at any time of year. Yet tourism, the second most important, remains strong, with hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving every year to experience the same sites that were such a part of Anne Shirley’s adventures.

It is, in many ways, an odd phenomenon, a balancing act between the real and the fictional that Canada’s National Park Service, among others, helps sustain. In the town of Cavendish (“Avonlea” in the novels), in the house known as Green Gables, visitors can see the rooms where Anne and Matthew and Marilla slept; they can walk the same paths, cross the same streams and inhale the same fir-scented air.  Along the way, they can relive some of Anne’s more memorable moments—scaring herself with Diana in the Haunted Woods, welcoming spring with her schoolmates on a mayflower picnic, accepting Gilbert’s offer of friendship on an evening stroll as the novel concludes. And yet these are all imagined events, superimposed on the PEI canvas—until one reads more about Montgomery’s life. There, in the pages of her journals, which were first made available to the public in 1985 (edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston), is where the real and the fictional intersect.

Catherine Reid

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES STORY STRUCTURE

Anne of Green Gables is episodic in nature, but the character development of Anne (and Marilla and Matthew) is linear. I discuss the episodic/linear nature of Anne of Green Gables in Types Of Plots In Children’s Literature.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Anne has the same weakness as Cinderella — all alone in the world with literally no one but her imaginary friend Katie. Audiences love an underdog character, and Anne is nothing if not an underdog.

  1. She’s a destitute orphan
  2. A girl
  3. Red hair

As each of these main underdog attributes is overcome, the next becomes an issue. The fact that Anne is a girl places the story firmly in its era — big budget stories are still being made where female characters have to prove themselves first (which usually involves being ‘feisty’, and making it among the boys on an adventure outside the home), but this generation of children is finally starting to see stories about girls whose femaleness is not something that makes them an underdog. (You can see the recent evolution in Brave versus Moana, for instance.)

Anne needs to find someone to love her in order to find fulfilment. First she must find parental figures. Later, because old people die, she must find a romantic partner. Anne of Green Gables is a love story as well as a romance.

The love story is designed to show the audience the value of community between two equals. The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only be entering into a community of two.

What’s really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them.

John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Anne of Green Gables is in some ways a very modern story. Whereas many 20th century films and books were about women waiting for men to save them, Anne Shirley works hard and we know she’d be just fine even without her Gilbert. Our culture has even reached the point where we get popular films such as Bridesmaids, about seriously flawed women (not even attractively flawed) who must get themselves ready for equal partnership before they can find love.

Like the perfect job interview (and the perfect kidlit heroine), each of Anne’s weaknesses has a flipside strength:

  1. She is imaginative but prone to distraction. (I argue that Anne Shirley is an ADHD girl through and through.)
  2. She is smart at school but also smart mouthed (audiences love, love, love a character who has the nerve to say what she thinks — it explains the cosiness of Doc Martin, too, popular with an older audience).
  3. She appreciates all that is beautiful but remains toxically dissatisfied with her own lack thereof.
  4. She is tenacious but stubborn. Her tenaciousness gets her far in academia but until she overcomes her stubbornness she won’t get far in love.
  5. She is infectiously full of the joys of spring but immature.

DESIRE

Anne has neither the age nor wisdom to see what her real desires are. Though we as audience can see that her red hair should really be the least of her worries given her dire predicament at the start of the story, Anne gives her hair an undue amount of attention. When Marilla teaches her how to pray, Anne ‘asks humbly’ to:

  1. Stay at Green Gables
  2. Grow darker hair

Both requests indicate Anne’s deeper seated and far more serious need to be accepted and admired.

The lesson here is that main characters don’t necessarily know (or voice) what they want. But the audience must know.

OPPONENT

On her journey Anne meets the full complement of both developed and flat allies, enemies, fake-enemies and fake-allies. The allies are famously described by Anne as kindred spirits.

Although at the beginning of the story Anne has no one and the whole world seems against her, as soon as she hits Avonlea strangers show various kindnesses. For example, there’s the station attendant who is charmed by her. I suspect Anne has always found comfort in the small kindnesses of strangers she meets along the way.

The flattest enemies are the women who abuse Anne by requiring her to look after their many children, all the while psychologically abusing her. First we have Mrs Hammond; next we have the prospect of the local Mrs Bluitt, whose very name suggests Anne would not be happy. As a side note, revisiting the story again as an adult, especially as we face the prospect of re-entering a world in which men control the fertility of women, I have more sympathy for Mrs Hammond as a victim. The 1980s miniseries starring Megan Follows almost encourages the viewer to read Mrs Hammond as lesbian, about to move in with her possessive, shoulder-rubbing female friend as she accuses Anne of basically killing the husband herself, with her failure to deliver lunch on time. What if Mrs Hammond was gay? What if she never wanted any children at all, but was stuck with all those twins? In a pre-contraceptive age, Mrs Hammond is arguably as much as a victim as Anne Shirley.

Marilla is an opponent who turns into Anne’s firmest ally by the end of the book.

Miss Shirley is a Miss Honey archetype (used by Roald Dahl in Matilda), an ally in every way.

Soon a pattern emerges — Anne is universally liked by good people, even if those people are crotchety on the surface. Diana’s auntie is the best example of that. Anne is a bit of a travelling angel trope, though rather than leaving town for good, she is pulled away to complete different parts of her life’s journey, returning every now and then.

In any love story, the desire and opponent are the same person. This is specific to love stories. So, Gilbert Blythe is both desired and an opponent. Same for Marilla, actually, because this is a story about a girl falling in love with her (substitute) parents.

There is a romantic triangle in Anne of Green Gables, since it is clear from the start that Diana Barry admires Gilbert Blythe. But because readers are like ducklings and fall in love with the first character they see, we are all rooting for Anne and Gilbert, even though Diana probably ‘deserves’ him more, if you think about it. We can see Diana isn’t quite smart (or educated) enough for Gilbert though, who is obviously more interested in fiery women like Anne. How does Montgomery manage readers to the point where we don’t end up mad and frustrated at Anne for her stubborn resistance to Gilbert? Diana realizes Gilbert isn’t her destiny. After a conversation with Anne near the end of the book, we are left with the impression that while Diana will pursue Gilbert if Anne doesn’t want him, she’ll happily give him over to Anne.

Josie Pye is a different matter — Josie is that snobby, girly character found in most popular books for girls — a girl who thinks she’s better than other people (the worst thing a girl can possibly be). Josie is rich but not academically inclined. She is well-dressed and confident and sees Anne as her rival, setting up a rivalry even before Anne has noticed she exists. This ensures the audience dislikes Josie Pye. Josie is not all that interested in Gilbert — she is mostly keen to deprive Anne of him.

BATTLE

Anne’s childlike, episodic adventures at Avonlea culminate in a ‘near drowning’ (which is no such thing), but the suggestion of death is there. A common storytelling technique in middle grade is to have another character come to the rescue of your protagonist. In this case it’s not a true rescue, more of a farce, as if acted upon a stage (where Anne often imagines herself, in fact). The rule here is that your main character still has to help themselves when it comes the character arc. They can be helped out in some sticky plot situation, but ultimately, change is up to them.

By the way, is there a deeper meaning to Anne’s obsession with The Lady of Shalott? Since it occurs at a climactic moment, I suggest there is. Doomed to view life through reflections, the Lady’s life is a mere shadow with no experiences of her own. Like The Lady of Shalott, Anne is inclined to live vicariously via women whose lives she has invented inside her head. This is the very thing preventing her pursuing anything in real life with Gilbert, right there in front of her.

an oil painting of The Lady of Shalott from 1888

Anne’s obsession with Tennyson’s poem isn’t really helping her get over her red hair issues, because it encourages us to focus on form over substance. The leak in the boat symbolises her psychological weakness — it will be her undoing — she needs the love of Gilbert to teach her she is in fact worthy in her own right. Signfiicantly, Gilbert has said he prefers brains over beauty anyway.

SELF-REVELATION

The Main Plot

Anne learns that she truly belongs to Avonlea, even if she started out as an unwanted orphan. She has won numerous people over and spurred their own character arc (especially that of Marilla and Matthew, but also that of Rachel Lynde, Diana Barry’s mother and the crotchety old maid aunt*).

*As a side note, why is Diana’s old maid aunt so much richer than Diana’s natal family? My own guess is that Diana’s extended family is aristocratic by heritage, but perhaps the father made some bad investments and they have since lost most of it, which is why the aunt is the only one still able to pay for Diana’s music lessons. In this sense, Diana is very much like Jane Bennett — not only docile and beautiful and kind but also in a financially precarious position unless she marries well — and she will be expected to marry well in order to haul the financially failing family back into Prince Edward Island’s gentry class.

The Romantic Subplot

When Gilbert reveals that he and Anne tied for first in the Queens exam it is clear to Anne, seemingly for the first time, that they are true equals. This will eventually lead to a full-blown romance and marriage, but not in this first book.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

After the death of Matthew we are left with Anne and Marilla together — Anne wants the best for Marilla and Marilla wants the best for Anne (college). These two goals will continue to butt heads and we’re not quite sure exactly what happiness will look like for these two, but when Gilbert offers to walk Anne home we know those two are going to end up together and we know for sure that Anne is going to look after Marilla in her old age.

RELATED

Romantic Comedies

Romantic Comedies

1. I Spent A Year Watching Romantic Comedies And This Is The Crap I Learnt from Chloe Angyal, who spent a year studying Romantic Comedies and also got broken up with.

It’s easy to dismiss romantic comedies as fluffy, mindless cinematic dreck, and some of them are just that. In every genre there are some well-made movies, and many more middling and awful ones. But there is such a thing as a good romantic comedy, even the most ardent chick flick-hater will agree. […] Romantic comedies are made almost exclusively for and about women –- in fact, they’re the only genre that is. I dislike them because regardless of any fluffiness or mindlessness, they are powerful pieces of popular culture. Rom coms furnish us with ideas and expectations about some of the most important things in life: love, work, friendship, sex, gender roles. And some of those ideas are worryingly sexist and regressive.

Angyal likens a number of modern rom-coms to Shakespeare, but not in a good way:

Movies like The Ugly Truth andThe Proposal upped the ante on the well-worn trope of the highly strung and socially incapable single career woman. It is nothing new to suggest that a humbling at the hands of a modern-day Petruchio is the only cure for this particular disease. But in recent years, the shrews have become higher strung, the Petruchios more chauvinistic, and the humbling more humiliating than ever before. Remember how in The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler’s character reduces Katherine Heigl’s character, a competent, professional and authoritative adult woman, to curling up in the fetal position in the closet of her office? And how she then she falls in love with him? Tamed, indeed.

She notices a growing trend:

More recently, romantic comedies have given us a great deal of graphic male nudity. Male nudity is a growing trend in the genre: in the last [few] years, we’ve seen the barely-clad bodies of Justin Long (Going the Distance), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs), Ashton Kutcher (No Strings Attached) and Justin Timberlake (Friends With Benefits).

And also notes that all of these are white men who look pretty much the same naked. She also noticed a growing acceptance of casual sex in films like No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits.

Script doctor John Truby, in his book Anatomy Of Story, is very clear on the raison d’etre of a love story:

The love story is designed to show the audience the value of community between two equals. The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only be entering into a community of two.

What’s really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them.

though Angyal points out the problems therein:

This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if romantic comedies depicted women and men, and sex and love, in a positive and realistic way. But they don’t. Romantic comedies teach us that a woman’s life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself.

Then there is Hollywood’s racist problem:

[Rom coms] teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people

And the gender essentialist messages:

[Rom-coms] teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.

 

2. How To Be A Single Woman In A Mainstream Rom-com, from Ryan O’Connell at Thought Catalog is a spoof how-to guide which alerts us to the most common character tropes found in romantic comedies:

Have a weird, random dream job that would only exist in a Hollywood script. You’re a product tester of…products, or a “GLAMOROUS” dog walker, or a super chic editor of Chic Magazine located in Loveless Metropolitan City, U.S.A. Your job is your life. In the office, you’re an assertive smart woman but at home, when no one is looking, you open a bottle of wine and become The Sad Wine-Drinking Single Woman.

3. Romantic Comedies Aren’t What They Used To Be. Then Again, Neither Is Love, from Slate, in response to: Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad? from The Atlantic

Christopher Orr makes the argument that rom-coms ran out of steam in 2012. He argues that although they only stopped being profitable that year, they’ve been terrible for decades (though he did like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman. He also likes the darker rom-coms like The Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom).  Orr noticed that although big name (male) actors may start in rom-coms (and do a great job), as soon as they get breaks in other genres they rarely come back to rom-coms, perhaps thinking that would be slumming it. As an example he offers George Clooney, who has modelled his career on Cary Grant’s in every way… except that Cary Grant did rom-coms. As for the storyline itself, he points out that in the modern world it’s harder to find an original way to keep two characters apart, which has lead to some ridiculous storylines. Embedded in this article is also the video A Brief History Of Romantic Comedies.

Alyssa Rosenberg points out that both male and female actors are opting out of rom-coms too, if they get the chance. defends defends rom-coms a bit, pointing out some good ones. (She likes 40-year-old Virgin and Bridesmaids, in which the hero/heroine has to have their own inward character arc before they’re fit for being in a partnership.)

[In short, critics don’t mind rom-coms if drama is one of the major genre blends.]

4.  What Went Wrong With Romatic Comedies (Part 2). As Orr subtitles his piece: Critiquing a critique of my critique of modern-day rom coms.

Orr responds to Linda Holmes at NPR who pointed out the misogyny of this debate (without using the word misogyny, though Orr doesn’t mind using it):’we’re not going to enter another “golden age” until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability. Linda Holmes writes also that ‘there is a useful distinction between romantic comedies that are greatand romantic comedies that are greatly loved’, and cautions anyone critiquing a rom-com to critique them for having ridiculous plots, which is the very point, especially in the old classics. Pretty Woman is an example of a ‘greatly loved’ film which is not technically great. She also argues that there is still plenty of opportunity for writers to keep lovers apart.

If Rom-Coms Are Getting Worse, It’s Not Because Society’s Getting Better by Noah Berlatsky is another response to the Orr piece. His favourite rom-com is Say Anything because the main characters are not actually assholes. He also thinks it works because the characters are young — young people still have constraints but older people are free to hook up as they please.

5. The Top 10 Romantic Comedies according to Hello Giggles, and here’s a list of the worst, at least during the last decade from Pajiba. The Guardian asks for a list of the best AND the worst. Except I’ve recently pledged not to read comments sections, so I’m stuffed.

6. It’s Not Too Late To Save The Romantic Comedy From Itself from Jezebel, and Don’t Give Up On Romantic Comedies from New Statesman

Tracy Moore suggests rom-coms can be much better if writers/directors made the following modifications:

  • More female characters who need to undergo a character arc before they get with a man. (like Bridesmaids)
  • Men have been allowed to be flawed heroes for a while now but we need women who are equally flawed. (Equal opportunity assholes)
  • Less of the gender stereotyping
  • Sex can be easy to get but more focus on the relationship itself (going back to the classic rom-coms, in which the characters are even already married at the start)
  • More stories about the nuances of relationships and how they can drift apart
  • No more of the extreme ‘cougarizing’ of women in relationships where the woman is much older
  • More interesting story structures such as Sliding Doors
  • More stories about ‘less than lovers, more than friends’ couples
  • Women making Grand Gestures in the way men typically do

 

7. The Romantic Comedies Which Prove You Wrong About Romantic Comedies, from Pajiba, in which the writer writes a love letter to: The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Better Off Dead, Bridget Jones’s Diary, While You Were Sleeping and The Apartment.

8. These fluffy romantic comedies are actually remakes of horror stories from io9. While Mindy Kaling likened rom-coms to sci-fi because of their ludicrous other-worlds in which heroines behave in completely unbelievable ways, this article argues that Forces Of Nature is a remake of Dracula and so on.

9. The Decline Of Romantic Comedies In 11 Slides from Jane Dough and Five Reasons Why Romantic Comedies Have Gone Downhill from Huffington

10. Every Romantic Comedy Ever, a video shared by Jezebel

11. Women Didn’t Abandon Rom-Coms, Roms-Coms Abandoned Women from Jezebel, who obviously love writing about Rom-coms.

12. 5 Romantic Comedy Tropes That Need To Die from Thought Catalog: Too many white people, too much with the pathetic fallacy of raining, not accepting a woman’s ‘no’ (I’m looking at you, The Notebook), women falling for hot men despite them  being assholes, from a writer who also wishes Kate Hudson would get no more work in Hollywood.

13. Six Annoying Women Character Tropes in Black Romantic Comedies from Bitch Media: The hypersexual Jezebel, the asexual matriarchs, the Strong Black Woman, the Welfare Queen.

14. Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time from The Atlantic. I hate the messages in that film so much. At least I’m not the only one. For an excellent example of a love story by Richard Curtis, see the made-for-TV movie The Girl In The Cafe, which demonstrates his excellent skill as a writer but with interesting messages.

15. Despite what movies would have you believe, men are usually the first to confess love from Discover Magazine. Another way in which fiction differs from reality.

16, 9 movies that make women think it’s romantic to be stalked from Hello Giggles. While I can’t stand this plot point in stories myself (and here’s evidence, in my breakdown of Waitress),  I do wonder: Are women, grown women who have lived in the world, really ‘learning how to live life’ from rom-coms? I doubt it. I think most grown women recognise stalking when we see it in real life. As in the apparent frequency of con-non-con fantasies among women (formerly known as ‘rape fantasies’), being ‘stalked’ inside a fantasy by a fantasy sexual partner is not actually stalking at all, because the definition of ‘stalking’ means you don’t want it and don’t want the stalker. I do wonder about girls, however. At what age is it okay to introduce Twilight to your daughters (and sons)?

The word ‘stalker’ is used casually now, to describe deep liking someone’s social media posts. And it’s used casually in the song below. But genuine stalking is a scary matter…

Muriel’s Wedding (1994) Film Study

Muriels Wedding poster

Mix of Genres: Comedy, drama, romance.

These days there’s a romance subgenre called ‘fake relationship’. These are romantic stories in which two people are forced into emotional closeness via proximity or circumstance. Muriel’s Wedding doesn’t quite fit this category of romance because it transcends these stories and becomes a story about female friendship instead. There is no girl-meets-boy happy ending, which brings it out of the romance genre.

Written and directed by Paul Hogan (no, not the Crocodile Dundee guy, and no, not everyone in Australia is called Paul Hogan). This one goes by P.J. Hogan, probably because of that Crocodile Dundee guy. This was Hogan’s breakout success, and was also the start of two stellar careers for Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette. That said, we’re here to talk about writing, for a change.

The Plot Structure Of Pretty Much Every Comedy

While some story experts say that there are 7 or 8 different structures for comedies, others say that this is the arch structure of pretty much every successful comedy recently:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences[ Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

The Plot Structure Of Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding is worth a rewatch not just because it’s funny in a bittersweet kind of way, but because it’s a great example of a comedy that follows exactly the structure described above.

Discontent: Muriel is unhappy with her life in general — she’s been unemployed for the last two years and spends a lot of time alone listening to ABBA.

Transgression with a mask: Muriel lies to Rhonda that her life is going great, that she’s going to marry a guy called Tim Simms and she has a successful career selling make up.

I'm a beauty consultant

Transgression without a mask: The mask is ripped off when Rhonda finds her wedding album under the bed and realises she spends a lot of time going around to bridal stores having her pictures taken. There is a confrontation in a wedding store when Rhonda finds her and Muriel is forced to tell her she just wants to change her life and that there was no Tim Simms.

Because who would want to marry me

Dealing with consequences: Still chasing the popular crowd, she basically ditches Rhonda for those other three bitches who are interested in being her bridesmaids now that she’s a bit famous. So she loses her best friend for a while and ends up completely alone when her husband also rejects her.

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story: Muriel has a revelation at her mother’s funeral when she realises her father is more interested in the fact that Bob Hawke sent condolences than about the fact his own wife is dead. Having herself chased after celebrity by marrying the South African swimmer, she confesses to her fake husband afterwards that she’s just the same.

Growth Without a Mask : The good-looking husband rewards this growth with a proper kiss. Muriel realises that what she wants in life is to live in Sydney with her best friend and make her own life so she pays her father back some of the money she stole and takes off.

The other thing Muriel’s Wedding has going for it are two catch phrases: “You’re terrible Muriel” really took off in Australia and NZ in the late nineties and everyone knew where it was from. It is said three times during the film by Muriel’s hopeless sister.

Relying on the magic storytelling number of three, the sister says this three times over the course of the film.

You're Terrible Muriel

The other is, “What a coincidence!” which is funny because the audience realises immediately that the father is having an affair, and so their meeting at the Chinese restaurant is no coincidence at all, but also comedies like this tend to be full of coincidences, so it’s a bit meta. (E.g. Rhonda finding the album exactly when Muriel is trying on the dresses, and so she confronts her inside the bridal store.)

STORY WORLD

The story begins, appropriately, in a small town on the Gold Coast, which is glittery and touristy and offers regular people a week or two of rich lifestyle once per year — the illusion of greatness for the average Joe. Muriel has to escape this setting and go to the big, anonymous city in order to really confront her genuine self. Hence, the story world is connected to the theme.

Welcome to Porpoise Spit

Sydney contrasts with Porpoise Spit — Sydney is the ‘New York of Australia’, the place aspirational young people from small NSW/QLD towns hope to go to make their own way and discover who they are as part of an anonymous crowd.

OTHER POINTS

Muriel’s Wedding is also successful for other reasons:

The main character, Muriel Heslop, is full of  plans and scams. Though we don’t like such characters in real life, we do love watching them on screen — shoplifting, lying, stealing money from her own parents… Muriel has it all.

Muriel is morally as well as psychologically weak, as noted aboveThe lying and cheating constitute the moral weakness; psychologically she has no confidence and is shy. She mistakes the shallow, pretty, high-school-popular girls for good people and tries to be like them even though they’re awful.

The story ends happily ever after, not as a typical romantic comedy would (with the man of her dreams), but with a good female friend, thereby still fulfilling the expectation of unification. (This sort of happy ending has been replicated in rom-coms numerous times since, with another example of female unification being Waitress (2007). In Juno we have a re-unification with a man, though without her baby, which subverts norms for the genre.

There are several set pieces which are memorable: If you watched this when it came out you probably still remember the first boyfriend unzipping the beanbag instead of Muriel’s clothing.

The film is spliced together with juxtapositions. That beanbag scene is swiftly followed by Rhonda’s collapse due to cancer. Hilarious scenes are immediately followed by serious ones. Within scenes, we have the juxtaposition of Muriel’s overjoyed face against her husband’s disgusted expression as she walks down the aisle. This leads to the bittersweet vibe. Muriel’s family is basically a tragic story.

Juxtapositions can be seen in the scenery, too: The bright, kitsch colours of the holiday destination against the griminess of Sydney, where bad things can happen (and do).

kitch setting muriel's wedding

Muriel's Wedding video shop

Since Muriel starts off as such a morally and psychologically weak person, her range of change is large. The audience is given plenty of opportunity to see exactly how she has changed. She’s come full circle when she starts to pay her father back the money she stole and makes the moral decision to look after her friend (a good person) who is now in a wheelchair.

Comedies usually begin with someone who is out of a job, poor, broke, unemployable — a ‘loser’. By the end of the story, more often than not, they’re a ‘success’. The course of comedy is thus always an ascent to power.

— Howard Suber

I can change you'll still be you

Muriel’s duplicitous nature — common to all comedies of this kind, of course — is visually portrayed in numerous ways, not least by the rendition of the ABBA song, in which we see a ‘Betty and Veronica’ sort of difference between two female faces. Two different Muriels.

Abba dress up two personae

Mirrors are often used to convey the same thing, and sure enough…

Muriel mirror

Waitress Film Study (2007)

Waitress is a 2007 film with a tragic real life story behind the movie. It is also a good storytelling case study, as it changes mood part way through.

waitress film poster

Though I don’t like Waitress nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)

First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:

  • They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
  • They were both released in 2007.
  • They are both indie productions.
  • They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
  • They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.

As far as feminist messages go, Juno does a better job. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:

  • Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
  • Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
  • Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
  • Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
  • Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.

Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.

Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…

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Dawn is played by Adrienne Shelley

Storyworld

This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.

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Symbolism

Pie Waitress Movie

The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.

 

7 Step Structure Breakdown of Waitress

1.  Weakness/Need

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Psychological Weakness: Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”

Moral Weakness: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral weakness (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.

As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.

2.  Desire

In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.

3.  Opponent

Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.

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Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)

5

Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!

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4.  Plan

The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).

5.  Battle

For Jenna, the battle is the birth. This leads to the self-revelation. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil. 

6.  Self-Revelation

Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.

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7.  New Equilibrium

When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.

waitress allies