What exactly happened when Harry met Sally? What do we build into the “meet cute” that will later prove to be the binding or dividing factor in our character’s relationships? Often it is the most important dialogue of two characters in the entire storyline. Possibly only second to whatever drives them apart later, and what keeps them apart, or draws them back together again.
Image from When Harry met Sally copyright Castle Rock Entertainment, no infringement intended
So how do you build the best “meet cute” you can for your characters? For me the action of the meeting almost always includes an unplanned encounter. However the planned meeting can provide a lot more angst among the characters. “Will he like me?” or “I hope she gets my jokes” may be the things these characters are saying to themselves while preparing for the meeting. Perhaps only one of them knows about the meeting as is true during some match making scenes.
TVtropes.org describes the “meet cute” as:
Meet Cute is a sub-trope of Boy Meets Girl, a way to quickly introduce two characters and set up their burgeoning relationship. A meet-cute is almost always rife with awkwardness, embarrassment, and sometimes outright hostility. It’s often used in films, particularly the Romantic Comedy, due to time constraints; while on television a relationship can develop more naturally over many episodes, a movie has to get their couple set up right away to fit within 2 hours.
This meeting can happen by way of any of an innumerable array of circumstances, so long as there’s something cutesy about it. Possibly they have an instant dislike for one another. Maybe they crash into each other in a hallway and papers fly about. Maybe one of them has been shopping for ISO-Standard Urban Groceries and trips over the other walking down the street. Perhaps mistaken identity or other wacky misunderstanding is involved. Sometimes someone is naked or in an otherwise embarrassing situation
In writing, we do have a little more time than in film, however the gist of the initial meeting is still very important, and can set up the characters for their fall or happily ever after. I recalled witnessing what could have been a real life “meet cute” and wrote about it in my journal. At the time I did not know it would help me in a story I am working on. Observation is one of the ways to find good elements for “meet cute” scenes. They are all around us. I am learning to become a better listener, eavesdropper if you will. I only eavesdrop in public spaces, and I do so because I’m learning to use it as a tool for writing good dialogue. In this real life encounter, a woman wearing dark clothing is seated in the middle of a dark movie theater. She turns to place her bag in the seat on her left while on her right a young man enters who has just rushed in from the bright sun light. He thinks her seat is empty. As she turns back to the screen he sits down – on her lap! He jumped up and apologized then found somewhere to sit a few seats back towards the aisle. During the film the two continued to glance back and forth at each other while trying to disguise their curiosity. I noticed that after the film ended, they were walking out of the theater talking. There’s a story there… where did they go, why had they come to the theater alone?
In one of the most famous romantic films ever, playboy Nickie Ferrante meets a former lounge-singer named Terry McKay on a cruise ship in An Affair to Remember. They are both engaged to wealthy people who provide lavish lifestyles for them that they couldn’t possibly maintain on their own. They are each traveling alone and their “meet cute” comes when Terry finds Nickie’s cigarette lighter. This meet cute includes the knowing recognition of the lifestyles that each of them are afforded by their betrothed. That is a two-edged sword for these two. Is having that in common helpful, or is knowing that about the other a cause to distrust that one would leave such a seemingly easy lifestyle? Initially we get the sense that the burgeoning love affair can conquer all, and we even see his approving grandmother as foreshadowing.
Image from An Affair to Remember copyright 20th Century Fox. , no infringement intended
But can they make it through the six months, of ending those relationships and learning to trust each other completely?
Sometimes the “meet cute” doesn’t happen when the characters first meet. It can be when they begin to see each other in a brand new light. Let’s look at another famous meeting from a well-known work of fiction. In Dr. Zhivago Pasternak sets the meeting in a scene where Lara is unaware that Yuri and Misha are watching. She then shares a private moment with Komarovsky, “as if he were a puppeteer and she a puppet, obedient to the movements of his hand.” She and Komarovsky exchange conspiratorial glances, pleased that their secret was not discovered and that Amalia (Lara’s mother) did not die. This is the first time Yuri sees Lara, and he is fascinated by what he sees. Shortly thereafter Yuri finds out that the man somewhat controlling this intriguing girl is the same one who encouraged his father’s drunkenness on the train shortly before he committed suicide. Talk about a loaded situation. That’s an understatement, as there are graphs about the relationships between all of Pasternak’s characters in this novel.
What has always intrigued me in this story and in all such stories, are the back loaded longings that these lengthy character arches often arise from. If the first meeting includes mystery, misery, or intensity, it seems too that the couple’s arch must be longer. Lara isn’t always impressed by Yuri, but she sees him enough in such turbulent situations that he unknowingly becomes important to her. Yuri always seems to find Lara alluring and is constantly “trying with all his might not to love [Lara].” However, she is embedded in his psyche and becomes his poetic muse through which Pasternak delivers some of the best writing in the novel. And much of this happens during times when the two are separated by years.
Image from Dr. Zhivago copyright Granada Television & WGBH Boston’s Masterpiece Theatre , no infringement intended
So, the “meet cute” can be sparked in nearly any situation two people can meet. It’s the action surrounding them, their involvement in it or lack thereof that can indicate some facets of their fate. What baggage do each of the characters bring to the situation? The before during and after are important but they do not have to be elaborate. What they each do with their feelings about the meeting or situation are all relevant to the weaving of the web so to speak.
Using the real life theater scene as inspiration, I’ve chosen to use a similar physical meeting where an exhausted man falls on a sofa in the dark not knowing that a drunken woman already reclines there. This “meet cute” is my avenue for them to spend time together, and for me to begin to expose the things they have in common which will lay the groundwork for their ultimate happiness or demise.
How do you design “meet cute” scenes?