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Serious Lessons from a Fool on a Hill

notting hill poster
Notting Hill, that is.

As writers, we often draw our inspiration from a wide range of sources. Sometimes, those sources may be unlikely or counterintuitive. But the trick, I think, is to keep an open mind, and to stay receptive to inspiration from ANY source. Maybe that inspiration comes from Shakespeare. Maybe it comes from Margaret Atwood. Or maybe it comes from Hugh Grant. Stay with me on this, even if you’re not a fan of the floppy-haired actor.

On a recent Friday night, after a particularly stressful week that left me emotionally exhausted – and, I’ll admit, wondering what’s it all about, Alfie? – I suggested to my ESO (Extremely Significant Other) that we end our evening on a lighter note by watching (okay, re-watching) a nice breezy romantic comedy. After searching through my DVD shelves, which include a rom-com collection large enough to put the continued possession of my Man Card at considerable risk, we agreed on Notting Hill [1]. Hey, don’t judge. You’ve got yoga and wine, or maybe scotch and cigars; I’ve got Hugh Grant.

The movie, a 20-year old rom-com classic that we were watching for the umpteenth time, served its purpose both dependably and admirably – in my case, lifting my spirits considerably; in her case, lulling her to sleep. All in all, a win across the board. But I took an added bonus from the viewing experience: I got inspired. Hence, this post.

Looking for opportunities to think bigger

Like many (if not all) of my fellow WU readers and contributors, I am always trying to raise my game as a writer. I tend to take a targeted approach to this, identifying weaknesses in my current writing style as well as opportunities to expand and improve said style.

Of late, one of my primary goals has been to amp up the emotional range in my writing. My stories historically have been fairly small in scale, and that smallness can extend into the emotional range that those stories explore. Sure, my characters find themselves happy or sad, or successful or threatened, but the range of those highs and lows is usually fairly conservative. I think this is a reflection of the conflict-averse path I often pursue in my own life, where I use my worrywart skills to avoid conflict rather than attack it head-on. Possibly a useful technique in real life, but it can result in muted fiction that fails to hit the extreme highs and lows that readers clearly crave.

I’m aware of this limitation in my writing, and that most of the conventional teaching on writing more powerful stories urges us to dig deeper, giving our characters bigger problems with higher stakes. In a reflective post I wrote last summer [2], I summarized this thinking with the self-imposed mantra to “go big or go home.” Our own Donald Maass [3] is a strong advocate of this approach, and on a monthly basis he offers new ways for us to expand the emotional range and impact of our stories. (Thanks, Don!)

Bottom line: I’m now striving to think bigger when creating the conflict in my stories. But that made the inspiration I drew from Notting Hill more surprising, because just how high are the stakes in most romantic comedies? After all, this was a movie I selected for its lightness. Yet as my writer-mind analyzed the film, I couldn’t help but notice the emotional wringer it put me through.

Rom-coms don’t always do that. In a Matthew McConaughey interview [4] I recently watched (part of an absolutely BRILLIANT series of interviews [5] produced by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation), Matthew observed that the “emotional frequency range” of romantic comedies is often not very wide, due to the inherently light nature of these movies. Yet I felt that the writer of Notting Hill (Richard Curtis, whose amazing body of film work as a writer and/or director also includes Four Weddings and a Funeral [6], Bridget Jones’s Diary [7] and my all-time fave Love, Actually [8]) decided to push those stylistically prescribed emotional constraints to the absolute limit.

Raising the stakes (or Love, Magnified)

Instead of asking “What if the girl of your dreams walked into your bookshop?” Curtis asks “What if the girl of the whole world’s dreams – the biggest movie star in the world – walked into your bookshop?”

From that point on, every typical conflict gets magnified exponentially, as literally the entire world begins to watch the relationship unfold, and Hugh finds himself facing the challenge of attempting to date a woman who takes the phrase “out of his league” to a whole new level. No pressure, Hugh.

It’s a brilliant premise, and a perfect example of a “high concept” story – one that can be described in a single sentence. But Curtis doesn’t stop there. With the heightened emotional impact of a romance between an average Joe and the world’s biggest movie star, Curtis crafts a constant series of high and low points, all of which are exacerbated by the massive chasm between the separate worlds these two characters inhabit.

I’ve got algorithms – who could ask for anything more?

This repeated up-and-down cycle was what I really noticed for the first time during this most recent re-watching of the film. And I’m pretty sure I noticed that cycle because I’d just finished reading a really unusual book called The Bestseller Code [9].

Written by former acquisitions editor for Penguin Books Jodie Archer [10] and University of Nebraska English professor Matthew L. Jockers [11], the book chronicles the authors’ efforts to apply data algorithms to analyze and identify commonly occurring components of bestselling fiction. In case that sentence made absolutely no sense to you, let me put that in more down-to-earth terms:

They fed the text of a bunch of bestselling novels into an evil supercomputer, and created a program to analyze what they had in common.

Okay, the computer wasn’t necessarily evil. And maybe not even all that super. But it sounded more dramatic, you have to admit.

With their findings, Archer and Jockers (who now work together as book consultants [12]) hoped to develop the ability to analyze the text of unpublished novels to determine their likelihood to become bestsellers. I may end up devoting an entire WU post to this fascinating-but-VERY-nerdy book sometime in the future, so I won’t delve too deeply into it today, but suffice to say, it got me thinking.

One of the numerous fascinating things the authors discovered was that a couple of conspicuously high-performing books generated a rather specific “plot shape” – essentially a diagram charting the emotional highs and lows throughout the course of the novel.

chart from The Bestseller Code

Referring to a diagram like the one above, the authors observed that across all the books they analyzed, they found only “a handful of books that exhibit this regularity of emotional beat… The distance between each peak is about the same, and the distance between each valley is about the same, and finally, the distances between the peaks and valleys are about the same. This reflects a deep attunement to the kind of pacing that the market – and let’s be honest, it’s a global market for those books – seems to most enjoy.”

“In other words,” the authors maintain, books like this “have mastered the page-turner beat” (emphasis mine).

Their conclusion is that the rhythmic pattern of these repeated highs and lows helps create the “addictive” nature of that literary Holy Grail: the “book you just can’t put down.”

While these two authors are focused on analyzing novels, it seems that their findings might hold true for film as well: Notting Hill went on to become the highest-grossing British film released in 1999.

(Notting) hills and valleys aplenty

By comparison, most novels don’t have as many hills and valleys (which Archer and Jockers consider a possible weakness). And most romantic comedies definitely don’t, often opting for a simpler structure, with fewer arcs.

To wit, there’s typically an up moment when the two main characters meet and sparks fly, followed by a down moment when we recognize the seemingly major obstacle that keeps them from immediately falling in love (and that also keeps the movie from ending after just ten minutes), then a slow buildup as it becomes more clear that the two are totally meant to be together. This in turn is followed by a steep drop-off when Some Big Misunderstanding happens, threatening their relationship often to the point of seemingly destroying it. But then there’s one last upward arc, as one protagonist races (often literally) to catch the other before he or she is gone forever.

Formulaic? Possibly. But dammit, it works. Just ask Hugh’s accountant.

Admittedly, everything I just described in a typical rom-com does happen in Notting Hill. But there’s more. In addition to the larger boy-meets-unattainable girl arc, Hugh’s repeated interactions with Julia take him on a roller coaster of highs and lows, with the lows often crashing in just moments after the highest highs. He will have an amazing romantic moment with Julia, only to have his heart absolutely crushed by forces much larger than himself.

And we in the audience feel those highs and lows, imagining ourselves in similar dreamlike circumstances (falling in love with a big movie star), and then suffering the nightmare of realizing it can never be. But it’s the recurrence of this cycle that makes Notting Hill stand out: Each time Hugh has written off any possibility of being with Julia, she manages to reappear in his life, and we rinse and repeat.

It’s really a master class in balance and pushing the limits, as Richard Curtis manages to keep us within the light and humorous conventions that both define and constrain romantic comedy, while still pushing us further up and down the emotional scale than we’re used to – and doing it to us again and again. And again.

I think a big part of what makes it all work is Hugh Grant’s very British performance, where his character tries to remain blithe and seemingly detached, while his eyes betray the heartbreak he’s inwardly experiencing. I don’t know if I’m capturing it all with this written description, so if you haven’t seen Notting Hill (and have any appetite/tolerance for rom-coms), do yourself a favor and watch it!

Okay, so what IS it all about, Alfie?

I’m getting to that. And don’t call me Alfie. I guess these ruminations leave me with five main takeaways to share:

  1. Be open to inspiration from unlikely sources: even a late-night movie you turn to with the goal of switching off your brain.
  2. Even a “small” story has the potential for big, emotion-tugging conflict.
  3. Consider putting more ups and downs in your story – perhaps at regular intervals.
  4. Even a story constrained by genre conventions has room to push the boundaries.
  5. You’ve never had a roommate as bad as Hugh Grant’s roommate in Notting Hill.

How about you?

Do you have any examples of inspiration drawn from unlikely sources? Any rom-com revelations? Any idea what brand of toothpaste Julia Roberts uses? 

now THAT is a smile

Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!


About Keith Cronin [13]

Author of the novels Me Again [14] (originally published by Five Star/Gale), and Tony Partly Cloudy [15] (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin [16] is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and alligators with his ukulele.