What do we talk about when we talk about Buddy Love?
We’re not talking about a romantic subplot—a B Story. Renée Zellweger may find herself in a love triangle with Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), but it is, as the title intimates, her story—a Fool Triumphant (“Sex Fool”), at that—not their story. Ditto Enough Said (2013), in which James Gandolfini’s irrefutably integral Albert nonetheless plays clear second fiddle to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Eva as she works through her midlife crisis in what is a Rites of Passage narrative.
“And though we often get confused due to the fact so many movies have a ‘love story’ in them, the true ‘Buddy Love’ is that film in which the main story is about two individuals whose lives are less without each other.” – Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, page 135
BL stories, per Blake, are predicated on three conventional components: an Incomplete Hero, a Counterpart, and a Complication. With that in mind, consider the following:
- Dude with a Problem has an Innocent Hero
- Whydunit has a Detective
- Fool Triumphant has a Fool
- Superhero is about a superhero—a special someone unlike any other
- Golden Fleece (Team) and Institutionalized (Group) are, generally speaking, about collectives
Only BL, however, specifies the need for two central characters right in its governing criteria.
And that’s the trick to understanding BL at its most fundamental: The Incomplete Hero and the Counterpart are co-protagonists of the story—they carry essentially equal narrative weight. Such is the case for Titanic, Lethal Weapon, When Harry Met Sally…, and The Theory of Everything, just to name a few. If you consider Titanic, for example, Rose may narrate the story, but she doesn’t carry more weight than Jack, since the central dramatic question of BL is, “Will the buddies/lovers surmount the obstacle and be together in the end?” Since the love story in a BL is the A-plotline, both heroes are equally important to the outcome and the events that lead up to it; the fate of one character—and the audience’s investment in him—is inextricably linked to the fate of the other.
That means—and here’s the screenwriting principle I hope to impart—each protagonist merits a more or less equitable share of screen time (whether together or apart). Blake himself says “[y]ou will spend pages in the set-up to meet both buddies—and their problems—like in Two Weeks Notice, where smart and funny Sandra Bullock as an anti-capitalist lawyer meets Hugh Grant, as the foppish destroyer of the very buildings she’s trying to save” (ibid., 137). The conventional way to achieve this is to introduce each character individually—at Home, at Work, and at Play, as Blake prescribes in Save the Cat!® Strikes Back—before, to borrow George Costanza’s turn of phrase, their “worlds collide.” Lethal Weapon does this to perfection, its Setup unfolding in an A-A-B-C-B-C pattern before Danny Glover and Mel Gibson quite literally collide at the 20-minute mark.
That’s just one approach, however. When Harry Met Sally… opens with the tentative acquaintance of its titular “buddy lovers,” before sending them off down divergent, occasionally intersecting paths for the remainder of the first act; as the plot progresses, it is comprised of a balanced mix of scenes of Harry with Sally, Harry without Sally, and Sally without Harry.
And in Dirty Dancing, we’re accorded only distanced sightings of hunky Johnny (Patrick Swayze) through the eyes of Baby (Jennifer Grey)—at the seven- and 10-minute marks—until their formal introduction 18 minutes into the film; that was the right strategy for that story, as it was thematically crucial that we view all that transpires through the lens of Baby’s expiring innocence. However, once Johnny and Baby’s paths cross, he is treated with commensurate importance for the remainder of the movie—and given his own subplots, independent of Baby’s, as well as his own transformational arc, which operates in tandem with hers like counterparts in a Swiss watch. She may have brought us into the story, but it is their story, as evidenced by the movie’s emotional apogee: a hard-earned, successful execution of their dance routine’s climactic “lift,” a feat neither could’ve performed without the other. Baby is perhaps weighted slightly heavier than Johnny—we’re talking roughly 60/40 distribution here—but not enough to upset the delicate equilibrium of Buddy Love; Dirty Dancing simply required a Setup that didn’t conform to the conventional A-A-B-B-C-C pattern, but, from the Break into Two onward, it is a classically structured BL.
Ditto John Ford’s St. Patrick’s Day staple The Quiet Man (footage from which was notably used in E.T., another timeless BL). A retired boxer from Pittsburgh who’s returned to the rural Irish village of his birth, John Wayne is our surrogate guide into this foreign world for the first 12 minutes, catching a love-at-first-sight glimpse of firebrand Maureen O’Hara nine minutes in. But, as soon as their first face-to-face takes place at the 12-minute point, the plot cuts back-and-forth between either buddy-lover with equal measure—when they’re not sharing screen time, that is—till the bagpipes cue the closing credits.
So, with perhaps 10 percent latitude, you want to aim for 50/50 equilibrium in BL. Shakespeare knew that: The Montagues are no more or less important—they occupy no more or less page real estate—than the Capulets. Like Dirty Dancing, Romeo and Juliet is what Blake defined as “Forbidden Love”—it is arguably the quintessential exemplar of such—and who’d be brazen enough to improve upon Shakespeare?
TRAGIC LOVE STORY
Let’s talk Twilight (2008), shall we?
I know—I can hear your collective groan. But, why does the movie provoke such a bilious response? There’s more than one reason, to be sure, here’s a key factor that’s yet to have been discussed in any analysis I’ve ever encountered: Twilight flagrantly violates—to its detriment, I would argue—the 50/50 “co-protagonist” principle of Buddy Love.
The film is a slavishly faithful adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s novel, and because the author chose to tell that story in first person, both the novel and movie suffer from a major structural imbalance: Bella carries far more narrative weight than Edward. We get plenty of scenes that feature her but not him—with her dad at the coffee shop; with her girlfriends from school; on the phone with her mother—but none of him without her. And it makes me wonder: Why?
In Edward, we’re presented with a 108-year-old man who’s lived through the most seismically eventful century in all of human history, and yet, for reasons never adequately addressed, he is made to repeat high school ad infinitum by his sire, Carlisle, whose directives Edward never challenges, or even so much as protests with a token huff. Edward may be an immortal youth, his physicality frozen forever at age 17, but why has he been consigned to perpetual adolescence? He lives with a family of four “sibling” vampires (certainly more than the movie needs, and none of them particularly well-utilized or well-drawn), equally devoted to their “father,” who clearly have contentious opinions about Edward’s budding romance with Bella—we know that much from their loaded glances—but we’re never made privy to the Cullens’ private dynamics (at least not outside Bella’s direct purview). And despite their disapproval of Edward’s imprudent infatuation, they have his back without so much as a flicker of hesitation the moment trouble arises.
And all of that piques my curiosity: What’s the deal with this family? Does Carlisle’s saintly (if pallid) veneer—he’s a doctor and “vegetarian” vampire—mask a pathological control freak beneath the surface? Has he behaviorally neutered his “children”—to the point where Edward may very well be a hundred-year-old virgin? (Now there’s a “Sex Fool” movie I’d like to see!) Is that why his romance with Bella innervates the Cullens? And does Edward resent the stifling insularity that comes with being part of this “bloodsucking Brady Bunch” (to quote The Lost Boys)? Because it seems to me that an infantilized vampire—from a coven with the inexplicable decency to suppress their true nature and refrain from preying on humans—has a story to tell (think Claudia from Interview with the Vampire), but Twilight sure as hell doesn’t shed any light on it, preferring instead to keep the focus on a sullen teenage girl whose daily existence consists of scarfing down Gardenburgers and scoffing at prom dresses.
I think part of the reason adults find Twilight so puerile is because it doesn’t “go deep”—it doesn’t explore all the thematic permutations of “Forbidden Love” that would’ve more likely emerged had it depicted both sides of the romantic equation with equal care and complexity. Consider:
- Lethal Weapon told only from Mel Gibson’s perspective—we never see Danny Glover at home with his wife or kids without Mel;
- When Harry Met Sally… through only Harry’s eyes—so none of those gal-pal-only scenes featuring Meg Ryan and Carrie Fisher;
- Theory of Everything purely from Stephen’s POV—Jane’s personal struggles and frustrations, including her attraction to the piano teacher, relegated strictly to the periphery, if addressed at all.
Those speculative treatments would’ve made for very different movies: The Theory of Everything almost becomes a “Real-life Superhero” in that instance, When Harry Met Sally… a “Separation Passage,” and Lethal Weapon a “Death Passage,” the plotlines with Jane, Sally, and Murtaugh, respectively, downgraded to B Story. That’s the difference between a love story (BL) and a romantic subplot (the B Story of any other genre).
Now, Twilight struck box-office gold by appealing to a very particular adolescent-girl fantasy—a high-school boyfriend so vigilantly protective even your virtue is in safe hands with him—but I suspect the reason it evokes such disdain from anyone outside that limited demographic is because seasoned viewers can’t subconsciously identify a consistent story model:
- It’s not Superhero, because he’s the one with special powers, not her, and he’s not the protagonist;
- it’s not MITH, because the vampire isn’t trying to kill the heroine (he is, in point of fact, trying to protect her from those that would—more on that in a minute);
- it’s not OOTB, like, say, The Witches of Eastwick or Weird Science, even though it’s a fantasy, because she didn’t wish for or summon supernatural intervention in her love life;
- and it’s not ROP precisely because it is a fantasy—about a mundane girl who gets swept up into the secret underworld of vampires, rendering it far too fanciful to share a DNA strand with relatable “Adolescent Passage” stories like American Graffiti, American Pie, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
What it is, ultimately, is an executionally flawed example of Buddy Love about an Incomplete Hero (Bella), a Counterpart (Edward), and a Complication (his tenuously contained vampiric impulses could be hazardous to her health) rendered unsatisfying on all three levels. As an Incomplete Hero, we’re never quite sure what qualifies Bella as incomplete: She has a lot of “issues,” to be sure—she’s emotionally withdrawn, she’s intermittently preoccupied with death (but only in voiceover narration—it’s never demonstrated in any of her actions or in-context dialogue, an instance of exceptionally sloppy screenwriting)—but no clear “fatal flaw,” and, hence, no character arc. So, for all the additional insight we get into her mindset on account of her disproportionate share of screen time, none of it amounts to any meaningful transformation or catharsis. Even her final line of the film—“I know what I want”—rings hollow, as she is never established as a character in search of purpose or direction at any point beforehand. Her emotional through line is schizophrenically unfocused.
Which brings us to the problem with the Counterpart: Edward, as it happens, is the character who grapples with a consistent internal dilemma—self-control—that gets tested in the third act. But, it’s hard to make sense of his actions throughout—he takes every opportunity to approach Bella only to then warn her with knitted brow to “stay away,” when he could’ve just kept his distance and spared her the needless tug of war that he initiated—and because we don’t get any substantive portraiture of him—Edward is kept at arm’s-length, ever idealized by Twilight’s doe-eyed protagonist—his actions are confounding, not engaging, and his arc, such as it is, superficial at best. (Contrast that with Dirty Dancing, in which no fewer than five characters undergo profound transformational arcs.)
Even the Complication is mishandled, since for all Edward’s dire I-vant-to-suck-your-blood! admonitions, he shows unflagging restraint in that capacity throughout their romance; that “problem” essentially gets quietly sidelined by the Midpoint. So, the obstacle that drives them apart at the All Is Lost isn’t a consequence of their forbidden love—no, it’s just some random gang of “unethical” vampires that happens to run into them, completely coincidentally, at an hour and 20 minutes in, and reasons it would be more worth their while to pursue Bella all the way to Arizona (from Washington) than simply make a meal out of the next unsuspecting hiker. Yes, these “evil vampires” are foreshadowed—I’ll concede that much—in a tangential subplot altogether unrelated to the A Story up till that point, but their intrusion in Bella and Edward’s lives isn’t a consequence of the protagonists’ romantic transgression; it’s merely an unhappy accident. The climax of the movie is then predicated on a complication that “just happens,” because the central Complication—their forbidden love—wasn’t persuasive or substantial enough to propel the story into an organic third act.
I don’t think the subject matter of Twilight is inherently bad or childish, necessarily, but the genre proportions are off, and that had adverse effects on both the macrostructural foundation and plot built atop it. Mastery of Blake’s storytelling principles helps avert these problems at the conceptual stage.
It’s telling that Meyer once considered publishing a companion volume to Twilight called Midnight Sun that would have retold the events of the first novel through Edward’s eyes. (The project was scuttled when a portion of the unfinished manuscript leaked online.) Likewise, Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James, who consciously and openly emulated Meyer’s template, just released an alternate version from the point of view of the male lead. Both writers, it could be inferred, seemed to intuitively understand that a true love story requires the very perspectival equilibrium we’ve been discussing here, though their novels would have likely been better served, and their readership base broadened, had the corresponding POVs not been treated as an oh-yeah afterthought—had the plots themselves conformed to a more recognizable BL paradigm. (But perhaps the joke’s on me: As of this writing, Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian ranks number one in books on Amazon’s bestseller list, so I certainly don’t see James rethinking her strategy in light of my assertions.)
AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER…
I don’t begrudge Twilight and Fifty Shades their success—they’ve clearly done something right. And, those BLs notwithstanding, are there creatively successful exceptions to the 50/50 principle out there? Probably—you tell me (I welcome discussion on the matter). But, here’s what 400 years of history shows me: BL stories that resonate across the ages (Romeo and Juliet), transform low-budget films into worldwide phenomena (Dirty Dancing), break billion-dollar box-office barriers (Titanic), and produce Best Actor Oscar upsets (The Theory of Everything) are the ones with that transcendent “four-quadrant” appeal. Adults, after all, had no trouble relating to Frozen; teenage boys found emotional resonance aplenty in Titanic; women embraced Lethal Weapon—my mother was first in line to see all four of them! None of those BLs were confined to niche audiences; none of them scornfully dismissed to the degree Twilight often is. Because what the writers of those exemplars understood—either intuitively or consciously (the latter is preferable, hence the reason we study Save the Cat!)—is that the Incomplete Hero and Counterpart are equally weighted components of a true love story; if they’re otherwise, you’re either short-shrifting your narrative, as Meyer did, or you’re writing an altogether different genre that just happens to incorporate a romantic subplot. By the time you Break into Two, if not sooner, we better be uniformly invested in both buddies—as empathetic to the plight of one as we are to the other, or all you’ve got is a protagonist with a love-interest sidekick (as Lois Lane is to Superman, Marion Ravenwood to Indiana Jones), which is not the stuff of BL.
There are three sides to every love story: his (the Incomplete Hero), hers (the Counterpart), and yours (the writer). Consider yourself the marriage counselor in that scenario: You’re there to moderate both sides equally and without prejudice, allow each a turn to express their viewpoint, and guide them to reconciliation. That’s what we talk about when we talk about Buddy Love.