When Harry Met Sally — Breaking Genre Conventions

When Harry Met Sally — Breaking Genre Conventions


Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. For a long time, I assumed When Harry Met
Sally was just another romantic comedy. I knew that it had some famous scenes… “Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!” …and some famous lines. “I’ll have what she’s having.” But otherwise it probably wasn’t that special. And then I saw it and quickly realized it was
the most charming film I’d ever seen. From the lovable best friend characters… “You’re right.” “You’re right, I know you’re right.” …to the wonderful use of classic love songs… …I find the film to be delightful from start
to finish. But what I always find impressive about the
film is how clever the writing is. Written by Nora Ephron with some great collaboration
from director Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, the film avoids several classic love story
clichés in a way that feels effortless and original. So today I want to talk about the importance
of genre. How a writer can take something familiar and
give it a unique spin. As well as examine how clever use of comparison
can reveal the deeper nature of characters. Let’s take a look at When Harry Met Sally. Everyone is familiar with the basic idea of
genre. Most people can easily describe a film as
a romantic comedy, or a drama, or science fiction. But for a writer, it helps to have a deeper
knowledge about the genre you’re working in, and the conventions that come with it. For example, if you’re writing a crime thriller, you should know the audience probably expects
a crime to happen early-on, and for some form of a detective character
to solve it. If you’re halfway through the film and there
hasn’t been any crime, the audience is going to wonder what’s going
on. So essentially, genre is a set of expectations
the audience has when they walk in to a particular kind of movie. On one hand, these expectations can be helpful
as a writer. It’s almost like a checklist of things that
must be included in your story. But as Robert McKee points out in his book,
Story… “The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents
the writer with this critical challenge:” “He or she must not only fulfill audience
anticipations but must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring
them.” “The challenge is to keep convention but avoid
cliché.” This can be very hard. But every once in a while, a film like When
Harry Met Sally comes along and puts a new spin on a classic genre. A familiar storyline in love stories goes
like this: Boy meets girl. They can’t stand each other, but are forced
to spend time together. “If you’re nursing any silly notion that I’m
interested in you, forget it!” “You’re just a headline to me.” And in doing so fall in love. But in When Harry Met Sally it goes like this: Boy meets girl. “Sally this is Harry Burns. Harry this is Sally Albright.” “Nice to meet you.” They can’t stand each other. – “Basically I’m a happy person.” – “So am I.” “And I don’t see that there’s anything wrong
with that.” “Of course not, you’re too busy being happy.” And then, on page sixteen, they say goodbye
forever. “Well, have a nice life.” “You too.” That is, until they run into each other five
years later. “The University of Chicago, right?” But after nine and a half pages, they still
can’t stand each other… “You look like a normal person but actually
you’re the angel of death.” …and say goodbye forever again. “Harry, goodbye.” Until another five years passes, and they
run in to each other yet again. “Someone is staring at you in Personal Growth.” And this time they stay in each others’ lives. This is an example of how to take a genre
convention and flip it on its head. Rather than forcing the characters to spend
the whole movie together, the script lets them go their separate ways. This departure from convention surprises the audience, and makes them curious about what happens next. And “what happens next” is unique as well. Ten years after their first meeting, Harry
and Sally have both just ended very serious relationships, and are not looking for romance. So instead, they decide to be friends. “You know, you may be the first attractive
woman I have not wanted to sleep with in my entire life.” “That’s wonderful, Harry.” This aspect of the story is important because
it allows the film to have yet another uncommon trait. There is no external conflict. “I think that people are always trying to
stick that in to movies.” “And then you stick it in in the beginning,
and then you have to keep sticking it in, and sticking it in.” “Because the minute you stick something into
a movie it has to keep popping up.” “So then you’ve got this big, fake subplot
you didn’t care about at all.” In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’s company is
forcing Meg Ryan’s bookstore out of business, causing complications to their love story. In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer and Bill Hader’s
careers cause trouble for their relationship. But in When Harry Met Sally, the only thing
standing in their way…is them. So if there aren’t external plot elements
putting pressure on the characters, what makes the story go? What does it spend all its time doing? The answer is that it spends its time revealing
character through comparison. Because we meet Harry and Sally just out of
college, and then again in their mid-twenties, and then again in their early-thirties, we
get to compare their younger selves with their current selves. Then, there is the comparison of how they
each deal with heartbreak. Sally seeming to be mature and rational. “Every time I think about it I am more and
more convinced that I did the right thing.” While Harry wallows in his depression. “I’m definitely coming down with something.” “Probably a 24-hour tumor, they’re going around.” In fact, most of the film is putting Harry
and Sally in situations where we get to see their differences and similarities. But the comparison isn’t just between Harry
and Sally. Ephron gives each of them a best friend. And the relationship of Jess and Marie serves
as a foil for Harry and Sally’s relationship. Immediately after they meet, Jess and Marie fall for each other, and when they see a good thing, they jump on it. “I think I’ll get a cab.” “I’ll go with you.” “Great! Taxi!” This directly contrasts with Harry and Sally, who spend
years afraid of falling in love. Through Jess and Marie we see what Harry and
Sally could have if they just let themselves love each other. But it’s important to note that all this comparison
isn’t arbitrary. It all orbits around the central idea of the
film: can men and women be friends? In a seemingly effortless way, Ephron introduces
this central idea during one of my favorite sequences of the film: When Harry meets Sally. In “The Anatomy of Story,” John Truby writes: “An advanced dialogue technique is to have
the scene progress from dialogue about action to dialogue about being.” “Or to put it another way, it goes from dialogue about what the characters
are doing to dialogue about who the characters really are.” This sequence is an excellent example of this
technique. Harry and Sally have just graduated college,
and through a mutual friend have planned a road trip from Chicago to New York. And soon a pattern emerges in the dialogue. Over and over, they raise a topic… “Amanda mentioned you had a dark side.” Debate it in a humorous way… “Why, don’t you have a dark side?” “No, you’re probably one of those cheerful
people that dots their eyes with little hearts.” “I have just as much of a dark side as the
next person.” And as they argue, they reveal their core
values, and we learn more about who the characters really are. “When the shit comes down, I am going to be
prepared and you are not, that’s all I’m saying.” “And in the meantime, you’re going to ruin
your whole life waiting for it.” And each time Ephron repeats the pattern,
the topics get more intimate. “You’re a very attractive person.” Until it finally culminates with Harry making
a pass at Sally. “Amanda is my friend.” “So?” “So you’re going with her.” “So?” And the ensuing debate finally leads them
to the central idea of the film. “We are just going to be friends, okay?” “Great. Friends. It’s the best thing.” “You realize of course that we could never
be friends.” “Why not?” “Men and women can’t be friends because the
sex part always gets in the way.” What’s great about Nora Ephron’s use of this
pattern is that it ensures there is never aimless discussion. There is always a goal that the dialogue is
heading toward, and with every line we’re learning more about Harry and Sally. When Harry Met Sally shows how a clever writer
can flip genre conventions to create a fresh take on a classic story. It demonstrates how you can define characters
by comparing them to others, and how two people arguing about Casablanca
can be the start of an epic romance. And it reminds us that sometimes there is
no better foundation for love than friendship. Hey guys! I thought it’d be fun to do a romantic comedy
for Valentine’s Day, and When Harry Met Sally is one of my favorites, so I really enjoyed
putting this together. Let me know in the comments below what screenplay
you want me to do in a future video, and please consider supporting this channel on Patreon. Have a very happy Valentine’s Day, and thanks
for watching!

100 Comments on "When Harry Met Sally — Breaking Genre Conventions"


  1. i only watched it bc of this video and honestly…… it rlly was charming, i haven't seen a romantic film this refreshing in a long time

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  2. Very interesting…in a nut shell for me: Epic. I watch every year about this time and just bawl my eyes out over the romantic overtones (& undertones) and and always looking for new ways to watch movies that I adore and have seen 1500xs. Thanks for the analysis. If you did Seven Pounds I’d be grateful. That movie….let’s just say I’ve watched it 1501 x’s and once WITH the commentary. Lol

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  3. You keep showing me why I love some movies so much, even though I cannot explain it as rationally or as eloquently as you do, why I love them and watch them over and over again.

    Thank you so much, your content is so educational and entertaining, such quality.
    You're the first youtuber I am ever going to support on patreon. You make me feel as if I am not constantly wasting my time on Youtube.

    Reply

  4. I haven't seen when harry met sally for years. This video makes me want to see it again. Well done!

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  5. This is one of my favourite movies, I hadn't realized why I liked it so much until you talked about the genre expectations though and how this one breaks them.

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  6. Oh jesus. for the most part, i really agree with what you're saying, but he doesn't, in any way, shape or form, make a pass at sally. He says that she's attractive. There are a whole lot of people that are attractive that I am not attracted to. complimenting someone about their looks does not mean that you're saying "ayy, wanna fuck, doll?" it can really just be a compliment.

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  7. Could you look at a classic some time? The Apartment, perhaps?

    I enjoy your breakdown of story as well as watching other channels' film essays. Yet I'm either not exposed to them (classic movie breakdowns) due to YouTube's algorithm or people aren't covering them a much in video format, perhaps due to them being looked at so much over the years.

    I haven't seen a lot of classics, but of the few American Romantic Comedies I have seen, I feel there's a style of storytelling that we have lost over the years. Or if not lost, then developed, but I am unsure how.

    Hmm, I'm interested in maybe looking into this myself, too….

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  8. *sees new video
    -Great! 😀
    *sees topic
    -Oh… oh. uhm… yeah… maybe later.
    *two days later clicks the video
    -Wtf was i thinking? This is awesome!

    *repeats

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  9. Great video, much appreciated. One note: I find it very odd that an analysis of "When Harry Met Sally" and its relation to genre conventions doesn't mention the fact that the film is an homage to "Annie Hall", script, music, titles, and all…

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  10. Yes, this one of the best movies of all time. One of the only modern rom-coms that can even be called a great movie. Billy Crystal’s best role. Meg Ryan is perfect. Writing is perfect. Super soundtrack. One of THE 80’s New York movies; like Woody Allen’s films. You’ve got mail doesn’t work at all compared to Harry/Sally, and Mail is a decent movie. PLUS CARRIE FISHER 🌹❤️

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  11. This and Hitch are my only favourite romantic comedy’s the rest are Adam sandler and Jim carrey films

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  12. A lot of, maybe most, romance movies start out with the man and woman hating each other, but I thought about "Annie Hall". Alvie and Annie hit it off from their first meeting, then conflicts come later. And in Casablanca, we only get glimpses of Rick and Ilsa being in love in Paris, and we get the sense that it was love at first sight and stayed sublime until the Germans moved in to Paris. And in "Sullivan's Travels", Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake characters meet and get along great from get go, and they don't really have any big conflicts between them.

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  13. I’m so glad you did this movie. This was the first movie my husband and I saw together (kind of) when we were 19 and now we are 50 and still love it.

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  14. I would so love for you to break down American Hustle. Just imagine: a great genre with some amazing comparison movies like The Sting. An amazing screenplay with bold themes, neon characters played by actors at the height of their powers, and twist upon twist. (I think the theme is summed up in these lines: “I think you should treat people the way you want to be treated. I think Jesus said that. Also, always take a favor over money. I think Jesus said that as well.” But I’m fascinated to discover what you find in the movie that I’ve missed.)
    🛎 ORDER UP!
    Thank you. I can’t wait. 😉

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  15. This and don Jon have been my favourite rom coms that are realistic in different decades. I find this film 🎞 shows guys and girls are for real in the dating scene . Amazing analysis

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  16. Truly brilliant video and I'm guessing you don't know the power you've conveyed. Genre is crucial to writers developing a story within those confines. However, as you noted and Robert McKee argued, writers must elevate the genre. They must introduce new, unique, unexpected, and wildly entertaining scenes that still align with the genre. That is the writers Mount Everest. They have the genre, but they have the task of creating such a new, interesting, and engaging story that the audience doesn't expect because they haven't seen what you're about to write. In summary, genre is key to setting audience expectations. But, it's the writer's responsibility to subvert those expectations and provide the most unique, fresh, and rewarding experience they've ever had. Genre is the scaffolding we writers need to follow to respect our audience expectations after they've paid their money for the ride they expected to enjoy. Our job is to make our reader's ride new, fresh, and exhilarating, something they've never experienced before.

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  17. the film i always think of when i hear guys say they dont like rom coms or that they are chick flicks. i great film is a great film no matter the genre.

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  18. my mom owns this on dvd
    watched this movie two days ago
    for the first time
    in a separate room
    on a separate device
    today this video is on my feed

    no.

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  19. I love 'The Apartment' by Billy Wilder. It is almost 60 years old but it is still the best 'rom-com' ever, even though it was made decades before that word was coined. I would be very grateful if you do a video on this.

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  20. after this movie came out i was going through a difficult time ….i watched this movie on video over and over and was hystercally laughing through the whole thing 😁

    btw….i am living the epic unconventional love story now and have been for the past 15 years in minutes and hours at a time…go figure it has some laughs 😁

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  21. While I appreciate the perspective I understand this film differently. In the beginning the two are shown as having strong traditional gender characteristics. So strong that they seem to live on separate planets. They cannot connect. As the movie develops Sally gradually takes on some male tendencies as Harry softens. Finally they are able to inhabit the same world first as friends and then lovers before joining the parade of older couples shown in little scenes throughout the film. These old couples appear merged, like they are no longer separate people.

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  22. Jess and Marie have passed. So is Nora and Rob Reiner’s mom. I credit Nora’s acute human nature observation when it comes to romantic relashionship. I read her fictional books. She exhibited similar acerbic wit as well. In a way, she’s a modern day Jane Austen with acid tongue. This film and its dialogues remain my absolute faves and mandatory once a year viewing. Except outdated PC and no cell phone, this film is still relevant and refreshing, no phoniness or artificial sugar like most romcoms.

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  23. It's nice watching the layers of love really build. I do think Harry starts to fall for her (pecan pie scene,) but doesn't follow through with it at that point. Their friendship is such a solid foundation for their relationship, that they're married only a few months later.

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  24. I have yet to see the comment of how our dearly departed Carrie Fisher was the screenplay doctor for this script. She was amazing in the film and fixed some script problems too? That is why she will always be a legend.

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  25. Love how Meg Ryan's character has a shell of self satisfied superiority and how that annoying quirk becomes part of her charm that we all fall in love with. And that does, indeed , take time.

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  26. The whole idea of a great relationship being built on friendship is sort of like Jim and Pam from the office

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  27. What's amazing about this movie is that it shows how real relationships grow in real life. There is this imaginary world of love at first sight which actually never happens in reality…The fact that people are not attracted to someone instantly but need to spend time with that person is often ignored.

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  28. It's not a Christmas movie but because so much of it is set at Christmas or New Years I watch this film every year between Christmas and New Years. I saw it in the theatre when it came out in 1989, it was charming and heartwarming and funny then, and it is still all of those things all these years later. A wonderful movie!

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  29. 'When Harry Met Sally' is among my top 10 favorite movies. Over the years, I've watched in countless times and I've never gotten bored, not once. Thanks for explaining why that is.

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  30. This is one of my favourite movies, and I've never really understood why till now (thanks!). Besides Ephron's writing and the delightful side characters, it's the comparison between Harry and Sally as people. When you think Sally has been holding it together so well and then breaks down when her ex gets married, it's a real turnaround moment. (Plus, the line "I, I am the dog?!" Meg Ryan at her finest).

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  31. Back when movies were about something other than detectives, violent murders and horrendous things. One of the reasons I love When Harry Met Sally is because I feel safe watching it. It’s uplifting, it’s funny, the soundtrack is wonderful and the scenery is gorgeous. It shows New York as an interesting happy place instead of a rat infested, murder filled shit hole.

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  32. One of the best, most reserved, yet insightful critiques I think I've heard about a hit movie.

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  33. I also really like the vibe of this movie. I have very fond memories of NYC during the early 90s.

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  34. Can you do Before Sunrise and the whole saga? I love your analysis. I'd like to write a great book someday, maybe a movie.

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  35. They said as they were writing the script, they didn't imagine it as a rom com at all. Harry and Sally weren't going to end up together, but they found out they had no punch to the end of the film, so changed their minds, which might also be why it broke convention. One could argue, instead that it follows the Kishotenketsu model. Because the key points of the film aren't around conflict, but are around realization.

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  36. If this movie taught me one thing, is that New York dries up ovaries faster than a nuclear microwave.

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  37. there was something just so very poignant and beautiful about romcoms back then, whereas most of them now are just pretentious and painfully self-aware…

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  38. This film, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle are the only three romcoms I actually am a huge fan of. I’ve watched all 3 many times.

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  39. When this movie came out I had just broken up with a jerk and my family was thrilled. A friend from university came into town to cheer me up and my sister recommended this movie. That friend and I just celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary. Needless to say, this movie is very special to us!

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  40. I saw this movie in the theater when it first came out and it was always be in my top 10 favorite of all time. It’s not a typical rom com. Its characters have depth and charm and I love the message that friendship matters.

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  41. I do love 'When Harry Met Sally' but can't watch it without thinking of Woody Allen and, in particular, 'Annie Hall'. From the humor to the locations to the music, 'Harry' is an echo of Allen's earlier work. Albeit, a beautiful, hilarious and clever echo…

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  42. 0:12 Sweet Jesus I was watching it at work with my headphones on and it was soo loud I am sure everyone heard it through the headphones and now thinks I was watching porn.

    Reply

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