When Harry Met Sally… shows how a clever writer can flip genre conventions to create a fresh take on a classic story.”

In his video “When Harry Met Sally…—Breaking Genre Conventions,” Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay breaks down how Nora Ephron’s famous romantic-comedy script, with creative input from director Rob Reiner and stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, largely succeeds through consistent subversion of the very genre it exists within.

Admitting his initial misgivings and assumptions surrounding the critically acclaimed box-office hit, Tucker says he “quickly realized it was the most charming film [he] had ever seen.” His essay dives deeper into the script to examine just what makes the film seems so “effortless and original.”

What’s in a Genre?

Tucker cites Robert McKee, who in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting writes, “The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with this critical challenge: [He or she] must not only fulfill audience anticipations… but… lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them. ” Tucker adds, “The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliché.”

So what specific genre conventions does Ephron identify in romantic comedies that she can cleverly flip? From the early days of talkies, rom-coms have nearly all followed the same path: Boy meets girl. They can’t stand each other, but slowly they fall in love by the end of the film.

Through clever time jumps in When Harry Met Sally…, Ephron immediately surprises viewers by jumping five years forward immediately after the “boy meets girl” segment. Harry and Sally have not seen each other for that span, but when they reconnect, not much has changed in their interactions, and they decide not to keep in touch again. Ephron then jumps another five years down the road, and this is where the film settles, allowing the relationship of Harry and Sally to bloom.

Revealing Character Through Comparison

Harry and Sally’s agreed-upon platonic relationship means there are no external factors that disrupt or threaten their eventual relationship, which on paper sounds like it might make for the first-ever mumblecore film. In reality Ephron’s script engages viewers by expertly characterizing the two titular character through comparison. All of their conversations are structured in a similar manner:

  • They raise a topic
  • They debate topic (in a humorous way)
  • Their debate reveals deeper character

This repetition, says Tucker, ensures there is “never aimless discussion. There is always a goal that the dialogue is headed toward.” The film’s collection of seemingly throwaway vignettes (in this three-pronged dialogue structure) showcases the ways in which  Harry and Sally are different and also alike, and build together over the course of the film to create a nuanced character portrait.

Almost 30 years after its initial release, When Harry Met Sally… still sits at the pinnacle of the romantic comedy genre. Tucker’s video essay zeroes into one aspect of its production, the screenwriting process, to see what lessons might gleamed for any writer looking to produce surprises within generic frameworks. MM