When Romantic Comedies Met Nora Ephron

How ‘When Harry Met Sally’ defies as many genre conventions as it embraces.

I’m willing to bet if you went out right now and asked a hundred people, “Family-Feud” style, to name the best, most prototypical romantic comedy ever made, at least half of them would name Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, or as it’s known in some circles, “the Meg Ryan movie without Tom Hanks.” That’s because When Harry Met Sally has all the staples of a romantic comedy: memorable scenes peppered with punchy, witty language, a will-they/won’t-they struggle, snappy best friends egging the lovers along, a brief get-together that goes awry, iconic love songs, and that bolt-outta-the-clear-blue realization had by both, simultaneously, that they were meant to be together forever.

But if you look closer at the film – as Michael Tucker has for the latest erudite video in his YouTube series Lessons from the Screenplay – you can see that there are almost as many ways that it defies genre stereotypes as it conforms to them. Writer Nora Ephron in her drafting of the script also managed to artfully dodge clichés of the genre in ways that added to the film’s sense of charming familiarity, as she would later in Sleepless in Seattle, in the process redefining the very elements of romantic comedies as we know them. It’s also worth noting that for both these films, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron earned Best Screenplay Oscar nominations.

It’s Michael’s hard work that has unearthed all this, so I’ll let his video provide you the fascinating details, but bottom line, Nora Ephron has always been a screenwriter other screenwriters should be familiar with, even if you work in other genres, because her ability to build character and furthermore to build relationships between characters – romantic or otherwise – is frankly unparalleled in recent cinema and can teach anyone a thing or two about the peaks and pratfalls of human connectivity. Turns out she can also teach you a thing or two about the subversion of expectations.