Learning my Lines: The Big Sick

by Dan Stout in ,


One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

Okay, so this is a bit of a departure, as this time around Learning my Lines looks at a screenplay, rather than a novel. 

download.jpg

The 2017 romantic comedy THE BIG SICK was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Based on Nanjiani and Gordon's real-life story, the film is touching and brilliantly structured. It's a stunning example of how to take true events and find the deeper Truth at the story's heart. 

THE BIG SICK is excels in many areas, but there's one area in particular that really shines: the forces keeping the leads apart

A massive hurdle for writers telling relationship stories or arcs is how to put obstacles in the characters' path. It's difficult to show two people who have enough chemistry for the audience to root for them to be together, but who also manage to somehow not get together for most of the story. Far too many writers resort to one character having a 'secret' that they inexplicably refuse to fess up to the other. If you've watched many romantic comedies, then you've seen a dozen variations of the man who can't admit to his soul mate that he's not actually a construction worker -- he's the billionaire who owns the building, or the woman who's secretly a journalist writing her 'big break' article about dating jerks, when she accidentally meets her dream guy. Generally, these are the plots that could be resolved with a five minute conversation. 

But in THE BIG SICK, the conflicts working against the leads aren't easily swept aside. Nunjiani's family expects him to enter into an arranged marriage, and the idea of him dating outside Pakistani circles is seen as disrespectful to his parents. But Kumail's family are never depicted as caricatures. They're not afraid to pressure him, but they're still his family, and he loves them. Kumail lies to himself and Emily in order to avoid the inevitable conflict between committing his love for her and the inevitable fall-out from his family. It's a weakness, and we're hoping he won't do it, but his behavior is totally understandable.   

The same is true for Emily's character, though I won't go into them here as they're are a bit more spoilery. Suffice to say that the issues she faces are serious problems that can't be resolved with a short conversation. Her response to these obstacles are both sympathetic and proportional to the nature of the hurdles placed in front of her. 

Since this film is based on true events, there's an obvious reason why the characters' motives seem so realistic: They're what actually happened. The real life Kumail and Emily had serious motivations and reasonable reactions, because otherwise they wouldn't have done them.  For those of us creating fiction, the trick is to craft characters whose actions feel every bit as ground in reality. Easier said than done, right?

This is where all that work you put into fleshing out your characters pays off. If you have two characters drawn together (romantically or not) then ask yourself what kind of obstacle makes it difficult for one (or both) of them from fully committing. Ask your characters what they'd do to overcome the obstacle, and then keep upping the physical or emotional threat until the answer is that they wouldn't-- your characters would run away, even risking the loss of love or friendship, rather than face it. And if you don't get an answer at all, then it's time to do the work of learning the twists and turns of your characters' psyches. 

by Dan Stout