For the Love of Hallmark Movies

It’s hardly a secret—though I haven’t talked about it much here—that I love Hallmark movies. Admittedly, they aren’t always the highest quality possible, but they are sweet, comforting, swoony, and leave me smiling. When the world feels like the flashback chapters of a gritty post-apocalyptic novel, it’s really important to me that I’m smiling when I close the back cover of a book or turn off my TV to go to bed.

Yesterday I read an excellent discussion of the use of “fluffy” to describe books, particularly Young Adult books (my favorite genre). Although some author balk at the word, readers generally use “fluffy” to mean a book, usually a contemporary romance, with little angst or melodrama that makes them feel happy and that they often reread. Hallmark Channel original movies, for me, meet this definition of fluffy. They aren’t only cheerful, neither are they insignificant. They could have wonderful messages or deal with deep or complex topics. The angst is limited in degree and topic to the relationship, and because it’s a Hallmark movie, we know what to expect and how it’s going to end (happily).

Now, let’s talk about what goes into the structure of a Hallmark, using a favorite fall Hallmark movie as a case study.

1. Plot set up. We’re introduced to out main character—almost always a woman—and the plot element that will put the main character in a position to meet the love interest—usually a man.

2. Meet cute. The couple meets for the first time or reconnects after a long separation, and they often don’t get along.

3. Thrown together. For plot purposes, the couple has to spent time together, though they try to maintain physical or emotional separation. This is often because of initial dislike, past hurts, or the existence of a significant other.

4. Bonding. The couple sees good qualities in the other person, overcome an obstacle, and help each other advance their goals. This takes most of the movie—everything except the first fourth and last fourth of the movie—which is why it’s really important to have an interesting situation or reason why they’ve been thrown together, as well as compelling goals for each person.

5. Small crisis. At the 50% mark of the movie, something relatively small but meaningful happens, often threatening one of the character’s goals, and which can only be overcome together. Doing so solidifies the relationship, revealing to the couple that they each care for the other. A first kiss might happen here.

6. More bonding. Now even closer, the couple works together toward their goals with increasing cuteness, perhaps peppered by a second kiss.

7. BIG PROBLEM. 75% of the way through the movie, the romance is threatened by a big problem, the couple separates, and everyone is miserable. In Hallmarks, the problem is usually something objectively small, like a misunderstanding or the reappearance of the aforementioned significant other who no one likes, as opposed to a massive problem like both of their dreams came true but now they live in different countries. Massive problems are difficult to overcome in the last fourth of the movie, so usually a simple but honest conversation will solve things. However, first they have to be miserable and the audience must pretend to wonder if they’ll ever work it out. (They will. This a Hallmark. We’re here for happy endings.)

8. Reconciliation. Often prompted by a friend or mentor shedding new light on the situation, one person doggedly pursues reconciliation, usually in a big or public gesture, offering a solution to the problem and pledging their love. This is always where the couple kisses. It might be a first kiss or the third kiss, but they kiss.

An Aside on Kissing: Hallmarks generally have a 3 kiss rule. If the couple first kisses around the halfway point of the movie, they likely kiss again before the BIG PROBLEM and kiss a final time to cement their reconciliation. However, in slower burn sorts of movies, the first kiss is at the end. Cheesy clichés like a Christmas tree lighting up in the background, the bang of fireworks overhead, or the first snowfall often accompany these finale moments. Some actors and actresses sell this well. Sometimes the actress is Danica McKellar (Winnie from The Wonder Years), who always looks doe-eyed and devastated right before the final kiss. This would be annoying but okay if she’d just follow it up with non-awkward-looking kiss. But she doesn’t. Ever.

To help us understand how this structure plays out, I offer All of My Heart, a goat-tastic fall Hallmark movie from 2015. Its sequel (a Hallmark rarity) came out earlier this month.

1. Plot set up: Jenny, a young chef wanting to open her own restaurant (played by Lacey Chabert, Gretchen from Mean Girls), learns she’s inherited a house in the country from her great-something-aunt. She decides to adjust her dream and open a B&B, a “restaurant with beds,” in the big country house.

2. Meet cute: Brian (played by Brennan Elliot), a Wall Street financial consultant, inherits the same house and, since he and Jenny have equal claim, wants to sell the house and split the proceeds. Jenny asks for time to start her business and buy him out, Brian wants the deal done so he can move on.

3. Thrown together: Brian is fired from his firm and can’t afford his apartment, forcing him to move into the inherited house Jenny is already living in.

4. Bonding: Money-strapped and grumpy, constantly searching for a new Wall Street job, Brian tries to save money by fixing the house’s many problems himself. He’s quickly won over by Jenny’s cooking and encourages her to sell her pastries to local cafes and restaurants, helping lay the base for her future inn. Jenny likes having help, even if Brian isn’t naturally handy, and flourishes under his encouragement and business advice.

5. Small crisis: Gabby, the nanny goat that came with property, goes missing. When Brian and Jenny finally find her and get her back to the barn, they learn she’s in labor. The morning arrives with happy kids, happy housemates, and a happy Gabby.

6. More bonding: Paint war on the porch, singing pipes, a wobbly table, a stuck window. New lock screen images of the furry kids. Jenny gets a deal with a regional supplier and Brian finally fixes the sink.

7. Big problem: Brian is hired to consult again and takes off back to the city. He’s just as good at his job, but not enjoying it like he used to. The advance on Jenny’s baked goods deal gives her enough funds to start buying Brian out. After he signs a few papers, they’re connection will be severed forever.

8. Reconciliation: Brian returns early, asking Jenny to let him move back for good. An epilogue scene includes the B&B’s grand opening and Brian’s proposal to Jenny.

I also want to point out that this structure is similar to most romance genre books—contemporary, historical, fantasy, and otherwise. Furthermore, it’s the basic structure I will be using for this year’s cozy mystery NaNo project (Eeek!).

I’ve already watched my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the year and am planning to enthusiastically watch and rate all 31 holiday movies Hallmark is debuting this year. I don’t want to be too annoying about this, so I’m starting a new tab on the site (see above, or follow this link) for my summaries and ratings of all the Christmas Hallmarks I watch this season. I’ll also post on Facebook and Twitter when I update the list, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

November Means NaNo

I’ve wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo since I learned about it in college, but I never felt like I had the time. Looking back on all the Novembers since then—almost a decade of them, which isn’t disheartening at all—I can point to ones where I could have tried it, at least. And there are some that I genuinely could not have managed. Not the 50K words, not the mental devotion, not the emotional drain.

Like two years ago. So many people in my life died that month that I physically could not attend all of their funerals. Emotionally, I could hardly bear to read all their obituaries. I was overwrought in every way. My birthday and Thanksgiving came and went as usual, but I don’t remember them at all. And just before the month’s end, as I staggered under the weight of it all, someone I love dearly fell, and fell ill, and died just before Christmas.

A year later (last year), I did NaNo for the first time, and I won. In NaNo-speak, that means I finished: I wrote all 50K words.

I joined NaNo because I had to do something. By October of last year, every day I struggled more and more to get out of bed. No matter how much or how little sleep I got, I couldn’t seem to motivate myself. I tricked myself upright sometimes but I knew it was bad when I couldn’t even bribe myself. Not with Chick-fil-a, not with a new book, not with a nap later. Where everything else failed, guilt would eventually get me up. I was leaving the dog whining outside my door, him knowing I was inside and awake, me knowing he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get up and open the door to see him.

Ten minutes became fifteen, twenty, thirty. I was regularly late for work and stayed late to make up the time. Trying to scare myself out of bed, I’d watch the clock on my bedside table tick to, and past, the time I should have left for work. I’d berate myself that “They are going to fire you and you will deserve it.” Despite having a job I was good at with coworkers I love, despite my wonderful family, despite an understanding roommate, despite friends, despite professional counseling, I couldn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning.

Now, I don’t want to over-dramatize this any more than I already have: as best I can remember, I did get up every day. Out of habit, out of guilt, out of shame. I don’t think I ever called in sick because I couldn’t make it out of bed. But I also didn’t know each morning if today would be the day I didn’t get up.

I started thinking of November as my month to save myself, to set a big goal and to meet it, and I thought NaNo might be what I needed. NaNo has built-in ways to track and celebrate my progress, plus a community of people also writing their way into or out of or through things via these 50K words. I’ve been writing to escape for as long as I could write, which is almost as long as I can remember. And, when I did a test run, I discovered that, if I could write very first thing, I could get out of bed.

As November strode on, though I grew increasingly tired and did sleep through my pre-work writing sessions a couple of times, I flew out of bed. I was excited. I felt driven. My mind sharpened and I got better at other tasks, like editing and social media writing at work, like memorizing scripture and focusing on the sermon. I think it did help that I was writing about death and grief, generously heaped with humor. It also helped that the dog liked to come downstairs for a pet and to wish me well.

As I always have, I wrote to cope and to understand. And I saw people draw near to me, people who asked about my project and cared about how it was going. Near the end, probably the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my brother came into the room where I’d been holed up for hours, miserably trying to pry words from my brain. He came up behind me, kissed me on the crown of head, and told me I could do it. I grabbed his hands and hugged him, and when he had left I cried. And then I kept writing.

That’s something else about NaNo: it forces you to take care of yourself. You’re still galloping toward 50K words, which you likely wouldn’t have written otherwise, and you’re staying up later and getting up earlier and not returning friends’ texts and ordering pizza again, but you have to sleep. You have to eat. You have to laugh. You have to go for walk. You have to, or the words won’t happen. And in November, it’s all about the words.

I don’t need NaNo with the desperation of last year. Still, I am incredibly excited for my 6am writing sessions and I’ve literally been stockpiling cookies since the spring.

I don’t know if I’ll finish. I do have an idea I like. I’ve tried to prepare better than I did last year. And I know what NaNo can be.

I love to write, and I’m going to try really, really hard.

Forgive me if I’m a bit distant this month, a bit hard to find, a bit more tired and less conversational than usual. I’m doing something that’s really, really important to me. I hope you’ll still be there in December. I’d love to catch up.