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.