I’m so excited to sit down with Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton, authors of a delightful new guide for how to write a Christmas romance movie.
(Leave a comment for a chance to win a paperback copy of the book. Two winners will be chosen in a random drawing after midnight Pacific time on Nov. 1, 2020.)
I first met Heather a few years ago when I took her screenwriting course at the Seattle Film Institute. I loved hearing her stories of working with her writing partner, Kate Wharton. By the time I met Kate, through a “Writing the Rom-Com” course they taught together, I felt like I already knew her. Judging from how well they co-taught, it was easy to see why their writing partnership has been a successful one.
These ladies combine their years of experience and expertise writing for the rom-com market, along with their skills at teaching and encouraging both seasoned and newbie writers. So, whether you have career aspirations or you’re just curious about how your favorite Christmas movies are created, this is a great book to add to your library.
Before we get to the interview, let’s start with a little excerpt from the book:
Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about Hallmark and their needs. Lessons that we wish had been written down somewhere.
No one had told us about the genre’s specific nine-act structure; about “Act Outs” or the dozens of other unwritten rules we should follow to fit the brand. We heard them in dribs and drabs from various producers as we proposed ideas to them, but it would have been wonderful to have a guidebook.
So we wrote one. Here it is!
Grab your cookies, your cuddly blanket, and some hot cocoa, and let’s snuggle into the Cozy Christmas Romance world—where everything is wholesome, welcoming, and nothing really bad will ever happen.
But you might want to watch out for the handsome man who offers money to save your local family business on Christmas Eve…
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little early Christmas spirit starting to brew right along with that hot cocoa. Let’s get on with the interview!
How did the two of you meet?
We met at TheFilmSchool in Seattle about fifteen years ago. We were in different classes but were the only two students who asked to come back and sit in on lectures.
Describe your collaborative-writing process.
We have nearly identical training having both started out at TheFilmSchool and then later studying with the late, great Blake Snyder, who wrote the classic screenwriting book Save the Cat. Because of that training, we are staunch enthusiasts of Blake’s 15-step Beat Sheet. We find the beat sheet indispensable for mapping out our stories before we write them. Along the way we’ve modified his classic beat sheet by adding tips we’ve learned from Lindsay Doran (The Firm, Sense and Sensibility) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story, Little Miss Sunshine).
Generally, one of us will propose an idea and will briefly describe it to the other. We then toss the idea back and forth, proposing additions and nixing routes that are dead ends. It’s surprising how much headway we can make in a very short time.
If the idea makes it past that point, one of us will fill out a beat sheet and then toss it to the other for refining. After two or three passes we have a complete idea and know whether or not we want to go forward. Oh, and additionally we are usually very strict with ourselves about making sure we have a good solid title.
When it comes time to start writing, we will divide the story in half and each of us will tackle either the first or second part. When (not if) we get stuck, we’ll trade halves and work on that.
It’s a process that works well for us and we’ve refined it a lot over time. By the time we are finished with a script, it’s essentially gone through the equivalent of several rewrites.
When the script is ready we get several trusted readers to give us notes. If two or more people point out a problem we address that. If it’s only mentioned by one reader we tend to not worry about it.
Do you also write individually?
We have in the past, but our process is so streamlined that we tend to stick to working with each other.
What led to your decision to share your knowledge of writing for Hallmark?
We wrote the book we wish we’d been given when we started writing for the genre. We really just wanted to put all the tips and rules we learned over the years in one place so that writers could get their info all at once. When we first started pitching to producers and companies that make this kind of movie, we naively proposed protagonists that were completely the wrong age. We pitched an idea where a historic house was to be dismantled piece by piece over the course of a movie, and one where a key scene was shot at the Army-Navy Game. We now know that all of those ideas would be dead in the water due to budget, but at the time we thought we knew the genre.
How does writing for Hallmark differ from writing for studio movies?
Writing for any of the companies that make these kinds of movies comes with restrictions that aren’t even thought about in a studio movie. The budgets are small in comparison and rarely vary. Additionally, the locations are limited to states and countries that offer healthy film incentives to help them meet these tight budgets.
How much research, if any, do you do when writing a screenplay?
Surprisingly, very little. We find that we get bogged down in minutiae when we spend a lot of time researching. For us, it can be a way of avoiding the actual writing. If we write something and get it wrong, it’s usually pretty easy to fix it later.
Where do you get your story ideas?
We get ideas everywhere. We will read a snippet of an idea from a news story and will combine it with something else we remember hearing as a kid. We love the Daily Mail newspaper in England. It’s a bit like the National Enquirer and we’ve gotten some amazing ideas there. Ideas are everywhere. For us, the problem is turning off the idea spigot since we have far more ideas than time. One tip if you’re stuck for ideas is to start consuming great literature and film. One amazing lesson we learned in film school is that you can’t expect your brain to be creative without feeding it. You need to fill your head with art and when you do the ideas will start flowing.
Do you use an outline, or do you prefer to write by the seat of your pants?
We would never write by the seat of our pants. We even outline short films we’ve been asked to write. Our secret weapon is our beat sheet, especially writing these sorts of movies. In the book, we have very detailed instructions on what a CCR beat sheet should include.
Do you have a blog? If so, where can we find it?
We do have a blog. It is called Writing the Rom Com. There you can also find the resources we’ve designed specifically for the writers of CCRs.
Kate Wharton (l.) and Heather Hughes (r.) are both graduates of TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder. They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles. You can find them online at writingtherom.com
And you can find their book on Amazon: