WHEN HARRY MET SALLY: Why Screenwriters Should Study Nora Ephron's Perfect First Act
Updated: Jul 18
There are so many aspects of Nora Ephron’s WHEN HARRY MET SALLY script that deserve study by screenwriters and storytellers in general, but none more so than how Ephron spends the first act repeating the same meet cute, reversing who Harry and Sally are as people – to set up the film’s real story.
Act 1 begins with Harry and Sally’s first meeting; strangers, they've been set up by a mutual girl/friend to drive to New York together where they are both about to start their adult lives. He’s a dark cynic; she’s a hopeless romantic. It then jumps ahead five years, to show how both have found love. In a twist, Harry, the cynic, is even engaged. Then, we jump ahead five more years and that’s when it happens:
Harry and Sally meet again, except this time their personalities have flipped. His wife has left him, leaving him devastated and now a romantic softy. Her relationship has fizzled out, leaving her cynical about romance altogether. They finally discover common ground and friendship (and, later, love).
In one act, Ephron essentially tells a three-act play, taking an obnoxious male lead and turning him into a romantic lead you can root for and an annoyingly sweet female lead and turning her into a romantic lead you can root for.
In my opinion, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY has one of the strongest first acts in romantic comedy history. You can learn a great deal from studying its dearth of plotting (freeing up running time for lengthy dialogue exchanges) and economical, yet dramatic character evolutions.
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