The Meet Cute

How Romance Characters Meet and What It Says about Them

When I first heard the term “meet cute,” it was 2009. I was reading an academic article about the short-lived sci fi series Farscape. The writer described two characters crashing into each other, with one landing on top of the other in what could be a sexual position, as a “meet cute.” I thought maybe she needed a grammar lesson.

Flash forward to my entry into romance writing and scholarship. The “meet cute” – which is actually the real term! – describes any situation in which the two main characters of a romance first meet. If it’s a screwball comedy or light-hearted romance, that meeting should be cute. It should set the tone for the rest of the their interactions, their building attraction, and their hesitation.

This sketch from Saturday Night Live parodies how the meet cute often presumes characters’ immediate belief they are meant to be together but neglects some of the realities of life.

In honor of my Twitter followers who wanted this week’s blog post to be about the meet cute, here are some of my favorite tropes with my favorite examples.

The Awkward Encounter

In my forthcoming novel, the two characters meet when one, Dana, is stranded along the interstate in a snowstorm. Cursing her way down the off-ramp to find help, Dana slips. The other character, Charlie, pulls up beside her and calls her out on falling on her butt. Dana is embarrassed and attracted, and the seat of her pants is wet from landing in the snow, and she doesn’t really know how to handle this new person who has stumbled into her life. This meet cute sets the tone for the rest of their relationship as we see them in the novel: Dana making gaffs, feeling self-conscious, and Charlie delighting in talking openly about the embarrassing things Dana wishes would go unspoken. Charlie ribs Dana affectionately, and the more flustered and frustrated Dana becomes, the more attracted she grows to Charlie’s swagger.

The awkward first encounter is a favorite within screwball comedies and lighthearted romances. Movies for the Hallmark Channel, for instance, delight in having our adorable heroine slip and fall, spill coffee, or otherwise embarrass herself to show that, even though she’s got her own house, a stellar career, and an amazingly obedient dog, she is not so perfect as to be someone we can’t love.

The Antagonistic Run-In

My current work in progress has a more antagonistic meet cute. A wealthy European royal is trying to live without the benefits of their wealth by starting school in the U.S. As they are trying to move into a graduate apartment, a beautiful woman takes the last cart and loads it with her boxes. The two fight over who has the right to use the cart, ultimately resulting in some items of value getting broken. The characters don’t see this meeting as cute at all. In fact, they really don’t like each other, but we find it cute because it’s a romance novel, so we know the fun will be watching them evolve from this antagonistic beginning to falling deeply in love.

The antagonistic run-in works well when the theme of the romance is enemies-to-lovers or opposites attract. By showing the two characters meeting with hostility, a writer can build anticipation for their barriers to slowly begin to fall as they come increasingly more attracted to each other.

The Case of Mistaken Identity

My royal romance is an example of this, since the American presumes our hero is just a rich jerk (and later finds out they are a rich jerk who is also royalty). In a mistaken identity meet cute, Character A thinks Character B is someone else – because of some adorably simple misunderstanding or some plot scheme. Because of this meeting, Character B will have to continue the charade throughout the story, thus making their meet cute set the tone for the entire plot formula. The mistaken identity meet cute works really well for royal romances and other situations in which one character is vastly wealthy than the other or when the characters are competitors in business or family rivals. In Shakespeare in Love (1998), Shakespeare first meets “Thomas Kent” (who is really a woman named Viola) at an audition and is intrigued, but because of social circumstances that prohibit a woman of status acting on stage, Viola must continue playing Thomas, which also creates obstacles for Shakespeare in terms of sexuality. In My Man Godfrey (1933), Irene participates in a scavenger hunt that includes finding a homeless man, Godfrey. But Godfrey is actually a wealthy man posing as homeless to avoid his own family. In both movies, the mistaken identity serves as an obstacle to the romance; once it’s cleared up, the characters are free to love openly.

I would be negligent not to note that Shakespeare in Love, which propelled Gwyneth Paltrow to stardom, was produced by Harvey Weinstein for Miramax, and so the movie’s lighthearted tone must be considered in the wake of the horrors we now know women at Miramax experienced.

I would also be silly not to mention that I – and plenty of you, perhaps – would have been fine with Thomas Kent always being Thomas Kent, and Shakespeare just dating him.

The Reunion

A meet cute doesn’t always have to be the first time two characters meet. A popular trope is a reunion meet cute, in which characters who haven’t seen each other in years are reunited. This works best if they parted on bad terms, so the reunion is emotionally poignant (part joy and nostalgia, part painful remembrance). The reunion meet cute is often used for stories about high school sweethearts who are now adults. It also works well with narratives of homecoming, for obvious reasons. Without googling, I can think of two Hallmark movies with Autumn Reeser, one of my favorite Hallmark heroines, that use this trope. In Season for Love (2018), she plays a chef who returns home after losing her job and runs into her ex, who has also returned home, and they end up competing in a barbecue contest together. In All Summer Long (2019), she convinces her aunt and uncle to hire her as the captain of their dining yacht, and as she’s walking to the dock for her first day of work, she bumps into her ex, who has just been hired as the yacht’s chef.

Of course, the most adorable reunion meet cute occurs in the remake of The Parent Trap (1998). Knowing that she will run into her ex-husband because their daughters have traded places and set them up, Elizabeth stresses about what will happen.

Natasha Richardson as Elizabeth. Beautiful, talented, always a delight to watch and gone too soon.

When she finally heads down to the pool to meet Nick, he is so surprised to see her that he crashes into people and falls into the water. You can predict the splash – if it’s a comedy, if it’s a meet cute, and if there’s a pool, someone is going to fall in – but just look at his face when he first spots her. From his wondrous grin and the sparkle in his eyes, it’s clear that this first meeting will lead to them getting back together because he’s clearly never fallen out of love with her.

More about Meet Cutes

Because how the couple meets is so important to the rest of the story, there is a ton of scholarship, popular writing, and guidance for screenwriters and novelists on the topic of the meet cute. Check out some of these links:

  1. I haven’t read it, but you might like Helena Hunting’s romance novel entitled Meet Cute. It sounds adorable!
  2. Here’s a recent list of romance novels with meet cutes from Bustle.
  3. Finally, here is the adorable screenwriter character Arthur (Eli Wallach) explaining the old Hollywood meet cute to Kate Winslet in The Holiday (2006). I think I like his character more than the central couples.

I’ve learned a lot since that first time I thought “meet cute” sounded wrong. It’s now my favorite part of any romance, and the tropes above are my favorite kind of meet cutes. Readers, what are your favorite examples of meet cutes and why?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s