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Romance and the Big Lie -- by Rick Ellrod

Often a story is built around an elaborate deception.  It may be a caper or heist story, like the Ocean’s Eleven series.  It may be a spy story or thriller.  But there’s more at stake when the Big Lie is central to the main characters’ relationship.  Million-dollar prizes or secret papers are small potatoes; love is serious business.

Let’s look at cases where a romance is founded on a Big Lie.  Resolving that discontinuity—bringing the relationship safely onto a firmer footing—tends to become the main issue of the storyline.  And because at least some of the characters are mistaken about what’s going on, incongruities abound, and the natural home of such stories is romantic comedy.

Dramatic Deceptions

A Big Lie imperils a romance in the most challenging way is if the lie is about the relationship itself.  We can be confused about a potential lover’s name, or status, or identity:  consider all those songs that say ‘I don’t care who you are, only that you love me.’  But if the love itself is false—based on ulterior motives—we’ve got trouble.

The high-school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is a simple example.  Sophomore Bianca’s overcautious dad won’t let her date unless her older sister, the prickly and unsociable Kat, does too.  Bianca and an admirer arrange for “bad boy” Patrick Verona to be paid to date Kat.  Naturally, Patrick has a hard time convincing Kat he’s really interested in her; but by the time we reach the climactic prom, he actually is.  Naturally, that’s when the secret about the bribe is revealed, leading Kat to reject Pat and storm out.  When she realizes she’s fallen for him, and that he really does care, we arrive at the happy ending.

If A starts out pursuing B for base motives in a comedy, we’re almost bound to be riding the trope where an attachment that starts out fake becomes real.  It may be a cliché, but the pattern has everything going for it:  at least one of the lovers experiences a reluctant or unexpected change, providing a character development arc; the secret creates tension; the inevitable reveal produces emotional drama; and the shift from cynical motives to genuine affection pleases those of us who aren’t already too cynical to be convinced.  TV Tropes locates this plotline at the intersection of the tropes “Was It All A Lie“ and “Becoming the Mask” —the specific category is “Romantic Fake–Real Turn.”

For a grown-up example, try 27 Dresses (2008), with Katherine Heigl and James Marsden.  The unholy motivation here isn’t money, but ambition.  Newspaperman Kevin Doyle (Marsden) wants to shift from writing fluffy wedding reviews to serious investigative journalism.  When he realizes that always-a-bridesmaid Jane Nichols has been in no fewer than 27 of her friends’ weddings, he figures that writing an exposé article about her is his ticket to making the transition to Real Journalist.  But as he gets to know her, he finds she’s not as shallow as he thought.  His attraction becomes genuine just at the point where the unexpected publication of his exposé reveals that he’s been using her for professional advancement.  Because there are other character issues in play, a good deal of further action is needed before Jane recognizes that Kevin’s the one for her.

The Big Lie’s Challenges

A plot built around the Big Lie carries with it some difficulties, which any such story will have to face (or dodge).

One is plausibility.  The bigger the fake, the more unlikely it may seem that someone could pull it off.  On the other hand, the more entertainingly appalling the secret is, the more likely we are to let it ride, just for the fun of it.  This critical leniency is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Funny (“The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its funniness”).  We can be similarly willing to bend plausibility on such grounds as the Rule of Romantic, Rule of Sexy, Rule of Cute, and of course the Rule of Cool.

More important, we may lose sympathy for the character who conducts such a deception.  A lot depends on the original motivation:  is it understandable, forgivable?  A journalist, for example, can legitimately pursue a story.  The strain occurs when the relationship becomes personal enough that the reporter’s aloof interest in a source begins to seem discordant, or when it becomes evident that the article will be taking advantage of the source’s vulnerabilities or weaknesses.  If the deceiver’s uneasiness grows in proportion to those considerations, we can continue to sympathize.

What makes this kind of plot development understandable is that it reflects a natural progression.  Our love for someone grows (sometimes, at least) as we get to know them better.  So the idea that characters initially brought together for baser motives can eventually fall in love has a built-in plausibility.  It also makes the deceiver’s change of heart more excusable.


There are enough different ways to run this plotline to keep the Cauldron of Story boiling.

In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), both characters are initially acting from unromantic motives.  Andie Anderson, like Kevin Doyle, is a journalist who wants to get more serious assignments.  She decides to start dating a man and drive him away using classic mistakes women make.  Ben Barry, for business-related reasons, makes a bet that he can get any woman to fall for him.  The fact that each of them is in an equally compromised position helps take the sting out of the deceptions.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) develops into the Big Lie after Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) finds out that his intimate online friend is really Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the same woman he’s skirmishing with about business matters—and he doesn’t tell her.  From that point on, his actions are informed by something she doesn’t know.  But the characters already have a nascent affection—he’s simply grappling with what to do about it without giving her an equal opportunity, which is not as bad.

The Lie is averted in Runaway Bride (1999).  Ike Graham (Richard Gere) is trying to get to know Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) better in order to write a detailed exposé and redeem his journalistic reputation.  But in this case, she’s perfectly well aware that he’s stalking her for discreditable motives, and is willing to use that for her own purposes (and to mess with his mind).  The plot develops in a different direction.  (There seems to be something about this trope that attracts reporter characters.)

These stories, on the whole, are comedies.  But the romantic deception makes up the serious part of the plot engine.  It really is a genuine issue between the characters.  The serious/comic combination isn’t really a paradox:  a comedy of this sort needs a “heart.”  Even a light comedy has to have some gravity, something we care about, at the core; pure fluff doesn’t hold our attention for long.  Even a fluffy soufflé has to be made out of real eggs.  (And that’s no yolking matter.)

Comedies of Errors

We do, however, also have a class of romantic comedies in which the deception is the comic element and not fundamental to the relationship.  Typically this involves something minor that snowballs to absurd proportions, for comic effect.  The deception isn’t about the romantic interest per se, but about something else.  As a result, the people involved come across as kinder, and the issue of character and trust isn’t quite as grave.

A character might, for example, fall into a Big Lie by accident, and then (more or less plausibly) be unable to retrieve it.  While You Were Sleeping (1995) is a favorite example of mine.  Lonely Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) admires Peter Callaghan, a handsome commuter on the subway line where she’s a token collector, but she has never actually spoken to him.  When he’s mugged and falls onto the rail tracks, she saves him, though he falls into a coma.  A chance utterance from her convinces first the hospital staff, and then the unconscious man’s family, that she is actually his fiancée.

The writers go to considerable trouble to maintain that error while keeping Lucy’s motives innocent.  By the time she has a chance to correct the mistaken impression, she’s concerned that revealing the truth might be a shock to Peter’s grandmother, who has a weak heart.  When Peter’s godfather learns the truth, he encourages Lucy’s deception—because he likes Lucy and feels that she’s as good for the family as the lively, boisterous family is for her.  In the meantime, Lucy develops a true and reciprocal affection not for the unconscious Peter, but for Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman).

A relatively innocent deception might also be carried out for good motives.  Georgette Heyer’s False Colours involves the Fancot twins, a responsible diplomat (Kit) and his rackety brother (Evelyn, which is in this case a male name).  Kit arrives home to find Evelyn has disappeared just when he’s supposed to meet the family of Cressy Stavely, the young lady to whom Evelyn has proposed a marriage of convenience.  Their flighty mother talks Kit into impersonating Evelyn, just for this one occasion, to save the pending marriage.  Of course circumstances conspire to require Kit to keep up the imposture a good deal longer—much to careful Kit’s dismay.

Heyer is a master at making plausible what at first seems entirely unlikely.  We hear that Kit and Evelyn used to pretend to be each other frequently when they were young.  Kit’s real affection for his brother is the foundation on which his mother cajoles him into the charade.  Moreover, no emotional damage is done, so Kit’s character is not impugned.  When Kit falls in love with Cressy himself (she’s a much better match for him than for Evelyn), it’s not too long before he finds that Cressy has actually figured out the imposture some time since—and is much fonder of him than of Evelyn.  Moreover, when Evelyn finally shows up (with a good excuse), it turns out he’s fallen in love with a different girl.  So no harm comes of the innocent deception, and we can simply enjoy the ingenious maneuvers by which Kit manages to extricate everyone from the results of sailing under “false colours.”


The Big Lie is an inherently tricky device, and requires some care for an author to pull off without irretrievably damaging the character of the deceiving lover.  Deception undermines trust—and the lover must be seen to be trustworthy if the romance is to succeed at all.  Lois McMaster Bujold captured the point in a response to a reader:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one's work!) is not "Do these two people get together?" but rather "Can I trust you?"  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.

But if the writer is adroit enough, the Big Lie does afford opportunities for high (and low) comedy, and it can be managed to a satisfying conclusion.

Good intentions may pave the road to Hell; but on the other hand, dubious motives can be redeemed—if both parties are ultimately willing to deal with the truth.  Since we belong to a species whose motives are seldom wholly pure, there’s a certain reassurance in that.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 13 Sep 2020 at 01:41
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Responses to this blog

Sujithra 14 Sep 2020 at 17:08  

It's awesome work. Being a beginner I'm not sure whether I qualify to give a critique, but this is amazing. Amazing research and your movie choices that you've mentioned here look brilliant as well.
Phileah129 16 Sep 2020 at 13:24  
Great post! I usually hate romantic "Big Lie" plots for all the reasons you listed (mostly that they're just unrealistic and create lack of trust) but You've Got Mail is one of my favorite movies of all time. I think the reason why it worked so well for me is it showcased how men and women fall in love. He had the upper hand in his knowledge of her, but he also knew he would blow his chances with her if he revealed who he was until the right moment, after they'd developed a rapport and a relationship. As you said, he didn't start out with deception in mind, and that makes ALL the difference.
Edolan 22 Sep 2020 at 02:35  
First off, I laughed out loud at the “yolk” pun. Also, well done walking us through how to navigate this trope successfully and address how to keep the deceiver sympathetic. This rule, I’ve found, works well not just in a Big Lie plot, but in any situation where a flawed character is still in the process of learning to mend his ways. Great post!
Zohaturner 27 Sep 2020 at 09:16  
Brilliant! You have written it so perfect. Excellent grammar, excellent style. I am new to critique circle but I must say out of all the paragraphs I read I like this one:

A Big Lie imperils a romance in the most challenging way is if the lie is about the relationship itself. We can be confused about a potential lover’s name, or status, or identity: consider all those songs that say ‘I don’t care who you are, only that you love me.’ But if the love itself is false—based on ulterior motives—we’ve got trouble.
Rellrod 29 Sep 2020 at 16:46  
Thanks for the good words, all!

Kenalex2 21 Oct 2020 at 07:54  
ROMANCE! Funny, I should run across the concept of romance in fiction writing, again. In attempts to define the romance genre, my research took me to a strange place and help me compartmentalize my place in the romance genre. As a cynical pessimist, I realize I write best when I write the negative part of truths; when I look for the bad and good; and find love and delight on the dark side. I'm a "Dark Romanticist," meaning, Romanticism vs. Dark Romanticism; optimists who believe in human goodnessand spirituality grew in to the
Transcendentalism Movement; the pessimists, who embraced human fallibility and our predisposition towards sin, grew into the Dark Romantic Movement. Sociologically, sociological structural functionalist conformers vs. crisis theory rebels. I.e., Lucy Moderatz and characters from other screenplays you mentioned, all drawn to the dark side of the human psyche, the evil side of spiritual truth. Yet, believed in human goodness and spirituality, grew in to the Transcendentalist side of their respective roles.

Am I wrong to deduce that the 'Big Lie' falls directly in line with Romanticism? And that the big lie encompass drama and conflict necessary in story and pushing it forward.

While I do not intend to make this discussion one of philosophy, I think it's important that we as writers completely understand the genre of romance, including dark romance. Where one is darker than the other yet both require the ingredient of conflict in drama. Even if it is with or without smoochy kiss kiss. The bigger the lie the more believable the plot. Which is by no means an easy undertake.
Cwotus 21 Oct 2020 at 13:04  
The biggest lie about romance, of course, and strangely not even addressed in the great essay, is "... and they lived happily ever after." Yes, there are all kinds of deceptions, feints, ruses and strategies used to find, meet, woo and marry (or hook up with) one's intended, and some of those are well described there, but jeez, how could anyone forget the Biggest Lie? No one lives happily ever after.

I think Up! should have been included at the end of the essay as "Biggest Lie of All". Each honest romance (hoo boy, it seems like I'm about to discover a brand new Big Lie with that phrase) has its particular charm and attraction to the participants and even to those outside the relationship: viewers, friends and family who are drawn in to the story of the lovers. How wonderful and lovely! And then the story ends with a more or less predictable or implied "... lived happily ever after."

Up! got all Paul Harvey on us with "the rest of the story". Given time (and a lot of work: that's a major lie of omission in this genre, that no one in a romance [story, that is] ever accurately or fully describes or even approaches more than a vague recitation of the work of "real" and lasting romance) and some luck, perseverance and good will on all sides, the characters mature and, if they're very lucky and willing, they mature more or less together and in harmony (which are not always synonymous). They have children and pets, or not, a home or some reasonable facsimile thereof, work that keeps them occupied and feeling useful, and a love that grows. That's not always a straight line on a chart, either. Shit happens. Even so, the possibility for real and lasting romance is potentially real enough (like winning a lottery, but since it really does happen sometimes, it's not an outright falsehood) ... but then one of 'em dies. Tragedy strikes us all, whether our own or that of a loved one. Perhaps that's why humans started telling stories in the first place: just to divert ourselves from what we knew was coming later. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is really the awareness of our own mortality: the knowledge of life and death. I'm not going to speculate on the possibility of life after death, but there is a very real likelihood of the life of one of the romantic pair after death, and Up! at least mentioned that among the rest of the fantasy.

I'd also recommend a movie that I saw earlier this year (on Amazon, perhaps) called Following Seas (even as a lifelong sailor I missed the pun until deep into the film). It's a true story (keep in mind what I've said, though) about a real romance between a man and his boat and his love for the sea, and the woman he meets (as little more than a girl), and their growth as a couple, as a family ... and so on.

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