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.
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.”
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.
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 recent 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.