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5 Screenwriting Takeaways from 'Sylvie’s Love'

January 29, 2021
4 min read time

Set in the early 1960s, Sylvie’s Love is a delightful film about a relationship that begins between Sylvie (Tessa Thompson), a woman working in her father’s record store, and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a saxophonist looking for a job. It blossoms into a summer romance until Robert leaves New York to pursue his music. Taking place over the course of several years, we see how the love between these two ignites and stays lit, even as the realities of life and ambition tear them apart.

Writer-director Eugene Ashe’s intention was to highlight and focus on the humanity of the characters and not on the civil rights movement or oppression of the time, something he knows many films during this time period tackle.

In an interview with Final Draft, Ashe stated, "Sylvie's Love is really about unfinished business and how love can change one's course in life. The lead characters in this film may be Black, but these are universal themes that transcend race; it's really about how we show our humanity to people.”

Here are the 5 takeaways writers can consider when writing their historical love story screenplay.

1. Romantic tropes in period films

Although it's set over 60 years ago, this historical film is really a romantic story at heart. Even if your period isn’t necessarily going to have a major romantic angle, here are some of the familiar romance tropes to consider if you have two characters meeting and falling in love:

  • The meet cute. This is the charming way that the two love interests meet for the first time in a romantic film. Looking at any number of Hallmark rom-coms, the meet cute might be the female lead accidentally spilling some hot cocoa on the male lead. In Sylvie’s Love, it takes place at Sylvie’s father’s record store. Robert grabs the “Help Wanted” sign in the window and starts browsing the records. Soon, Sylvie and Robert are talking music and then he inquires about a job, one which Sylvie says is not available. That is, until her father comes from around the corner and offers it to Robert.
  • A lot of romantic films add a layer of conflict by making one of the leads romantically unavailable. In this case, Sylvie has a fiancé who is in Korea. It soon becomes clear that not only is Sylvie committed to this man, but her mother was partially involved in their setup.
  • What do the characters want professionally that will get in the way personally? Sylvie dreams of being in television and, when the opportunity arises, it causes conflict in her personal life and forces her to choose between two different paths. For Robert, his band has found a manager who promises success and seems to be able to deliver on it. It’s these personal ambitions that get in the way of love, unless one’s situation or desires change.

2. The Prologue

It has become increasingly common for movies to show the audience a glimpse of what’s to come. In the first scene of Sylvie’s Love, Sylvie is waiting outside a theater for a friend. She sees Robert and they share a look, a smile, and a quick “Hello" before we are whisked back to “Five Years Earlier.”

While a scene like this isn’t necessary, it does build intrigue and curiosity. For those with short attention spans, it can even keep them engaged longer than they may have wanted just so they can see how the story plays out — at least to the point they've already seen. Just like a prologue in a non-fiction book, we’re not seeing the end of the story, but a significant turning point within it.

3. Hyphenated genres

Alien is a science fiction-horror film. Bad Boys is an action-comedy. Sylvie’s Love combines two genres into the story as well: Historical and romance.

Multi-hyphenated movies can increase your story's audience range. Someone who may not gravitate toward a romantic film might be interested in watching for its historical aspect, and vice-versa. And while it has many romance film tropes, what makes Sylvie’s Love unique is the historical aspect and introduction into a world in which we’re not familiar: It’s a story about a saxophonist striving to succeed and a Black woman trying to be a major television producer in the 1960s.

But at the core, it’s about two people falling in love. Making something unique doesn’t mean breaking all the rules or creating something new, it’s about taking the audience on a journey. By setting it in the past, Eugene Ashe took his love for music and used it to tell a love story in a unique way.

4. Repeating lines and subtext

“See you later, alligator.” We first hear the line when Sylvie thinks she’s alone. It’s from the song “See You Later, Alligator” by Bill Haley & His Comets that plays while she sorts records, and Sylvie starts to dance, only to realize that Robert is watching her.

From this point on, the line continues to show up throughout the film. In some cases, it’s a sweet salutation while other times it represents something more somber. Turning seemingly innocuous lines into powerful statements is the job of the writer and why subtext is so critical to driving the emotional impact of the story. Through repetition, the point is really driven home.

In another film, think about each time Truman in The Truman Show (written by Andrew Niccol) says “Good morning, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night.” It has a different meaning than if one were to just read the words.

5. Make the conflicts deep
It would be one thing if Sylvie had to wrestle with the feelings of one man while her fiancé was in Korea, but this story goes much deeper. Sylvie’s mother, for example, gives us a glimpse into familial expectations. When introduced to Robert, she’s cordial but immediately tells her daughter that it was she who made arrangements for Sylvie to meet her fiancé — and that Robert is in a lower class, and therefore unacceptable.

Even deeper is Sylvie's drive to become television producer. Not only is this ambitious in today’s world by anybody's standards, but in Sylvie's 1960s world she's female, married and a mother. She must contend with the conflicts that arise from her expected home life, such as childcare and making dinner. Conflicts come from all sides, both internal and external. By giving them depth, you up your story's stakes.

Ashe’s affinity for classic Hollywood love stories shows in Sylvie's Love and any writer eager to create their romance stories within a historical context would benefit from watching the film.

Sylvie’s Love is now available to watch on Amazon Prime.


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