What a Perfect Breakup Scene Looks Like, According to a Screenwriter
The screenwriter behind "Legally Blonde" and "10 Things I Hate About You" explains how you can destroy your protagonist's heart on screen.
The breakup scene from Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon.
For Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating the breakups that shaped us, in all their messy glory. Because love is just as much about heartbreak as it is about romance. Read all the stories from our Love Bites series here.
Films can transport you to a place beyond the everyday realities of life. But no matter the genre, one thing I’ve always found to be true is that few breakup scenes truly communicate the excoriating heartache of ending a relationship with someone you really love.
LA-based screenwriter Karen McCullah is behind modern-day classics like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Legally Blonde (2001), which she wrote in collaboration with her writing partner, Kirsten Smith. We have McCullah and Smith to thank for Legally Blonde’s iconic breakup scene, where Elle Woods’ (Reese Witherspoon) then-boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, blindsides her by breaking up with her in a crowded restaurant as she anticipates a marriage proposal.
Before any good breakup scene, McCullah explains, it’s important to ratchet up the dramatic tension. In the case of Legally Blonde, we know that something bad is coming, as Elle’s so optimistic about her date. “She's so excited about that dinner so you might think like, oh, something could possibly go wrong, this is a movie.”
Initially, McCullah explains, Huntington is presented as a charming and loving boyfriend. But in the three-minute breakup scene, McCullah showcases everything that we needed to know about Warner’s character: that he never really respected Elle in the first place. “He's just like, ‘Oh, well no, you were just my frivolous, beautiful girlfriend and now I'm gonna go off and find a serious East Coast girlfriend because my family's pressuring me for that,’” she explains.
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During the breakup, Warner explains that he “need[s] a Jackie, not a Marilyn”—the breakup is calculated to further his political career. It’s one of the film’s most iconic lines, and McCullah believes it was a way to find a moment of absurdity in the midst of Elle’s pain. “There's always comedy in the middle of the awfulness a lot in the world and it’s about choosing to find this moment,” she explains.
Writing an iconic breakup scene starts with exploring the characters, their motivations, and how they feel about the breakup. McCullah explains that typically she will sit down to write a scene and play with it for weeks to get the nuances on point. For her, a good breakup scene needs to have emotional truth. What doesn’t work? The cheesy scenes that play out so often in films, like the race to the airport to catch a departing lover. “That's already been parodied so many times,” McCullah sighs.
So how do you know if a breakup scene is connecting with an audience? “If you believe it and you're feeling pain for the characters, then that's a good one. If you're thinking don't break up, you guys will work it out, this is horrible—that’s also a good one.” McCullah references the Sex and the City episode when Carrie Bradshaw gets dumped by her writer boyfriend Jack Berger via Post-It note. “I feel like now, because of texting and the general human desire to avoid conflict, we're probably gonna see a lot more movie breakups over text in films...[social media] is gonna change the face of movie breakups.”
Most of the time, breakup scenes serve two functions in films. We either want the breakup to stick, or we want them to wind up back together. “In every breakup scene, we either need to root for the people to get back together, or we have to be celebrating it pretty much in order for it to be impactful,” explains McCullah. She recalls a scene in Notting Hill where William Thacker, played by Hugh Grant, overhears his love interest, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) speak ill of him. Seeing that moment of heartbreak on his face, McCullah explains, was significant for her. “You’re able to see on his face, "Oh! I'm completely inconsequential to her. I'm making a fool of myself. I'm just gonna go." You saw all the emotions go through his face in that scene, and he didn't really even have to say anything.” But the scene also makes you yearn for them to reunite: “In my mind, I thought, she has to win him back.”
Other times, breakup scenes make you realize both characters probably shouldn’t be together at all. Like in Sleepless in Seattle, McCullah explains: “Bill Pullman is her fiancé and he's got like a bunch of asthma problems or something—he's always surrounded by snotty tissues! Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) was just kind of over it and decided to go be with Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks).” She explains how it was normal for the audience to feel sorry for Pullman’s character, but in the end, you just knew “she was destined to be with Tom Hanks, so Bill Pullman had to go.”
Making a breakup scene believable can be complicated, as a film writer has to combine dialogue, body language, and interior thoughts into a scene, whilst building tension between both characters. During the filming of Legally Blonde, Matt Davis, who played Warner, asked McCullah whether he ever really loved Elle, or if he was just an asshole. They discussed Warner’s motivations, deciding that he did love Elle, but was being pressured to find a more suitable partner by his family.
McCullah wrote specific prompts into the script to act as red flags for viewers hoping that Elle and Warner might reunite. In a scene after Elle attends Harvard Law in the hope of winning him back, Warner says, “You're not smart enough, sweetie.” Elle’s response: "I'm never gonna be good enough for you, am I?" marks Legally Blonde’s turning point. At that point, McCullah says, the audience decides that “this man’s got to go!”
The best breakup scenes will be cathartic, even if they trigger memories of your own breakup experiences. Ultimately, it's a lot easier to watch a breakup when it's not happening to you. “That's why we all watch movies," McCullah explains. "We get to be in someone else's life for an hour and a half and feel their feelings instead of ours for a minute and get out of our heads.”