Writing Nowadays–the Perfect Wedding

Weddings are chock-full o’ writerly goodness, yeah?  You have family members who don’t get along.  You have a solemn ceremony which can be disrupted.  You have a large group of people who have to be in a certain place at a certain time, with a number of things that can go wrong.  Conflict galore!

And it’s all dreadfully, horribly dull.

This is the mistake.  Many writers assume that the reader will be fascinated by the wedding of Polly Protagonist and Harold Hero because, you know, the writer’s daughter got married last week and she gets all choked up remembering how her little girl walked down the aisle.  So readers will get choked up at the lovingly detailed description of Polly and Harold’s elaborate wedding, right?

Trouble is, no one really cares.   Fortunately, we can save the situation.

Fictional weddings don’t fall flat because the readers don’t care about the characters.  They do (if the writer is doing a good job).  It’s because fictional weddings are always, always, ALWAYS the same.

First, we have the structure of the ceremony.  The bride walks down the aisle to meet the groom, various people say things that are always remarkably the same (no matter how poetic the individual vows are supposed to be), and afterward we have a party with boring toasts.  It makes for dull reading and slow scenes in movies, yet many writers and directors insist on using them.

Second, there are only two types of conflict that ever show up at weddings.  1) Whether or not the ceremony will take place, or 2) Trying to keep the ceremony running smoothly.  These conflicts are always the same AND THEY ALWAYS SHOW UP.  Apparently, no one can get married without one of these two conflicts.

With Conflict 1, you can have the bride or groom wondering if s/he should back out.  This has no suspense to it because 99.9% of the time, they go through with it in the end.  And does anyone find it believable that the groom would run away and hide in a bar an hour before the wedding, forcing the best man to go find him?  I mean, come on!  You can also have something delay the bride or groom on the way to the ceremony.  This doesn’t create suspense either–we know the person in question will make it.  Yawn.

Conflict 2 involves someone trying to disrupt the ceremony, either for a good reason (because someone is getting married to the Wrong Person) or for a bad reason (because the antagonist doesn’t want the marriage to happen).  If the interruption is for a good reason, we know the wedding will be interrupted Just In Time.  (Apparently no one has ever heard of divorce or annulment.)  If it’s for a bad reason, we know the villain will be vanquished so the happy couple can have their moment.  It’s always the same.  And I don’t think I need to comment on the lack of believability.

The best way to handle fictional weddings is to gloss over them.  If you absolutely =must= include such a ceremony, please don’t waste the reader’s time with a word-for-word recitation of what happens.  Instead, focus on how the viewpoint character feels: “The minister read the homily and called on Polly to say her vows.  She choked up once, and Harold squeezed her hand.  Then the minister was pronouncing them husband and wife.  Polly faced the congregation, barely able to believe it was all over.”

The only time it’s interesting to go into details of a wedding ceremony is if the ritual is wildly different from the one we know.  Writers of historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or fiction likewise set in other cultures may be granted some leeway in describing weddings, but ONLY if they’re different enough.  Same goes if you’re doing a wacky, out-of-the-way wedding, like a nude wedding on the beach, or a skydiving wedding.  Then we WANT the details!

Laura Ingalls Wilder does the best wedding ceremony ever in THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS.  She goes into detail about the preparations before-hand, since she’s writing an historical, but of Laura’s actual wedding to Almanzo, she writes, “And so they were married.”

A fine example to live up to.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–the Perfect Wedding — 12 Comments

  1. The only exception might be a wedding which actually forms a major turn in the plot. The grand example of this is Jane Eyre’s first attempt at marrying Mr. Rochester; the revelation of his crazy wife in the attic is perfect and completely changes Jane’s situation.

  2. Four Weddings and a Funeral pulls off the groom-is-conflicted trope by having the groom’s brother force him into stating his conflict at the “speak now or hold your peace” point. Mayhem, and a sock in the nose, ensues.

  3. Actually the ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ moment is just designed for maximal drama. I wonder how many brides listen at that moment for voices piping up at the back of the church.

  4. Yeah. And no one ever says anything in real life. Hollywood has trained everyone to think something has to happen.

    I think fictional weddings are the main reason for the bridezilla phenomenon. So many over-the-top fictional weddings which bear no resemblance to real life bred discontent and fed consumerism.

    When I got married, there was no drama. Everything was arranged nicely. The biggest potential problem was that my best man was in the navy, and there was off-hand chance his leave might be canceled at the last minute. But we were aware of this and my brother was ready to step in as best man and my cousin was ready to become a groomsman if necessary.

  5. Oh Steve. It is obvious that you are a writer, that we are all writers, with that touchingly inflated belief in the importance of fiction. You’re living in a dream world, pal. In no way do we bear any of the onus for Bridezillas! Go look at the magazine section, next time you go to a B&N or a grocery store and view the real villains: magazines like THE KNOT or MARTHA STEWART’S WEDDINGS. And there is an entire cable TV show, I am tell.
    I can also deduce that if you have a daughter, she is young — not yet thinking of marriage. I can promise you that, when that time comes, she will not be looking at Jane Eyre or Lizzie Bennett for tips. (My advice? Elopement: start shilling it now.)

  6. Hey, “fiction” applies to books, movies, TV (=tell= me Martha Stewart isn’t fiction 🙂 ), and those gawd-awful magazines. Behind all those things is a writer, though not necessarily a novelist.

    (We’ve kind of strayed from the original post, which was about how to handle weddings in fiction. What fun!)

    Me, I’m going to encourage my sons to invest in a ladder and a midnight minister.

  7. Steven: wedding drama can happen. Did at mine! An hour late (and in 100 plus September temperatures, too.)

    I think anything can become rote, like the slug fest between hero and villain. Goes on and ON and on . . . and when we think he’s dead, the second the hero relaxes, up he gets again, shedding viscera right and left, for another round. I’d rather watch a wedding.

  8. Oh! Now there’s another blog entry: the fight pattern. In so many fights (in both movies and books), the hero and villain square off, the villain stomps on the hero for considerable time, and then, when the villain is laughing about his victory, the hero finds The Inner Strength to get up and start fighting back. His wounds vanish, and he stomps the villain into the dust.

  9. I will note that while the actual getting married part of my wedding went off pretty tidily, the caterer forgot or ignored the part of the instructions that said “Spouse is highly allergic to all tree nuts–no nuts in anything, please” with the result that an hour after we got married Danny started showing signs of nut exposure. He’s pretty experienced in dealing with it, but every doctor, paramedic, crime scene photographer and well-wisher wanted to be the one to provide the oxygen/epipen/tracheotomy and Save The Day. In fact, the guy made himself throw up, then took some Benadryl, and is still alive 22 years later. But it was very florid at the time.

  10. Dostoyevsky famously said that there are only two stories: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town”. Yet across eras and cultures, humans have found infinite ways of telling these two stories. In our era, they even write blog articles about them, explaining why they’re so banal.

  11. Also, Richard Russo (who is as much of a guy’s guy as you can get) wrapped his recent That Old Cape Magic around not one, but two weddings. And in doing so he managed to actually improve and make palatable the Updike/Roth middle-age-whine mode.

  12. I’ve been to one wedding that would be quite dramatic on the page, and even held some suspense for me as a guest. Most of the initial drama, which involved a car breaking down, a forgotten wedding dress, a cake disaster, etc. happened offscreen to the guests and just meant a lot of waiting in the heat. The real excitement came when we canoed to the reception area and the bridal party, setting out later than us due to pictures, got caught in a tornado-producing storm on the way.