When Harry Met Sally – Script Review

When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron (with Rob Reiner & Andrew Scheinman)

120 pages. Dated August, 1988

These “reviews” are coming from the perspective of a beginning screenwriter. The stories and characters are still important, but I will mostly be focusing on the flow and the structure. Spoilers will be marked as such.


The Queen of modern romantic comedies. New York, quick dialogue, faked orgasms. It has everything. When Harry Met Sally was written by Nora Ephron. Nora penned another great comedy close to my heart: My Blue Heaven two years later in 1990. She’s probably better known for rounding out the Meg Ryan trilogy with Sleepless In Seattle & You’ve Got Mail (which she also directed).

The version of the script I am reviewing was dated form August of 1988. Since the movie was released the next Summer, this is almost certainly a production draft. Especially since, if IMDB is to be believed, several of the lines that are in this script were suggested by stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Also, director Rob Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman are credited on this version. That’s another dead giveaway. Let’s dig in.

The first thing you’ll notice, after a brief “documentary” scene, is how over the top Harry is with his girlfriend in the opening scene. Just as you’re getting confused, wondering if this story really is all cheese, along comes the line “The embrace is fairly melodramatic.” I can almost hear the music swelling. Nora knew what the reader was thinking and wanted to point it out first. Smart.

The characters are established quickly: Sally is tense, uptight, needs everything in order. Harry is cynical but easygoing. He doesn’t even remember to roll down the window before trying to spit his seeds out of the car. We know their types (a general guide at least) by page 3.

SALLY

The story of my life isn’t even going to get us out of Chicago. I mean, nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York.

HARRY

So something can happen to you.

SALLY

Yes.

HARRY

Like what?

SALLY

Like I’m going to go to journalism school and become a reporter.

HARRY

So you can write about things that happen to other people.

Clearly Harry is an ass, but we still like the clever character with the quick quip. Oooh, alliteration.

Some oddities with a script used for production include: lots and lots of EXT. CAR establishing shots as they drive through the country. The line “Maybe they both look at the menu. Maybe they just sit there.” pops up. I doubt that’d fly in a script you were trying to sell. The dialogue also has more “beats” than a drum solo. It actually serves the script well, seeing as how there are sometimes several pages of only rapid paced dialogue.

Speaking of rapid dialogue:

HARRY

Not so good. I’m getting a divorce.

SALLY

I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.

(beat)

When did this happen?

HARRY

Couple of weeks ago.

SALLY

That’s right when Joe and I broke up.

HARRY

Isn’t that amazing?

SALLY

Not really. Everybody in New York breaks up this time of year.

HARRY

Maybe it’s the pressure of Halloween.

SALLY

Yeah. You never know what to go as. What happened?

{Just watched the movie. Turns out the second half of this scene was cut! Damn shame.}

[ordered_list style=”decimal”]
  1. It’s an important scene as it reintroduces the characters to each other.
  2. Harry is human after all. He remembers Sally, still has his wit, but now with traces of sadness.
  3. Sally can dish out the quips and retorts. This comes to a head (ha!) in the orgasm scene where she completely shows Harry up (and shuts him up for the first time too).
  4. There is only one beat and it feels natural. So read your stuff aloud.
  5. Action is unnecessary. It’s alright that they’re just in a bookstore, standing there talking.
[/ordered_list]

Romantic comedies rely on coincidence quite a bit. What is the likelihood that these characters will run into each other in New York City? What I appreciate about this story is that their second encounter is 5 years after their first. It’s a more natural and slow build than the typical two week courtship that some movies find acceptable.

Characters conversing while still doing something (anything) is a recurring theme. At a baseball game? The conversation takes breaks so they can do the wave. At a restaurant? Order some food while continuing your back and forth on relationships.
This is also, incidentally, where Sally picks up her biggest (and most referenced) quirk. Sally orders everything in a very particular way. Everything on the side. Knowing this early on, it gives Harry and the audience a lot to work with. Harry gets ammunition to make fun of her, he gets a peak into her personality, and it’s a seed in his mind that allows him to remember her all those years later. For the reader/viewer, it’s a byproduct of her controlling/constrained nature that we can understand (externalized and relatable). It’s a nice point of reference in a film where restaurants are a central theme. There are at least five distinct scenes at restaurants, Harry’s friend writes about restaurants. Sally has her very public orgasms scene in, that’s right, a restaurant. After all, everyone has to eat.

Memorable characters (no one really matters besides our titular characters), tight scenes, and a strong core message bind all the elements together into an effective piece. The message? Human doubt. The “What’s the matter with me?” factor. I’d put that above the tagline (and Harry’s question from the outset of the film) of: Can men and women be friends without sex getting in the way? Doubt about your worth is much headier stuff. Harry and Sally struggle realistically with rejection, loneliness, and intimacy. The power of this script is that it never hits you over the head with it. It unfolds organically.
It also helps that it’s really really funny.

Lessons learned: Read everything out loud. Seriously. It could not be more clear that this dialogue was practiced to get the point that it has pitch perfect pacing.
It’s ok to join a scene mid-convo. Remember that movies are just real life with all the boring bits cut out.

Best Lines: (It’s a tie)
Discussing a dream

SALLY

I don’t know. He’s sort of faceless.

HARRY

A faceless guy. Okay. Then what happens?

SALLY

He rips off my clothes.

HARRY

And then what?

SALLY

That’s it.

HARRY

That’s it? A faceless guy rips off your clothes. And that’s the sex fantasy you’ve been having since you were twelve? Exactly the same?

SALLY

Sometimes I vary it a little.

HARRY

Which part of it do you vary?

SALLY

What I’m wearing.

Guessing during a game of Pictionary

JESS

Baby fish, baby fish mouth.

Harry shoots Jess a look.

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