Flipping the telenovela script in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me At Hola.

Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

Alexis Daria’s new novel, You Had Me At Hola, tells the story of Jasmine Lin Rodriguez and Ashton Suarez, two actors who meet on the set of a telenovela, and fall in love despite their reservations about the celebrity-couple limelight. Today I’ll be looking at how the novel cleverly blends its main love story with scenes from Carmen in Charge, the telenovela that the protagonists work on together. Here’s the (gorgeous) cover and blurb:

After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez.

With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.

Cover, blurb, buy links from the author’s website. CWs are listed in this review, none of them are discussed in this post.

One of the most intriguing choices in You Had Me At Hola is that interspersed with the story of Jasmine and Ashton are chapter-long scenes from their telenovela Carmen in Charge. On the show, they play a divorced couple who rekindle their love as Carmen (a publicist) works to rehabilitate the public image of her ex Victor (a singer). 

The telenovela chapters are framed like a TV script, with the first “telenovela chapter” opening as follows:

Carmen in Charge

Episode 1

Scene: Carmen and Victor reunite for the first time. 
INT: Carmen’s office- DAY. 

However, instead of continuing in the style of a TV script, the chapter proceeds to describe the episode’s events in third-person past-tense narration, a voice and style similar to that used in Jasmine and Ashton’s alternating chapters. The scene opens with the word “Action!” and continues with the sentence “Carmen bustled into her office…” from there describing Carmen and Victor’s first reencounter in prose narrative.

About halfway through the scene, we encounter the following surprising line:  “On a network show, this would have been a prime commercial break, but since this was being filmed for a streaming service, the scene continued.” Up until this sentence, the prose has suggested no awareness of the world outside the show: we’re led to believe that Carmen has its own internal 3rd-person narrator just as You Had Me At Hola does. Clearly, however, the reference to “commercial breaks” suggests that whoever is narrating the telenovela doesn’t live inside its the world.

So who is this narrator?

In terms of point of view, the very first Carmen scene is narrated neutrally. Carmen is the focal point, as she is described more often than any of the other individuals on camera. But every time readers think they’re about to get insight into the inner workings of Carmen’s head, the narration pulls back, reminding us that we know nothing of Carmen that can’t be seen by the camera. We’re tempted with sentence-openers like “A myriad of emotions raced through her…” only to have them end with “…all visible on her face.” There’s virtually no deep point of view, no access to any of Carmen’s thoughts and feelings.  By the end of the first scene, it seems reasonable to assume that we’re watching Carmen as the camera – or a director – might watch it, with periodic reminders of the mechanics of filming. 

Which makes the subtle tweaks of the second Carmen scene all the more striking. It opens in much the same way :

Carmen in Charge

Episode 2

Scene: Carmen and Victor attend a red-carpet event.
Ext: Red carpet- night.

However, by the third line, we are told of Carmen that “butterflies fluttered in her belly” – a statement that eliminates the possibility of a fictional director/observer as narrator. No outside eye could see Carmen’s butterflies. And, indeed, we get a surprising bit of internal narration in a mystery voice, with the italicized line “Go back to sleep, butterflies. This isn’t real.”

This is where things get really interesting. The passage I’ve chosen to focus on comprises the last couple hundred words of the second Carmen in Charge scene. It takes a huge step forward in blending the internal world of Carmen with the details of Jasmine’s workplace in You Had Me At Hola

“We’re next,” Victor said, his voice cold. 
Yep. She’d hurt his feelings. But he’d hurt her too. There were lots of reasons why they’d gotten divorced, and one of them was that they just couldn’t stop hurting each other. 
Or at least, that was the back story she’d come up with on her own while reading the script. 
Carmen took a deep breath, fixed a smile on her face, and stepped out onto the carpet, clinging to Victor’s arm. 
Lights flashed. Extras milled around silently. The hum of the crowd would be added in later. Carmen smiled, awash in nerves and the need to appear professional. She wasn’t here as his date, but his publicist. Her only goal was to help repair Victor’s image so she could save the family business. She was not here to have fun, or to enjoy being close to him. 
Even though she did enjoy it. 
As they moved to their mark, Victor spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “This isn’t so bad, is it?” 
“It’s terrible,” Carmen said through a tight smile. But she didn’t mean the lights or the people. She meant the closeness, the scent of his cologne wrapping around her like a comforting cloud, his hard body warm at her side.
It was all so terribly . . . wonderful. She wanted to shift closer, to lean into him, to wrap herself in his warmth and the feel of his skin against hers. 
Focus, Jasmine
“Cut!” 
Oh, thank god.

The mention of extras and added crowd noise, the back story “she’d” come up with, and the return of the italics all suggest that the narration of the Carmen in Charge scenes are coming from a deep-3rd– person point of view, focused on Jasmine, who is herself deep inside the character of Carmen… until the actress’s own emotions poke through.

In trying to analyze the complicated triangular dynamic between a 3rd-person narrator, Jasmine, and Carmen, I’ve split the sentences of this passage into three different categories, which I’m color-coding for clarity : 

1) sentences with at least one clear indicator of Carmen’s world (the names Carmen/Victor, their divorce, her job as his publicist)

2) sentences with at least one clear indicator of Jasmine’s workplace (the names Jasmine/Ashton, scripts, lights, extras)

3) sentences that contain direct indication of neither.  

Let’s take another look:

“We’re next,” Victor said, his voice cold. 
Yep. She’d hurt his feelings. But he’d hurt her too. There were lots of reasons why they’d gotten divorced, and one of them was that they just couldn’t stop hurting each other. 
Or at least, that was the back story she’d come up with on her own while reading the script. 
Carmen took a deep breath, fixed a smile on her face, and stepped out onto the carpet, clinging to Victor’s arm. 
Lights flashed. Extras milled around silently. The hum of the crowd would be added in later. Carmen smiled, awash in nerves and the need to appear professional. She wasn’t here as his date, but his publicist. Her only goal was to help repair Victor’s image so she could save the family business. She was not here to have fun, or to enjoy being close to him. 
Even though she did enjoy it. 

As they moved to their mark, Victor spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “This isn’t so bad, is it?” 
“It’s terrible,” Carmen said through a tight smile.
But she didn’t mean the lights or the people. She meant the closeness, the scent of his cologne wrapping around her like a comforting cloud, his hard body warm at her side.
It was all so terribly . . . wonderful. She wanted to shift closer, to lean into him, to wrap herself in his warmth and the feel of his skin against hers. 

Focus, Jasmine
“Cut!” 
Oh, thank god.

Laid out in color, a few things become apparent. First, I was struck by how fluidly and agilely the passage moves between three viewpoints, including one viewpoint where the reader is deliberately confused as to who is talking to them. Second, I noticed how the “uncertain” passages in red take over the text towards the end, suggesting that a blurring of worlds intensifies over time, creating more uncertainty rather than increased clarity. Finally, this categorization allowed me to see that while the “Carmen” and “production” passages contain mostly dialogue and movement, all of the uncategorized passages focus on feelings:  

Yep. She’d hurt his feelings. But he’d hurt her too. 

She was not here to have fun, or to enjoy being close to him. 
Even though she did enjoy it.

She meant the closeness, the scent of his cologne wrapping around her like a comforting cloud, his hard body warm at her side.
It was all so terribly . . . wonderful. She wanted to shift closer, to lean into him, to wrap herself in his warmth and the feel of his skin against hers. 

The uncategorized passages focus entirely on emotional states, often zeroing in on oppositions or boundaries (hurt and enjoyment, soft comfort and hardness, “terribly… wonderful”) reminding readers of boundaries that aren’t being kept between Jasmine and Carmen, Victor and Ashton. 

In addition to blending two fictional worlds, this passage also functions on two levels for readers. On an emotional level, internal to the world of the novel, these scenes convey the trouble Jasmine and Ashton are having in staying apart from each other as they portray Carmen and Victor. The blending of point of view, and the crossing of boundaries, mirrors Jasmine and Ashton’s emotional confusion as they try not to cross boundaries with each other, for the sake of their careers.

On a more external, writing craft level, inserting Jasmine’s thoughts into Carmen’s acting creates a kind of “forced proximity” through prose.  Jasmine is kept in physical proximity to Ashton while they shoot, but she’s also kept in emotional proximity to Carmen, a character who is moving towards her ex-husband Victor much faster than the actress can move towards her costar. It allows readers, in short, to consume scenes where Carmen and Victor kiss or confess feelings as if Jasmine and Ashton were doing those things too – even if the characters in the romance novel are not yet at that point emotionally. It’s a brilliant bit of plotting that not only reinforces the world building of the telenovela set, but uses language to propel a couple past some of their most forbidding early relationship barriers into a surprising textual intimacy. 

2 thoughts on “Flipping the telenovela script in Alexis Daria’s You Had Me At Hola.

  1. This is a fascinating take! I must admit that I read the telenovela scenes as if they were being narrated a la Jane the Virgin – which meant that when they started offering metacommentary on the show’s form, I was like, yup, that checks out, moving right along, and didn’t think more about it. But you’re definitely right about the ambiguity of the third passage, and the work that it does.

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