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Genre or Die, pt 2: The Romantic Comedy


Having had a good look at Horror under the microscope then, let’s go the other end of the scale and examine the Romantic Comedy… Here’s my take on the types:

The Wedding Rom-Com – does exactly what it says on the tin, bringing the protagonist and love interest together usually through a chance meeting as mutual friends of the bride and/or groom of an otherwise unrelated wedding like Four Weddings & A Funeral, though sometimes for other reasons, as in the Wedding Crashers, where the characters’ job is to well… crash weddings, unsurprisingly.

The Supernatural Rom-Com – the obstacle to this story is usually the protagonist is in love with someone who is dead or from another time. Typical Rom-coms in this vein include Truly, Madly, Deeply or Kate & Leopold.

The High School Rom-Com aka The Different Backgrounds Rom-Com – obstacles here are social class and/or differing backgrounds typified in stuff like GREASE with “cool” pitted against “pure”, BUT it doesn’t *have* to be: other films in this vein can include Shrek or Notting Hill. Can obviously incorporate the likes of Kate & Leopold and Trule, Madly, Deeply too.

The Stalker Rom-Com – the protagonist doesn’t have to be an actual stalker, but they usually have an unrelenting love for (usually) a girl that lasts decades, usually from their teenage years and when they get the chance as an adult to get close to the girl in question, they cock it up. Think There’s Something About Mary or Just Friends.

The Big Event Rom-Com – everything focuses in this Rom-Com on the one event a protagonist must prepare for, so inevitably this sometimes crosses over into Wedding Rom-Com territory, like in My Best Friend’s Wedding (although crucially Julia Roberts’ character does not get married in it), though it can crossover into other elements like Supernatural, as with Groundhog Day or What Women Want. Other notable Event Rom Coms include The Forty Year Old Virgin, the event in question being the loss of his virginity and Knocked Up, obviously being the pregnancy & birth (though I must admit to not having seen it, sorry). Sometimes Big Event Rom-Coms are hybrids with other genres, like Billy Mernit points out in relation to Juno (a rom com hybrid with a coming of age drama).

Can you think of any others?

There isn’t much I can add here that Billy Mernit hasn’t covered in much better detail, but I can tell you there are certain elements scripts I read consistently fall down on:

The Protagonist. Almost always in the spec rom-coms I read the protagonists are unlikeable. If the protagonist is female, she’s self-obsessed; if the protagonist is male, he’s a workaholic who neglects his friends or some kind of sad loser. Nearly always, they have to learn something – which is nearly always How To Become A Better Person. I would imagine this is inspired by the likes of Groundhog Day: Phil is essentially a fake and it’s only be tapping into his true NON-cynical side that he wins the girl, which means he must stop using the phenomena of starting each day anew to his advantage in pursuing her. Crucially though, he does have a non-cynical side, he’s just world-weary, which we can forgive him for because of all the stupid things that happen to him; also a small part of us does say, “Yeah, but if I could live the same day over and over, I probably would use it to my advantage too.” No hangovers? No consequences for robbing Securicor vans? Hell yes! So there is something UNDERSTANDABLE in his actions, even though they’re absolutely crazy and yes, at the root of it all, ultimately unlikable until he makes his big realisation.

Outside the realm of the supernatural however, the writer has a more difficult problem presenting a character who does bad things like Phil does. If we consider My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts’ character is not unlikeable full stop, she has an UNLIKABLE TRAIT – and that’s envy. She is essentially a dog in the manger: she didn’t want her best friend until someone else has him. She is otherwise a lovely person – she wouldn’t be the bloke’s best friend otherwise – and even feels guilty for her actions, but subscribes to the “all’s fair in love and war” idea… Which of course it isn’t (her own big realisation, often a part of the rom-com genre) and which she is forced to recognise when Kimmy goes missing and they have that fantastic confrontation in the toilets.

LESSON 1: So I think the lesson here in the rom-com genre is that yes, there must be a character flaw your protagonist has in the rom-com genre, but don’t go overboard and make them ENTIRELY flawed – or if you do, have a good distraction, like supernatural elements.

The Best Friend. The Best Friend is part of the rom-com genre; whilst there isn’t always one – Phil doesn’t in Groundhog Day and Ryan Reynolds doesn’t in Just Friends – most of the time there is. And why not? The Best Friend can be a fantastic resource in pushing the story forward in the rom-com genre. However, a regular problem with the characters I read in rom-coms is the best friend is often a direction reflection of the protagonist, so if the protagonist is flawed, those flaws are then magnified tenfold in the best friend character. Whilst this offers much scope for comedy, it does little for character or story. Think about it: if the best friend is the SAME as the protagonist, we’ve got two people performing the same role function. This is boring to read. What was great about My Best Friend’s Wedding was the fact Rupert Everett as the best friend does all he can to dissuade Julia Roberts from embarking on her plan – he is like the voice of her conscience. The best Friend in Romp-com needs to give INSIGHT to the protagonist, even if it’s accidentally; Steve Carrell’s best friend in 40 Year Old Virgin is a bit of a loser, but he does have the one thing Steve Carrell doesn’t – access to SEX, he is Yoda to Steve Carrell’s Grasshopper in that if Steve only wants sex, he can have it the Dopehead’s way… Except of course he wants a meaningful relationship and to sing The age of Aquarius. Similarly, whilst Hugh Grant is *exactly* best friends with whatsisface who goes and carks it in Four Weddings, his life and death shows him that life is for living and that you must take risks – and stop bloody dithering!

LESSON 2: Don’t mirror your protagonist with the best friend, have the best friend give the protagonist some kind of insight – whether on purpose or accidentally.

The Gender Divide. Men and women have different attitudes when it comes to love and what it means and rom-coms often underline this point. However many of the rom-com specs I read stereotype their characters; I think it’s the one genre that does this more than any other that I read, even women in horror and thriller. Traditional gender roles come to the fore in the rom-com completely I find – or conversely or the exact OPPOSITE to what we “expect”, there’s no in-between. I think the reason rom-com is so hard to write well is because it’s the one genre that deals primarily with character motivation, WHY characters do what they do. This means we need acres of grey in-between those black and white models of characterisation. Ryan Reynolds in Just Friends loves himself, big style; he can have any woman he wants, including the rock star that every man would kill to have… Yet he wants the girl of his teenage dreams who works in a bar back in his home town. And she doesn’t want him. She thinks he’s a jerk. His solution? To try and impress her: what any man would do. Yet he just makes himself look more like a jerk. And WHO hasn’t done this? It’s understandable characterisation – nothing to do with gender. It might start with “Boy Meets Girl” or vice versa…But it’s waaaay more than that.

LESSON 3: Don’t stereotype, ever. Find those grey areas in your characters that people understand whether they’re male OR female.

Coherency/Hysteria. A simple one, this one – a lot of the rom-coms I read are barmy, 100% off their rockers. I think this has to do with the legacy of Frat Pack. They are also convoluted in the extreme, all hinging on complicated matters or events. A good rom-com is simple: a reader should understand exactly what is at stake, from the very start – and see it played out logically. I would avoid lengthy flashback, non-linearity, lengthy voiceovers, etc. Not because they can’t work – and I’m sure I’ll see a spec now that does it really well (and wasn’t Groundhog Day effectively non-linear and/or one long flashback??) , but generally speaking I think it’s story that really needs attention here when scribes are often more concerned with style and reinventing the wheel.

LESSON 4: Keep it simple. Love is simple – you love someone or you don’t. Concentrate on putting obstacles in the way of that love, not fancy format and style to hide plot holes.

Cynicism. Rom-coms follow fashion like any other genre and in some ways are more prone to reinvention. Whilst horror took the rather understandable step from slasher into torture, Rom-Com in recent years has shed its “chick flick” tag and become more for the boys: who could’ve foreseen that? I didn’t. Modern Rom-coms as a result are cynical in the extreme, challenging love in a way that we didn’t see in Richard Curtis’ heyday which held love up – particularly marriage and monogamy – as the “ideal”, with anyone who didn’t have that as being “out in the cold”. Despite this however, most of the rom-coms I read that AREN’T completely crazy are more in the Richard Curtis vein than the Modern Cynicism vein, which makes me wonder if they could have a place in the market? I don’t know either – but have the writers at least thought about this?

LESSON 5: Take note of where the genre is at, you don’t want to be left behind – make it your decision to go against it if that’s what you want, don’t be 100% unaware. Do your research.

Romance. Last but by no means least, rom-com specs I read often lack romance funnily enough. It’s usually because it’s not a case of “Boy Meets Girl” (or vice versa) enough: in other words, a protagonist is attempting to inject romance into an EXISTING marriage or relationship. Whilst this can offer plenty of potential laughs, part of the rom-com genre is that uncertainty – will they or won’t they? (and sometimes they don’t and shouldn’t! It doesn’t always follow, like in My Best Friend’s Wedding).

I think part of the reason scribes are reticent to write a rom-com where two people “just” meet and take a chance in a short time is because people are so cautious in real life: I married my husband within a year, but then we had known each other since we were kids; I don’t think I would have done this if we’d literally met that year, especially with my son to consider, my husband could have been anyone. But most people go out a fair time before they get married or even move in together nowadays, unlike our great-grandparents’ time when the woman would agree to marry the man on the basis of his status alone (and minus a “proper” relationship). In comparison then, this lack of caution perhaps stretches credibility for some writers.

Yet there is the answer in my story – I married my husband quickly because I ALREADY knew him. Rom-coms have built on this premise successfully many times; you can have a shared history between the protagonist and the love interest, just don’t make it a ROMANTIC history. Then they have that journey together and you inject the romance yourself and make it more of a rom-com and less of a straight comedy.

LESSON 6: A history between the lead and the love interest is fine, but don’t have them married or together from the offset else you will sap the actual romance part.

Any other thoughts?

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: As requested by the lovely Caroline – The Thriller Genre

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15 thoughts on “Genre or Die, pt 2: The Romantic Comedy”

  1. I’ve always considered myself a rom-com-phobe. I do like some which I hadn’t really thought of as being rom-coms such as Something about Mary and Groundhog Day. Suppose I’d just thought of them as ‘comedy’.
    Where would you place When Harry met Sally in your sub-types? And have you seen American Sweethearts? Nice dark twists in it. I suppose it fits into the Big Event type as it takes place round the build up to a movie premiere.

    Very interesting article Lucy. Maybe I should overcome my phobia.

  2. I think you should Caroline: I loathed rom-coms with a passion until I became a screenwriter – then I suddenly saw just how clever they are. What had not interested me before as a watcher (their inevitability) suddenly became interesting to me as a writer: how many times can boy meet girl or its variations? The answer: millions!

    Harry Met Sally… Good grief, I literally haven’t seen that in years. I suppose “Differing Backgrounds” – there’s quite a chasm between Harry and Sally?

  3. Just popped in to say hi, Luce, as I haven’t been surfing for a while.

    Hi Luce!

    You always have loads for me to catch up on. Great stuff!
    Glad you sorted your tech difficulties. Spam indeed!
    WTF is the blogworld coming to!

    Great post, but seems a bit sad to say “but don’t have them married from the offset else you will sap the actual romance part.”

    Mirroring true life, eh?

  4. Maybe in YOUR marriage Sheiky… ; )

    What I mean is, in a rom-com, we want the journey of them DISCOVERING love as opposed to the journey of their ESTABLISHED love and everything that comes next (whether or not they need to revitalise it)! 😀

  5. Yeah, yeah, I know you meant only in our script context!

    By the way: good luck with your academy application.
    I’m looking forward to the change in EE already!

    By the way2: Seen Piers blog lately? Photo’s changed. Different bloke? Which one is the real one?
    Or is he totally a cyber creation?

    By the way3: Are you gonna answer that MYSPACE request & be a friend of Sheikspear’s myspace page?

    Love & kisses, as always,


  6. Thanks! blimey… Myspace. I had forgotten all about that place. Must login I suppose.

    And as for Piers… even though I HAVE met him, I am still unconvinced he’s a real person.

  7. hah, i was going to comment on that myself david – romp-com, freudian slip there lucy?

    very interesting seeing it analysed like this though. i can be a bit judgemental of rom-com just on genre alone, but thinking about it there are some great films that fall into this category.

  8. It was such a good slip that I HAD to leave it in, H! ; )

    Yes it’s funny isn’t it – Rom-com is so easy to dismiss but we all seem to have a favourite one if we really think about it. And some of them are written so well that on reflection I think ALL writers should be well-versed in them, if only on the basis of craft. I know I won’t be dismissing them again in a hurry now I’ve realised how well they can be put together.

  9. I’ve never thought of Grease or Shrek as romantic comedies, but actually I suppose they are, aren’t they? Boy very definitely meets girl in both.

    V interesting…

  10. Just thinking about it now – would Grosse Point Blank count as a rom-com? I love it but have always justified it to myself as a black comedy. Definitely fits into your Big Event category. Maybe I’m going to have to come out of the rom-com closet after all…

  11. Mm, I’m sort of writing a sort of Rom-Com for Scriptfrenzy. I’m terribly behind schedule (which is the “sort of writing”) and I’m not really sure it is a rom-com.

    Shakespeare in Love is a rom-com, yes? The boy doesn’t get the girl in the end. (According to the TV show Movie Connections there was trouble with the US execs over this — it had to be explained that WS was already married.) And My Best Friend’s Wedding, of course, not that I’ve seen it.

    Well that’s the sort of thing I’m doing: Very definitely “different backgrounds” but so different that the boy can’t have the girl.


  12. Absolutely Steve – sometimes a leap across majorly different backgrounds or ethos or whatever stretches credibility TOO much, it’s actually better for the audience that Boy DOESN’T end up with girl. You should definitely watch My Best Friend’s Wedding though, it’s the best example I can think of that does this.

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