Boy Meets Girl. Boy and girl spark off each other. After ninety minutes or so, they decide that they're in love and belong together; unfortunately, fates have usually conspired to keep them apart. Will they find each other again and live Happily Ever After? Have a guess.
The romantic comedy genre is one of the most popular film genres out there; count how many films are released in a year, and see how many of them follow the rough template established above. Audiences love to watch two people fall in love and find their happily ever after, usually with each other.
However, Sturgeon's Law applies, and a lot of those comedies are terrible. Do not despair if you're thinking of writing one, however; the good people at TV Tropes Wiki have sat through many of these and identified what works and what doesn't, and how this might hopefully help your effort be the best it can be. Of course, be sure to check out So You Want To Write A Story for basic advice that holds across all genres. We also have So You Want To: Write A Love Story? for more detailed, if still generalized, ideas about romance.
Well, first you'll need a Protagonist and a Love Interest (although if you wish to try for a Romantic Comedy about onanism, by all means). You can decide which will be the man and which will be the woman (or vice versa, or both). It is also often helpful to have a Beta Couple to underscore the romantic tribulations of the main two characters; generally these characters are the Protagonist and Love Interest's Best Friends / Direct Siblings / Both and act as advisors and comic relief to the main couple and the audience. They may or may not get together at the end; alternately, they may be used to provide a counterpoint to the main couple (i.e. if the Protagonist is lonely and love-lorn, his / her counterpart in the Beta Couple may be happily married with kids).
Check out any of the tropes in the Romance Arc; most, if not all, will be essential in a romantic comedy. In particular, 'comedy' these days generally implies 'Happily Ever After', and audiences will probably feel cheated if the characters don't end up happy, or at least content, at the end. Check out the Love Tropes as well.
Generally speaking, most Romantic Comedies tend to involve Opposites Attract - watching two people who apparently have nothing in common is often more interesting so see if they'll overcome their differences to get together (and more satisfying when they do). There's a lot more tension involved as well; audiences for these movies like to see a bit of Slap-Slap-Kiss before they get together (not literally, of course; aside from the unfortunate connotations, the actual Slap! Slap! Kiss! scene is a bit of a Dead Horse Trope these days).
Whether the Protagonist and the Love Interest are friends or enemies initially, there will also be some Unresolved Sexual Tension between the two; it's the chemistry that draws people in to watch and see whether they get together. If they don't possess this throughout but get together anyway, the audience will most likely find it a bit unsatisfying.
At the end, there will usually be some kind of Race for Your Love situation, where the Protagonist desperately has to chase after the person they love before they walk out of his / her life forever. There may also be a Concert Climax situation where a very public declaration of love is made, followed (hopefully) by a Concert Kiss.
Oh, and, it's a comedy, so you need to be funny. If you can't, do not attempt to write a romantic comedy.
A Short Aside on Romance Itself - Or, How to Avoid the Romantic Plot Tumor.
Much of this has already been covered in So You Want To: Write A Love Story?, so if you've already read that, you're excused. If not, this might be worth sticking around for.
It's totally possible for a story to throw its Designated Love Interests together with little-to-no backing. The Official Couple themselves are Strangled by the Red String, ending up together largely because the plot says so. Romantic comedies are not exempt from this, because it's not a genre thing — it's a writing thing. It's what happens when someone tries to write a love story without understanding how romance works. And let's face it: that's most people.
Why do people fall in love? There are a lot of answers. Each couple will have different ones, at least in the specific details, but it typically comes down to one thing: "This person is someone I want to share the rest of my life with." So, cool, but, how do people decide that? There are a couple of answers.
- The first is that they are attracted to each other. Hollywood typically shows this by just having a beautiful woman show up and the man just be automatically interested because there are no other women in the film. In other words, All Men Are Perverts. This typically results in a Satellite Love Interest situation. So what you need to establish is why the characters' personalities result in attraction between them. There should be something that the Romantic Lead wants, and the Love Interest is the Love Interest because s/he provides it. Take "Uptight Loves Wild," for instance (and its occasional Most Logical Exaggeration, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Built into the trope is the idea of two characters who complete each other by providing counter-balance. The idea that two characters have compatible personalities will help the audience believe that they have reasons (beyond hormones) for wanting to kiss.
- The second is that they have compatible dreams. If you want to share your life with someone, you need to have an idea of what you want that life to be... and, if you do, you can tell pretty quickly whether someone else will fit into it. Think about the dilemma almost every movie superhero faces — particularly the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man Trilogy, where Peter Parker's life is this sort of incompatibility writ large. Peter is constantly on the run being Spider-Man, the whole Comes Great Responsibility thing weighing heavily on his shoulders; he can't avoid putting people he cares about in danger; he can't meet his obligations to the people he cares about; he can't show up to class with his homework done; he can't even stay home and watch TV. His definition of "my ideal lifestyle" is very different than that of most people... and it's only after Mary Jane comes to understand this that she's able to date him with any seriousness.
How does their relationship progress? Is it Love at First Sight or do they hate each other with a passion? Are they two strangers who find themselves bumping into each other in a Meet Cute situation or are they two old friends / or enemies — who find their Like Brother and Sister or tense relationship becoming something very different?
What kind of tone do you want to establish? What kind of jokes do you want to tell? RomComs are typically light-hearted affairs which emphasize the idea that Love Makes You Dumb and can lead you into all manner of silly, embarrassing situations. However, there is also a trend of deconstruction where the "Love Makes You Dumb" trope is Played for Drama instead. The resulting laughs are more in the vein of Black Comedy. While this is a bleaker tone to manage, it has the added benefit of being a lot more accessible. After all, the percentage of human beings who have been in a successful long-term relationship is rather smaller than the percentage that have been in a not-successful one. Finally, because one of the (typical) goals of dating is to find someone to have sex with, RomCom has the option to multi-class into Sex Comedy, which is always a wellspring of amusement.
When it comes to pitfalls, this genre is a minefield. Fortunately, so many others have been through it before you (and blown themselves up) that there's plenty of signs to show you where you might be misstepping.
First off, don't be lazy. The audience will be able to tell if you're just going through the motions. Plus, rom-coms are formulaic in many ways, which can result in a high level of predictability. Try and think of different spins you can place on the situation, or subversions of obvious tropes that you can make (some suggested below).
Almost all rom-coms don't have the Official Couple get together until the very end. But the reasons that keep them apart can come across as contrived or unconvincing. If the plot is demanding that the lovers be kept apart (and it is), then the reasons for this should be natural and logical, and should stem from the characters themselves rather than outside contrivances.
It's also common to set up a Love Triangle situation with the Protagonist, the Love Interest and Romantic False Lead, someone whom the Protagonist must compete with in order to win the Love Interest. Be careful with this character, because they often operate more as a plot device (they're essentially a tool to keep the characters apart) than a character in their own right. Making a Romantic False Lead into a character in his or her own right can be difficult to pull off. Making him/her too much of a Jerkass (or a bland, boring non-entity) will result in the audience wondering why the Love Interest is with the Romantic False Lead in the first place — and, consequently, whether the Love Interest is even worth pursuing (since S/he obviously has poor taste in romantic partners). On the other hand, making the Romantic False Lead too appealing will result in the Protagonist coming across like a selfish Jerkass for trying to destroy a healthy relationship. The obvious answer is to have the Romantic False Lead start off nice but pull a HeelFace Turn... but this can come across as inconsistent, unbelievable and awfully convenient characterization. So one of the best solutions is the Differing Priorities Breakup — a middle ground wherein Romantic False Lead is a convincing romantic rival but the Protagonist has logical, sensible, in-character reasons for rejecting them. (Doing this is way easier if you've done any of the sort of Character Development discussed earlier.)
Be wary also of setting up a Runaway Bride situation as well, where the Love Interest dumps Romantic False Lead at the altar to be with their true love; unless you really play it well, this might seem less an affirmation of The Power of Love, and more an illustration of the Love Interest as selfish and flighty - s/he couldn't have let their future spouse down in a less expensive, destructive and publicly-humiliating fashion?
Try not to make it look as if you are merely Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends when protagonist and Love Interest eventually get together. They should come together naturally, not forced together simply because the writer insists.
Avoid, avoid, avoid the Three Is Company trope wherever possible; the old 'the characters are kept apart by a half-cocked reaction to a misunderstanding that would be easily resolved if they just actually slowed down and spoke to each other about it for a minute' device is not only painfully contrived, it's also cliched and hackneyed, and tends to rely heavily on the Idiot Ball to prevent the characters from actually talking through the misunderstanding. Same with the Poor Communication Kills tropes in general, really. No Sympathy can also be grating and annoying for the audience; if the character has obviously gone through hell and back for the sake of their loved one, then if the loved one merely spits in their face despite all evidence to the contrary, it tends not to reflect well on them. Both can be used, however; but after being used poorly for so long, it's really very difficult to pull them off well.
Romantic comedies are, in general, a very upbeat, optimistic genre; this can, however, tip over into saccharine if you're not careful, which is guaranteed to lead to both copious amounts of vomit and your work showing up on the Narm index very swiftly. Avoid Sickeningly Sweethearts (being in love is wonderful, but doesn't mean you have to get ridiculous about showing it), and be wary of the Romantic Plot Tumor. Rousseau may have been right, but that doesn't mean you have to get crazy with it.
There's tremendous symbolism in the fictional union of Man and Woman, or so claims Christopher Booker. By putting the focus on the love itself on a backdrop of any other plot, the Romance genre distills the symbolism to its essence, showing us two characters who overcome both internal and external obstacles to ultimately come together in the bonds of True Love. Some might even say that it's the job of the Romance genre to be at least that predictable.
So messing with the basics can make for a less satisfying work... maybe even a flawed work (go read Booker's The Seven Basic Plots for more info on this). Still, there are possible ways to subvert the traditional elements of the Romance:
- Pretty much all Romantic Comedies are Boy Meets Girl or Girl Meets Boy; how about Girl Meets Girl? Or Boy Meets Boy? Or Girl Meets Boy and Girl? (To be interpreted any way you wish.) And so on.
- Pretty much all Romantic Comedies also end up with the Protagonist and the Love Interest finding love together; what if both decide that they really would be simply Better as Friends? Or what if the Protagonist decides that (s)he's better off without the Love Interest and meets someone else? Or decides that (s)he is happiest single?
- There's also usually a Wedding involved somewhere; what about the Protagonist and the Love Interest actively deciding not to get married?
- Romantic comedies also tend to start on the assumption that Everyone Is Single - try playing with this. Perhaps the characters are already married?
Oh, and speaking of the aforementioned rival - why can't he/she get any love? Maybe some friend of the protagonist's or love interest's catches their eye, or a new character enters 'round about act two and falls for them. (Incidentally, this way it's fine to have the rival be as good a person as the hero; they simply have another commitment now.)
Aside from subverting the normal expectations, try setting the Romance in any number of secondary genres or settings that aren't what you'd think of when you hear "Romantic Comedy". For example, Romantic Comedy IN SPACE!. Or Romantic Comedy set in Feudal Japan or in the midst of the Holocaust. Or a Romantic Comedy between a caveman and a cavewoman, or between bacteria (in the style of Osmosis Jones). Seeing the lovers develop in a new setting is interesting; there's been a zombie romantic comedy, why not try something else?
Romantic Comedies do suffer from something like the Animation Age Ghetto, as people tend to think they're ChickFlicks - hence, some men avoid them. You can bypass that impression, if you wish, by putting in plenty of stuff to appeal to both genders (without destroying the basic elements that make it appealing to the Romance crowd in the first place).
Also, consider very well the impression you want the heroine to leave; while the The Ingenue-style heroine is a valid choice whose character strengths get woefully undervalued, there's much to be said for a powerful girl who's more than a match for the guy, as Girl Genius is currently showing us. A lot of Romance starts with a strong girl and breaks her; consider one who grows in ways other than merely turning gentle.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Love Wins, basically; regardless of the odds and difficulties it brings to the characters, Romantic Comedies nearly all assert that Love is ultimately worth it; it enriches our lives, connects us with other people, and brings us happiness and fulfillment. Even if you choose to have a subversion and not have your characters get together, at the end of the day you'll still want to keep this in mind and suggest that Love is still worth it, that they aren't broken and will try again; Romantic Comedies that end on a note of bitterness and misery rarely succeed or are well received. Love might hurt, but whilst you may wish to indicate this you shouldn't overly-dwell on it.
Also, in some ways Rousseau Was Right; most people, regardless of their character flaws, are inherently decent, caring, capable of giving love and worthy of receiving it in return. Love Redeems us all in the end.
Christopher Booker invests a lot of symbolism in his idea of The Comedy, which to him means a pair of lovers kept apart by either (1) the Antagonist or (2) the Hero, while the rest of the cast suffer from general confusion and misunderstanding that keeps them from getting into the proper and fulfilling relationships they're destined to enjoy. Once the Hero or Antagonist comes around (Booker claims it's usually a HeelFace Turn that ends a comedy, though occasionally the Antagonist is driven off rather than redeemed), everything is brought to light, everybody finds their proper mate, and there's just a general rejoicing, as though a blight has been driven off the land.
So if you want to invest your story with symbolic roles and relationships, and especially if you want to rise to the level of Shakespeare with three or more couples who through misunderstanding and confusion can't get together until the end, then set yourself down for a long read with Booker's The Seven Basic Plots. (Long, long, long read. But it's good stuff.)
The Romance Arc, essentially.
Romantic comedy has a firm DNA, with a happy ending being a major draw of the genre, so if you subvert things too much, it may cease to be a romantic comedy. But there's still plenty of ways you can put your own spin on the genre.
For starters, why should it always be Alice and Bob who fall in love? Why not, say, a Sapphic spin with Alice and Bella? Or do Oscar Wilde proud - Aaron and Bob? Obviously there are pitfalls specific to writing LGBT characters, but if you develop your characters well, you're on the right path already.
Set Designer / Location Scout
There's a great deal of possible variety here - the great thing about love stories is that they can happen to anyone anywhere anywhen, so there's great potential. For reasons of cost and ease, however, many of them are set in the present in a major city (New York and London are popular candidates).
Not a great deal needed here - all you really need for this genre is a camera and two people, minimum - but you can always work something in. Perhaps your characters bond over a shared interest that can be easily referred to with a prop - and you can refer back to this in the climactic get-together scene. For instance, Alice encourages her love interest to hold on to their dream of being a musician, and at the climax, their lover serenades Alice with a guitar.
As above, the variety of settings influences the variety of possible costuming available; you may wish to use costuming to give the audience a sense of character and Character Development. A very easy shorthand for character development is the Letting Their Hair Down trope (buttoned-up Alice cuts loose a little and her clothes show the change) or else They Clean Up Nicely (Bob the Slob puts some effort into his appearance and it pays off).
Your Love Interest should be charismatic, engaging, and charming, but your Protagonist should be a lovable loser with whom your target audience can identify. By doing this, your target audience can see themselves getting the charismatic, engaging, and charming Love Interest that the lovable loser gets in the film. The lovable loser Protagonist can be of either gender (for examples... in "Along Came Polly" it's the guy while in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" it's the girl).
We should like both the lovable loser Protagonist and the awesome Love Interest, because then we will also want them to ultimately find happiness with each other. This doesn't mean they have to be (or even should be) perfect exemplars of human perfection, however; they should also possess character flaws and issues which affect how they engage with each other and how their relationship develops with each other. It'll be much more interesting for audiences to watch / read two flawed but ultimately decent people overcome their faults in pursuit of love than to watch two paragons fall for each other and become the Perfect Couple; that way, you'll also avoid Sickeningly Sweethearts.
Your Alpha Couple also needs that oft-mentioned, ill-defined quality of 'chemistry' with each other; they need to spark with each other. This creates Unresolved Sexual Tension with each other that keeps the audience watching and guessing, and also makes the relationship credible. This is difficult enough on paper, but is super-hard if you're casting with actors, because chemistry in live action isn't just something that happens in the dialogue; it comes from the actors and how they play off each other. If the main couple really dislike each other off-screen and are incapable of hiding it, it'll show in the final product; obviously you can't make people like each other, but you'll want to make sure they can at least hide their dislike as much as possible.
- You might want to check out:
- There's Something About Mary (which is very funny) and
- My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which is both romantic and funny).
- Before Sunrise / Before Sunset (which are more Romantic Dramadies, but very very touching)
- Ah! My Goddess It is a long-running manga series with an excellent anime adaptation. The relationship moves slowly in the manga and the anime, but it is genuinely touching and sweet. If you like something that moves quickly, then look somewhere else, but if you've got time, then give it a go.
- Many of the British ones holds a much higher quality:
- Check out a few of the Hugh Grant classics, like
- Love Actually also deserves a big mention here, often being subversive and playing with tropes. For example one of the couple is about a guy in love with his best friend's wife and even though he doesn't get her it fits perfectly.
- And of course, the classics:
- There's a reason the works of Jane Austen are still read today, over two hundred years after they were first published; they're witty, insightful and, of course, romantic. Pride and Prejudice seems to be the most popular one (both in novel form and in adaptations) but her other works, such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma also have much to recommend them.
Let's not forget to study the romances that aren't comedies! Dramedies and dramas can both be useful - and you might even decide to recast a dramatic tale into a comedy.
Don't neglect the stories that have Romance as a secondary factor instead of the primary one.
- The webcomic Girl Genius, which takes a mousy, incompetent lab assistant and gradually builds her into the most powerful force in all of Steampunk Europa, while also working with a romantic lead who's got a lot of growing to do himself. They're both powerful, both stubborn but capable of accepting when they're wrong (and changing), and ultimately well matched, though it was hardly apparent from the start.
- This equation is made even more gripping by the addition of a rival love interest who, in strong contrast to Romantic False Lead, is a well-developed character in his own right, and one the audience can enjoy and root for instead of booing offstage. (It helps that he used to be the Hero's best friend, and consequently they're capable of working together toward a common interest.) The Hero and the Rival are contrasted on many levels, equal on others; in fact, the contrast between them was showcased in a vignette that wasn't directly connected to the story, so we could see what they were like when the issues between them were dropped for a while and it was just the two characters vying for the lady's hand.
- Similarly, ElfQuest has a strong with a well-developed rival during the first graphic novel, and continues to build on the relationship long after the pair is "married" (it's complicated). During the far-reaching story, there are moments of culture clash, of separation; the rival throws some new obstacles their way, and we even get to see the main pair as they raise twins. But just the first graphic novel alone would be a good study.
- Eureka Seven is one of those rare shows which combine dramatic romance with action and do it well. If you're looking to cross rom-com with sci-fi or action, give that a look.
And finally, the subversions.
- I Love You, Man styled itself as the first "bromantic comedy," and lived up to its name. It's about a dude named Peter (Paul Rudd) who realizes he has no one to be the best man at his wedding to Zooey (Rashida Jones). Thus, he sets out to find himself a best friend, in the form of Sydney (Jason Segel). Using Peter and Sydney as its leads, it plays the entire plot structure of the romantic comedy straight (the Meet Cute, the Second-Act Breakup, the Race for Your Love), but their love is platonic and does not contain any (intentional) Ho Yay, though the clear Homoerotic Subtext is cheerfully played for laughs.