Few films genres are as divisive as the romantic comedy. “Rom coms” are regularly dismissed as shallow, unrealistic projections of romance. It’s certainly true that many romantic comedies present a fantasy-land version of modern-day relationships, love, and marriage.
Yet like with other film genres, award-winning, critically-acclaimed romantic comedies such as Annie Hall (1977), Moonstruck (1987), Say Anything… (1989), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), The Big Sick (2017), and this year’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018) have had box office success and garnered praise, particularly for clever, creative storytelling compared with more conventional romcoms. In fact, while these films are largely praised for defying the conventions that define the romcom genre, they still adhere to enough of the romantic comedy structure that clearly identifies them as part of the genre.
The romantic comedy genre is similar to the horror genre in that particular variations of each genre have become popular at the box office for short periods of time. Yet just as similarly, certain key storytelling elements of romantic comedies exist in nearly every example of the genre.
The Romantic Comedy Structure
A common criticism of romantic comedies is their predictable structure. As with many film genres, traditional romantic comedy screenplays tend to adhere to a three act structure:
Act I – Couple meets and romantic chemistry develops
Act II – Couple faces conflict that jeopardizes the budding relationship
Act III – Conflict is resolved and couple lives happily ever after
And yes, because so many romantic comedies follow that structure the simple “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back” storylines can be predictable. Your mission as a screenwriter, should you choose to accept it, is to spin romantic gold with a unique execution of these tropes.
Universal Studios Story Consultant Billy Mernit breaks the typical romantic comedy structure used in hundreds of films down to seven story beats:
1. Set Up
Introducing the two (or more) protagonists and establishing their character traits that will define their interactions when they meet.
2. Meet Cute
An old, commonly-used Hollywood term for the first encounter between the protagonists meaning a memorable situation or series of events that leave a first impression. Despite the name the encounter doesn’t have to be “cute” in the appealing meaning of the word, especially if that first meeting lays the foundation for conflict (think an embarrassing situation or ruse that leads to the characters meeting awkwardly).
3. A Sexy Complication
The relationship hits its first stumbling block as the conflict develops – is he not interested in commitment? Is she not interested in having children? Does he believe the Earth is flat and she is a scientist? The conflict will develop from here.
4. The Hook
Despite the conflict established in the previous beat, this beat establishes why the protagonists can’t just simply go their separate ways. For example, this is commonly seen in “opposites attract” romantic comedies in which two protagonists who can’t stand each other find themselves stuck in a situation in which they are forced to spend time together then realize they might actually like each other. In other words, this beat establishes why the characters need to carry through the conflict instead of just calling quits on the relationship.
The issues that have been previously bubbling under the surface now come to a head – except now the protagonists are even closer than when those issues were established. Though they’ve fallen for each other (or are in the process of falling for each other), the conflict that was introduced back in Act I hasn’t been resolved. At this point, the characters are faced with amake-or-break situation.
6. The Dark Moment
As a result of the swivel, this the climax where everything goes wrong. The couple breaks up – or, if they hadn’t quite gotten together yet, stopped by seemingly-unsurmountable differences or problems. The outlook for these characters appears bleak. This is when the sad, depressing music is played on the soundtrack
7. Joyful Defeat
Remember when all seemed lost? One character steps up to make a sacrifice to resolve the conflict. Or one character realizes the error of his or her ways and overcomes previous misgivings. Regardless of how it happens, this is when the characters overcome the conflict and thereby live happily ever after. And why is “defeat” in the name? Because inevitably at least one protagonist has to give up something or admit being wrong in order to be together.
Mernit has become an expert on the romantic comedy formula, and he explained in a 2016 interview with Creative Screenwriting that what draws him to this structure is how closely it parallels real-life relationships:
“But what I found in romantic comedy was that when I looked at it and seriously analyzed what made it tick, I came to the realization that the standard romantic comedy paradigm actually parallels a very natural organic phenomenon in real life human relationships. Meaning romantic comedies, for the most part, in their purest states, are courtship stories.”
So, really, what the romantic comedy does is simply replicate that natural progression: meeting, getting involved, seeing what those issues are, dealing with those issues, and then, after the trust has been established, making that commitment.”
Following the structure allows screenwriters to be creative with other aspects of the screenplay – character development, conflict, location (there are a countless number of romantic comedies set in exotic or at the very least intriguing locales), and so on.
Most importantly, the formula is so frequently used because like all great storytelling it creates conflict, such as character traits that give birth to conflict – economic status, personality quirks, family relationships, social mores, and many others.
Having these parameters in place allows romantic comedy writers to get creative with the fluid aspects to their stories.
Using the Structure to Your Advantage
The first hurdle that screenwriters need to get over is the idea that “formulaic” means “bad” or “uncreative.” Shakespeare’s work is formulaic. The Catcher in the Rye is formulaic. Star Wars is formulaic. Titanic is formulaic. Following formulas did not hurt the success, popularity, or cultural significance of those works, and it also didn’t hurt the success of Pretty Woman and dozens of other successful romantic comedies.
Following a formula can be boring when it is derivative. But true craftsmanship in screenwriting lies in discovering how to breathe new life into a proven formula to tell a compelling story. For example, in terms of basic plot, Crazy Rich Asians does little differently from the many other films about a protagonist trying to endear himself or herself to his or her significant other’s hard-to-please family, such as Meet the Parents (2000). However, how those story beats are developed in the screenplay by the other devices are completely different. Screenwriters still have plenty of areas for creativity while adhering to a common structure and plot.
Where contemporary romantic comedies succeed is in how screenwriters utilize these familiar story beats, often by discovering unique ways to develop them. This is why the genre has evolved despite continuing to adhere to familiar tropes.
Evolution of Romantic Comedy Movies
What has made the romantic comedy such an enduring film genre is how screenwriters have updated the general structure with new storytelling elements. With dating and relationship conventions changing from generation to generation, the romantic comedy genre remains relevant in partbecause of constant cultural and demographic changes in society. While My Big Fat Greek Wedding was groundbreaking as an “ethnic” comedy in 2002, Think Like a Man (2012), The Big Sick (2017) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) later continued to demonstrate the box office success that diversity in romcoms can offer. The universal themes of love and courtship, including dealing with family and cultural expectations, cross cultural and generational lines, making relationship-based comedies an evergreen platform for storytelling.
As society and culture change, premises of older films are reused by screenwriters for remakes with gender or other roles reversed. In the Oscar-winning screenplay for the comedy-drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), a young white woman introduces her older African-American fiancée to her liberal parents who are nonetheless uncomfortable with the idea of their daughter in an interracial relationship. The film was loosely remade as the romantic comedy Guess Who (2005), in which a young African-American woman introduces her white fiancé to her disapproving father. Since attitudes toward interracial marriage had changed over the nearly-forty years between the films, the remake has a much more comedic tone than the original film.
The gender roles in 1987’s Overboard, which features a rich woman and a working-class man as the romantic leads, were switched in the 2018 remake. The premise of Overboard was also adapted for the 1992 Indian movie Ek Ladka Ek Ladki (A Boy and a Girl), demonstrating that the concept crosses cultural lines. Likewise, the 2000 American romantic comedy What Women Want was remade in China in 2011 and an American gender-swapped remake, What Men Want, will be released in February 2019. Both the passage of time and altering the characters’ gender, ethnic, or cultural identities allows screenwriters to create a different take on the same premise.
Much like the horror genre, the popularity of romantic comedies has been cyclical. For example, The structure of Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Annie Hall (1977) proved to be extremely influential on romantic comedy screenplays afterwards, particularly in its use of first-person narration by the lead character. Curiously, earlier drafts of the screenplay that would become Annie Hall contained a central plot based on a murder mystery. That plot was dropped, but the first-person narration, which is common in the mystery genre, was retained.
Types of Romantic Comedies
Traditionally, romantic comedies have been developed as “date night” movies primarily targeted at couples and told from the perspective of the lead actress’ character. Adding to the appeal was the fact that many romantic comedies offer leading roles to women, who in earlier eras of cinema were often limited to supporting roles in more masculine-driven genre films (war films, westerns, etc.). Several actresses who gained fame in the 1980s and 1990s had their first leading roles in romantic comedies (most notably Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock), and would later use their fame from their successes in that genre to branch into other genres.
The role of female protagonists has changed over time in romantic comedies. For example, beginning in the late 1990s, a series of romcoms centered on career-minded women – often depicted as impossibly dominant, uptight or insecure – that put their jobs before romance meet partners that help them to loosen up and embrace love. These include Picture Perfect (1997), The Wedding Planner (2001), and The Proposal (2009).
Another change came from romantic comedies shifting their narrative focus from primarily female lead perspectives to an increasing number of romantic comedies that are depicted from the male lead’s perspective. Beginning in the late 1990s, there was an increasing number of successful romantic comedies primarily told from the perspective of the male lead. For example,though comedian Adam Sandler had been known for juvenile comedies he merged his comedic style with romantic comedy elements for 1998s. The Wedding Singer, the same year the popular gross-out comedy filmmaking duo the Farrelly Brothers released the romantic comedy There’s Something About Mary. The resulting hit films served as a template for Sandler and others to make more male-focused romantic comedies with physical comedy that nonetheless appealed to wide audiences, such as Sandler’s Big Daddy (1999), Mr. Deeds (2002), and 50 First Dates(2004) and the Farrelly Brothers’ Shallow Hal (2001) and The Heartbreak Kid (2007).
In the mid-to-late 2000s, romantic comedies with more sexual humor that focused primarily on a male lead character, including several movies written, directed, or produced by Judd Apatow like The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), appealed to male audiences more than traditional romantic comedies had done, yet still adhered to enough conventions to make them recognizable as romantic comedies.
Roughly at the same time, filmmakers also found success with more traditional romantic comedies that featured ensemble casts of stars in multiple storyline vignettes depicting characters falling in love in various scenarios, such as Love Actually (2003), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), Valentine’s Day (2010), and New Year’s Eve (2011). Having so many popular actors in these films not only helped the box office appeal of the movies, but also allowed short-form storytelling possibilities not available in the traditional structure. Nonetheless, almost all of these vignettes still follow Mernit’s story beats in some form.
Indie Appeal of Romantic Comedies
Because romantic comedy screenplays are primarily character-driven, they are fertile ground for indie filmmakers because they allow for low-budget filmmaking. Diverse filmmakers who unfortunately do not frequently get the opportunity to tell their stories on film, like women, people of color, and the LGBTIQ community, to share their diverse experiences in indie romantic comedies, including The Four-Faced Liar (2010), Gayby (2012), Beside Still Waters (2013), In a World… (2013), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Obvious Child (2014), It Had to Be You (2015), Sleeping with Other People (2015), and Jenny’s Wedding (2015), just to name a few. Many of those films contain content that place them outside of Hollywood studio filmmaking, yet all feature the same story elements that Mernit noted are found in countless mainstream romantic comedies. Because of their low budgets and audience accessibility, the indie romantic comedy is one of the go-to genres for filmmakers to cut their teeth on.
Netflix and the Romantic Comedy
The last decade has not been an overly successful one for romantic comedies at the box office with many other types of genre romance films – such as adaptations like the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey series and The Fault in Our Stars – performing better.
Even if the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t lead to a romcom rebirth at cinemas, streaming services are showing interest in the genre. With so many indie romantic comedies vying for attention, it’s not surprising that so many of them like Set It Up (2018), Ali’s Wedding (2017), and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) have found a home and an audience on Netflix.
Regardless of how the next generation of romantic comedies will be exhibited, screenwriters will continue being inspired by romantic relationships, and audiences will likewise continue connecting with the universality of comedic films about romance.