The romantic comedy, often referred to as a RomCom, is the most misunderstood of the genres and can be the most difficult spec script to sell. Around 95% of the RomComs purchased are from established, A-list screenwriters. The RomCom’s formula-style often scares off the spec screenwriter. It’s a stringent set of rules that can seem cookie cutter. The challenge is coming up with an original story that works within the formula.
A Romantic Comedy centers around love, which is delivered from the warped perspective of the lead role and carried through an ironic plot.
Is it a RomCom or a Comedy?
First, the writer should determine if the concept is truly a romantic comedy or if it would be categorized as just a comedy in the spec market. Here’s a list of requirements for the Romantic Comedy genre:
Plot’s primary question is: Will the couple ever get together?
Plot must have irony, like a wedding planner who’s never been married.
External conflict (entire plot) must relate to romance.
Story opens with an establishing shot that’s upbeat, fun, & light-hearted.
Both lead romantic roles have an internal conflict related to love.
Both lead romantic roles must change in the end. One can change more than the other, but both have arcs.
One of the romantic leads should have a twisted perspective on love.
The couple has a ‘cute’ meet.
The romantic lead should get 90% of the screen time! He or she should be in almost every scene.
Every scene must have an emotional core.
Circumstances prevent the couple from being together and it seems unlikely they’ll get together.
There must be sexual tension between the leads.
There’s a secret and when it’s revealed threatens the chance for love.
The couple doesn’t officially get together until the very end, preferably in the last scene.
No therapy sessions! RomCom isn’t about discussing relationships. It’s about visually exploring the intricacies of love.
There’s some kind of chase scene.
There’s a big kiss scene at the end.
The story ends on a high romantic note. The leads get together in the end.
The romantic lead should get the last line.
RomCom often makes use of physical comedy, like the runaway dumpster scene in The Wedding Planner.
Scenes should be treated like a subtle comedy and layer in punch lines, misinterpretation, tie-in three lines, etc.
If a script doesn’t adhere to ALL of the above, then it’s not a Romantic Comedy. It might be a Romantic Drama, Dramedy or just a Comedy.
Romantic Comedy A to Z
Next, let’s take a look at each of the points above in more detail.
PRIMARY PLOT QUESTION
Will the couple ever get together? If the story’s about a married couple who split up, then the primary question is whether they’ll get back together and it’s not a Romantic Comedy. RomComs revolve around fresh, new relationships with couples who seem destined to be together, but something is keeping them apart.
If the external conflict is the couple will be eaten by wolves in Oregon, then it’s not a RomCom! The main conflict MUST relate somehow to love. The Wedding Planner starring Jennifer Lopez is a straightforward ‘how to’ example of this. The female lead is a woman who plans weddings, but has never been married and the guy she’s fallen for is her client’s finance! Every piece of the story relates to love.
RomCom’s are famous for their establishing shots, like the New York City skyline that’s been featured in the opening shots of many Romantic Comedies. If the writer uses a more specific location (other than a landscape), then make sure the story ends with this scene. For example, the film While You Were Sleeping opens in a Chicago train station and ends in this same location.
The lead role’s internal conflict MUST be related to love. This is one area where screenwriters stray from the RomCom formula. No matter what internal conflict the main characters have, it must be related to love. For example, a self-esteem issue could stem from being left at the altar in a previous relationship, a courage issue could stem from not having the courage to leave a bad relationship and take a chance on real love, etc. The trick is to make sure BOTH leads have internal conflicts related to love. If one doesn’t, then it’s a Comedy, not a RomCom.
THE CUTE MEET
How does the couple first meet? It better be memorable and cute! In The Wedding Planner the female lead’s saved from a runaway dumpster by the male lead. It’s unique, fun and romantic. The cute meet often breaks the physical barrier between the romantic leads. She could end up in his arms when he rescues her from a fall. This scene can even be a bit over-the-top like the dumpster scene. It’s movie magic to come up with a fun and unique cute meet.
The story’s main conflict must prevent the leads from being together and be related to love. In the film While You Were Sleeping, the female lead can’t be with the man she’s fallen for because she’s supposed to be engaged to his brother. Create circumstances related to love that prevent the two from being together.
Every good RomCom has one! It doesn’t have to be a big secret and it can be revealed at any point in the story, but it has to endanger the couple’s chance at being together. For example, in The Wedding Planner the secret is that the guy the lead’s fallen for is her client’s finance. In While You Were Sleeping the secret is the female lead isn’t really engaged to the comatose brother. The key is that the secret must be related to love and threatens to keep the couple apart.
TOGETHER AT LAST
This is probably the biggest mistake made when writing a RomCom! Do NOT get the couple together until the very end. If they do hook up mid-way through the story, destroy their bond and keep them apart until the end. The RomCom Shallow Hal seems to break this rule because the couple’s together the entire story. Are they? Hal’s really with the woman ‘he sees’ not the ‘real woman’ and once the secret’s revealed, it shatters their relationship. If the writer wants the couple to get together during the story, create irony and a secret that can and will temporarily destroy the relationship.
THE CHASE SCENE
Many RomCom’s rely on physical comedy for the chase scene where the lead role has to race across town to stop a wedding or stop their love from leaving. It’s the best way to go, but an implied chase scene will do. In the film While You Were Sleeping, a physical chase scene is replaced by the entire family showing up at the Chicago train station while the male lead proposes marriage. Because the male romantic lead shows up on the female lead’s last day at her job – before she has a chance to leave – it’s an implied chase scene. The key is to create urgency. Have the lead race across town to stop a wedding, stop a cab or just catch up to a romantic lead he believes he’ll never see again. Many of these scenes have taken place in airports. The location doesn’t matter….but the chase does.
THE BIG KISS SCENE
This is the #1 requirement for a RomCom. The screenwriter MUST add a big kiss scene or the genre shifts to a comedy! It should be as close to the end as possible and is often the final scene. In Shallow Hal, they kiss in the convertible. In The Wedding Planner, they kiss at the outdoor theater. In While You Were Sleeping, they kiss at the train station as the train’s departing. This doesn’t have to be their first kiss, but is has to be the kiss that seals the deal.
HIGH ROMANTIC NOTE
The reader should be swept away at the end. The story is about romance, destiny, and we should feel it and it should feel great to be in love. If not, it’s a Comedy!
While RomCom can be a daunting genre to nail down, the screenwriter who masters this genre and gives it a fresh spin could have a career in the business.
Recently, there’s been news articles that the Romantic Comedy is dead (as of February 2019). This is the perfect time to write a RomCom because we all know that the moment someone claims a genre’s dead, there’s a hit movie that comes out in that genre! So get started on your first or your next RomCom today!