a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, September 02, 2005

Can Someone Write a Good Romantic Comedy?

Romantic comedies are one of the hardest genres of scripts to sell, because generally unless you have A-list stars attached, it isn't going to get made (and don't bring up "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". That's not a romantic comedy -- it's a wacky ethnic family comedy. Big difference).

But even then, the sad thing is how few good ones there have been in the last decade or so. And the sadder thing? The romantic comedies that have been coming out, even the by-the-numbers ones like "The Wedding Planner" (which I felt I sat through after watching the coming attraction for it) are pretty much based on the best romcom scripts out there.

Do you know why executives hate reading romantic comedy scripts? Because they are all the same, generic paint-by-numbers tales that take two people who you know are going to wind up together, and have them wind up together by overcoming the same clunky, cliched obstacles and making the same this-really-isn't-a-choice choices.

You want to write a good romantic comedy, that is going to stick out from the pack? Consider some of the following. Please.

GIVE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER HONEST ROMANTIC CHOICES. It is dumbfounding how many scripts I have read, in which the main character is a single workaholic woman who goes through the typical page-10 montage of Dates-From-Hell (just to establish that she is trying) before meeting the Yuppie-Who-Is-Wrong-For-Her and getting involved with him (though, sometimes she just starts out engaged to the Yuppie) and then meets the funny/cute guy without a high-paying job who we know she is going to wind up with. The woman spends the script wondering who she should be with (while the funny/cute guy, who is inevitably a bit immature, realizes it is time to settle down), and then the Yuppie does something that reveals him to be an asshole, while the cute guy gets involved in a misunderstanding, that puts him on the outs until the ending, when someone runs to an airport/bus terminal/church, the misunderstanding gets sorted out, and they kiss.

I have just described 85% of the romantic comedy scripts circulating through Hollywood. The other 15% tell the same story with the main character a guy.

A slight exaggeration, but not by much. And what makes me crazy is that we're supposed to think that the (often-flawed) funny/cute guy is the right one for her, only because every other potential male love interest in the script is an asshole Yuppie, or a Date-From-Hell. In other words, though the Female Lead is adorable, her dating pool inexplicably consists of complete losers and the main character. How is that a choice?

(This type of movie has also traumatized a generation of people, because movies don't show the actual reasons that people wind up not going out, which is more subtle -- sometimes you are both great people, and you just don't hit it off in that way. Instead, we've been taught that the only reason that relationships don't work is because someone is an asshole or a Date from Hell. And if the person you went out with seems cool, and then she/he isn't calling, then it must be you).

So avoid this trap. Be brave enough to give your main character choices about who to be with, and have them pick the one they really love. Isn't that more romantic than taking the last man standing? (Good past examples of this -- The Philadelphia Story. Pretty In Pink. Some Kind of Wonderful.)

AVOID IMITATING THE CLICHES OF ALL THE OTHER MOVIES. The number one bad scene, that turns up in at least 50% of scripts (no joke) is the choice for third act misunderstanding that drives the couple apart -- the main character seeing her love interest kissing someone else, which leads her to run off, not realizing that the love interest was just kissed by his former girlfriend and that he pushed her away the moment she turned around.


Does this ever happen in real life? And if someone actually claimed that this is what happened, would you even believe them? (Two-thirds of the scripts helpfully later have the kisser tell the main character that the love interest didn't kiss them back -- as if).

Separating your characters before they come together at the end is fine; it's dramatic, and it makes the ending mean something. But have it come out of their characters, and don't just rip off tired moments because you are too lazy to come up with a good one.

DON'T MAKE THE LOVE STORY CARRY ALL THE WEIGHT. A lot of good love stories worked well because they were in scripts in which something else was going on. The scenes between Matt Damon and Minnie Driver in "Good Will Hunting" are funny and adorable, and they are only a small part of what the movie is about. The romance between Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger in "Jerry Maguire" is cute, but again the movie is about a lot more than this.

Which leads into --

MAKE THE CHARACTERS AND THEIR STORIES INTERESTING. Even romantic comedies need interesting plotlines. Give the characters something to go through together (a la "Romancing the Stone", or "The Sure Thing") that makes their bickering and moving apart and together flow out of a story, that provides honest conflicts. Bend expectations ("My Best Friend's Wedding") and come up with good reasons why the characters can't just get together on page 5. A good example of this is "When Harry Met Sally", in which the characters aren't ready to be with each other until the end, when they have gone through everything they go through. "When Harry Met Sally" also offers a primer on romantic-comedy dialogue, as well as on making-scenes-interesting-by-having-something-going-on-besides-the-dialogue.

And only Kathy Griffin is allowed to have gay best friends any more.


At 7:55 PM, Blogger Kira Snyder said...

Testify. I love the genre's exemplars such as PHILADELPHIA STORY, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and HARRY/SALLY, but man, the travesties that have been executed in the romcom name.

I enjoyed WEDDING CRASHERS despite the fact that the Rachel McAdams character, smart, sweet, funny, sensible, initially was paired with an utter ass, whose assitude was broadcast on all frequencies for anyone to see but her. I know these stories are formulaic, but why lower the stakes by making the hero's competition anything but?

My favorite part of that movie was how the Vince Vaughn character got his comeuppance from the insane, raunchy, terrifying younger sister-- and found out he loved it. Nice subverting of expectations.

But for the WEDDING PLANNERs of the world, yeah, only repeated viewings of HIS GIRL FRIDAY and TO CATCH A THIEF can rinse out that taste.

(great blog, btw, Scott! I've belatedly added you to my links list.)

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The very first script I wrote was a romantic comedy, and it suffered from all the flaws you mention (and then some!) I've saved your post to the folder containing that script--if I ever go back and try to whip it into shape, I'm going to be taking your advice to heart.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger PJ McIlvaine said...

The problem with most romantic comedies I read is that they are neither funny (gastro-intestinal gags) nor romantic (drunken lout pukes on the object of his desire).

At 8:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I am going to take a stab at Rom Com Horror, a new genre I am going to start

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


So absolutely freakin' true....As a reader for many years (now semi-retired, only 'cause I can't get enough work), I have read countless of those same formulaic pieces of crap. They're all the same and they all suck.

I was having a conversation with someone recently in which I decried the lack of good rom coms lately and they said, "Well, 'Sweet Home Alabama' was good."


The only thing that's as bad as having a complete asshole as the heroine's current beau (a la Wedding Crashers) is when she's dating a perfectly nice guy who she unceremoniously dumps FOR NO GOOD REASON.

In "Sweet Home Alabama", she literally dumps nice, but dull Patrick Dempsey AT THE ALTAR in order to chase after sexy Josh Lucas. But this is far from the worst example (at least she and Josh Lucas had a long standing passion going for them.)

The worst offender is arguably "Sleepless in Seattle", a DREADFUL, unbelievably overrated crapfest in which poor ol' Bill Pullman gets the heave-ho just because his fiancee HEARD A GUY ON THE FRIGGIN RADIO and decided she just "had" to pursue him...Huh?

In any event, oddly enough, the rom com I've been working on lately really really tried (in its long since forgotten first draft) to give our heroine a real romantic choice. Her first boyfriend was not an overt asshole, just a guy with different priorities...but the notes and re-write process quickly turned him into a snarling villain.

Ugh...I've become my own worst enemy.

At 5:03 AM, Blogger screamwriter said...

I agree with a lot of your points but to be fair, doesn't it seem like this is what audiences want? I mean it's not like the romantic comedy genre is on it's death bed.
"Hitch" and "Wedding Crashers" were huge hits.

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of High Fidelity, which for me defies a lot of the cliche's you just mentioned, chief among them being that the hero gets the girl back and is still unsatisfied - he has to realize something on his own - what is your thoughts of that flick?

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I think High Fidelity is a great movie, that bends the format nicely. It obviously isn't a generic romantic comedy -- John Cusack and his girlfriend don't really have a whole lot of scenes together -- and instead is more the story of his growth, with the visiting-his-old-girlfriends storyline giving it the kind of solid plotting that more movies like this should strive for.

And his character has choices -- he almost gets involved with another girl at the end, before realizing who he really loves. So we believe in the relationship (though her alternate choice, Tim Robbins' hyper-weird guy, is a bit clunky; I'm not sure she is portrayed as having enough choices. But because we believe in Cusack's journey, we believe she'd take him back).

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Warren said...

"I have just described 85% of the romantic comedy scripts circulating through Hollywood. The other 15% tell the same story with the main character a guy."

Ouch! I'm sure you're right, though. And if ever there was a genre in need of reinventing, it's the romcom. Great points made throughout the post. Thanks.

How have I not discovered your blog until now?

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Scoopy said...

Scott, you are kicking some mighty ass with this blog. If you listen closely, you can hear me politely clapping.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

1st of all, Amen.

2nd, I'll add one thing that PJ hinted at, and that I htink was overlooked by a number of the examples in here. Not all romances are romantic comedies! A Romantic Comedy has two halves to its formula, and while the romance element may be there, even if it is smewhat schlocky, the humor rarely is. If you are writing a RomCom, and not just a romance, MAKE IT FUNNY!

At 12:33 PM, Blogger mernitman said...

Scott, let me add a fervent amen to the choir here (Hi Joel), and hey, thanks for basically trumping half of all my past and future blog posts at "Living the Romantic Comedy!" :-)

As a fellow reader I share the same groans as you emit on a weekly basis. And to your list of suggestions, I'd add SHUT THEM UP, ALREADY, or: Good Romantic Comedies
Aren't Talking Heads Fests. Far too many rom-writers forget that they're called movies, not stillies, and that you need to have your characters DO something instead of sitting around a table yacking (or doing walk-n'talks, interminably)...

But don't get me started. What I'll do instead, if you don't mind, is link to your entry on the post I was planning tonight (serendipity) about why we need more "Lolita"s (e.g. and less "Must Love Dogs") in rom-com land.

Keep up the good fight!

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Christina said...

I really appreciated this post, as I'm about to start writing a rom com. (I have it storyboarded already.) When I read the section "give your main character honest romantic choices", I realized Houston has a problem. I've done some reworking.

Like others, I enjoyed Wedding Crashers a lot, but had a real problem with believing that the love interest of the Owen Wilson character would be with such an asshole...

At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is funny. I am in the middle of writing a romantic comedy (I don't know why I even dare trying, I guess it's because I am a sucker for those types of films myself).I try to google for "romantic gifts" because I don't want my male character come up with a bloody rose, and this post comes up in the search results. A very useful post it turns out to be, thank you for writing it (more than 2 years ago, but it still stands)! I learned something from it.

At 1:15 AM, Blogger bird's eye view said...

I appreciated this because I'm halfway through writing a romcom - I have the second half all done, just struggling with the first half, like the first time gal meets guy and so on...

Thank you for hating Sleepless in Seattle ( one of the few who do0 - it sucked. as did You've Got Mail

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Grant Faulkner said...

I recently read A.O. Scott's critique of the romantic comedies in the New York Times (written a few years after this piece) and think he echoes what you've said. In some ways I think a good romantic comedy is just about writing authentic imaginative characters--without all of the idiotic gimmicks and tomfoolery--trusting the damn story, etc.

You put things really nicely in this post--for film critics or script writers, so you're obviously good at both. I listed your piece on Lit Matters as a good guide for writers.

At 7:14 PM, Blogger Kobe said...

I knew about this site when I was in a chat clitoral hood stimulation, site and the subject is interesting just that and there are many romantic comedies and many novels and films, in my case and I do not know much about it.

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Allie said...

Great advice on the dual romantic interest. Not all great rom-coms have a second competetive love interest (Pretty Woman) but the ones that do mirror real life better.

I find myself changing the channel so often when watching reruns of otherwise-great rom-coms where the "chase scene" just kills it. Must someone always pathetically chase the other at the end (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones)?

Also hate the must-have wedding scenes. Would anyone actually interrupt a wedding to declare suddenly-realized love (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Made of Honor)? This is as bad as the switcheroo-wedding scene (Runaway Bride).

I'm writing my second Rom-Com now (this one solo) and vow to avoid all such horrific scenes.

At 4:59 AM, Blogger Dreamtime said...

You make good points, but as usual there is a gap between what professional writers, readers, critics, etc. like and what the audience will buy. Many top grossing romantic comedies do the exact things you say they shouldn't do. The average movie goer might see a three or four romantic comedies a year, whereas readers and critics etc, read or see three a week. I'm not saying its right, I'm just saying.

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