The Fine Art of Writing Romantic Comedy
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE MAY EDITION OF THE PINK HEART SOCIETY MAGAZINE
Not all romances that make readers laugh are romantic comedies.
The difference comes down to five specific elements that I think define a romantic comedy:
1. A larger-than-life premise
2. Quirky characters
3. A plot ripe with situationally comic possibilities
4. A madcap pace and tone
5. Bantering dialogue
A regular romance can include one or more of these elements, but for it to be a rom com, it has to have them all.
I’m going to go through them using my favourite romantic comedy movie, What’s Your Number, as an illustrative example. (Hint: if you can’t imagine your book on the screen, it ain’t a rom com.)
A rom com premise is grounded in a setting and situation that’s recognizable to readers, but it’s an invitation to a world that is brighter, bolder, funnier, crazier. Yes, it outlines a scenario that could happen, but it’s definitely in the WTF? category.
I’ll just jump in here with the premise of What’s Your Number…
Horrified by a magazine article’s assertion that women who’ve had 20 sexual partners are unlikely to marry, Ally Darling – who’s chalked up 19 ex-partners! – sets off on a mission to find a husband among the men she’s already slept with.
The Cosmo-style article is something we recognize, but Ally’s reaction it is way over the top. That’s because this is a romantic comedy and there’d be no fun in her throwing that article in the bin and getting on with her life which is what most of us would do.
[If you’re interested in a few other famous over-the-top rom com premises, check out this article! LINK: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/09/whats-your-number-and-9-other-rom-coms-that-are-secretly-sci-fi/245847/]
To deliver an off-the-wall premise, off-the-wall characters are required.
My personal preference is for that off-the-wall character to be the lead character with the other characters acting as a foil, although it’s also fun to have the lead character play the straight man pushed into a crazy scheme by gossipy friends/eccentric family/annoying-as-hell happily married couples/wicked exes/backstabbing work colleagues… You get the picture.
In What’s Your Number, Ally is established as a black sheep character who’d love to conform but can’t get it together. She’s the ‘bad’ daughter her mother disapproves of – desperate and dateless; her younger engaged sister is the ‘foil’ - the ‘good’ daughter, engaged to be married. In the space of 24 hours, Ally breaks up with her latest boyfriend, loses her job, gets drunk at her sister’s engagement party, and wakes up to find the boss who sacked her in her bed. Yikes!
Our hero is Ally’s neighbour Colin, a struggling musician who comes from a family of cops and whose hobby is ‘digging up dirt’ on unsuspecting people. He’s a commitment-phobic man-whore who spends his mornings dodging his one-night stands until they leave his apartment. Not promising hero material – but he proves he’s on Ally’s wavelength when he helps her get that ex-boss out of her apartment, judgement-free. And when he professes admiration for the ‘freaky’ sculptures scattered around her apartment (her hobby, which nobody else ‘gets’) we know Ally has met her match.
The plot of What’s Your Number is simple: Colin agrees to use his dirt-digging skills to locate Ally’s ex-lovers in return for access to her apartment to hide from his one-night stands. He tracks them down one-by-one, she tries to reinvigorate a relationship with them, then she and Colin conduct a post-mortem after each encounter (hilariously) fails. Over the course of Ally’s mission to find ‘the one’ she discovers Colin is the one…
Episodic plots like this are common in romantic comedy: ticking things off a list, counting down to an event, going through a series of dates or lessons or tests to reach a goal – these situations provide a framework for isolating the two leads in a shared mission that will turn them into a couple, while also rolling out a series of mini comedies.
That’s the fun part! But love is serious business even in a romantic comedy, and our protagonists have to step it up and learn and/or change something about themselves to claim their happily-ever-after. I tend to use a subplot to drag them into the real world where they have to confront their feelings for each other and either accept or reject them – kind of like saying playtime’s over.
In What’s Your Number the subplot is Ally’s sister’s wedding, the preparations for which proceed in tandem with Ally and Colin’s ex-hunting mission. The end goal of course is the wedding itself, for which Ally needs a date to make her mother happy and stop herself from feeling like a loser. The plot and subplot intersect when Ally tells her sister Colin will be her date, and her sister’s disapproval of the kind of man he is sets off the movie’s ‘black moment’. I’ll leave it there because spoilers!
4. Pace and tone
The premise and the plot set the tone to a large extent. It’s the situations in which your protagonists find themselves that are funny, so there’s no need for a comedy routine full of jokes. There are a few additional things to consider, though:
1. Your lead characters should be active not passive. When things go wrong for them, readers must be made to empathise but keep self-pity and self-flagellation to a minimum and instead have them throw themselves into finding a solution – the more unorthodox the better.
2. Find the humour even in the most serious moments – maybe it’s nothing more than a one-line quip or a sotto voce aside, but find something. Even the final declaration of love forevermore should have a lighthearted moment.
3. The reason romantic comedies translate well to the screen is because they’re dialogue-driven, so limit the deep and meaningful introspection, which can slow the pace, and do your best to use conversations and actions to uncover their thoughts.
On the subject of dialogue, your lead characters must indulge in banter. Make it fast, make it feisty, fill it with sexual innuendo; use it to pit your hero and heroine against each other but don’t be vicious because it must simultaneously demonstrate their compatibility. Please check out this little scene from What’s Your Number, which hits all the right notes!
Now all that’s left to say is: have fun.