WRITING ROMANTIC COMEDIES
Because of their enduring popularity and moderate cost (compared to special effects extravaganzas), and because they consistently offer strong roles for both men and women, a well written romantic comedy script is one of the best ways possible to launch or advance your screenwriting career. Since the release of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE in 1993, there hasn't been a single year in which at least one romantic comedy didn't surpass the $100 million dollar mark.
More important to you as a screenwriter, director or producer, the best romantic comedies are not only funny, sexy and entertaining, they provide you with a wonderful opportunity for exploring deeper levels of inner conflict, character growth and theme.
Certainly dramas, period pieces, biographies and dramatic love stories can also achieve thematic depth and complexity, but these rarely reach the huge mass audience that romantic comedies consistently attract. And while action films, thrillers and science fiction deal primarily with physical courage, romantic comedies force their heroes to develop the emotional courage necessary to expose their innermost fears and weaknesses.
Using the top-grossing romantic comedies of all time as examples, I want to explore the unique ways the screenplays for these movies use principles of story, structure and character growth to elicit emotion and enlighten the audience. (To see the list, click on the link to the left.)
THE ELEMENTS OF ROMANTIC COMEDY
The following are the distinguishing elements that separate romantic comedy from the other genres of film:
1. The hero must be involved in some sexual or romantic pursuit. As with all successful screenplays and movies, the most important character in any romantic comedy is the HERO - the main character (or characters), with whom the reader and audience most strongly identify, and who is pursuing some compelling, visible desire. The story concepts for PANIC ROOM, SPIDERMAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN are defined by each hero's desire to escape, to stop the villain, or to save Private Ryan.
In a romantic comedy, this desire is more specific. The hero must desperately try to win (or win back) the love of another character: her best friend in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING; the waitress in AS GOOD AS IT GETS; his high school dream girl in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.
Occasionally, as in LOOK WHO'S TALKING or MOONSTRUCK, the hero is more the pursued than the pursuer. But in both examples, the heroes eventually come to their senses, and the attraction becomes mutual.
2. The hero must pursue some additional visible desire. In GROUNDHOG DAY, the Bill Murray character wants to stop endlessly repeating the same day in Puxatawny, while he also pursues a relationship with Andie MacDowell. And in THE BIRDCAGE, Robin Williams' character wants to convince his son's future in-laws that he's a straight man while trying to win back Nathan Lane's affections.
Pursuing two goals simultaneously adds originality to the story and accelerates the pace. And when the hero's two desires inevitably come into opposition (as I will discuss momentarily), the conflict is increased, along with the audience's emotional involvement.
3. The characters in a romantic comedy never think their situation is humorous. They are desperate to achieve their goals, and terrified by the conflicts they face. When the people on the screen are laughing, the people in the audience aren't.
The driving motivations in romantic comedies actually grow out of immense pain and loss. The plots of the most successful romantic comedies of all time involve unemployment, disease, prostitution, physical abuse, physical deformity, humiliation, ridicule, the loss of one's children, attempted assassination, suicide and death.
The humor then arises from the way the heroes OVERREACT to their situations. They devise fantastic plots, pose as women, adopt false identities, juggle two lovers simultaneously, tell enormous lies, fly across the country to meet a voice on a radio, or do everything imaginable to sabotage their best friend's wedding.
4. Romantic comedies are sexy. You don't have to show your lovers writhing in bed or achieving a grand mal seizure on the kitchen table. (Such a scene would be unwise anyway, since romantic comedies almost never include nudity or sex scenes.) But your characters must at least confront their sexual desire. And if they do go to bed together, as in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT or BIG, we must see the events that lead to that decision, at least until the moment the two lovers embrace and the camera dissolves away.
5. Romantic comedies have happy endings. In the rare instance where the hero doesn't get the girl, the audience still feels that the resolution is the best, and most appropriate, for the story.
6. Romantic comedies always involve deception. The hero is pretending to be someone he's not (MRS. DOUBTFIRE, MISS CONGENIALITY, COMING TO AMERICA, TOOTSIE, THE BIRDCAGE, DAVE); is lying to his loved one about his alter ego (THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, BIG), his job (MICHAEL, THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS), his feelings (SHREK, JERRY MAGUIRE, AS GOOD AS IT GETS), or his intentions (GROUNDHOG DAY, ROXANNE); or is lying to others in order to pursue the relationship (GRUMPY OLD MEN, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, MOONSTRUCK, HOUSESITTER).
This dishonesty is necessary not only to increase the conflict and the humor in these films, but also to force the heroes to confront their own inner conflicts and deception. Only by facing the truth about themselves will they be able to change and grow.
THE ROMANCE CHARACTER
To win the heart of your audience, the ROMANCE -- the object of your hero's sexual or romantic pursuit -- must possess certain consistent qualities:
1. The audience must fall in love with the romance character. We must identify with the hero's desire for this other person, or we will not only lose interest in the story, we will lose our sympathy for the hero as well.
2. The audience must root for the hero to win her love. When you write a romantic comedy, you must persuade the reader that the romance character is your hero's destiny. If the audience doesn't long for these two people to walk into the sunset together, you haven't done your job.
Sometimes the audience wants them to get together long before the hero does. In movies where the hero pursues two romance characters, such as HOUSESITTER or WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, or films where the hero is already involved with someone else, as in THE WEDDING SINGER or MOONSTRUCK, the hero may be reluctant to accept what the audience has known from the moment the romance character first appeared on the screen.
3. Insurmountable obstacles must separate the two lovers. Without overwhelming hurdles for your hero and romance to overcome, your story will never captivate an audience. The billionaire and the hooker in PRETTY WOMAN, the billionaire and the chauffeur's daughter in SABRINA, the billionaire and the deceptive reporter in MR. DEEDS, or the reporter and the RUNAWAY BRIDE he humiliated - all seem hopelessly mismatched.
Very often the chasm separating the two lovers is the result of the hero's deception in pursuing the original outer motivation: the romance character in WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING thinks the hero is betrothed to his comatose brother; DAVE falls for a woman who thinks he's really her husband, whom she despises; and Tess in WORKING GIRL pursues a man who thinks she's a broker, not a secretary.
4. The romance character must be intertwined with the hero's other outer motivation. In TOOTSIE, Michael Dorsey wants to be a star on a soap opera, and falls for an actress on the show. The Kirstie Alley character in LOOK WHO'S TALKING wants to raise her son by herself, and falls in love with her baby sitter. The reporter in MICHAEL wants to get the angel back to Chicago, and falls for the other reporter who's competing with him.
It doesn't work to have your hero pursuing some compelling goal while she coincidentally falls in love with the boy next door, because . . .
5. The romance character must create obstacles to both the hero's desires. Without conflict between the hero and romance, your screenplay will lack the emotion necessary to sustain the story. In MRS. DOUBTFIRE, the Sally Field character is an obstacle both to the hero's desire to be with his children AND his desire to win her back. And in PRETTY WOMAN there are times when the hooker helps the billionaire close the deal he's pursuing, and other times when she stands in his way, just as there are times she wants to return his affection and advances, and others when she says no to them.
OTHER PRIMARY CHARACTERS
Those of you familiar with my book or seminars know that I emphasize two other categories of character. The NEMESIS prevents the hero getting what she wants (Cameron Diaz in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, Matt Dillon in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, or Frank Langella in DAVE). The REFLECTION is the best friend or sidekick who is most closely aligned with the hero (Hank Azaria in THE BIRDCAGE, or Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY).
In romantic comedies, the reflection will support, and the nemesis will oppose, BOTH the hero's desires. The rival politician in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT tries to sabotage Andrew Shephard's crime bill by also sabotaging his romantic relationship. And the bosses in THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS and WORKING GIRL want to prevent those heroes' promotions as they also compete for the love of the romance characters.
Similarly, the reflection characters in JERRY MAGUIRE, MICHAEL, WORKING GIRL and TOOTSIE are helping the heroes with both their careers and their love lives.
As I will explain shortly, the reflection and nemesis characters are not simply sources of conflict, support and humor. They also play an essential role in enabling your hero to grow and change on a deeper level.
ROMANTIC COMEDY STRUCTURE
(For a more detailed explanation of overall screenplay structure, please click here to read my previous article.)
Your romantic comedy should follow the same six-stage structure to which almost all Hollywood movies conform. But keep these additional structural principles in mind as you develop your script. . . .
1. Introduce the hero before the romantic rival. Readers and audiences instinctively identify with the first character who appears on the screen. If we were introduced to Pierce Brosnan in MRS. DOUBTFIRE before we met Robin Williams, or to Cameron Diaz before Julia Roberts in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, we would have a much harder time rooting for the heroes of those movies, because of our ambivalence about the rival being jilted.
2. Show the first meeting between the hero and the romance. Both in real life and in the movies, the most enthralling part of any relationship comes with that first, head-over-heels, all-consuming attraction. Never rob your reader of the opportunity to fall in love along with your characters.
Allowing the audience to be there from the beginning is also important for credibility in your screenplay. If we don't see how the two principle characters meet, and what draws them together, your story risks seeming contrived.
3. Introduce the romance character no later than the beginning of Act II. In a properly structured film, the hero's outer motivation, which defines the story concept, is established exactly 25% of the way through the movie. Since your hero must pursue two goals simultaneously, the object of her desire must certainly appear on screen by then.
4. The hero should commit to the relationship by the mid-point of the movie. The halfway mark of any journey is the POINT OF NO RETURN - that moment where the traveler is closer to the destination than the point of origin. In other words, your hero must do something exactly 50% of the way through the screenplay to indicate that there's no turning back, and she can never return to the emotional life she was living when the story began.
This is often the moment where the hero and romance first sleep together, as in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, JERRY MAGUIRE, BIG and WORKING GIRL. But the point of no return is sometimes less outwardly apparent: the first date in SABRINA; revealing his face to Princess Fiona in SHREK; or sending the incriminating email in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING.
5. Give the audience superior position. SUPERIOR POSITION means that the audience knows something before some of the characters in the movie do. This knowledge creates anticipation of what's going to happen when this "secret" is revealed.
Notice how many romantic comedies involve imposture. Almost all of the jeopardy, suspense, anticipation, curiosity, surprise and humor - in other words, the emotion - come from the fact that the audience knows what no one else does: that the hero is really a man, a hooker, a secretary, a king, an office boy, a presidential impersonator, a gay nightclub owner or a 12-year old boy. This knowledge keeps the viewers involved in the movie until finally, the inevitable happens. . . .
6. The relationship ends at the 75% mark. In Hollywood movies, the hero must suffer some MAJOR SETBACK at the end of Act II. In a romantic comedy, this is where the relationship goes up in flames, usually because the deception has finally been revealed.
Think of the big meeting in WORKING GIRL, when everyone learns she's a secretary, or Sydney Ellen Wade learning she's been used in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, or Jules confessing her plot to sabotage MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING.
This major setback won't always result from such a revelation, but it will always grow out of some flaw or weakness in the hero: the billionaire reverts to treating the hooker like a whore in PRETTY WOMAN, or Annie Reed can't risk giving up her secure life, so she announces, "SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is history."
After this devastating event, all that remains in Act III is for the hero to use every ounce of emotional courage he has to win back the love of his life and achieve his destiny in the climax of the film.
By being forced to acknowledge her dishonesty and her weaknesses, your hero will confront her deepest emotional fears. The price of intimacy is always risk and exposure, leading to the character growth.
To recognize the character arc in the movies you see, or to develop it in the screenplays you write, start by asking yourself, "What terrifies the hero emotionally?" Is it emotional commitment (fear of heights and kissing on the lips in PRETTY WOMAN)? Risking the loss of security (SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE)? Losing one's status and image (THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT)? Touching someone, both literally and figuratively (AS GOOD AS IT GETS)? Or perhaps simply not being good enough, attractive enough or competent enough (SHREK, THE BIRDCAGE, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and WORKING GIRL)?
When you recognize your hero's greatest fear, then ask a second question: "What is she doing to avoid confronting that fear?" Whatever the answer, whatever protection your hero has created, is what I term the INNER CONFLICT. Recognizing and overcoming this inner conflict is the path to growth.
So THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT needs to realize he's so concerned about staying high in the polls that he'll only "fight the fights he can win." And the Harrison Ford character in SABRINA needs to learn that to avoid losing his company, and his power, he's sacrificed his emotional life. He'll risk billions on a merger, but won't even consider opening his heart to the woman he loves.
This is the other reason deception is so vital to the genre: the heroes of romantic comedies all deceive themselves. They hide behind their images, and their impostures, in order to prevent their unacceptable flaws and weaknesses from coming out into the open. It isn't just his nose that Charlie is hiding in ROXANNE - it's his self-doubt and unworthiness.
The other primary characters in the film can facilitate this character arc, because the nemesis will often embody the hero's inner conflict, and the reflection will reveal it to the hero. Notice how Tess in WORKING GIRL confuses image with substance just as much as Katherine, her nemesis. Or listen to the reflection characters played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in JERRY MAGUIRE, Rupert Everett in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, or John Travolta in MICHAEL as they warn the heroes of those films about their behavior toward the people they love.
In movies, as in real life, both the joy and terror of intimacy grow out of our exposure to those we love. To be accepted for who we are is magical. But once we allow ourselves to be seen in this way, all the dark parts of our personalities - our weaknesses, desires, fears and shortcomings - are brought into the open. The possibility that someone might peer beneath our carefully constructed persona and see who we truly are becomes terrifying. So the dance of pursuit and retreat continues endlessly.
Conscious or not, the lies in romantic comedies are always designed to protect the hero's image. Better to lie to the person he loves than to expose the unworthy person he believes himself to be.
But of course, the hero's deception can never work, because it is only by standing up for who he truly is that the hero can achieve real fulfillment and self worth, and connect with the love of his life. The romance character is TRULY the hero's destiny; she's the reward for finding the courage to grow and change.
Romantic comedies concern the continual battle between comfort and longing, between fear and desire. We're all terrified of intimacy, pain and loss, so we all shut down emotionally in one way or another. But the beauty and power of a romantic comedy is that for two hours in the dark we can identify with a hero facing the same eternal struggle. And in the movie theater, we will always grow, and we will always win.
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