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Romantic Comedies

The structure of a romantic comedy and how to write one.

The basics

Romantic comedies are a staple of the film industry. To be a little more accurate, romances are a staple, comedies are a staple, romantic comedies are surprisingly rare but well received when they do appear. The first film to get all five of the 'major' Academy Awards was a romantic comedy (It Happened One Night) and for a long time these films were a very important part of the Hollywood system, on a par with musicals and westerns. Of course there's a considerable degree of overlap since plenty of musicals were romantic comedies, at least in theory.

Basic structure

The essential problem is that comedy isn't automatic, comedies have a set of requirements. Romances, even more tricky, have actual structure. Because comedy doesn't rely on overall structure it's possible to make any film comedic, but first you have to find a way to make the structure funny. Romances are as easy to make comedic, and as hard, as anything else, but they do have one quirk that makes them a little different. Romances have two different structures to choose from, where most film types are limited to one.

First option - the classic chase

In this version the acts are structured in the obvious classical manner. We have a protagonist and that protagonist has a goal, defined by the end of the first act. In the romance the goal is the romantic partner, obviously, and the film story concerns itself with the trials and tribulations associated with attaining that goal. It's not difficult to think of examples of this type, and in the days when movies were black and white this was by far the most common form of the tale. Now we're describing a type of story that is easily adapted from a standard Campbell-esque heroic tale, so structurally we're not going to go any further here, there's plenty of advice elsewhere on the site.

Second option - the parallel story

Even quite early in the development of the romance the idea of parallel narrative was being explored. Sure, Orpheus has a chase story, and Paris definitely does, but Romeo and Juliet is different. Why? Romeo is obviously hunting his Juliet but Juliet isn't just the target for his approach, far from it. Juliet is, in parallel, moving surely to catch her Romeo as well. Think of it this way. Do the lovers both recognise their mutual attraction on page 15 or is it on page 85 that they're finally on the same, well, page.

In Titanic our heroes are both describing a curve that leads to each other, but in Four Weddings and a Funeral the guy chases the girl but she only joins the party right at the end.

So in a parallel story what changes? Firstly, obviously, you need to contrive a first act where each of your protagonists ends up with the goal of the other. You could, for example, have them meet in a particularly intense way, perhaps, one saves the other from throwing herself off an ocean liner, though that is a bit corny...

There's one problem, of course. In the classic structure the intial goal doesn't have to be the final objective. Maybe a guy fancies a girl so he turns to his best friend's sister for advice on how to win her over. The sister demands something in return, possibly tutoring, since our hero's a bit of a geek. During their tutoring, as he teaches her science and she teaches him how to be more confident and charming around a woman, he realises he's falling for the sister...

In the parallel structure the two lovers are both actively involved, so if the goal changes it makes for a really difficult final act, rather than a relatively gentle change in the plan. So if we don't mess with the formula it rather takes away the mystery, we know what's going to happen reaaly early and for certain.

Now, classic tale it may be but, nobody will confuse Romeo and Juliet with a comedy. So we now need to look at the way funny happens.

Writing comedy into the romance

Writing comedy is hard. It may be the second-hardest thing to write and the hardest thing to perform. It is, in fact, so hard that plenty of screenplays forget to include it at all. Lots and lots of romantic comedies in recent years are in fact romances, no comedy visible, or risible, if you'll forgive the pun.

So in this section I'm going to teach you how to write a great comedy. I'm going to teach you how to make an audience roar, cry and roll about with laughter. Following these simple instructions will enable you to write a script that makes Shaun of the Dead seem about as funny as most other zombie movies, makes The Life of Brian seem as funny as most historical biopics. I'm clearly going to not do any of that...

I am going to furnish you with the four basic rules of writing comedy and wish you the very best of luck in applying them.

Comedy 1 - surprise

Some comedy comes from surprise. Some years ago I was at a film festival, enjoying drinks in a party. I was with a friend who was explaining, with some pride, how brilliantly his daughter was doing following his footsteps into the industry. He was just finishing up detailing her growing skills and natural talent when the person we were chatting with latched onto this idea of talent running in the family. He said, "It sounds like she's brilliant, it's funny how that happens with talent in families, how it can skip a generation like that." It's funny because it's not where we thought it was going. This kind of comedy relies on a punchline and what makes a punchline punchy is the twist, the surprise. By all means use the trick liberally, but remember the obvious problem, if you have a twist like that at the end of every line the audience begins to suspect it, to anticipate it.

Comedy 2 - inevitability

Some comedy comes from inevitability. The situation is built up slowly and the audience is just a little ahead of the performance in story terms. It's actually exactly like writing a scene for a horror film in which the audience knows what's going to happen but the character is oblivious. As th expectation builds, the audience begins to smile, knowing the payoff is just around the corner. There's a scene in a Laurel and Hardy movie where the pair are renovating a boat. Laurel is messing about in the cabin below deck, while Hardy paints the mast. Hardy, inevitably, paints as he climbs the mast so when he reaches the top he can't come back down because of all the wet paint. We've watched this happen. Meanwhile Laurel drops his hat and, leaning over to retrieve it, manages to get his head trapped behind the mast where it runs down through the cabin. Unable to free himself, he reaches for a saw and begins to cut through the mast. There is not a single moment of surprise, not a single punchline, verbal or physical. We always know what's going to happen and we gladly wait, giggling along, because we're imagining the joke long before it lands.

Comedy 3 - intensity

Some comedy comes from unexpected intensity. People react to a stimulus in predictable ways, based on their character. Make the reaction wildly too intense or wildly too mild and it's instantly funny. In an episode of Fawlty Towers Basil's car breaks down. Not an uncommon thing in life. He jumps out and begins screaming and swearing at it. OK, that's an over-reaction and, as such, is a bit funny, but for real comedy we have to push the envelope. He points an accusing finger at the car and shouts at it that he's had enough and he's going to administer a good thrashing. He then stalks angrily off screen. For quite a few seconds we hold frame on just the stationary car. We feel the moment building. Eventually he marches back carrying a huge tree-branch and begins beating the car, delivering the promised punishment. It's a fantastic over-reaction.

Underplaying the reaction is capable of being just as funny. Buster Keaton built a career around an expressionless face. The most unbelievably shocking, dangerous, unpleasant things would happen to him, and he would remain impassive. Road-Runner cartoons include a wonderful coyote character, arguably wily. While there are any number of slowly building things that we know will all end the same way (inevitability) and there are moments where they actually twist at the last moment (surprise), one of the defining comedic mechanisms is the underplayed reaction to the failure. He has ended up poised in mid-air about to plummet to his doom and he turns a sad, resigned face to camera and waves a little farewell before falling.

Finally remember that there is comedy in the contrast. If two characters, exposed to the same thing, react in opposite ways, this is funny.

Comedy 4 - satire

Satire is, very simply, mockery of the powerful through imitation and caricature. Mimicry is the heart of it, but this is mimicry with a specific goal in mind. It can be extremely cruel and it remains funny because, and this is critical, we target those that need criticism. Satire is directed at politicians, organised religion, wealthy oligarchs and public figures. Directing the cutting beam of satire at disabled children, disadvantaged youth, victims of tragedy is simply not done. If you go after the weak then people will line up to defend them, if you go after the strong then even those who disagree with your position will respect your right to be satirical.

I wish I could say that understanding it universal. It isn't. There can be few figures more suited for satire than the spritual founders of major organised religions. Interpreting their beliefs is a huge global industry and the leaders in that field can become more powerful than Presidents and Kings. Despite this many people believe that it isn't enough to respect their right to their own beliefs, you must also abide by the rules and restrictions that the believers have embraced, including restrictions on criticism or portrayal of the religion negatively. People will ask why, if you're not a devout follower yourself, you would want to criticise someone else's system of belief. You might argue that not doing so would be an unforgivable betrayal of your responsibility to address the political, social, military, technological and creative nature of the world. I would certainly agree. If you choose to stay away from such things, however, I can forgive you.

Je suis Charlie

"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."

Alfred Hitchcock