Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing Romantic Comedy

A romantic comedy needs to be two things: romantic and funny. It seems self-evident, but lately articles have appeared in newspapers and on the Internet bemoaning the fact that many recent movie rom-coms are neither romantic nor comedic. So what makes a piece of writing funny? Anne Gracie identifies the following situations:

1. Surprise. We laugh at the unexpected. When we expect one thing and get another it can be funny. An example is the movie “Tootsie”; we expect a woman and find a man dressed like a woman.

2. The Human Condition. There are events that almost everyone can relate to; the run in the stocking on the eve of an important meeting, getting stuck in traffic, coping with family on holidays. Everyone has their foibles and insecurities. What the writer does is takes these universal events and foibles and, perhaps with a little exaggeration, turns them into funny situations. So the family get together over the holidays with the meddling in-laws and crazy Uncle George, turns into an extended stay when a blizzard traps everyone at your house.

3. Laughing at someone else’s expense. Remember “America’s Funniest Home Videos”? In video after video, some poor sap fell, got bonked on the head, or otherwise painfully hurt himself. There was always an element of “As long as it wasn’t me, that was really funny.” It doesn’t need to be slapstick, painful humour; someone getting dumped at the altar is funny, if it’s not you.

4. Truth exaggerated. Take a believable situation and stretch. Underneath, it’s still a recognizable situation, but the edges are blurred. For me, “Flawty Towers” is truth exaggerated. On the surface it’s a TV show about a small, boutique hotel in the English countryside, but you don’t have to dig too deep to find an inept, semi-paranoid innkeeper, a shrewish wife, and an assembly of crazy staff.

5. A comic world. This is a world where the usual rules don’t seem to apply. Often a character from ‘away’ enters this world and is the alien. For example, in “The Bob Newhart Show”, Bob and his wife are strangers in a strange land when they take over a small inn in Vermont. In the British show “Doc Martin”, a proper doctor moves to the Cornish seaside and encounters the quirky village inhabitants, who have their own ways of doing things and living their lives.

The Characters in a Romantic Comedy

1. The characters in a romantic comedy have to be special enough that the reader falls in love with the hero and roots for the heroine. They want these two to be together, sometimes long before the characters themselves realize it.

2. Insurmountable odds must stand between the two lovers. In “While you were Sleeping”, the hero thinks the heroine is engaged to his comatose brother. In “Pretty Woman”, the hero is a billionaire and the heroine is a hooker. Sometimes these insurmountable odds are due to a deception. More on that later.

3. The heroine stands in the way of the hero attaining his external goal (or vice versa; the hero may stand in the way of the heroine’s external goal). In “Michael”, the reporter falls in love with a rival reporter as they pursue the story of the angel Michael.

4. The heroine (or hero) must throw up obstacles to the other character’s external goal and his (her) love goal. In “Mrs. Doubtfire”, the Sally Field character stands in the way not only of Robin William’s external goal of seeing his children, she also stands in the way of him winning her back.

In his excellent article, “Writing Romantic Comedies”, Michael Hauge identifies some elements of romantic comedy:

1. The hero must be involved in a romantic pursuit. He is desperately trying to win (or win back), the love of his life. For example, Julia Roberts pursues her former best friend in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”. Ben Stiller goes after his high school love in “There’s Something About Mary”.

2. The hero (or heroine) must have a second visible or external goal. In “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray’s character is desperately trying to get out of Puxatawny, while pursuing a relationship with Andie MacDowall. Pursuing two goals increases pace, adds to the conflict and the humour, and helps the reader to become emotionally invested.

3. The characters in a romantic comedy never think their situation is funny. They are desperate to achieve their goals, and terrified of the conflicts they face. Michael Hauge says: “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. There doesn’t have to be a number of sex scenes, and in fact in romantic comedy movies, we rarely see the couple having sex. But if the characters end up in bed, there should be a clear lead up to that eventuality. It must feel inevitable.

5. Romantic comedies always involve some sort of deception. The hero is often pretending to be someone he’s not (Mrs. Doubtfire, Miss Congeniality). He lies to his loved one about his job (Michael, The Secret of My Success), his feelings (Jerry Maguire, As Good as it Gets) or his intentions (Groundhog Day, Roxanne). Michael Hauge says: “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.”

Have you ever written romantic comedy? Do you like to read romantic comedy, or watch rom-com movies? What is funny to you?


Helena said...

Hi, Jana. What a good topic! I LOVE romantic comedy. I'm a movie junkie and I watch all genres (except horror), but if I don't get my regular rom-com fix something is wrong with my world!

I find the assignment of genre category fascinating. Your reference to the source of comedy was interesting -- it can spring from dramatic or even tragic situations. I can get so absorbed in those underlying situations that I come away not realizing that I have been watching a comedy. After all, life is full of comic moments, yet overall we do consider our lives to be serious.

The movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona was an example of this. Directed by Woody Allen, it starred Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem (sigh!), and Patricia Clarkson. It is intense, full of drama, but is described on the DVD cover as a "sexy romantic comedy." I barely noticed the comedic elements, they were so effectively integrated. In fact I found its placement in the Comedy section of the video store a little unsettling.

This past weekend I watched Moonstruck (1987, Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis), the story of an extended Italian family in the Bronx. The director, Norman Jewison, talked in the commentary about how the idea of death permeated the movie, partly through the portrayal of elderly and dying parents, and the sub-text that links marital infidelity to a fear of death, and also the decision to marry for practical reasons rather than following the dictates of the heart. Yet he constantly referred to the movie as a comedy. Although it received many nominations and did win Oscars for best original screenplay and best supporting actress (Dukakis), he felt it got less recognition through awards because comedy isn't generally considered as substantial as drama. Lost out as Best Picture to a (forget which) drama. Yes, I thought it was funny, but the poignancy of the relationships overrode the comedic elements for me.

Having said all that(!), for me the best comedy comes out of incongruity, where there is a clash in perceptions of the situation at hand. So using the same example, Cher's character, Loretta, accepts a proposal of marriage from a man who is a good friend but tied to his mother's apron strings even tho she lives in Sicily (and has a miraculous recovery from her deathbed when she hears her son is going to marry). When Loretta meets her fiance's estranged and embittered younger brother (Cage), she is swept off her feet by his passion and the magical qualities of opera and moonlight! A very engaging story on a lot of levels. And it is funny because everyone has a different take on what is happening.

No, I haven't tried to write romantic comedy -- yet.

connie said...

Hi Jana

My life is a romantic comedy!

What do the letters D A M stand for?

Mothers Against Dyslexia

Great blog - it is a cutter-outer

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I love romantic comedy too. And I think the best ones are those that have you laughing one minute and crying the next.

I was surprised when I read Michael Hauge's article. I hadn't realized that some of the most popular and endearing romantic comedies had some very serious topics at their heart. Though his article was about screenwriting, I think a lot of the same points apply to novels as well.


Jana Richards said...

Hey Connie,
You always crack me up! You should really try your hand at writing comedy.


Sherry Gloag said...

A very interesting blog. Thanks for sharing

Fabian Black said...

For me, what appeals in a romantic comedy film depends on my mood; sometimes I want gentle romance with gentle humour, something like ‘While You Were Sleeping,’ which is one of my favourite films. There are no big belly laughs in it and at times you’re as likely to cry as to smile, but it’s a film with a kind heart and warm sentiment and it leaves me feeling good and comforted.

Sometimes I want something faster paced and totally over the top, for example I recently went to see ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ and I loved it. It might not be classic rom-com, but it is a boy wants girl, will do anything to get girl film. The action is wonderfully surreal and exaggerated. It made me laugh out loud.

My reading tastes are much the same. I can take pleasure in what I consider to be the gentle humour and pathos of something like ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ but also enjoy the more exaggerated and bawdy comedy of something like, ‘Someone Killed His Boyfriend’ by David Stukas.

I often interject humour into my own writing, sometimes it’s gentle and mixed with a good deal of sentiment and pathos and sometimes it’s over the top and played purely for laughs. Again it all depends on mood.

Good post, thank you. :-)


Karyn Good said...

I'm a fan of romantic comedies. But I can see where the idea of them being neither particularly romantic comes from, I'd call them more slapstick then anything. The two that come to mind are The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter. They were amusing but I didn't find them romantic, at least not by my definition.

I've never atttempted to write romantic comedy, but the thought intrigues me. Thanks for a great blog post. It's definitely a keeper!

Celia Yeary said...

JANA--Here you've given us bits about RC I didn't know--probably because I don't write it--but would like to--and it's difficult to find a good RC. I like that you said a good one has you laughing one minute and crying the next. Above all else, it should be emotional. I suppose I like the milder, gentler RC, not the slapstick kind. I have a difficult time understadning how adults can fall over their own feet, or the sofa, etc. so much in one short period of time.
Helena mentioned a movie by Woody Allen that was funny, but the comedic elements were barely recognized. That's the kind I like. Great research you did, too. Celia

Mary Ricksen said...

I seem to be able to speak humorously, but when I write, it ain't funny. I so admire someone who can write, and I laugh out loud at it.
Great blog, I'll try this good advise!

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Jana,
Great blog. You mentioned Anne Gracie. I have met her on several occasions. A really lovely friendly lady, not to mentioned talented.



Paula Martin said...

The problem with comedy, IMO, is that everyone's sense of humour is different. A lot of the so-called rom-coms do absolutely nothing for me - they barely raise a smile, let alone a laugh. A ridiculous situation is just that - ridiculous, as far as I'm concerned. And I loathe slapstick humor. For me, a witty line is far better. 'The American President' has to be my favourite - a believable situation and some cracking good lines too.

Jana Richards said...

Sherry, thanks for dropping by the Prairies. I hope you'll stop by again.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Fabian,
I agree with you that the type of rom-com movies I watch and books I read depends on my mood. Sometimes I want a big laugh and sometimes I want some gentle humour. "While you were Sleeping" is one of my favorite movies (I love Sandra Bullock). I haven't seen "Scott Pilgram vs. the World" but it sounds like a good one. Thanks for the recommendation.


Becca Dale said...

I adore romantic comedies but sadly I can not write humor. I think it takes a special sense of timing to get it right. Perhaps that's why so often films that attempt the genre fail. They try too hard to make that essential connection between the characters and it therefore falls flat as just sex or weak humor. Great topic. Glad I stopped by.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I've read a few articles bemoaning the lack of good romantic comedies lately. In fact I think the two movies you mentioned were a couple of offenders cited.

Sometimes slapstick can be funny, but I think it's very hard to pull off well in a movie, and even harder in a novel. Personnally, I like good witty dialogue, great characters, and funny situations.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Celia,
Yes, I discovered a couple of things about romantic comedy that I really hadn't considered before. The idea that deception is often a part of a romantic comedy was news to me, but when you think of all those movies that use deception, it's quite amazing.

The other thing that surprised me was the serious subject matter tackled in these movies. So funny movies don't have to be about fluffy, happy subjects. They can have some grit.

I agree that sometimes slapstick can feel forced, and frankly a little stupid. I think it should be used sparingly, and only by a really experienced writer.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
Was it Woody Allen that said "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Writing comedy is very difficult, partly because everyone has a different idea of what's funny. But the great thing about writing comedy as opposed to talking funny, is that you can always edit. I usually think of good zingers about a half hour after I should have said them.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Margaret,
I thought Anne Gracie made some really good points about romantic comedy. I haven't read her fiction, but I thought her article was very good.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Paula,
You're so right. Comedy is so subjective.

And you're right about ridiculous situations. I think a better idea is to take advice from Michael Hauge who says that the comedy often comes from the overreation of the characters who do everything they can to reach their goals (ie. get the girl/boy).

Full disclosure here: I am currently trying to write a romantic comedy. I have written one before, and I hope it's funny. I guess readers will have to be the judges. If you want to check it out, go to my website. The name of the romantic comedy is "Her Best Man" and it's about a woman who gets dumped at the altar.


Jana Richards said...

Hey Becca, I'm glad you dropped by too.

I didn't even cover timing in my blog, but you're so right. If the timing is off, the comedy won't work. It's like telling a joke and missing the punch line. Not pretty.

A romantic comedy is first and foremost a romance. It has to be sexy. There was to be sexual tension between the characters just like in any other romance. If there's no connection between hero/heroine the whole thing falls apart and the movie goer/reader says "Who cares?" I think that's the biggest reason many rom-coms fail.


Annette said...

What a fantastic blog post! Thank you. I'm absolutely going to print this one out - it's a keeper. Personally, I love romance novels that surprise you with humor. It is an element of timing and often dialogue plays a critical role.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Annette. Welcome to the Prairies. Good dialogue is essential to good romantic comedy. It has to be witty, natural, and the timing has to spot on. Without good dialogue, I don't think you can have a good romantic comedy.


Rhonda said...

Great blog, Jana. I always love a good laugh and when you can combine laughs and romance, it doesn't get better than that! "Her Best Man" shows you have the talent and know what you are talking about when it comes to romantic comedy. Thanks for great information that helps the rest of us aspiring romantic comedy writers.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Rhonda,
Glad you could drop by! Romantic comedy is one of my favorite things to write, and I know it's one of yours. I can hardly wait to hear about Gertie's new adventures!