Writing Romantic Comedy Structure



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  • Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

    I'm a big fan of Save the Cat and Screenwriting 434 (which says try to land your act one near page 17)... and beat sheets and act breaks in general.

    But I'm not a "it has to be this" on page 12 or anything. Yet, sometimes, with all the knowledge from books and a page count in your head, you go crazy.

    See I'm writing this romantic comedy that is a KNOCKED UP/WEDDING CRASHERS types of script. 127 and 112 pages long respectively.

    But in my mind, I try to get my comedies 110 or under. Close to 100 pages for a spec.

    So I take my idea, go to write Act One and its coming in at 38 pages. But it FEELS right. Even though I aim for 20 pages, then let's go, it feels correct.

    And I look at Knocked Up and it seems to fit that. See I have two characters and show both their worlds.. back and forth like they did, so that eats up more pages.

    And I was thinking of PRETTY WOMAN and HARRY MET SALLY -- both seem not to have these quick act breaks, but a building, well story.

    Some stories feel easy to go going. Like FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. He gets dump, decides to go on a vacation. Perfect short setup/act break.

    But my story isn't that "call to adventure" type of thing. It builds slower like it feels to me that a lot of romantic comedies seem to do. Or maybe that's just my perception.

    It's hard to nail down. In the 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN script, we don't met TRISH until the midpoint... in the movie she shows up at minute 33. So I guess they thought it was too long. But still. In most comedies, you see the "girl of the guys dreams" in the first 10 minutes. But it wouldn't work if that happened, because we have to know Andy first.

    Of course, whatever tells the best story is the answer. Don't be boring.

    My question to people that enjoy beat sheets, do they ever mess your writing up by over thinking it?

    I believe a script needs an inciting incident, a mid point, an all is lost moment... but not sure every script has a true "debate" section or a "call to action by the hero"... plenty of little variations that not all movies have or even quite frankly need.

    Any thoughts or help. Because I know I can take my 38 pages down and probably will on a rewrite, but right now it feels correct. It doesn't feel overwritten. The comedy can't come out until you set up the situation.

  • #2
    Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

    The only real thing I can present as far as when Act I ends and Act II really begins is when...

    Your characters have passed the PONR, Point of No Return.

    All movies, regardless of genre, have this moment where the main character(s) can't turn back... Even if they want to. This PONR is sometimes referred to as Plot Point 1. The big thing/event/scene that locks the main characters into their main goal/quest/struggle.

    In romantic comedies it's usually the point after the Meet Cute where the two leads are now a part of each other's lives and there is nothing they can do to get out of that because the stakes are too big if they do. They have to work together to pull off the ruse; They have to deal with one another even if they hate each other's guts; etc.

    Passing the PONR is a good test for act II and the script in general because it means the stakes are escalating and have been steadily building prior to that point.

    Also, I know comedy, as a genre, is supposed to be shorter in terms of page count (90-110)... But this is one of those general guidelines that doesn't hold up any more because for every comedy script that is 90 pages, another comedy script comes along and is 120. You also have to consider if there were any sequences that were cut out of the finished film, but that were in the script which might inflate the page count too.

    One last thing...

    It's interesting to study rom com scripts from the '90s (like Pretty Woman) and compare and contrast them with those being made today because the dynamics have changed in terms of how they are structured and what they focus on.

    Meaning, Pretty Woman is a very contained rom com with just two main characters versus the Judd Apatow "Dick Flicks" which are more or less ensemble comedies... As are other modern day rom coms like "P.S. I Love You" and the mother of all chick flicks, "Sex And The City Movie".
    Positive outcomes. Only.


    • #3
      Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

      My favorite rom-com of all time is The Goodbye Girl (the Dreyfuss-Mason original, not that cheap-ass Jeff Daniels cable tv remake). Nothing's beat that for me. I'd like to have someone give me better (esp. after 1977).

      The main ingredient I look for is not comedy. It's honesty. Brutal, if need be. There's so much laughter to be had from it. Let the funny come organically out of sheer realism instead of trying to come up with funny first. This is why writers like Mandel & Ganz and Nora Ephron and comicss like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and Pryor are recognized the way they are. None of them may be spot-on funny per se. But they are or werel unapologetically honest.

      If they're too cute and pretentious within the first ten minutes I have to turn it off. How dare Hollywood make first encounters so effortless.
      "I ask every producer I meet if they need TV specs they say yeah. They all want a 40 inch display that's 1080p and 120Hz. So, I quit my job at the West Hollywood Best Buy."
      - Screenwriting Friend


      • #4
        Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

        I should add... that my story centers on two characters who were dating in college, but their lives went in different directions the past 6 years...

        And it's a story about them coming back together. But it's less Harry Met Sally and more Harry Wants To Do Sally. I want it to be romantic, but it's more a Apatow or Farrelly Bros type of comedy. Which to me are great because they're hilarious and touching. Same reason I love Kevin Smith movies. I find the moral center always very, South Park like. Crazy stuff happens, but at the end of the day, it comes together nicely. And to me it's even more real that way.


        • #5
          Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

          I think you're spot-on with your setup. Many romcoms must setup the two main characters first. WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS flips back and forth between the two main characters' perspectives and it works. You are in essence telling two stories, even though it is ultimately the same story but from two different perspectives. I just did a piece on multi-story narratives at www.writethatscript.com.

          You can check it out at iTunes also: Write That Script
          Just my 2 cents, your mileage may vary.

          -Steve Trautmann
          3rd & Fairfax: The WGAW Podcast


          • #6
            Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

            Currently my first Act of my romantic comedy is 36 pages... it still feels right, but just scares me still that readers will say its taking too long to get into the story and I can't disagree...


            • #7
              Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

              You're OK with a long first act as long as you prove to your reader that your story is going somewhere.

              After 15 or 20 minutes, people start getting antsy if they have no idea who wants to do what in your screenplay, what the story will be about, nor whether there even is a story rather than just a lot of aimless activity and talk that isn't making anything happen.

              Too much backstory can weigh you down if it means your readers go too long without feeling secure there's ever going to be a there there. But as long as you show them your story is heading purposely in a specific direction, a long first act could be perfectly fine.


              • #8
                Re: Writing Romantic Comedy Structure

                It's longer than any other first act I've ever written, but it reads faster, if that's makes sense. It's not boring and things keep moving. I guess all I can do is see what people say when it's done.