Every story has a formula. It starts with the most basic formula of where the conflict lies (man vs. man, man vs. nature, or man vs. himself.) As times have gone on and stories have gone from being told around tribal fires to being written down and to being acted on stage and then to be being filmed they’ve gotten more complex. But the formula is there there. And there are few things more formulaic than a genre movie (slasher, revenge movie, western, etc.) Today we’re going to take a look at the standard formula used to make the the average, run of the mill romantic comedy. Examples will be sited throughout in parenthesis.
First we need our heroine, there can’t be a romantic comedy without a lady in need of love, even if she doesn’t know it yet. She can’t be too perfect or the audience won’t like her. Most often she’ll be clumsy, possibly socially awkward (“Never Been Kissed”) or maybe just in need of a decent make-over (“She’s All That”.) Since it’s a comedy she’s usually peppy and optimistic about all things except love. It’s usually a requirement that she is either not looking for love or is a flat out love pessimist who thinks it’s all crap and will never happen to her. If she does think she’s in love it will be discovered later that it’s with the wrong guy, but more on the guys later. This of course sets up her journey in discovering love for herself with the hunky male of the moment.
The story will start at a key moment in the heroine’s life, some big opportunity that has just come her way. This might be be work or career related (“Working Girl”.) It could also be in the form of a long overdue vacation or some other change of scenery (“Under the Tuscan Sun” and “The Holiday”.) Regardless something has just happened that is new and exciting for the heroine. This helps make her even more unprepared for the love that’s about to blindside her like a drunk driver at 2am on a Sunday.
Next there’s the issue of the male roles. The male leads generally fall into two main categories: the guy she just met and the guy she’s been with for a while. We’ll start with the guy she’s been with for a while. He’s a jerk. He’s may have always been a jerk and the heroine has settled for him or hasn’t realized it yet (“The Wedding Singer”.) In these cases he will always be revealed for the jerk he is by the guy the heroine eventually ends up with. However not all “guy she’s been with for a while” fall into that mold. Perhaps he and the heroine had something good once but the spark has completely drained out (“Forget Paris”.) If this is the case than odds are that they’re married (“The Story of Us”,) otherwise they would have just broken up. In these cases the object is for the two to reignite their love and be together and happy again by the end credits.
Now let’s look at the other kind of the guy: the guy she just met. He’s a jerk too, though usually a charming jerk. He’s usually out to get something from the heroine. There may be a secret bet that’s been made (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) or perhaps he’s using her to advance his own career somehow (“27 Dresses” and “Runaway Bride”.) Unlike the “guy she’s been with for a while” this guy is guaranteed a redemption by the end. Because as he gets to know the heroine he gradually realizes that she’s a whole person and that he’s somehow fallen in love with her along the way. This is the point when his original jerkishness will be unveiled and he’ll then have to make an appropriately grand gesture to win back the heroine.
Of course we can’t forget the golden rule of the romantic comedy: hate leads to love. If the heroine meets a guy and immediately butts heads with him and the two have an instant dislike it is guaranteed that they will be together by the end of the film (“Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “The Ugly Truth” and most of the films already mentioned.) Unlike the real world where hatred and open hostility leads to great hostility, in the world of romantic comedies it’s just another form of passion. The burning hatred between two characters can be turned into burning love with one well placed “you’re not so bad” moment.
Don’t forget the obligatory humiliation of the heroine scene. Just in case the heroine is coming off as a little too perfect or possibly has a holier-than-thou thing going on it’s necessary to take her down several pegs. The humiliation should be as public as possible. Karaoke bars (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) or male strip clubs (“The Proposal”) are ideal settings for this. Cruel jokes played by other characters on the heroine are best to be avoided as the audience needs to feel that it’s ok to laugh at her.
So the heroine has been humiliated, the guy has been revealed as a jerk and it looks like they will never get together. It’s time for that grand romantic gesture that we mentioned before! The guy must be prepared to either sacrifice something personal (“Fever Pitch”) or humiliate himself in a public fashion (“The Wedding Singer”) just to show the heroine that he really does love her. Small and intimate won’t cut it here, it must be over the top. Thus the heroine swoons, the audience “awwwww’s” and everybody lives happily ever after. Congratulations, you’re ready to go out and make your very own romantic comedy. Here’s to a $100 million dollar gross at the box office! Class dismissed.
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