Thursday, December 04, 2008

Romantic Comedy By the Numbers

Brr. It was actually cold enough for me to turn on my heater today, and even though I have it set as low as it will go, it's running. I guess I have to admit that it's almost winter and that the holidays are upon us. I think today I'll try to straighten my living room so I can put up my Christmas decorations tomorrow.

I think I'm making progress on my thinking/planning for revisions. Yesterday in analyzing my main characters' emotional needs and story goals I unearthed some very interesting stuff. Now I guess I'll have to see what else I can come up with to flesh this out. In a way, this is my favorite part of the writing process because I just love analyzing things (in case you haven't noticed). Speaking of which ...

I called the movie 27 Dresses a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy the other day, and here's what I mean by that. There is a sort of formula for a romantic comedy film, and there's even a book about that formula, Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit. The plot structure in that book is actually a good one, and one I've used as a jumping off point for books. However, if you just try to follow the formula without really developing the story or understanding what you're writing, and if you think that your audience is a bunch of idiots, you're going to get something that feels like formula. Granted, I'm a tough audience for this sort of thing because I've read the book and know the formula, but if you haven't engaged me emotionally well enough to keep me from spotting each step of the formula, and if I'm able to tell that the screenwriter has read the same book I have, then you're doing something wrong.

So here's my somewhat satirical formula for a romantic comedy movie:

1) Hero and heroine, played by currently hot or up-and-coming attractive actors. Get actors who are beloved as themselves or for the roles they're most recently best known for. Then you don't have to waste time developing actual characters for this movie or coming up with reasons for the audience to care about these characters because all the affection for the actors or their most famous other roles will transfer to this movie. One or both of them should have some outside goal, usually work-related -- get the job, get the promotion, get considered for a different kind of assignment, get the account. One or both of them should be involved with or interested in someone else. If involved with, it should be a person who is obviously wrong for them who doesn't really appreciate them. If interested in, it should be totally unrequited and the other person will be or will become interested in someone else. That someone else will be either a raging bitch or a total jerk, and will often have some agenda for going after the hero/heroine's unrequited love object or will be dishonest, but the hero/heroine will for some reason be powerless to do anything about it.

2) Hero and heroine meet cute, usually in some way involving physical humor or a mix-up. Although there's some initial attraction, they'll soon learn that they have opposite views on something that, in the grand scheme of things, is actually pretty trivial (loving Christmas, loving weddings, loving dogs, choosing to shop at a certain kind of store), but they take that as telling them something vital about the other person's entire personality -- usually that one of them is a cold-hearted cynic and the other is a total sap -- and decide they can't stand each other.

3) Some plot contrivance requires them to meet again and then spend time together. Often this involves the outside, work-related goal (see step 1), so that dealing with the other person is the only way to achieve that goal. It also may involve the unrequited relationship and trying to save face or expose the lying bitch/jerk. There is much bickering about that trivial point of difference. One of them will have some kind of secret or piece of information they're not actively hiding but not sharing, possibly about that plot contrivance, the outside goal, or the past.

4) In spite of themselves, the hero and heroine will soften toward each other and start bonding. This is usually done in a montage set to a pop song.

5) Some crisis will force them together in difficult circumstances so they have to work together or rely on each other. With the help of alcohol or else just something like hunger or exhaustion, they break down the barriers between them and start opening up, finding something in common. Often, the one who hates the trivial thing that the other loves will admit that he/she actually really likes that thing or used to like it, until some Painful Experience From The Past made it painful instead of pleasant. This revelation may lead to making out or even sex.

6) In the vulnerable, awkward aftermath of the sex/bonding, the secret from step 3 will come out. The other person will storm away, refusing to listen to any explanations or apologies.

7) The one who was "wronged" will be fueled by this anger to actually do something about either the outside goal, the liar who's after the unrequited love or the significant other who takes him/her for granted. The other person may achieve the outside goal, and often through something related to the secret. He/she will then realize that the goal is meaningless compared to True Love and will try to pursue and patch things up with the unresponsive other person, usually committing some kind of selfless, caring act that stuns the other person. Meanwhile, the one with the unrequited love will finally get a chance with that person, only to realize that he/she is really in love with that other person.

8) This revelation will lead to a desperate search to find the other person, often with some kind of time limit, like a departing flight, and total strangers will help out the cause of True Love by enabling the person to get there on time, against all odds. Then the person will have to make a public, embarrassing confession of true love before the happy ending.

If you want to play rom-com madlibs with this, you can fill in the steps with wacky reasons to fight, wacky ways they can meet, wacky secrets, obstacle courses for chasing down the other person at the end, and the like. Stay tuned tomorrow for my own rom-com madlib!

On an entirely different note, for a column I write, are there any author blogs that you particularly like that have real substance to them (in other words, something more than a "kids-n-katz" blog)? Other than mine, of course.

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