The Romantic Comedy "Formula"
I satirized the romantic comedy formula last week, but I thought I ought to follow that up by discussing it more seriously. For one thing, "formula" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most genre fiction has some "formula" to it. Sonnets and Shakespearean tragedies follow formulas. Formula really is only a structure or framework for a story. Where it becomes bad is when you treat it like a mad lib -- fill in the blanks at random without really developing any of it and without thinking it through.
I mentioned the book Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit and the plot structure he discusses. Here it is, briefly, and you can probably see the difference from my satirical version (and whether you want to write romantic comedy books or films or just enjoy watching movies, this book really is worthwhile).
1) "The Chemical Equation"-- Introduction of the primary point-of-view character that shows what's missing in that person's life -- what the main interior conflict is for that character, as well as what the main exterior conflict will be. The secondary lead, the love interest, may also be introduced separately in this step or later in the story. That character's introduction should at least hint at why this person may be the one who can fulfill the need in the main character's life and show why the main character really should meet this person. (I think this is the biggest failing of the paint-by-numbers movies -- they focus so much on some high-concept conflict, like he hates weddings and she loves them so much that she's been a bridesmaid 27 times, that they forget about the reason these people should be together, aside from the fact that they're the leads in a romantic movie.)
2) The Cute Meet or Catalyst -- the incident that brings them together and sets up the conflict between them. Their meeting should set the tone for their relationship. It needs to have some link to the theme of the story.
3) A Sexy Complication -- a development that raises the stakes, defines the main character's goal, puts the main characters in conflict or puts their emotions in conflict with the external goal. In a story where there's not a lot of romantic conflict between the characters, this will be an external problem that could keep them apart. If there's no external problem to keep them apart, it will be an internal issue that keeps them from really connecting.
4) The Hook -- the big midpoint scene that really binds the couple and has implications for how their relationship will work out. From this point, there's no way out, and they're in it together. This should also repeat or reflect the story's main theme in some way.
5) Swivel -- a turning point that makes the stakes higher than ever, so that the relationship jeopardizes the main character's goal, or vice versa, leading to a changed goal. The main character is forced to choose between love and the goal.
6) Dark Moment -- the aftermath of the consequences of the swivel scene. The characters have to reveal private motivations, and it seems that either the love or the goal is lost forever. The main character is at his/her most vulnerable point.
7) Joyful Defeat -- reconciliation between the characters that reaffirms how important the relationship is to them, usually (but not always) with a happy ending that implies marriage -- but usually at the cost of something the main character has had to sacrifice.
The main difference between this "formula" and my satirical version of the way too many films seem to go is that it focuses very much on internal issues of the characters. It's all about emotions, and the events serve as ways to bring out or affect their emotions. It's also about what need the other person meets in the main character. When I see a movie that's obviously trying to use this structure and not making it work, it's generally a problem of not having developed the characters well enough. Like with 27 Dresses, I never got a sense of what her need was supposed to be. Yeah, she took care of other people to the detriment of her own happiness, but it never really seemed like she needed someone to take care of her. I guess she needed a spine, but there was no indication that he was uniquely suited to being able to make her stand up for herself.
And, please, can we have a movie that doesn't involve some kind of desperate cross-town chase to reach the other person in the nick of time? There are other ways to create a good "he/she might lose the true love, just as he/she has realized it!" black moment. It's especially weak if it's an artificial deadline (in 27 Dresses, she has to reach the boat that the wedding he's covering is on -- but it's just a New York harbor cruise, not like he's going to Africa for a year or even his own wedding, and she has his phone number, so it's not like she's going to lose him for good if she doesn't catch him NOW).