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STORY BROADS: How to Write a Romantic Comedy When You Hate Rom-Coms, Part 2

Despina Kartinis decided to do the world a totally unnecessary favor and dissect a bunch of rom-coms to see what the stink is. Nothing like rom-com analysis from a skeptic.

Despina Karintis was a closeted cinephile who channeled her obsession and took up the craft of screenwriting. Her adventures across the globe, including sliding down glaciers, skirmishing with sharks, and nearly drowning in a desert tinaja, inspired her scripts in the Action/Thriller and Comedy genres. Despina is Co-Founder of Story Broads and hopes to broaden the horizon of women in film for generations to come. Twitter: @Wonder_Writer

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Remember the beginning of The Princess Bride when tiny Fred Savage bemoans the book Grandpa's about to read because it has true love in it (ah, innocence)? This level of revulsion is my general mood regarding romantic comedies. So, I've decided to do the world a totally unnecessary favor and dissect a bunch of rom-coms to see what the stink is. Face masks, everyone!

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We all have different ideas on love. And, of course, there are all different kinds of love – familial, fraternal, symbiotic. But for the sake of this here piece of journalistic integrity, let's go right for the aorta – romantic love. The kind that makes hearts and tummies flutter and legs and nethers quiver. But love actually starts in the brain and I'm not falling in love with romantic comedies because the chemical reaction happening in my brain upon viewing said films causes eye rolling and deep, guttural utterances of scoffing and contempt. WHY? Well, as I said in Part 1, I'm not opposed to lurve, I'm opposed to the vehicle in which it is sometimes delivered, i.e. most rom-coms, so I'm going on a journey of discovery as I flesh out my own rom-com ideas. (See? I'm not a totally encrusted shell of bitter existential rage. In fact, I am the opposite of a Jordan almond... I'm sweet on the inside. Sometimes.)

Script EXTRA: The Challenges of Writing 'The King's Speech'

Here's how it's going down: Last month I asked a broad swath of folks to list their favorite or Top 3 Romantic Comedies and the answers were both surprising and not (plenty of predictable answers). I asked a few writers' groups: one that's strictly women (The Story Broads), one that's heavy on the 'dude bro' action, and one that's a perfect blend of personality types (Scott Myers' Zero Draft Thirty). The other groups were a) a large, active, super eclectic, snarky neighborhood group and b) a fairly conservative group of moms (who also asked their SOs). I tallied a couple hundred answers and ranked them by gender preference and will pull from these lists, as well as a few from the Rotten Tomatoes list of best Romantic Comedies, and bravely (stupidly?) subject myself to hours of misery in order to learn a thing or two. We hope. I'm actually curious to see what resonates with others, and see if I can recognize a pattern or overriding theme/mix/plot, etc.

Below are the Top 10 answers, with quite a few ties as far as women's votes. Not many men answered which raises a good question about why men didn't/don't really respond to these types of films. Do men consider rom-coms to be strictly "chick flicks" and don't bother? Do men think they're stupid? Do men not like movies about love? Or movies about women? WHAT'S THE DEAL, GUYS?

Most Popular among women:

  1. Love Actually (overwhelming favorite... which blows my friggin' mind)
  2. When Harry Met Sally
  3. Sweet Home Alabama
  4. The Holiday & You've Got Mail
  5. Bridget Jones
  6. The Princess Bride
  7. Sleepless in Seattle
  8. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days & Bridesmaids
  9. Notting Hill, As Good As it Gets, Hope Floats, 10 Things I Hate About You
  10. The Big Sick

Most Popular among men:

  1. The Big Sick
  2. Notting Hill
  3. When Harry Met Sally
  4. The Princess Bride
  5. Hitch
  6. Overboard
  7. Romancing the Stone
  8. Sleepless in Seattle
  9. 10 Things I Hate About You
  10. You've Got Mail

There were a few Old Hollywood black & whites listed, but not enough to make the Top 10:

  1. The Philadelphia Story
  2. Roman Holiday
  3. The Apartment
  4. His Girl Friday
  5. Bringing Up Baby

Some of these I've seen quite a few times and really like: Sweet Home Alabama, When Harry Met Sally, The Holiday, The Princess Bride, Bridget Jones, How to Lose a Guy, Bridesmaids. Some I've only seen once and felt that was more than enough. Some I've never seen. This should be interesting.

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In preparation for this, I Googled a ton of articles on the topic, rom-com specific screenwriting tips, a few videos, and two totally relevant books. The book I'll be referring to often is Billy Mernit's (he's a Story Analyst for Universal and actual guru of rom-com) Writing the Romantic Comedy that breaks down all romantic comedies into seven "beats." Billy also wrote an article for The Writers Store entitled Romantic Comedy Writing Secrets. Another book that's also worth noting (interesting to me for reasons) is Michele Schreiber'sAmerican Postfeminist Cinema: Women, Romance, and Contemporary Culture. That's a mouthful, but I'm kind of obsessed. More on the specifics of those books later.

For now, I'm off to continue the gauntlet of love.

Script EXTRA: Tracy Oliver and Her 'Girls Trip'

If you want to follow along, here are Billy Mernit's breakdown of Romantic Comedy beats and the first round of films I'm dissecting (spoilers galore!):

Billy's Beats:

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.

2. The Meet Cute 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.

Script EXTRA: "Beating" Hollywood

Anatomy of Lurve:

  • Love Actually – What the actual fuck is this movie? Seriously, people... I don't get the love for it. Like, at all. I just watched it for the second time ever and my initial seething hate for this movie still stands. I'm STILL suffering a mental hangover from it. I won't even bother writing a diatribe or breaking it down since this article and this article do it perfectly. Fairly certain I'll get grief for this, but I'm not making any apologies for my feelings on this one. I will, however, comment on a few endearing moments: 1) Laura Linney's cute little freak-out on her stairs when hot Karl came over 2) I didn't totally hate the whole porn stand-in gag relationship 3) I love love love Emma Thompson, but I absolutely loathe how unbelievably fucking trope-y her character is. Ugh! 4) Hugh Grant's deliciously nerdy white boy gyration to The Pointer Sisters 5) the little boy was ADORABLE 6) Mr. Bean 7) the French country house. GIMME!
  • When Harry Met Sally – (had to cleanse the palate) What can I say? I adore this film. Nora Ephron is the queen of romantic comedies and snark and this one, to me, is perfection. It's not just fluff. It's not neatly packed, it's messy and an actual journey. It cleverly subverts the basic rom-com structure of boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love-with-girl, etc. and has them separate and grow twice before coming back together as friends only to split again before falling in love. It's so incredibly rich with conflict, story, character arcs, structure, and internal and external struggles. Love it!
  • The Philadelphia Story – I've never seen it. I love Katharine Hepburn, so I'm looking forward to it.
  • Hitch – Saw it once and was indifferent.
  • You've Got Mail – I've seen this once and was more enamored with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan than the actual storyline, so I'll put my rom-com glasses on for it this go 'round.
  • Sleepless in Seattle – I've never seen this one. I know, I know... put me in movie jail.
  • 10 Things I Hate About You – Heath. Oh, Heath...
  • Hope Floats – Never seen it. Even I'm shocked at that.
  • Annie Hall – Never seen it. Damnit, I'm on a roll!
  • The Apartment – Never seen it.

I'm putting on the hazmat suit and pouring a vat of wine. Stand by...

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