Romantic comedies – especially Hollywood Romantic comedies – are among the most formulaic of genres, with elements that have consistently contributed to these scripts’ and films’ success. Among other things, a romantic comedy hero must pursue his or her love interest, a crisis must precipitate a breakup at the end of Act 2, and the ending must always be happy.
Added to these familiar elements is the nature of the conflict a romantic comedy hero faces. This will form the foundation of the story concept itself, and it will almost always fall into one of six categories, which I have labeled Secrets & Lies; The Imposter; The Magic Spell; Peter Pan and Wendy; Slumming It; and The Long Haul.
1. Secrets & Lies are by far the most common kind of conflict, since almost all Hollywood romantic comedies are built on deception. The hero is lying to, or withholding information about, someone – usually the person she’s falling for. When the secret is finally revealed or the lie exposed, it will split the lovers apart. In You’ve Got Mail Joe Fox doesn’t tell Kathleen Kelly that his corporation is the one threatening her independent book store. In The American President, Sydney Ellen Wade doesn’t know that President Shepherd is using her to get his gun control bill passed. And in It’s Complicated, Jane Adler is secretly having an affair with her ex-husband
2. The Impostor category is just a more refined version of Secrets & Lies. In these screenplays, the hero is actually pretending to be someone he’s not: a society woman in Maid in Manhattan; the President of the United States in Dave; the fiancée of a guy in a coma in While You Were Sleeping; a loving spouse in What Happens in Vegas.
3. The Magic Spell applies to romantic comedies where some fantastic wish, curse, power, after death experience or mythical creature changes the hero’s life, who then falls in love while combating its effects. The heroes of 13 Going On 30, Groundhog Day, Stranger Than Fiction, What Women Want and The Nutty Professor must all overcome something supernatural in order to ultimately achieve their romantic destinies.
4. Peter Pan & Wendy stories became much more common with the success of Judd Apatow and his stable of writers and filmmakers. Their movies involve men stuck in emotional adolescence who must learn to take responsibility in order to win the love of a more mature women: The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Knocked Up; Role Models; Get Him to the Greek; etc, etc. About a Boy, The Wedding Crashers and Jerry Maguire also fall into this category.
5. Slumming It is the most common category of British romantic comedy, where the conflict frequently stems from class differences: Notting Hill; Bridget Jones’ Diary; the Prime Minister/staff member plot line in Love Actually. But Hollywood movies like Pretty Woman mine the same territory.
6. The Long Haul applies to romantic comedies that are a bit more grounded in reality. The conflict may come from some unusual situation, as in As Good As It Gets or Lars and the Real Girl, but these comedies tend to cover longer spans of time, as the characters weather the ups and downs of more ongoing relationships. 500 Days of Summer is a terrific recent example, as are When Harry Met Sally and Woody Allen’s screenplays for Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. Be aware, though, that without the high concept hook that the other five categories possess, scripts in this category are generally tougher to sell.
Many romantic comedies combine two or more of these categories. Wedding Crashers and About a Boy are both Peter Pan movies and Imposter movies, as their immature heroes pretend to be rich businessmen in the former, and a single father in the latter. And most of the heroes of Magic Spell movies also keep their supernatural situations a secret.
The value of knowing these categories is to strengthen your own romantic comedy concepts. Adding one or more of these conflicts for your hero (particularly the first five) can greatly improve your chances of making a sale, and drawing an audience.