What Are the Three Necessary Elements for Romantic Comedies?

'My Best Friend's Wedding'Credit: Tri-Star Pictures
Are you falling in love with the romantic comedy genre? 

Maybe it's just because I'm writing this article around Valentine's Day, but I find there are not many more comforting movie experiences than watching a good romantic comedy. You get the laughs, you get the romance, and there's almost always a happy ending.

While they really broke out in the 1990s, comedy and romance have been two genres that have been woven together over the course of Hollywood history. Movies like Bringing Up Baby and It Happened One Night gave way to The Apartment and Breakfast at Tiffany's. In the 90s, we saw classics like When Harry Met Sally, My Best Friend's Wedding, and There's Something About Mary.

Now you have films like Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Set It Up, and the recent Marry Me

The romantic comedy has flourished across Hollywood history and given us movies we can watch over and over. They spread laughs, joy, and even dig deep on meaning. While it's one of the most popular genres, it also comes with a list of tropes and expectations viewers have while watching the film. 

Recently, NPR set out to define the three elements that make a movie a romantic comedy. 

Let's dig into what they found. 

What Are the Three Necessary Elements for Romantic Comedies? 

We all think we know the strictest definition of a romantic comedy in our hearts, but have you ever tried to put it into words? 

Romantic Comedy Definition 

Romantic comedy is a subgenre of comedy. It's focused on humorous plotlines centered on romantic ideas, such as dating, marriage, break-ups, and true love. These movies usually contain happy endings. 

Romantic Comedy Tropes 

There are ao many tropes we expect to see when watching romantic comedies. One of the most prevalent is the meet-cute, which is a quirky way the couple in the movie winds up meeting and getting to know one another. This is in every single movie. But the rest of the tropes you see can be changed and tweaked based on the plot of the movie at hand, as well as other story details. 

A brief list of romantic comedy tropes: 

  • The Eccentric Best Friend
  • Exes Who Show Up
  • Wedding Gone Wrong 
  • Concerned Parents
  • Scenic Setting
  • Kissing in the Rain
  • The Unexpected Love Interest
  • The Near Break-up
  • The Grand Gesture
  • The Happy Ending

What Makes a Rom-Com?

When I read the excellent NPR article, it mentioned a book by Scott Meslow called From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy. 

In the book, Meslow analyzes these movies and tries to figure out what defines them. He came up with a simple test that he says anyone can try. This test helped him define what makes a romantic comedy.

The Three Requirements to Be a Romantic Comedy 

To be a rom-com, you have to be able to answer three questions about the movie. 

  1. Is the plot centered around a love story?
  2. Does it make you laugh more than it makes you cry?
  3. If you pull the love story out of the movie, is there still a movie, or does the whole thing collapse?

"There's a reason it goes all the way back to Shakespeare. There is something just fundamentally pleasing and satisfying about the arc of love. It's a story that many, many people can relate to in one way or another. It's enjoyable to watch people spar and banter and fight about what they really want. And when they come together, I mean, that's as satisfying as it gets," wrote Meslow. 

Romantic Comedy Movie Examples 

As we talked about earlier, there are so many romantic comedies out there, it can be hard to pick a few examples.

Some of my favorites are When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Waiting to Exhale, My Best Friend's Wedding, Bridget Jones's Diary, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Love Actually, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days—and that's just me pulling some random titles.

I also love Serendipity, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, and Arsenic and Old Lace.  

These kinds of movies really kept Hollywood busy. And now, they've become fodder for streamers who see an easy formula to make them. You just need to cast a couple with chemistry, pick a fun location, and get a script.

There's a huge built-in audience who jump at the chance to watch these films. So while studios look toward more tentpole films, romantic comedies have overtaken streamers.  

Summing Up the Romantic Comedy 

As you can see, this genre has stood the test of time and churned out some of our favorite movies. If you're going to tackle writing one, consider using the test we mentioned earlier. It can help keep you on track and fit audience ideals, and even help you subvert tropes to make your idea feel fresh. 

What are some of your favorite rom-coms? What are some things you really appreciate about the genre? 

Let us know in the comments.      

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When it comes to romantic comedies, I'm old school, preferring the films from the 1930s and early '40s better known as "screwballs." While William Powell and Myrna Loy are best known for their Nick and Nora Charles "Thin Man" movies, they starred in several other fine films as other characters ("Libeled Lady," "I Love You Again," "Love Crazy"). Note that in the latter two, Bill and Myrna's characters are already married, unlike in most of today's rom-coms. Carole Lombard, a brilliant comic actress, starred in the classic "My Man Godfrey" with Powell (her real-life ex-husband) and made four films with the underrated Fred MacMurray, notably 1935's "Hands Across the Table." She even made a marital screwball directed by good friend Alfred Hitchcock, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" with Robert Montgomery. All are worth watching for prospective screenwriters.

March 17, 2022 at 1:24PM, Edited March 17, 1:27PM

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Vincent Paterno
screenwriter/film historian
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