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The Rom-Com Playbook: How to write a successful romantic comedy

What elements go into writing a memorable rom-com that readers will enjoy? Here's what the pros say.

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You had me at hello.

I’ll have what she’s having.

Whether it’s a movie, like Jerry Maguire and When Harry Met Sally, or a book, romantic comedies have a way of resonating with their audiences. We know from the very beginning that our two protagonists are eventually going to get together and have their happily-ever-after ending, but we want to see how it’s going to happen. We want to watch that unfold and go on that journey with the characters, with plenty of laughs along the way.

In addition to being a beloved genre, they’re also a lucrative one. According to Alex Newton, founder of the K-lytics book market data platform, romance is top genre sold on Amazon Kindle and has been for years, staying ahead of mystery, thriller and suspense, and science fiction and fantasy. The top 20 bestselling books in the romantic comedy genre all place in the top 100 titles sold in the Kindle store, which currently has more than seven million titles. That means romance is popular, but it is a very competitive market.

So what elements go into writing a memorable rom-com that readers will enjoy?

Alethea Spiridon, a senior editor at Entangled Publishing, says you need likable characters who are relatable in some way. But you also need a good solid plot that readers will find engaging, with great dialogue and witty banter to provide the comedy – but don’t overdo it. Instead of writing an over-the-top comic novel, think more about punctuating dialogue and scenes with bits of comedy that feel right for the story and setting.

Three ingredients for a successful rom-com plot

In his book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit breaks down the basic plot into a three-act structure. While the book is written with screenwriters in mind, the elements work for any type of romantic comedy story, whether that is a novel, novella, or short story. They are:

  1. Meet
  2. Lose
  3. Get

 

First: Meet

As the name implies, this is the “meet-cute” moment that happens near the beginning, a charming or amusing first encounter between the two main characters. In You’ve Got Mail, for example, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), owner of megachain Fox Books, goes into an independent bookstore owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) to check out his competition, but Kathleen doesn’t know who he is.

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Spiridon says, “A memorable meet-cute really sets the stage and hooks readers, so developing a funny meet-cute will establish who the characters are, their personalities, their dynamic, and main plot point. The meet-cute is your important first impression.”

Second: Lose

During this part, something happens that pushes the main characters apart. In You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen learns that the charming guy who came into the bookstore is actually Joe, the owner of the new big-box bookstore that threatens her beloved shop she inherited from her late mother.

Finally: Get

This is the part where the main characters work through their issues and finally confess their love for each other. This can be a grand gesture or a smaller sweet scene like in You’ve Got Mail, when Kathleen realizes the man she has been chatting with online is Joe, whom she has become friends with, and she says to him, “I wanted it to be you.”

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