Anatomy of a Romantic Comedy: Seven Essential Story Beats
About the Author: Lynsay McCaulley
When not writing fantasy and science fiction, Lynsay McCaulley wields an MFA in English Literature and uses her literary powers for good among hordes of 16-year-olds, culling the slings and arrows of memes and Kardashians to pull her students out of their Snapchat stories and into literature. Lynsay loves sharing her work and writing process on her website and enjoys hanging out on Twitter at @LynsayMcCaulley.
Romantic comedies are experiencing a renaissance, and I’m here for it.
They’ve hit the scene in an incredible way, from the slew of Netflix films to the rise in rom-com fiction (sometimes called “chick lit”) in both Adult and YA. But rom-coms never really went away. They simply faded for a time, with new books and films releasing at a slower pace — a great example of what can happen in the ever-shifting market.
With rom-coms once more on the rise, I’d like to break down the anatomy of the genre using the structure outlined in Billy Mernitt’s Writing the Romantic Comedy. (Note: Buy this book. Seriously. It’s a sharp tool in your writing arsenal. Mernitt explains each of his seven story beats with brilliant examples from existing rom-coms. It’s a must-read.)
In The Anatomy of a Romantic Comedy, Mernitt takes the classic three-act structure (e.g. Conflict, Crisis, Resolution) and renames each point to set them into a rom-com frame: Meet, Lose, Get.
Meet: The protagonist encounters the love interest.
I especially love the trope in which the protagonist meets the love interest and shrugs off the encounter, only to realize the love interest is the person they need for whatever goal they’re after.
Lose: A separation occurs between the protagonist and love interest.
Secrets? Miscommunication? Any conflict is fodder for the Lose phase!
Get: The protagonist and love interest reunite in true romantic fashion!
It’s important to resolve your characters’ goals at this time as well, especially your protagonist’s. Nothing infuriates readers more than to see the protagonist give up their dream because of circumstances that exist as a thinly disguised ultimatum (“It’s me or your dream, and you have to choose.”). Please don’t fall into that hole. Please.
Within this three-act framework are Mernitt’s seven essential rom-com story beats. (Outliners everywhere, rejoice! But even if you’re a pantser, stay tuned. These story beat can prove helpful if you find yourself stuck.) Let’s break them down together!
Beat #1: The Chemical Equation — Setup
Character Goal Setup in T-Minus 3,000 words (or however many it takes). Both your protagonist and love interest have goals, and the first beat is where readers learn about them.
This is also where seasoned rom-com readers and viewers develop their initial theories about how the two love birds are going to meet, and I personally love that step.
Beat #2: Cute Meet — Catalyst
The love birds meet, and sparks begin to fly! These sparks are especially potent if the protagonist and love interest start off on the wrong foot, establishing conflict between them. That conflict can come in the form of an existing significant other, a brooding or temperamental love interest, or even a social faux pas that leads to (sometimes mutual) dislike or embarrassment.
Beat #3: A Sexy Complication — Turning Point
Turn up the heat! At this stage in the story, one or both characters begin to see one another through a different lens, amping up the romantic tension.
This beat is also a breeding ground for increased conflict. Circumstances being what they are (e.g. conflicting goals, significant others, meddling secondary characters — whatever the case may be), our characters’ relationship isn’t all peaches and cream. There’s a storm on the horizon.
Beat #4: The Hook — Midpoint
The love birds are still committed to their goals, which conflicts with their burgeoning emotions for one another. One or both are also experiencing a healthy dose of guilt because what they believe they want doesn’t align with how they feel about the person they could hurt in the process.
To further conflict, secondary characters may push the love birds to stick to the path they’re on. Even if the secondary characters are unaware of this role (e.g. a friend does something without realizing its impact or a loved one makes an off-hand remark), these characters serve to remind our love birds of the stakes at hand. (Note: An ex or existing significant other may intentionally try to thwart the burgeoning romance as well.)
Beat #5: Swivel — Second Turning Point
Conflict mounts as the relationship between the love birds develops, despite any misgivings the love interest or protagonist have. Each is working toward their respective goal, but the romantic tension between them is almost unbearable.
This beat is typically where physical romance comes into play (a kiss, a sleepover, whatever romantic element your story allows). It’s a milestone for your characters and readers (FINALLY, THEY KISSED), and your love birds’ mutual feelings seem to take root, until…
Beat #6: The Dark Moment — Crisis Climax
This is where the house of cards comes tumbling down. The romantic pair confront one another over a serious point of conflict (Note: sources may vary*) and break up. Cue tears and hurtful words. It seems like the pair may never reconcile.
* Sources may include: Vindictive exes causing trouble, miscommunication, lies or lies of omission, tragedy, doubt that leads one or both characters to retreat from the relationship…
This moment also allows your characters to view themselves apart from the relationship and the breakup. Where are they in their lives? Are they on the path they wish they were on, or do they want to be somewhere else? What can they do to seek out this new, readjusted goal?
Remember: Don’t play into the “I’ll sacrifice my dream for you” trope, especially if it’s a female lead giving up her dream. Please, I’m begging you. More and more rom-coms are pulling away from this trope, and that’s great. We are people who work for what we want, and that should be celebrated. We can have incredible careers and healthy, committed romantic relationships.
Beat #7: Joyful Defeat — Resolution
While I dislike the title “Joyful Defeat,” it is indicative of this stage of the framework. One or both love birds realize how idiotic they’ve been (with the miscommunication, the lying, with not realizing their vindictive S.O. was behind it all — whatever the case may be), and one or both apologize. Cue happiness and fireworks! We love our happy endings in rom-coms!
Still, make sure the resolution is realistic. The circumstances that led to their breakup have to be resolved in a way that’s truthful to your story, your world, and your characters. Think of it as Chekhov’s Gun, only for rom-coms. The characters and storylines you established early in the story need to play out naturally during the climax and resolution if you want to avoid a contrived ending.
As any student of the Freytag model can tell you, Beats #1 - #3 make up Act I (Meet), Beats #3 - #5 make up Act II (Lose), and Beats #5 - #7 make up Act III (Get).
While we’re looking at structure, remember your love birds have separate goals. Both Character A and Character B have dreams and aspirations, and those goals may not align. This is a good thing because contradiction breeds conflict. These contrasting goals can create a secondary arc that adds wonderful complications to your story. Make sure to flesh out these arcs if you want to realize the full potential of your story’s conflict and eventual resolution.
As you develop your romantic comedy, ask: What do my characters what? What are they willing to do to get it? These are the two most important questions storytellers can ask, especially those writing character-driven romantic comedies. Circumstances happen, characters react, and shenanigans ensue. It’s delightful.
Also, if you’re looking for a few rom-com case studies, check out Bollywood films. I’m new to the Bollywood party, and already I’m completely invested. These films are a joy to watch and experience — sights, sounds, colors, language, all of it. Some films are epic romances, of course, but a fair number of them are rom-coms. Recently, I watched “I Hate Luv Stories,” which pokes fun at classic Bollywood romances and rom-coms. It’s not only hilarious in its own right, but it’s fascinating to watch the film break down clichés and tropes. It’s worth watching just to see the seven essential rom-com story beats in action.
Assignment: Take Mernitt’s beats and study your favorite romantic comedy (old, new, doesn’t matter). Map out each beat as they happen, taking notes on how the writer(s) adjusted the framework to fit their story’s world. How did they tweak the tropes? Were those tweaks successful, or did the writer make a mess? What would you have done differently?