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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part Two


Kristen Wiig, heading right for her All is Lost moment

Yesterday I posted about the first four Romantic Comedy Beats, as defined by Billy Mernitt: the Set Up, the Meet Cute, the Sexy Complication and the Hook.

Here are the last three:

  1. Swivel: Second Turning-point

This is the moment after the hero and heroine have become closer, when their conflict comes back again, in a different form. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s when the two of them have sex – re-introducing the theme that men and women can’t be friends. In Prudence, it’s a new conflict: Ace turns out to have an old flame, Berenice, who’s coming to visit him. This is also a reiteration of the old conflict, because Berenice is everything Prudence is not: driven, successful, glamorous and very very humourless. If Prudence is Ace’s opposite, Berenice is terrifyingly suitable (this is often a device with Mr/Mr Wrong).

Note: Jilly Cooper always has a scene, before this second midpoint, where the hero and heroine have an idyllic day together. Nothing romantic has happened yet, necessarily, but they get away from all the other characters and share their innermost hopes and dreams. I love this device so much that I shamelessly borrowed it in The Out of Office Girl, with Alice and Sam’s day out at the beach. Then you can plunge them down to earth with a new iteration of the conflict. In the case of Alice and Sam, it’s a surface misunderstanding that’s really about the deeper conflict between them (see my previous post on Inner and Outer Conflicts).

  1. The Dark Moment: Crisis Climax

I think of this as the ‘All is Lost’ moment. Cinderella has left the ball; the coach has turned back into a pumpkin. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s the montage where Sally carries her Christmas tree home alone (recalling the happier Christmas last year when she and Harry did this together). Bridesmaids has a whole series of Dark Moments where Annie goes mental and alienates Lillian, gets fired from the jewellery store, ruins her romance with Chris O’Dowd and gets kicked out by her flatmates.

Jilly keeps her Dark Moment simpler. Pru realises (or thinks) that Ace and Berenice are now a couple. She slinks back to London, and is steeped in misery.

‘For the first time in my life, I became familiar with real hell. You don’t need a pitchfork and demons, just take someone away from someone they love – that’s enough.’

In Jilly Cooper, this feeling of despair is normally connected with a change of place. The heroine is taken away from Yorkshire, the main fairytale setting of the novel (also known as the Magical World in screenwriting) and plunged back into reality. You really can’t make this moment awful enough, I think.

  1. Joyful Defeat: Resolution

This is Billy Mernitt’s phrase to sum up the end of a romance. I love it. It’s a defeat because (generally) both parties have to climb down and admit that they were wrong; but it’s joyful because, well, love! It’s the end of the romantic war and the beginning of a loved-up peace.

It’s also such a big topic, it deserves a post all to itself. Typically, in an early draft I always spend way too long getting to the end of a book, and then end up wrapping it up too quickly. Which is what I’ve done here. So I’ll leave it for tomorrow – and then I’ll explain why I like to add another step …


  1. Dan

    Nicola these were great! So a question when you are writing how much do you have to keep this in mind? Or is it more organic? Also how do you break from this and have success — who does that well, how and why?

    • Thanks, Dan, I’m glad you enjoyed the posts. Like everything with writing, it depends on the writer – a lot of it is organic but in my two recent books I’ve found it useful to also write out these story points and see how I can best use them. As for breaking from this, I don’t think successful screenplays/stories break away from these rules – I think they just use them really well!

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