The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats – and why I add an 8th

In my last three posts I discussed the 7 Romantic Comedy Beats, as defined by the screenwriter Billy Mernit, and how I’ve used them in my books. Here, I’m going to explain why I add an extra one at the end.

A rom com – a good one, anyway – isn’t just about the heroine getting a man. It’s about the heroine’s personal journey, or her development into her better self. The key is to show her taking that final step towards becoming the person she needs to be. So in this 8th beat, I try to show that regardless of what happens with the romance, regardless of whether or not she is going to get together with that particular man, the heroine is on path to a better life. I call it the ‘I’m Gonna Make it Anyway’ step.

Gone With the Wind: not quite a rom com but the sentiment is the same.

I should point out that this step is missing from most earlier romantic comedies – including When Harry Met Sally and the early Jilly Cooper books. But for me, and for most contemporary romance writers I read, it’s vital.

One of the ones I most enjoyed writing was in The Out of Office Girl. [Warning: spoilers].

Alice, unemployed and heartbroken, has returned from Italy (the Magical World of the novel) with her self-confidence and career in tatters. However, she forces herself to go to an art opening to support her friend. There she sees someone who she would like to network with, to salvage her career, but she’s too scared to cross the room to speak to her.  At that moment she comes to a similar Blinding Realisation as in the romantic strand of her story:

‘Standing there, I think, not for the first time, that all my problems – Sam, work, everything – stem from my crazy lack of self-confidence.’

Note that she says ‘not for the first time’. Alice has long been aware that this is a problem, she’s just found it hard to do something about it. To change yourself is a long and painful process – we take one step forward and two steps back, in fiction as in life.  This moment is different because all of Alice’s experiences throughout the story have combined to show her that she can do this. That moment – when she crosses the room to speak to this professional connection – looks small but it’s the most significant of the whole book.

Work is often a key symbol of the heroine’s inner journey. Sometimes, though, this final step of self-development can be shown another way. Maybe she finally stands up to her family, or maybe she rejects a toxic ex. There is a great example of the latter in the Nancy Meyers film The Holiday. Iris has a surprise visit from the terrible  Jasper, who’s been toying with her for years. When he delivers a classic mixed message – offering to take her to Venice despite the fact that he’s getting married to someone else – she finally snaps:

IRIS: ‘You broke my heart. And you acted like somehow it was my fault, my misunderstanding, and I was too in love with you to ever be mad at you, so I just punished myself! For years! But you waltzing in here on my lovely Christmas holiday, and telling me that you don’t want to lose me whilst you’re about to get MARRIED, somehow newly entitles me to say, it’s over. This – This twisted, toxic THING between us, is finally finished! I’m miraculously done being in love with you! Ha! I’ve got a life to start living.

[Picks up Jasper’s jacket, walking to the door]

And you’re not going to be in it.’

Brilliant. I don’t think anyone, witnessing Kate Winslet deliver those lines, would doubt for a minute that whether or not she gets together with Jack Black, or A.N. Other, Iris is going to make it anyway. Which is how we should feel, ideally, at the end of every romantic comedy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-series on rom com structure. And I’d love to hear from you. Would you use these beats in a novel? Or do you prefer to freestyle it?