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How to Write a Rom-Com That’s True to Life (and Love): Tips from the Screenwriter of ‘What If’

How to Write a Rom-Com That's True to Life (and Love): Tips from the Screenwriter of 'What If'

I wrote “What If” because I love romantic comedies. When done well, they’re basically my favorite genre. “His Girl Friday,” “The Apartment,” “Annie Hall,” When Harry Met Sally,” “Before Sunrise” and its sequels. But of course they’re so often done badly. And a bad rom-com is excruciating.

I think the main reason crappy romantic comedies make us angrier than other types of crappy movies is because it’s the one genre we’re all experts in.
Most of us will never be a cop on the edge caught in an intricate game of cat-and-mouse with a relentless criminal mastermind. We haven’t been haunted by ghouls. We haven’t been to outer space. We haven’t been in a car chase.

But every one of us is an expert in love, in heartbreak and flirtation, mixed signals and bittersweet longing, first kisses and last kisses and everything in between. 

So we all know, right away, when a romantic comedy is faking it. When the banter is lame. When the chemistry is flat. When the obstacles are phony. When we don’t care if they get together in the end. Because who can care about glossy marionettes contorting their way through absurd plot machinations and unearned sentiment?

Writing “What If,” every step of the way I’d ask myself — what would a real person do in this situation?

Romantic comedies are often rife with cliché. But every genre comes with its own tropes — a climactic shoot-out can be boring or thrilling depending on its execution. The difference between a tired cliché and a classic convention can simply come down to whether the writer was lazy or thoughtful about how a given trope was used.
You can employ a genre convention with humor, emotion, insight, surprise, intensity, style, verve, even grace. Or you can just stick it in there to bandage over a narrative problem and hope nobody notices.

FYI, they always notice.

But I think it’s worth interrogating those moments in the writing process when a genre convention seems like the answer to a storytelling question. Is there something thoughtful or provocative or honest buried inside that trope? More importantly, what would it feel like if it actually happened to you? 
READ MORE: Danielle Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan Talk “What If” with Indiewire

Usually, I reject the obvious cliché and search for a more unique take on the moment. But sometimes tropes can be useful tools because they’re all tied up in the audience’s expectations of the genre. Expectation — what you think I’m going to do versus what I’m actually going to do — is one of the most effective tools a writer has.

Sometimes I like to tease the cliché version of the scene in order to subvert it. Other times I decide to run right into the cliché but dig deeper to find the emotion and humor that would be there if it actually happened.

There’s a scene in “What If” where two characters get stuck in clothing store change room together. I know there are corny, obvious versions of this set up. But, speaking from personal experience, when something like this happens to you, it doesn’t feel like a cliché — it feels charged, tense, funny, awkward, rich with the possibility of both humiliation and intimacy. So that’s the feeling I went for when I wrote the scene.

I don’t think “What If” blazes some revolutionary trail through the romantic comedy genre, leaving a pile of ingeniously torched clichés in its wake. I didn’t set out to re-imagine the romantic comedy — I just wanted to write a movie that was genuinely comic and genuinely romantic.

When I felt like a specific genre convention would evoke the right comic or dramatic effect, I used it. When I felt like subverting a cliché was the way to go, I did. I tried to write something specific and unique… in a genre that’s probably as old as storytelling itself, in which Shakespeare broke most of the new ground.

Of course you can write a dull, lifeless first kiss scene. And you can worry that after a lifetime of watching first kisses in crappy romantic comedies, it’s hopeless to imbue that tired cliché with humor and heart.
Or… you can draw inspiration from your own life. Have you ever had a first kiss that wasn’t outrageously charged with expectation and possibility? Does a first kiss with someone new ever feel like a tired cliché— even though theoretically every romantic relationship you’ve ever had also featured a first kiss?
Hell no! You’re kissing someone! For the first time! It feels awesome!
If you look back on your own romantic history, every love story you ever experienced was specific and unique. But you also had to cycle through a series of romantic conventions— you meet someone, you flirt and banter, confide and reveal, you kiss for the first time, argue for the first time, make each other laugh, grow to love each other — and you can call those things tired clichés or you can see them as the patterns of everyday life.
To me, cliché just means you’re solving storytelling problems by using what you’ve seen in other movies instead of what you’ve experienced in your own life. The greatest failure of cliché isn’t that it’s unimaginative, it’s that it reminds the audience they’re watching a movie.

Elan Mastai is the screenwriter of “What If” (originally titled “The F Word”), which premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was purchased for US theatrical distribution by CBS Films. Directed by Michael Dowse, the movie stars Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, and Mackenzie Davis.

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