This will be a book you’re going to love, or one which will turn you off. While humour is subjective, romantic comedies are like marmite.
To get to those movie tickets, you have to put your hands in a tight jar, get them brown and sticky and…
What I mean to say is;
Hit the right notes, it’s a big success. Make a misfire, and not only will comedy goers not attend, but romcom lovers will be disgusted.
And they’re more dangerous than zombies, so you’ll have written your own funeral.
Can this book teach you to avoid it?
It eases you in during part one. The church, your eulogy…sorry, I lost track. Storytelling fundamentals, story concept, a brief history or romcoms.
It changes between interesting and needing to get on with it. You’re told the above ideas will be given proper treatment later. And they are intriguing.
So get on with it.
The history part is a bit less interesting. Useful to know what’s gone before, yes, but not helpful when it’s simply a recount.
Anyway, to rub it in for this review, chapter 3 devotes itself to history. Not too necessary and could be shortened. There are a lot of films to look at…
But that’s all I have to say.
It’s time to get to the meat of it with part two. It starts with characters.
The bad part is minor. It’s sometimes a bit more wordy than it needs to be and there are some redundant sentences.
The good part — for your understanding — is that it’s a serious look at the characters in successful films. You get script excerpts from a few of them, which include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Tootsie, and When Harry Met Sally. There’s analysis to go with them to help you see exactly what’s going on.
Things get deeper with a case study of Tootsie. The chapter shows the characters and describes the interplay between them, how it works, and why it’s successful.
The book covers theme.
You’ll find out that romantic comedies are filled with murder and bloodshed, and those happy Hugh Grant moments were merely drug induced, passing hallucinations.
Bet you never knew that.
Theme is theory.
This isn’t bad theory, either, and the exploration is interesting (once the book picks up speed). Mernit gets slightly flowery with the prose, but only a number of pages later, once you get to the case study of When Harry Met Sally, things are a lot more direct.
It makes for a really enjoyable and informative read.
You might find, from having no thoughts about theme, that this changes your perspective. While a book can give you questions through exercises, and this one does, it also provokes you to stop and think mid sentence.
It’s a good book that does that.
Or a poorly written one. But thankfully, that’s not really the case here.
There’s talk of the three act structure and a diagram of the bridge. The acts are given a slight variation, with the included beats unique to romantic comedies. Mernit says these are applicable to most romcoms, and advises new writers stick to them.
Each beat get at least half a page of description, and are then expanded, by dropping the plot points of Notting Hill inside them. The author doesn’t leave it there, and adds another film to the theory beats, with Chasing Amy.
(A note here, that a lot of films may be spoiled in the dissections, so if that upsets you, please increase your EQ. Mernit earlier suggests you have the films at hand, to help digest the points made in the book, and second, to avoid emotional devastation.)
Keeping it Credible is next.
This section reminds you to maintain a constant world and how you can do that. It will make you consider the period of your scripts and the particulars you’ll want to keep an eye on.
And while the world needs to be credible, so do the characters. What if a character’s attitude means the plot might not advance? That’s covered too, with a talk of potential devices, and an an excerpt to show you how it’s done, from Some Like it Hot.
Now the book has picked up steam, it’s on to part 3. Like any good structure, this is where things start to come to an end.
Except Mernit ruins the book’s plot with a fourth part.
So very shabby.
The Art of Funny starts part three.
This is well written stuff, and while you’ll find there are no real rules, there’s a throwaway ‘something + something = funny’ included.
What is the equation? Buy the book and find out. And don’t say you can’t afford it. If you can pay for a device to read this review, you can’t be that poverty stricken.
The Bringing up Baby intro to the Art of Funny is amusing. Then you get shown six principles, that if contained in a script, push it toward hilarity. To solidify the concepts of those half dozen items, there’s help from the classic 1941 film, The Lady Eve.
Again, done very well.
The book moves on to Being Sexy. And while you might be, it doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried your tights on, and they don’t fit.
Sorry for the rips.
Being Sexy begins with — joke deleted — a piece on Romancing the Stone, how it’s a little bit satire, and why you’ll want to avoid it in any romantic items you write.
Hang on, is that a sexy shopping list? Figs, baked beans and curry powder.
Cor, blimey, it must be.
Author, and industry insider, who’s been at it for years. But he’s married? Surely a conflict worthy of a romcom.
As you continue through the pages, and find yourself completely titillated, you’ll go through a few films. Another one done in more detail is Jerry Maguire (portrayed by Tom Cruise, opposite Renée Zellweger).
There’s a deeper analysis of the first kiss scene, and what gets exposed…
Cruise’s portrayal in the scene is done very carefully, and Mernit matches tone perfectly, with a delicate analysis. Then comes advice on plot and sex, what else sex scenes might convey, and how future character meets might be different.
Still more sex.
On to Designing Dialogue, which opens with a great couple of quotes. The one from David Mamet being particularly fantastic;
“The story is being carried by the shots. Basically, the perfect movie doesn’t have any dialogue.”
Extreme and instructive. The dialogue oils the thing by addition of interest and insight (and for a comedy, you better add laughs to that).
The chapter’s first subheading, What Dialogue Can Do, takes you through seven steps. It’s a little clunky, with the speech in the steps broken up by explanation, which makes it slightly harder to follow at first. Re-read the section and it all makes sense.
Another subheading is Less is More, and to go with it, there’s a hypothetical script excerpt across a number of lines. Then it gets a revision, to show you how to cut unnecessary dialogue.
Also in this chapter is an interesting look at an excerpt of Richard Curtis’. It’s from the first draft of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which Mernit contrasts to what appears in the final cut, and with his explanation of why these changes were made.
When the book moves to imagery in films, there are 2 ½ pages of waffly stuff, before it gets good again.
Page 210, and the suggested notes for direction, are nice. How to integrate them properly isn’t shown though, so you’ll have to page around for an example, or find a book that covers that in detail.
The deeper analysis in the chapter is great, but if you have any ill feeling towards Woody Allen, you’ll need to cast those aside.
Just for a few moments, at least while you read the book.
That’s because the pages give an examination to the imagery in Allen’s Annie Hall. The five pages used by Mernit, to dissect certain scenes in the film, are brilliantly done.
The only criticism here is the ham fisted introduction by way of the film’s synopsis, which talks of story beats. Unnecessary, as it looks at different scenes to those discussed for the imagery, while it belongs in the structure part of the book.
Part four now, and it’s the home stretch.
There’s solid advice from the author when he says to do your first draft in a way that works for you, and not to chase other methods. More instruction says you should overwrite. Plus, there’s a line that compares the first draft to seeing your doctor. It’s a different and helpful perspective.
Assuming the doctor diagnoses you correctly. You don’t want him later saying , “He didn’t need the black bag last week.”
Anyway, it’s worth the book to read nuggets like this (the doctor’s diagnosis), even amongst the other fantastic information.
Things continue with more good advice; the author’s knowledge, one little mistake Mernit made (the only one in his life), how a hypothetical movie sequence could be improved.
Moving on, the Rewriting bit has a handy quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer,
“The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend.”
Yes. Especially true if it has solid sides to hold the carrots.
Jokes aside, the book’s author continues to do a fine job, and the chapter finishes with a check list, to help you refine your own work.
After that, the concluding chapter is a slow fade out. A short 5 ½ page affair, which is half waffle, half something to consider.
This is a really good book.
While you might poo poo, poo poo poo it, for being about romance, and romantic comedies, there are lessons in here that can be applied to other genres. And if you do want to write romcoms, this book is, as said, really good.
You may need to re-read a few pieces to get full clarity, and there is just a bit of waffle before and after the main part of this book, but it’s otherwise helpful, knowledgeable, and with the included exercises, instructive.
And for another word, comprehensive.
Understanding the components required for a romantic comedy. This covers all essential aspects, which will leave you with a deeper understanding of the genre.
Setting out the plot. You get the beats, but not in the same, quite as directed way as Writing the Comedy Blockbuster.
Still pretty comprehensive.
This book is impressive, with information that won’t be fully absorbed in one read. Give it a few reads, or as many times as you can tolerate.
The other thought is that this is the original, published in 2000. A revised and expanded version was released in 2020.
If you want to check out title, maybe best have a look at that version.
286 pages + 5 ½ for the introduction.
For real reading length, take out some blank pages (go on, rip them out, destroy your copy). That’s about 15 for blank pages, 33 for appendix A plus B, and the index. You get left with about 240 pages of mainly wall to wall text.
Quicker readers will be through it in a couple of days.
Slower, dedicated people, will take a couple of weeks.
This is only reading time. When you add in the long exercises, it will add as much time as you take to fix or write your script.