Romantic comedies follow the same four-part structure: Boy and Girl are lonely, Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, and Boy finally gets Girl. Although the formula is the same, the way to implement that story is what makes that story original.
Romantic comedies are one of the most formulaic stories around. Yet they can still surprise and delight people not because the formula is different, but because the story obstacles and characters are different. Chances are extremely high that you will never create an original plot, but you can and must create an original story, and that’s what makes your screenplay different than the rest.
In romantic comedies, the four-part structure is this:
Boy and Girl are lonely — We have to first learn who are the boy and girl, get to like them, and then see some obstacle that keeps them from being together. Whatever this obstacle is, this is what will keep them apart until the end.
In “You’ve Got Mail,” the main obstacle is that the boy and girl run rival bookstores so they’re natural enemies. In “The Proposal,” the main obstacle is the work status between the two (the girl is the boss and the guy is the worker) along with the character flaws of each of them.
Boy gets Girl — The boy and girl must meet and typically don’t fall in love right away, but find themselves forced to be together where they can learn to like each other. In “Pretty Woman,” this occurs when the boy hires the girl (a prostitute) to be with him.
Boy loses Girl — The initial obstacles that held the Boy and Girl apart now come into play and the character flaws of each drive them apart as well. In “Pretty Woman,” this initial obstacle is the fact that the girl is a hooker and is only hired to be with the man for a limited time.
Boy finally gets Girl — The boy and girl have to overcome their character flaws to overcome the physical obstacles that kept them apart in the first place. In “Four Wedding and a Funeral,” the obstacle was that the boy let the girl marry someone else then when the girl is free, the boy is about to marry someone else. The boy decides to overcome his character flaw to win the girl and overcome the obstacle.
In a bad romantic comedy, the problem doesn’t lie in the predictable, formulaic plot, but in the implementation of that plot. “The Proposal” with Sandra Bullock got mixed reviews despite being a financial success, simply because it told a story in a predictable manner with obstacles that weren’t anything we hadn’t seen before.
Now think of a romantic comedy like “The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” which is a romantic comedy that follows the same four beats of boy meets girl, etc. The difference is that the story details are unique where the problem is that the boy is not only having his memory erased through a bizarre surgical procedure, but then while he’s getting his memory erased, he tries to wake up and stop it.
Now his problem is how can someone in the middle of a surgical procedure stop the memory erasing process when he’s physically immobilized?
To compound his problem, not only is he in danger of losing the memories of his girl, but she’s being seduced by a guy using the hero’s old memories to do it. (If this sounds complicated, watch the movie, but you have to admit that these aren’t the typical obstacles found in most romantic comedies.)
The point is that “The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” is a romantic comedy that provides a unique story with distinctive obstacles and that makes the story fresh, even though the basic plot is formulaic.
If you think your story is predictable and dull, it may be because you aren’t telling a unique story. Don’t worry about telling a story that’s never been told before because you can’t. People want to see familiar stories like romantic comedies, but they want it to be a story they’ve never seen before while still being familiar. That paradox is the key to telling an original story.