Once upon a time, all romantic comedies ended in one way. Love and marriage went together like a horse and carriage, and this tradition lasted well into the 20th century. At the movies, while there were a few exceptions (see the sophisticated menage-a-trois finish to 1933's Design for Living), it took an atom bomb to finally topple this seemingly written-in-stone convention.
In the wake of both WWII's horrors and its more positive progressive notions, by the Sixties, audience were ready to acccept a rom-com that didn't employ a wedding as its inevitable explicit or implied resolution. The genre's progress was landmarked in 1967, when Two for the Road depth-charged the idea of marriage as a happy ending, and The Graduate ended with one of the most famous "now what?" shots in the history of cinema. A decade later, Annie Hall broke new rom-com ground with the notion that a couple's happy ending could in fact be a break-up.
Conventions have been bucked since then, but the romantic comedy's traditional fadeout has stubbornly persisted. And for the past near-15 years, the 21st century romantic comedy has been struggling to adjust to new realities of courtship and coupling. I would argue that the genre's widely exaggerated and misunderstood "demise" (i.e. a certain kind of cliched, stereotypical rom-com programmer is no longer Hollywood-profitable) was caused, in part, by the studio system's slavish adherence to the old marital happily ever after model. Given this, if you're trying to write a contemporary romantic comedy...
2. Reconsider your happy ending.
This neo-rom-com rule follows naturally upon the first ("Make it relevant"). It's a brave new world out there in terms of finding a mate, and for that matter, deciding if one monogamous mate (or the act of mating) is really your romantic be-all or end-all. Still, it's surprising how in romantic comedy screenwriting circles, how many conventions remain to be busted.
Yes, we've recently had a rom-com hybrid in which boy met, lost, and ultimately didn't get Operating System. Yet with the new release Obvious Child, writer-director Gillian Robespierre has demonstrated that there are still some serious boundaries to be successfully broken.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW] This indie rom-com has a conventional setup: Our heroine, a stand-up comic, gets dumped. After the requisite 5 stages of grieving mash-up, she has a one-night stand. She soon discovers to her chagrin that she is with child... and that's where, for once, all bets are off. Because Donna (Jenny Slate) doesn't want to be a mom, and - right wing conservative nightmare that it is - the movie wholeheartedly supports her choice.
I wish Child was a triumph of great filmmaking. Its style is even more conservative, and less imaginative, than decent contemporary TV (Louie, as an unfair example, leaves it in the dust). And the script exposes just how bedrock some traditions truly are, in that Donna is provided with a too-good-to-be-true hero (played by Jake Lacy) to soften and Hollywood-ize what would otherwise be a darker and perhaps more realistic denouement.
Nonetheless, let's give Robespierre her props. Child has some real laughs and some truly poignant moments. More importantly, this is a brave and bold movie, in that it's willing to embrace the idea - unlike the overrated Juno - that abortion does not have to be tragic; that keeping one's child, however initially unwanted, does not have to be the inevitable happy ending of a romantic comedy. For this alone, kudos are warranted.
And the film serves as a test case for screenwriting courage. Obvious Child, a Sundance selection that's garnered good reviews and is performing well, suggests that going against the perceived grain can be a good way to go. This is an indicator that audiences are not only ready to venture outside of old school boundaries, in terms of what "happy ending" can mean, but that they welcome a fresh and irreverent interpretation of it.
Does your heroine have to get her guy, to be happy in the end? Does your hero have to get his girl for keeps? Does marriage even have to be on the table, in 2014? How do you define "happiness," on your own unique terms, when it comes to romance and relationships?
These are the kinds of question a rom-com screenwriter ought to be asking. And the answers, if honest, unflinching, and willing to be provocative, may not only make for a better movie, it may be a crucial factor in helping your movie to get made.