John Truby said in The Anatomy of Story, “Your premise is your inspiration. It’s the ‘lightbulb’ moment when you say, ‘Now that would make a terrific story.’” So, what makes your rom-com idea a terrific story?
A premise brings the story’s core elements together, and rom-coms require the author to boil down why the core of the story is both romantic and comedic. That’s a significantly bigger and sometimes more difficult task than simply writing funny lines.
There are many definitions of a rom-com, but for me, it means if the humor or romance could be removed from the book and the story still worked, neither element had a big enough role to begin with. Below are my five tips for developing a premise for a rom-com novel. I hope they are helpful for you!
5 Tips for Developing an Engaging Premise for a Rom-Com Novel
1. Be open to ideas. Sometimes the stars align and the perfect idea arrives in your brain fully formed and ready to go. More often, we need to swim through lots of ideas to find a good one. Author and writing coach, K. M. Weiland advises asking yourself “what if” questions when in search of a premise. For example, what if a breakup was interrupted by having to solve a murder? (Lovebirds) or What if you fell in love while doing a vacation house swap? (The Holiday). During brainstorming, authors can begin to formulate ideas and later determine which has the possibility for the most humor and romance.
2. Create a premise that gives you ample opportunities for humor and romance—you need both. Once you’ve identified a “what if” statement that sounds promising, brainstorm the ways that potentially funny set-up could play out in a humorous way. For example, in The Office Party by Whitney G., the author might have asked, “What if you re-gifted a personal (and very adult) present to your boss for a Secret Santa gift exchange without knowing what it was?” the potential embarrassment, the options for the boss’s reaction, and add to that what-if that the two will be forced to spend time together during a work retreat. The end product is full of humorous situations, funny miscommunication, and a lot of romantic tension and steam.
3. Keep humor in mind. Humor is subjective—a laugh-out-loud moment to one reader may bore another. Some of the appreciation for humor can be explained by incongruity theory, a philosophical idea that incongruence exists when something challenges our expectations of what should/will happen based on a reader’s understanding of the world. Incongruence provides the opportunity for amusement or humor. For example, what if a sheltered socialite learned her roommate was a sex worker? (The Roommate by Rosie Danan). Some readers might expect the socialite to encourage the roommate to change, but what actually happens is the book challenges those expectations in ways that produce incongruity, interest, and opportunity for humor (in addition to the sweet and sexy moments Danan expertly crafts).
4. Create interesting characters. This goes without saying for any novel, but in a rom-com, characters are foundational in bringing the humor and comedy of the premise to life. Their goals, motivations, and backstories will offer added opportunities to enhance the comedy and strengthen the romance. In You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria, two actors on a new streaming telenovela series fall in love. The premise for this book (and this series) is excellent and Daria delivers it flawlessly, including the ways the characters’ motivations, goals, and personalities make the way they experience their time together funny and swoon-inspiring in ways that would be different with other characters.
5. Consider the conflict. Finally, a premise goes from probably good to must-read with the addition of meaningful conflict and stakes that keep readers interested. This is a component of plotting any novel, but I mention it here because the stakes can sometimes be lost in a rom-com, especially one that is light. Conflict and stakes need not be life and death but need to have meaning to the character. While some rom-coms are light or escapist, others have heavy stakes. In The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams, the premise of a group of men who read romance novels together provides interesting characters opportunities to bring humor and heart, but the stakes of the novel involve the dissolution of a marriage. Big stakes and big conflicts have a place in rom-coms if the author can sustain the humor and comedy of the premise.
I can’t wait for your rom-com and to read your terrific idea!