How to Start Writing that Christmas Rom-Com Now
August 1, 2023
Christmas movies shoot throughout the entire year. Even in the 90-degree summers, there will be two characters struggling to find romance walking through down a small town’s Main Street as fake snow fills the frame. As the holiday season approaches, there’s no better time than now to write the next Christmas Romantic-Comedy screenplay that premieres on a cable network or streaming service.
Christmas Rom-Coms are fun and sweet, feeling like the comfort food everyone loves to imbibe during the holiday season. While there are lots of similarities between these types of movies, each one is unique in its own way meaning you can provide glimpses into your holiday traditions and experiences to make a formulaic Rom-Com of your own.
How can you prepare yourself to write the next Christmas Rom-Com?
If you’re thinking about writing a Christmas Rom-Com, you’ve likely enjoyed watching them every holiday season. Just because you like them doesn’t mean you can easily sit down and write one. Start studying them scene-by-scene and learn the techniques that help the story move along.
Most of the cable channel Rom-Coms feature nine-act structures aligning with the commercial breaks. This is crucial information because it gives you a certain amount of time to set up the stakes, add challenges and know when you should have the love interest forced to sing a Christmas Carol. Time each act and translate that to the page — for instance, the first act before the first commercial break averages between 15-20 minutes with each succeeding act shorter. And remember: one page = one minute.
You’ll also want to study the secondary characters, the locations, and what drives the main character to the small town (or enchanting castle) where they find their true love.
Think about the type of Christmas Rom-Com you want to write and the channel where it might fit in. While the Hallmark Channel is, well, the Hallmark of Christmas movies, there are other networks where Christmas movies will differ, such as Great American Family, UPtv, BET, Lifetime Network, and Netflix. Now, you don’t have to model it specifically, but there are aspects and expectations with each respective network.
Writing a Christmas Rom-Com is a great opportunity to try writing fast. Check out the IMDb pages for some of these writers – they work a lot! Producers of these movies can get money fast and want to shoot quickly. If they’re pitched a script, they can get it going. It also means the writer sometimes has a couple of months, maybe only a few weeks to get a polished script in their hands.
Pretend you owe a producer a script in two months and challenge yourself to complete it in that amount of time.
Learn the Tropes
The two potential lovebirds have a sincere and sweet moment, they move in for an intimate kiss but are stopped by a nosy family member. That and many more tropes are eager to be a part of your Christmas Rom-Com. You probably already know many of the tropes that go along with these films but make it part of studying the films you want to make. Notice how tropes in movies centered around castles will differ from those about a family struggling to keep their bed and breakfast open.
The tropes are part of what makes these movies comforting and fun to watch. Everything from the workaholic who finds more to life than a career to tree decorating to a visit with Santa might be the must-haves in your story. Don’t feel limited by these tropes but lean in on them.
For instance, drinking hot cocoa is a trope. How can you make this must-have scene unique to your story? Maybe a secret family recipe that ties the story together? Or perhaps you can turn this into that moment where they almost kiss.
These tropes are critical to know so make it a point to learn them and incorporate them into your story.
Make It Unique, But Similar
With dozens of Christmas Rom-Coms coming to the cable networks every year it’s a challenge to come up with something original. But your Christmas script must stand out in some way. This may involve a completely new take on the genre. For instance, Rom-Coms are finding ways to have their lead characters go on safaris, explore European destinations, and vacation in Fiji.
If you’re working your way into a standard small-town Christmas, what makes this charming little community unique? Previous Christmas Rom-Coms have centered around a single-screen movie theater, a magical Christmas tree at the center of town, or a bakery.
Look around your own community and think of what makes it special. Are there traditions in your town you can “steal” for your own story? What about family traditions or stories you remember when growing up? Also, reach out to friends and ask if there were any unique traditions they have surrounding their holiday celebrations.
Keep Budget in Mind
Some estimates put the average budget for a Hallmark Christmas Rom-Com to be between $1 to $2 million and takes an average of three weeks to shoot. This means that as a writer you must also think like a producer. Consider what locations you use, how many locations are in the story, and the number of speaking characters.
Forget Times Square at Christmas time. There’s a reason the main character heads to a small town where she rediscovers her Christmas spirit and falls in love. There are plenty of Main Streets throughout America (and Canada) where shooting a movie is considerably cheaper than if they were to film in Los Angeles or New York. If your protagonist does stay in the big city, which does happen in some Christmas Rom-Coms, think about the smaller big cities such as Portland, Oregon or Charleston, South Carolina.
Location moves are time-consuming. Every new location requires set dressing, lighting, and various camera setups. This takes up valuable time when production schedules are already tight. And yet, using the same location can be tiring. Get creative in how you use locations. For instance, a house has several locations in itself such as a garage, living room, kitchen, and bedrooms. These options provide several locations without the need for a company move.
The more characters there are, the higher the production costs will be. When studying your Christmas Rom-Coms, take notice of the number of characters there are, including those who talk. Speaking roles not only cost more than non-speaking roles, but they require more time to block and mic up the actor. How can you reduce the number of supporting characters who might appear in just one scene? Can you combine characters?
While minimizing locations and characters can help keep the budget down, don’t stifle your creativity by sacrificing the people and places that make the story magical.
Read More: Big Story, Small Budget
Tell the Story You Want to Tell
Advice to writers often states that you shouldn’t follow trends. When it comes to Christmas Rom-Coms, this advice remains true. The films of a few years ago are different than what respective networks are looking for now.
So, the final piece of advice for starting that Christmas Rom-Com is to write the story you want to tell. It’s likely that if you enjoy these movies you’ll be excited to use the familiar tropes and design an original story in a familiar and comforting genre.
Read More: How to Make Rom-Coms Great Again
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.