Questionable: Can You Put a Death in a Rom Com?

S asked:
“What do you think about death in the romantic comedy? Not the hero or heroine, but someone else who matters. Does this make it something other than romcom? Would readers revolt? Have been studying 4 Weddings and a Funeral – the writer was apparently advised to include the funeral to balance the sweet. . . . Had similar thoughts about the movie The Apartment which was tragic but listed as a romcom. It’s for my WIP – my critique grip is squeamish about a death I’m planning in a book that’s part of a romcom series and I’m wondering if it’s maybe too much for my reader?”

Well, first define “romantic comedy.”  I’ve never thought The Apartmentwas a romantic comedy, so I’m no help there.  My basic definition is that it’s a story of a romance that ends happily and is funny.  If you can make a death work in that context, it’s a romcom.  Obviously, there’s some calibration in there, but death is not antithetical to romance or comedy.

Here’s the thing about happiness: it exists in contrast to unhappiness.  You cannot have highs without lows.  Psychologically, you need both joy and pain to fall in love. Most romcoms bollix this up by using the Big Misunderstanding, which causes the lovers enough pain that they break up or turn on each other.  But the Big Misunderstanding is stupid, makes the lovers look stupid, and is one of the main reasons people sneer at romcoms (along with the fact that romcoms are hard to do so there are a lot of really bad ones out there).   There needs to be a real reason these people feel pain, enough pain to wake them up, make them grow up, move from the infatuation stage to the commitment stage.

Death of a loved one is big pain, not just for the characters but also for the reader if she was invested in the lost one.  The problem is calibrating the pain.  If it’s so overwhelming that the reader can’t get past it and sees the lovers going on to happiness and thinks, “How could they?” the whole meringue of romantic comedy falls flat.   Of course, that’s true of any genre; I’m still not over the death of that puppy in John Wick.  So the key is to make the lost one somebody that will have an impact on the plot and characters, but not be so overwhelming that the reader can’t recover from it.  And in a comedy, that has to be negotiated VERY carefully.  

One of the best short stories I’ve ever written is “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding,” done in four parts (four acts, five weddings), and in the third act, the narrator’s mother dies and so does her sister’s fourth husband, the good guy she finally got.  It has such a huge impact on the narrator that she has an epiphany at the husband’s funeral, and then later makes a big decision at her sister’s fifth wedding because of that ephiphany.  It’s a comedy because the narrator has a sharp tongue and is a real smart ass, but I’ve always thought it was really sad underneath because the narrator was so unhappy all the way through and mouthing off to hide it; that comes straight from one of my two biggest writing influences, Dorothy Parker, a writer who can make you laugh and weep at the same time.  Still my MFA class thought it was funny as hell, and it had the deaths of two good people in it. Just not the narrator’s sister; she was too important and her loss would have sent the narrator too far into darkness, or her best friend, the only one who understood her, which would have left completely alone.  In an earlier draft, that best friend who was gay died of AIDS (this was the nineties and one of my best friends had just died of AIDS) and it was too damn much.  The mother was a vivid and important character, and the fourth husband was a good guy, but the reader could roll with losing them in a way they couldn’t with this close friend character or the sister who’d both been on the page a lot more.

But your question is more complicated because you’re also talking romance, an essentially happy genre. The good news is, pain is an integral part of romance.  The relationship needs to be tested, the lovers have to feel pain and still decide to stick to each other, or nobody will believe they’ll make it.  It’s just too easy to fall out of love when the bad times hit, so most romances incorporate bad times.  And dealing with grief is one way lovers can bond, even beyond the way it can make a character grow up enough to enter an adult relationship.

So of course you can do it if you calibrate it so that it’s not overwhelming to the reader, and if the death has meaning within the story.  No offing a character just because “sometimes people die;” that’s lousy writing.  (“I am a leaf on the wind.  Watch how I soar.”  Whedon’s going to Writer Hell for that one.) The death has to be earned.  It has to mean something important to the story, not just be there to jerk tears or give protagonist pain.

The death in Four Weddings wakes up the hero, who says after the funeral that while they were all running around talking about marriage, they’d failed to see that two of the group were married all along, their two friends who had a wonderfully joyful committed relationship but couldn’t tie the knot because they were gay.   But it’s so much more: John Hannah’s reading of that damn Auden poem at the funeral will make me weep no matter how times I see it; it’s the purest example of love in the whole movie, so it also underscores the romantic theme.  Hannah’s character may have lost the great love of his life, but he had that love. He hadn’t ducked it from fear or a need to fit into society, he had loved with all his heart, and that gives the protagonist the realization that he’s living a half life because he won’t take the chance.  It’s integral to the story.

So the key, if you need a death, is to make it somebody who resonates but who we can spare; somebody to whom attention must be paid, but not too much attention; somebody whose death is integral to the plot (and not just for fridging purposes) and acceptable to the reader.  Yeah, it’s a narrow road to walk, so don’t kill the dog or small children.  (I kill the dog in Nita, so ignore that, but small children?  No.) Just make it matter, to the reader, to the story, to the characters. Attention must be paid.

Just not too much.

39 thoughts on “Questionable: Can You Put a Death in a Rom Com?

  1. Thanks for giving us your view on this. I must admit, after watching that movie I’m even close to tears when I just read that poem.

    I guess there’s no simple rule for this, though. The death just has to fit into the story and it depends on the writer’s craft to make it work.

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  2. When I started reading the post, the very first thing I thought of was Four Weddings and a Funeral…

    I agree, rom coms and death are not natural fits, but sometimes, just sometimes, it works very well.

    (Another fave of mine is Death at a Funeral (the Frank Oz version, filmed in the UK, not the later US adaptation) which isn’t exactly a romcom but there is a r9mcom thread in it…).

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  3. Thank you so much for this – it’s an immeasurable help. You make everything so clear. I now find myself saying ‘of course’ when before everything was a muddy soup. I so wish you’d publish a craft book – I’d take it in any form I could get it. Serialised chapters?Scribbled notes? Drawings? A collection of published craft posts like this one? Anything! (Clawed, reaching hands…)

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    1. Meanwhile, you could nick the stuff that’s relevant to you, as I do, copying and pasting it into a Scrivener project I’ve called ‘How to Write Fiction’. There’s often good stuff in the comments, too.

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      1. Oh, that’s a much better idea! I copy/paste and send it to myself in an email, but that doesn’t help me coordinate it. Scrivener would be great for that!

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        1. I’ve got Scrivener on my iPad as well as my Mac; I sync the two via Dropbox. The iPad is where I mostly browse the internet, and pick up a lot of ideas. I used to use Notes to stash them, but it’s very basic; Scrivener has let me organize everything much better. I use the Mac when I want to do a big edit on my research/ideas projects (I’ve got them for photography, new home, recipes, gardening, etc., each broken down into files such as Design Ideas, Shrubs and Climbers, Flowers . . . ).

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  4. “On Second Thought” by Kristin Higgins starts with a death, and it is a big part of what drives the plot, because many people’s lives change from it….. BUT since I didn’t know the guy, I wasn’t invested in him. The characters in the book were, but I had no history with him, so it didn’t seem too dark to me. I don’t know if everyone would consider it RomCom – it was about relationships and I thought it was funny – close enough for me.

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    1. Also, in her Blue Heron Series the mother had been killed in a car accident with her daughter in the car (not in the story itself) but as part of the daughter’s memories. I’ve always thought it was Kristan moving away from rom/com to contemporary fiction.

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  5. And now I’m desperately hoping you will put “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding” on your list for self publishing or is already available somewhere?

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  6. Death can also be funny. Even at my saddest at a funeral, I still had cause to laugh. But that could just be me. 🤷🏻‍♀️

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    1. The Chuckles the Clown funeral from the Mary Tyler Moore Show is a classic, but my fave is still “The Giggle Loop” from the British Coupling.

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    2. There was a show called The Five Mrs Buchanans about a cantankerous mother-in-law and her four daughters-in-law. There was a terribly funny funeral in one. Going by memory though, it may’ve been fat-shamey jokes as the deceased was a very, very, very fat aunt that none of them had met. I was a kid, I remember laughing hard.

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  7. This question, reminds me of Sweet Home Alabama, the movie people had to change the ending, because the test audience really hated it.

    The original ending had her ex-husband carry her into her wedding and announce she was dead and it turn out to be a prank. Everyone there looks so devastated, the audience never recover that feelgood feeling for the ending. Not ideal for a romcom.

    It is not just romcom, in tv series as well, kill off a fan favourite and you could lose the audience. In Serenity’s case, maybe he really wanted Zoe to wear a slinky dress?

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    1. Oh, that dress. That almost rescued the whole thing right there. That was one of the most amazing dresses I’ve ever seen on film and I wanted it desperately.

      For anybody who wasn’t a Firefly fan, search for “Zoe’s funeral dress Firefly;” it was her husband’s funeral and he was much loved.

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    2. I didn’t like Sweet Home Alabama, mostly because the ex-husband is an irritating “jokester” and really, there is nothing at all wrong with the other love interest except he has a bitchy mother. (If you’re doing this kind of plot, you need to prove why one guy is wrong as well as why one guy is right.) But seriously? They did that? That’s even goddamned WORSE.

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    3. Not nearly enough of an excuse. Wash was needed to balance the crew, the only one with humour really. Unforgivable. And just mean.

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  8. In Nathan Fillion’s new show, The Rookie, they just killed off the captain and I’m so pissed. It’s the first f*cking season. I feel like they’re trying to make the point that police work is dangerous. Uh, duh. And to make matters worse, that episode was the first time they’d done squat to develop her character. “Here’s the captain. She’s a war veteran and kind of a thrill junkie. Do you like her? Well, too bad, because she’s dead.”

    And with a romcom, the chances of eliciting that reaction are even greater, because that’s not what your typical romcom fan signs up for.

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    1. I felt exactly the same way, Jeanne. I was really liking the show up until then, but they really pissed me off with her death. (Also, really, kill the strongest woman character? Just no.)

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    2. I like the show a lot but I agree with you. The only interesting thing they had previously given the captain was the domestic-violence call where it was hinted she might be gay. I haven’t read up on the show but I wouldn’t be surprised if the actress playing the captain said, you know what, I don’t have anything to do here, how about I die heroically.

      I have my fingers crossed (though with little hope) that they will actually do something meaningful with the gay-rookie storyline. They have the opportunity to do a Big Thing here if they’re not utter cowards.

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    3. I liked her too. Such a badass and then one random bullet.

      Nolan should be in therapy for a billion years after all the shit that’s happened to him after half a season.

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    4. The deaths I remember as good ones are the ones that were earned. The deaths at the end of Person of Interest, for example. They killed the lead, for heaven’s sake, but he got such a good death, paying a debt, that even though it was wrenching, it was a good moment because he got closure. The same with Root; those deaths mattered, and they were the deaths the characters would have chosen. I’m still not over Carter’s death, though, and thank god they didn’t kill Fusco or Bear. I’d have rioted.

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  9. My stuff isn’t romcon, it’s mystery and includes some romance and is funny (well it’s supposed to be, I guess it depends on your sense of humor). I kill off people all the time – But – I killed off some of my protagonist’s dogs in Crazy Little Thing Called Dead and oh did I hear from my readers.

    I had to rewrite and rerelease it.

    I’ve made a bunch of mistakes in my career but that was a big one. Donald Maass recommended I do that. So now I know that even the experts can get it wrong.

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    1. Don’t kill dogs or kids. That kind of death-of-innocents tends to knock people out of the story. Obviously you can do it in some genres, but romance is about emotional justice, and the death of innocents is not just. I think.

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      1. A friend of mine thought I would like Game of Thrones, back when it first came out, and brought over the first few episodes for me to watch.

        I think it was the first episode (maybe second) and they killed a wolf. I could see it coming and I said, “Don’t do it.” They did, and I never watched another one.

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        1. Yeah, I found out about the wolf and never watched the first one. Any interest I had in trying it later evaporated when I heard about the rapes. I get enough hopeless grim in the daily news, thanks.

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        2. My family watch GoT. So I’ve seen a lot of it because you can’t help seeing it when you are in the house when it’s on. But I’ve really had to distance myself emotionally from it. They kill everybody. And then they take characters I like and turn them into characters I don’t like.

          Everyone has moved out now and I have no desire to watch the last season. And because they are all elsewhere, I don’t have to!!

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  10. Would a Georgette Heyer mystery count as a rom com (with death) murder mystery?

    The rom/com w/ death (not murder) book that comes to mind for me is Katie Fforde’s “Thyme Out,” which I think had a different title in the UK. It’s an important part of the hero and heroine’s journey to love and is handled movingly and well, with lots of good food.

    There are many rom/coms with death in their back stories, so much so that I’ve sometimes read several rom/coms in a row and start wondering if heroines all have to be orphans and heros widowers. Yikes.

    I like the idea of just (!) writing a good story and “if she dies, she dies.” (Remember that hilarious scene, preceding an actual death, in the movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? A lovely movie, based on a book, though the book was quite different from the movie.)

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    1. A Georgette Heyer mystery is a mystery with a romantic subplot.
      A Georgette Heyer romance is a romance that sometimes has a mystery subplot (see The Talisman Ring, The Quiet Gentleman, etc.)
      The first deaths in mysteries don’t count because they generally happen early to people we don’t know. If the murderer keeps going and starts picking off people we like, then it gets trickier. One of the Rex Stout mysteries I really do not like has two deaths in it, both very likable women, which soured me on that one. But there’s another Stout in which an extremely likable woman is murdered, and I think that’s one of his best, possibly because it hits both Stout and Archie so hard and they pay proper attention to the death.

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  11. So, I’m catching up on blogs, and I realize it is way too late to post to this blog and probably no one other than me will ever see this comment, but I still have to mention the first thing that occurred to me, which is the fact that Zane’s autopsy scene in romcom “Welcome to Temptation” is one of my all-time favorite scenes to reread because it’s so FUNNY. To quote Ed the coroner, “A lot of people didn’t like this guy.”
    I have to admit I’ve never read “Murder on the Orient Express” (yes, on my list) but I’ve always wondered if this scene was a tribute to that in any way; I gather there are similarities in regard to the question of “who [actually] done it?”.

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    1. It really wasn’t; as I remember (that was awhile ago), Zane had been such a dickhead that it seemed fitting, plus it set up all the suspects neatly. But I wanted it clear that none of them were trying to kill him (except the one) they were all accidents or self-defense. The Orient Express murders were done deliberately and coordinated. And not funny.

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      1. Thank you! I always like knowing the backstory–and yes, it does come across that most of these folks were not trying to actually kill Zane. I’m sorry to hear that Orient is not funny (funny is my favorite), though I gather it’s brilliant and I still plan read it.
        Thank you also for noticing this late and lonely comment and taking the time to reply.

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        1. I read comments on the blog dashboard which means they show up in the order posted. Unless I check, I never know what post they’re for, so you were fine.

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