How to write a Christmas movie: the 10 festive film clichés you must include

If holiday season films are your favourite thing to watch, you’ll certainly recognise these familiar tropes

'The Princess Switch' (left) and 'A Christmas Prince' tick plenty of boxes when it comes to familiar festive movie plots and characters. Photo: Netflix
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It’s fair to say that every film genre has its tropes, clichés and stereotypes.

If you’re watching an action movie, you can be pretty sure that at some point there will be a fight or a car crash that no actual person would survive.

Ditto romcoms, in which two people with absolutely nothing in common will be walking down the aisle by the time the credits roll. That’s just love, though, right?

For those with a taste for dystopia, you can bet that the youngster with the odd yet remarkably on-point survival skills living out in the sticks will ultimately be leading the revolution before you get to the bottom of your tub of popcorn.

That’s not to criticise the clichés. After all, they’re part and parcel of what makes a movie fun.

With that in mind, if you’ve been bingeing on festive films, and thinking to yourself: “Hang on, haven’t I seen this plot or character before?”, then you might like to try your hand at writing your own Christmas movie.

And if you do, here are 10 plot devices and characters to include …

The female lead must be a journalist, writer or blogger

You’ll need a female protagonist who lives in a huge, shabby-chic apartment right in the heart of LA, Chicago or London – apparently these are the only cities in Christmas movies.

She must have plenty of free time to meet her only friend (see below) for coffee as well as the financial resources to jet off to fake European countries (again, see below) at a moment’s notice.

But rather than make her a wealthy chief executive or even an airline pilot, which would be handy what with all the jetting off, she must only be a journalist, writer or blogger. They make loads of money, right?

Start with a voice-over

How else will you set the tone for the entire film if not for a voice-over telling your audience what to think?

Anything else would involve stuff like “using your imagination” and “writing dialogue” in a way that “explained” things.

No. Far easier to have your female journalist / writer / blogger kick things off by saying: “It started, as it always does, with …” before mentioning something that has never realistically started anything. Like a pineapple stuck in an air conditioning filter or something.

Add plenty of royals (and fake European countries)

Royals are big business in Christmas movies.

Be sure to give them suitably uptight names that really hammer home how posh and rich they are because American audiences love that kind of thing.

The Grand Archduke Snooty of Poshington, or Countess Swiss Bank Account of House Patek Phillippe – that kind of thing.

You’ll also need a made-up European-sounding country, because setting your film in Belgium simply won’t do. Something like Eurolandia, the Principality of Pattisserivia, Romania, Moldova … No, wait, those last two are real.

Bonus points for having a couple of conniving courtiers in the palace.

The main characters must hate each other

It’s either hate one another with a passion or enjoy a ridiculous case of mistaken identity when they first meet.

"Oh, so you thought I was genuinely a circus acrobat when what I was actually doing was trying to source some ice cream for my pet marmoset monkey!"

Or: "And you thought I was trying to rob you when in actual fact I was merely borrowing your prize-winning turnip in order to ensure the local children’s Christmas play went off without a hitch!"

The elaborate scheme

You can be as elaborate as you like, but ultimately the only plot device you need is the one where the main characters pretend to be the boyfriend or girlfriend of the other main character in order to keep their marriage-obsessed parents off their back for the duration of the festive period.

But will they fall in love for real by the end credits? Who knows!

(Spoiler: Yes. Yes they will.)

The inappropriate character

The inappropriate character is the Falstaffian foil called upon to introduce awkwardness when the script starts to flag.

Cut to old folks doing “youth” stuff like TikTok dances or saying “lit”. Preternaturally mature young children giving simple-yet-sage life advice to adults in ways that make you start to question the intelligence of your own offspring. The wacky cousin who drops by for the holidays to crash on your couch and walk around the apartment in just their underpants and a snorkel mask.

The only friend

Main characters require a best friend. Only one though. People in Christmas movies only have one friend, and they rely on that person for absolutely everything. Truly, it must be mentally and emotionally draining being the Christmas movie best friend.

The friend must be available to the journalist / writer / blogger (or architect / lawyer / vaguely outdoorsy person if they're male) at all times and across all time zones.

Initially they will give stupid advice which the main character will follow blindly. Later, they will speak only in platitudes and say stuff like: “You need to follow your heart” as if that absolves them from all their previously rubbish guidance.

The weird boss

As well as only having one friend, the main character will have a relationship with their boss that no one has ever had in the history of boss-worker relationships.

The boss will do random stuff like turn up unannounced at their huge apartment with a llama in tow, join them in the office bathroom stall for chats about a date they just went on, and fly across the country or perhaps the world to visit them because they “sensed” they were needed. Rather than just email and ask where the annual reports are the way a normal boss would.

Bonding over something utterly obscure

“You enjoy underwater basket weaving in Bhutanese salt lakes at high tide when there’s a Z in the month? Oh wow, me too!”

“You love the hermit Mongolian pseudo-fantasy fiction literary genre? That's crazy, so do I!”

“You’re allergic to the sticky part of Post-it notes? This is almost unbelievably insane!”

Have a message

Look, no one’s going to care about your Christmas movie without “the message.”

And if it’s not ultimately about stopping being such a workaholic so you can meet your future spouse, or stepping out of your comfort zone so you can meet your future spouse, or making some absolutely ridiculously stupid life-changing decision (egged on by “the only friend”) so you can meet your future spouse, then it’s back to the drawing board for a rewrite.

Updated: December 09, 2021, 3:32 AM