Belinda Missen, author of Accidentally in Love, is here to give her top tips for rom-com writers. If you ever wanted the insider knowledge on the genre, keep reading!
There are never enough romantic comedies in the world. I’ve always advocated the idea that there’s plenty of room at the table for everyone when it comes to finding an audience. And, just as there are books filled with love, laughs and action, there are just as many telling us how to (or how not to) write.
Here are some of my tips and tricks. You all know the ‘read widely’ and ’trust your editor’ as standard fare but, here, I’d like to offer some points specifically for writing romantic comedies. As with all lists, take it with a grain of salt, boil it down, and take away the things you think you can use.
1. Get to know your characters
There’s no point tossing two romantic interests together on the page if you have no idea who they are. For me, the easiest way to get to know my characters is to interview them. Open up a fresh document and start typing your questions and their answers. You’ll be surprised where this takes you and what you learn about them. I’ve made the mistake of not doing this before, and it took me until draft three before the characters really came to life. Don’t be me. Meet your characters early.
2. The Struggle is real – conflict, tension and character arc
I once heard someone say that it’s difficult to create conflict in a romance. I disagree. It has to be central to the story – otherwise all your characters are doing is having a walk in the park, and how unsatisfying is that?
Conflict arises when wants and needs clash. For example, in Accidentally in Love, Katharine desperately wants to open her own art gallery. She knows that, for it to be a success, she needs to get Christopher on board. The only problem is, he has other wants (to be left alone) and needs (to get his art school fully functioning) that come into conflict with Katharine’s plans. And that’s where their conflict begins. The good thing about conflict is that it will help them learn and grow into each other, too.
Tension is more or less the big “will they, won’t they” question that hangs over the entire book; the peaks and troughs that keep you wondering if love will find the way. Don’t make it too easy for your two to fall in love and skip off into the sunset. Make them work for their happily ever after, force them over some hurdles. Or, as I once heard it put: make them climb a tree, then throw rocks at them.
3. Holding Out for A Hero – let’s meet (cute) him!
Pop into a conversation of romance readers, writers or aficionados, and there’s one thing we all agree on. The meet cute must pop! It signals to your reader that these two idiots here, they’re the ones you want to root for – even if they don’t quite know it yet.
It doesn’t have to be a massive moment, either. It can be something as simple as spilled orange juice, (Notting Hill), escaping an argument on a train (Before Sunrise), or accidentally swearing at a new boss (Love, Actually), we just know that this is the moment that’s going to change our characters’ lives for the better. Yes, I love Hugh Grant romcoms. Thank you.
P.S. Don’t make your readers wait too long to meet the love interest. The sooner we meet him, the sooner we get the front row seat to watch sparks fly. Speaking of …
4. Chemistry – it’s not just Bunsen burners
Remember making volcanos in school; a little vinegar and some bicarb and you had a big frothy mess? That’s what we want here. Of course your MC needs to have a certain chemistry with everyone in their story, but we want it to be so palpable between our love interests that readers are begging to see them together on the page again. And again … and again.
So, how do we achieve this? A lot of it is just je ne sais quoi. The rest of it can be as simple as snarky banter (my absolute fave), the quiet moments of sharing histories (especially that stuff our characters don’t tell anyone else), or non-verbal cues such as looking, touching, or smiling. Holding the door open with a gentle guide on the base of the back? Yes, please!
5. Comedy is subjective – and bloody difficult to write
Comedy. It’s the cute outfit that romance wears to the bakery to buy croissants. It’s also one of my favourite things in the world. But it comes with a word of warning: comedy is literally the hardest thing to write. It’s true. While I revel in the laughs of Fleabag and sit in awe of the way Hannah Gadsby crafts her jokes in Nanette and Douglas, so too will other people be sitting there thinking, ‘This isn’t funny at all’.
And what is considered funny changes by the day. We’re no longer looking at insult comedy for laughs (thankfully), and more about intellectual comedy (taps fingers together – excellent). But how can you slip your own brand of humour into your work?
Persiflage: or as we commonly know it – banter. I love me a bit of quality banter. It’s my favourite thing to write and my favourite thing to read because, if you can hook me on two characters who keep flinging (well-intentioned) barbs at each other, I’m hooked. If it happens to impart information about our characters, even better.
Situational comedy: This is as simple as it sounds. An everyday situation that your character finds themselves in can provide ample comedy. In a very early draft of One Week ‘Til Christmas, Tom enlists his grandmother to help find Isobel. It’s a caper across London until, finally happening upon Isobel in Piccadilly Circus, Grandma flirts her way into a date with someone who’d simply asked for a cigarette lighter. All, of course, while Tom and Isobel look on in shock.
A play on words: the English language is a funny creature, and simply changing words, introducing puns, fiddling with phonetics and using double entendres can change the entire meaning of a sentence, making it one that both tells us about the character, and draws laughter at the same time.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are heaps of other types of comedy out here. If you can managed to combine a few types into the one joke, you’re on a winner.
6. It’s not always in the grand gestures
While everyone loves a limousine under the window, a boombox blaring Peter Gabriel (and I love PG), or a flash mob at the train station, there’s a place for grand gestures – and that’s at the end of the book, when each character realises they’ve made epically silly mistakes and pulls out all the stops to right their wrongs and declare their love.
However, in the bulk of the book, romance is a subtle burning ring of fire that happens in time with the main plot of the book. It starts in the chemistry of longing looks, the confessional conversations, unexpected late-night car drives, and builds into characters doing things as thoughtful as bringing someone a loaf of bread and pint of milk (it works, trust me), helping them out with an interview they’ve had trouble getting, or giving them the opportunity to live out their dreams. Even if it is something small, if it’s showing that one character has thought of the other when normally they (or other people) wouldn’t, then you’re on to a winner.
I’m also not one for making romance the entire scope of a book. If I can read about a strong character who finds the love of their life while also kicking some absolute life goals, it’s a chef’s kiss from me.
7. Burn clichés at the stake
See what I did there? Yeah. While the romance world is full of tropes (and tropes that we love), there’s no need to double up and fill your writing full of clichés. Play around with metaphors and similes.
In Accidentally in Love, when Katharine describes herself as the rice paper roll of the art world, I get a giggle – not just because it says a lot about how she feels right now, but because I’m picturing her as an actual rice paper roll. But at least she doesn’t say ‘I’m as transparent as glass’. It’s old. Toss it in the bin.
8. The One Where The Heroine Saves Herself
Throughout the course of our main character’s journey it’s important that they don’t rely on the knight in shining armour to come and solve all their problems. It’s infinitely more satisfying to see our hero roll on into the closing credits having sorted their issues, saved the day, and built an empire from the ground up, all while learning life’s sweet lessons and knowing that the love of their now significant other will be a welcome addition.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Accidentally in Love is out now in e-book. Download your copy of this utterly uplifting, laugh-out-loud romcom here.