The Art of the Rom Com
As movies like To All The Boys I've Loved Before continue to pop up on Netflix, we turn to experts Rachel Dove, Amy Andrews and Avril Tremayne for Rom-Com tips.
Rachel Dove - Flying The Flag For Funny
Netflix has recently done many of us true romantics proud, by 'bringing back' the rom-com and adapting some great books into films in the YA and rom-com genre. The Kissing Booth, All The Boys I've Loved Before, Isn't It Romantic, My Forever Girl. (Well, My Forever Girl is not really a rom-com, but I am a sucker for heartfelt and country music smushed together—see also Dumplin').
The truth is though, for many years, rom-com writers have already been there, flying the flag for funny and comical romance, heartfelt moments interspersed with embarrassing and relatable dating mishaps, all written and reviewed as 'easy reads' and 'frothy'.
In reality though, how hard is it to write a rom-com? Very hard, actually. Those 'easy reads' are actually skillfully plotted, by women and men who want you to fall in love, feel all the feels and belly laugh till you beg for mercy. Think of some of the darkest times of your life, if you will. Was there humor there? I guarantee, at some point someone made a joke, or burped from the effect of a nervous tummy, and everyone laughed. A moment shared together. In dark times, we seek to comfort each other. With me, I have a built in Chandler reflex that often comes out in my writing. Give me a bleak situation, what do I do? I reach for the quick one liner, the odd knock knock joke, the finger guns. Many of us use humor to get through life, and the world is full of laughs and unique situations that we then make our characters endure and navigate through, all whilst the readers laugh and nod their heads at the situations they can relate to from their own lives.
In The Fire House on Honeysuckle Street, I write about a man in search of his family, his roots, and a boy with autism who is trying to navigate the world. Heartfelt, yes? Of course, but lots of humor and cute situations there too. (And a hot fireman, obvs. You're welcome!)
There's no coincidence that we love the humor of the likes of Ricky Gervais, with his real world observations and poke at everyday situations that we find ourselves in. The Office is basically a rom-com with gusto. We have the funny side characters, the main figurehead who the show focuses on, the burgeoning romance between the receptionist and the jaded and sarcastic office worker. We even have the love rat in the form of her warehouse boyfriend. We laugh at the mundane conversations, the awkward looks to the camera. Me? I was rooting for Martin Freeman to scoop up the blonde, punch the love rival in the face with a ream of paper, and toddle off into the sunset in one of the office vans.
In writing rom-coms, we often find that the love rats are more than two dimensional characters. Daniel Cleaver for example, love rat king—is he all bad, or misunderstood? Mark Darcy isn't all good, after all. Characters have flaws, and their traits, whilst generally consistent in the beginning, causing those barriers to the HEA, are not one thing or the other.
Rom-coms are much more than stolen kisses, and lost looks. It's more than cheap thrills and heart-stopping last minute running to the airport to get the boy/girl in the end. It's about the characters, the situations that they find themselves in, and the way they deal with them, overcome the odds, and get their happily ever after. We know that they will end up together in the end, but it's the journey, the little moments along the way that we read avidly. We cheer our characters on, whether they get their just desserts or their dreams come true. We all want to experience the love, the closeness, and the way that people bond and are forever altered by the other. Whether they are a sparkly vampire, or a big-panted woman trying to grow up and figure out adulthood, it's their story we cheer on. Making that funny, and noticing the sweet moments in the every day, that's the knack.
Wanting to write rom-com? Here are my best tips!
1. Learn from the masters. Read the people out there writing these books, see how they do it, learn what you love best, and what sparks in your imagination. Remember too, that love doesn't end at 22! Older characters can still fall in love, and have sex. Shock, horror, I know! You want to write about older characters, or same sex? Great, I do! Love is love.
2. Write. Write. Write. Nothing but a bum on the seat will get it written. No fancy software will write it for you, just make time and write.
3. Watch TV! Yep, watch TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime etc. Watch the rom-com films, see what you love, what traits the characters had. If you had to write a character profile for them, could you identify their needs, wants, characteristics? Have a go at writing an extra scene from the film. Don't be afraid to play and have fun.
4. People watch and draw from experience. Had a love rat or two yourself? Join the club love. Kill your darlings. Leave them standing in the rain at the end of the book, crying over their singledom/new rash/love rat status. Use your experiences and the observations you make in real life in your work, but be careful! It is supposed to be fiction after all. Outing Kevin who dumped you in year nine for Tracy Chaplin might ruffle a few feathers come publication day. (Poor Kevin)
5. Draw your audience in. I am still very much learning this myself. Don't race to the end of the book. Layer the scenes, draw your readers in, throw a few obstacles in the way. Make your loved up couple work hard to find each other.
6. Have fun! There is so much doom and gloom in the world, it's no coincidence that these books are heralded as escapism. They take the best parts of life, mix the cute with the bittersweet. Just for a few hours, that 'easy read' that took months of hard work, plotting and gnashing of teeth takes us away from Trump, Brexit, bad weather and our day to day problems, and remind us that life and love really are amazing thing to experience. Add a few snorts of laughter to that, and we can rest easy in our well worn writing chairs with a smile, and a gem of an idea for the next book.
Amy Andrews - Don't Over-egg It
Romantic comedy is difficult to write. And I don’t mean that in a wanky, secret handshake, only-zee-special-flowers-get-zee-keys-to-the-funny-writing-vault, kind of way. I mean it’s difficult because comedy it’s so very subjective. What makes me smile/chuckle/snort-laugh will be different to what makes you smile/chuckle/snort-laugh.
You know that whole, I can’t really pinpoint what rom-com is exactly but I know it when I read it, thing?
Miriam Webster tells me that romantic comedy is a light, comic work whose plot focuses on the development of a romantic relationship. Easy, right? Have the hero and heroine in a ridiculous situation, throw in some jokes, a farting dog and sprinkle in the kissy-kissy and voilà!
Except what Miriam doesn’t say is that rom-com, IMHO, is a lot to do with author voice and that’s a lot harder to pin down than buying a gag book and letting yourself loose in front of the computer. Voice is something innate and difficult to “train”. I mean, not as impossible as remembering how to spell bureaucracy without the spell check on, but not exactly easy either.
Sometimes I think it’s easier to say what rom-com is not rather than what it is. And again, this will be entirely subjective so perhaps I should underscore this by saying what rom-com is not for me.
Rom-com is not a set number of jokes per page. Rom-com is not a bunch of slapstick occurrences which amount to the literary equivalent of watching someone repeatedly slipping on a banana peel. Rom-com is not a cha-ching-boom at the end of a line or an insert canned laughter here. Rom-com is not forced or constantly belting you over the head. For me, anyway.
I never sit down to a blank page in a brand new Word document and think, today I’m starting my romantic comedy. Today I’m going to be hilarious. Then pray like mad that the comedy gods pay me a visit. I’m at my desk to tell a story first—a love story. About characters (people!) I want my readers to root for. And it’s who those characters are and what happens to them and how they react where the potential for comedy lurks.
Sure, there can be great comedy in madcap situations and peopling your book with zany characters. Devices like that can do a lot of comedic heavy lifting for you through funny dialogue and kooky actions/reactions, but if your reader doesn’t care about your characters, if they’re just there to be two dimensional comedic relief, then the humor could fall flat.
The best kind of rom-com for me involves subtlety. Oftentimes the funniest moments in rom-coms, IMHO, are in the small things. A look, a throwaway line, some internal dialogue. A clever play on words. A character trait/tic. A recurring motif. A t-shirt with a witty slogan. A pet with a crazy name. I think it’s important to know that comedy doesn’t always come from the big and flashy.
My two best pieces of advice I can give to someone thinking about writing rom-com are this. Firstly—read! Yeah, I know it sounds obvious but it’s often something authors forget to do when they’re mired in deadlines and social media and promo schedules and, you know, the rest of their life. Read the best rom-com books around. Read a lot of them. How do your favourite rom-com authors do it? I remember reading my first ever Jennifer Crusie—Getting Rid of Bradley—about twenty years ago now and knowing I wanted to write books like that. I still remember that feeling, that light bulb moment. So I read everything rom-com I could find. I immersed myself in the best voices and learned from them and I’m still doing it, today.
Secondly. Don’t over-egg. The temptation when you’ve written that absolutely zinger of a funny line or observation is to embellish it. To add a little extra. To take it a little further. I understand this—I’ve fallen into that trap myself. And occasionally, it needs it. It’s better for it. Mostly though, it’s not. Don’t belabor humor. All that does is lessen the impact of your beautiful little zinger. Let it be, people. Let it stand in all its comedic glory and shine its little light for all to see.
And, if all else fails, add a farting dog. Nah…only joking.
Avril Tremayne - The WTF Category
Not all romances that make readers laugh are romantic comedies. The difference comes down to five specific elements that I think define a romantic comedy:
1. A larger-than-life premise
2. Quirky characters
3. A plot ripe with situationally comic possibilities
4. A madcap pace and tone
5. Bantering dialogue
A regular romance can include one or more of these elements, but for it to be a rom-com, it has to have them all.
I’m going to go through them using my favorite romantic comedy movie, What’s Your Number, as an illustrative example. (Hint: if you can’t imagine your book on the screen, it ain’t a rom com.)
A rom-com premise is grounded in a setting and situation that’s recognizable to readers, but it’s an invitation to a world that is brighter, bolder, funnier, crazier. Yes, it outlines a scenario that could happen, but it’s definitely in the WTF? category.
I’ll just jump in here with the premise of What’s Your Number?…
Horrified by a magazine article’s assertion that women who’ve had 20 sexual partners are unlikely to marry, Ally Darling—who’s chalked up 19 ex-partners!—sets off on a mission to find a husband among the men she’s already slept with.
The Cosmo-style article is something we recognize, but Ally’s reaction it is way over the top. That’s because this is a romantic comedy and there’d be no fun in her throwing that article in the bin and getting on with her life which is what most of us would do. [If you’re interested in a few other famous over-the-top rom-com premises, check out this article!]
To deliver an off-the-wall premise, off-the-wall characters are required.
My personal preference is for that off-the-wall character to be the lead character with the other characters acting as a foil, although it’s also fun to have the lead character play the straight man pushed into a crazy scheme by gossipy friends/eccentric family/annoying-as-hell happily married couples/wicked exes/backstabbing work colleagues… You get the picture.
In What’s Your Number?, Ally is established as a black sheep character who’d love to conform but can’t get it together. She’s the ‘bad’ daughter her mother disapproves of—desperate and dateless; her younger engaged sister is the ‘foil’—the ‘good’ daughter, engaged to be married. In the space of 24 hours, Ally breaks up with her latest boyfriend, loses her job, gets drunk at her sister’s engagement party, and wakes up to find the boss who sacked her in her bed. Yikes!
Our hero is Ally’s neighbor Colin, a struggling musician who comes from a family of cops and whose hobby is ‘digging up dirt’ on unsuspecting people. He’s a commitment-phobic man-whore who spends his mornings dodging his one-night stands until they leave his apartment. Not promising hero material—but he proves he’s on Ally’s wavelength when he helps her get that ex-boss out of her apartment, judgement-free. And when he professes admiration for the ‘freaky’ sculptures scattered around her apartment (her hobby, which nobody else ‘gets’) we know Ally has met her match.
The plot of What’s Your Number? is simple: Colin agrees to use his dirt-digging skills to locate Ally’s ex-lovers in return for access to her apartment to hide from his one-night stands. He tracks them down one-by-one, she tries to reinvigorate a relationship with them, then she and Colin conduct a postmortem after each encounter (hilariously) fails. Over the course of Ally’s mission to find ‘the one’ she discovers Colin is the one…
Episodic plots like this are common in romantic comedy: ticking things off a list, counting down to an event, going through a series of dates or lessons or tests to reach a goal—these situations provide a framework for isolating the two leads in a shared mission that will turn them into a couple, while also rolling out a series of mini comedies.
That’s the fun part! But love is serious business even in a romantic comedy, and our protagonists have to step it up and learn and/or change something about themselves to claim their happily-ever-after. I tend to use a subplot to drag them into the real world where they have to confront their feelings for each other and either accept or reject them—kind of like saying playtime’s over.
In What’s Your Number? the subplot is Ally’s sister’s wedding, the preparations for which proceed in tandem with Ally and Colin’s ex-hunting mission. The end goal of course is the wedding itself, for which Ally needs a date to make her mother happy and stop herself from feeling like a loser. The plot and subplot intersect when Ally tells her sister Colin will be her date, and her sister’s disapproval of the kind of man he is sets off the movie’s ‘black moment’. I’ll leave it there because...spoilers!
4. Pace and tone
The premise and the plot set the tone to a large extent. It’s the situations in which your protagonists find themselves that are funny, so there’s no need for a comedy routine full of jokes. There are a few additional things to consider, though:
Your lead characters should be active not passive. When things go wrong for them, readers must be made to empathize but keep self-pity and self-flagellation to a minimum and instead have them throw themselves into finding a solution—the more unorthodox the better.
Find the humor even in the most serious moments—maybe it’s nothing more than a one-line quip or a sotto voce aside, but find something. Even the final declaration of love forevermore should have a lighthearted moment.
The reason romantic comedies translate well to the screen is because they’re dialogue-driven, so limit the deep and meaningful introspection, which can slow the pace, and do your best to use conversations and actions to uncover their thoughts.
On the subject of dialogue, your lead characters must indulge in banter. Make it fast, make it feisty, fill it with sexual innuendo; use it to pit your hero and heroine against each other but don’t be vicious because it must simultaneously demonstrate their compatibility. Please check out this little scene from What’s Your Number?, which hits all the right notes!
Now all that’s left to say is: have fun!
Are you a Rom-com fan? Do you or have you ever tried to write Rom-coms? When writing, can you see the scenes of your story play out like a movie? Let us know in the comments or join the #RomComTips discussion on our Social Media.