The basic set-up, the frame of the story remained the same but instead
of driving the agenda, my heroine is trapped in a high stakes situation
where, in order to gain something of huge importance to her, she has to
work with the man of her nightmares. They’ve met before, but it’s vital,
for the sake of her goal, that he does not recognise her.
Not revenge, but survival.
The minute she began to put together her disguise, everything fell into
Humour wasn’t a Mills and Boon thing back then but the editor who’d seen
something in my writing loved it, An Image of
You was published by them and the rest, as they say, is
I imagine, since you’re obviously interested in humour, that you all
watch romcom movies?
Which are the ones that stay with you, that you go back to?
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Sleepless in Seattle
You’ve Got Mail
What are the scenes that you remember?
The dress scene in 27 Dresses? Where she’s dashing across the screen in
outfit after outfit and she’s laughing and he’s laughing, but then you
realise that it’s not funny at all, because this is her life. Always
playing second fiddle to the girl that got the guy.
And there’s a scene in Pretty Woman, when Julia and Richard have an
argument at a polo match. He knows she’s ticked off, but when he asks
her about it, she just says she’s “fine”. He’s not convinced and he asks
her for a different word – he wants something a little more telling than
just “fine”. She gives him an unflattering expletive and he mutters, “I
think I liked fine better.”
It’s a simple line that doesn’t diminish the emotion of the scene, but
injects a brief moment of humour at low point for both of them.
And a wry smile does the job.
Humour isn’t one big laugh dumped into the middle of a scene. It tends
to trickle in, along with the emotion. It’s interwoven with character.
It’s about stuff that the reader instantly gets, that will evoke a
Opening the door in your “scrubbing the floor clothes” to a drop dead
gorgeous man and attempting nonchalance as you toss your Marigolds over
your shoulder. It has a touch of the Charlie Chaplin’s about it. It
would work as a visual gag in a movie. But the point is that most women
will be empathising with the heroine. Smiling, hopefully, but also
feeling her pain. Who hasn’t been caught out in unflattering gear?
It’s a smile rather than a belly laugh; this isn’t comedy, it’s romance
and you’re less likely to fall flat on your face with humour if you
steer clear of pratfalls.
We’re in the “emotion” business and it’s the smile of recognition from
the reader that will heighten the emotion.
So where do we find the smiles?
The great Ray Galton, talking about Hancock’s Half Hour once said that
humour comes from situation and character. He and his partner, Alan
Simpson, had to fight the programme’s producer to get rid of the jokes.
Get rid of Kenneth Williams with his funny voices and catch phrases.
It was only when they’d pared their scripts to the bone — to character
and situation — that the series touched something deeper with the
viewers and became an enduring classic.
So how can you do that?
I was trying to find some moment in one of my books to demonstrate the
switch from humour to empathy, a snippet I could read to you and say
there – see - that’s how you do it.
I re-read the books that seemed to offer the highest humour to emotion
ratio, but apparently I don’t write handy snippets. The scenes were
long, and didn’t involve a humorous build-up followed by an emotional
twist. The scenes were long and switched back and forth between smiles,
aches, and the occasional tear.
Finally, I realised I’d have to talk about humour and emotion
First, the humour. It helps if you start by putting your heroine in a
situation with comic potential.
Commissioned to write a book for a mini series called The Fun Factor, I
had my heroine hiding out from her beastly ex as an elf in Santa’s
In Wedding At Leopard Tree
Lodge, I set a celebrity wedding in the wilderness. This was a story
that could have gone either way since both hero and heroine had a big
dark hole in their lives.
The opportunity for disaster was too tempting, however.
A shortage of rooms for the A list guests, jetlag and a bridesmaid
catfight were balanced against high stakes for the heroine and an
emotional minefield for the hero. The minute the monkey stole the
heroine’s toast – she was … toast.
The Secret Life of Lady Gabriella, the story opens with Ellie
March, a widowed drop-out teacher, working as a cleaner to support her
dream of writing the great historical novel.
She’s been invited the formidable editor of “Milady” magazine to discuss
Lady Gabriella’s Journal – a fictitious diary piece she’s written as a
exercise set at her writers’ group. There’s only one problem. They think
she really is Lady Gabriella March.
She’d never meant to take it this far.
Never expected to get this far.
Wouldn’t be here if the idea of her contributing saleable copy to a
magazine aimed directly at ladies who lunched, gossiped and shopped,
hadn’t produced such howls of mirth at her writers’ group.
She’d set out to show them…
Famous last words.
Until that moment it’s been pretty much straight comedy. It’s a game, a
bit of laugh but now she’s being offered a contract for a regular
contribution based on her own experiences of entertaining, household
management, family life. There’s just one small problem or three. She’s
not a “Lady”, she doesn’t have a home, or a family, and any entertaining
she does involves a phone call to the local takeaway. And what the heck
was household management when it was at home?
Okay – This is chapter one and if she owns up, confesses that it’s all a
joke, there isn’t going a book. So …
…she tuned out the voice of sanity.
Chances like this were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and no one knew
better than she did that they had to be grabbed with both hands.
She’d worry about the children and the household management later. There
were books. The internet…
As for her “husband”…
For a moment Ellie was assailed by such an ache of loneliness, loss. How
could she do this…? Pretend…
She’s caught out by the word “husband”… Is she betraying the memory of
her dead husband, her childhood sweetheart, by pretending to be this
domestic goddess with her titled husband, three perfect children and a
pony in the paddock?
Memory is the trigger to turning that moment when you’re smiling with
the heroine, to the prickle of tears.
We’re all sponges, soaking up images, sounds, feelings. Laying down
memory. As writers we have to tap into our emotions, use them in the
same way that a method actor reaches into himself, searching his own
experiences, memories to create a living, breathing character.
Search your memory for an occasion when, one moment you’ve been
laughing, on top of the world celebrating some achievement with family,
friends and then, without warning, there’s a prickle behind your
Present laughter evoking a memory that has tears in our eyes before we
What emotional trigger has caught you out that way?
For me it was at my daughter’s wedding. Not the moment when she walked
in on her father’s arm. Not the vows. It was the moment when she and her
new husband, and all the members of the band he plays with lined up to
perform air guitar to some rock number on the dance floor. It made me
laugh and then, as thought how much my mother would have loved that, it
made me cry…
Music can do it, too. You’re at a party, dancing, having a good time and
then a song will come on that evokes a memory and you fall apart…
It isn’t always the big occasions that get you and, maybe, for the
writer it’s the small things that are the most valuable. Picking the
first strawberry from your garden, making a daisy chain with your
daughter, building a sandcastle can spark a tender memory. My Dad used
to make the world’s greatest sandcastles…
Tap into those moments, use them and you can turn a scene from laughter
In the first of my ice cream trilogy,
Tempted By Trouble, Elle’s
back story includes her flighty mother who had three daughters, each
fathered by a different — and absent — man.
She makes light of it to Sean, making light of the fact that they all
have February birthdays. Making light of the fact that, if they were
seen together, the village biddies would be marking their calendars and
counting down the months.
He’s more interested in what happens in June and she finds herself
telling him how, every year when the travelling fair comes to the
village, she stands on the sidelines watching the men putting up the
rides, the marquees. Looking for a likeness. Trying spot the man who
might be her father.
That’s one twist of the emotional knife, but then Sean says:
‘I think it’s far more likely that some man would look up, see you with
the sun shining on your hair and remember a long ago summer interlude
with a beautiful woman. And wish he was still young.’
And that’s the one that gets you.
The comedy grows out of situation, the emotion comes from the character.
Sean has father issues of his own, he feels her need and he gives her a
different perspective – one that comes from his own loss and the scene
turns on a sixpence.
You can have emotion without humour. In romance, you cannot have humour
We go to extraordinary lengths to find fresh and exciting plots for our
stories. We conjure up hurricanes, make or break fashion collections,
desperate boardroom takeover battles, paper marriages – conflict
situations that throw our hero and heroine into a crucible where they
are held together and forced to confront feelings they would rather
But these are merely frames. Romantic fiction is character led and what
brings readers back to our books time and time again is not the frame,
the situation we have created to give our heroes and our heroines a hard
They come back for the emotion generated by the conflicts, problems,
heartaches that we toss in their path like so many hand grenades.
Our reader wants to experience what the heroine is feeling. The
excitement, the raised heart rate, the pounding pulse. An attraction
that is all the more exciting, compelling because, for her heart’s sake,
it has to be resisted. She wants to experience that moment of
attraction. The highs and lows. To have her withers rung by a black
moment so dark that even when the heroine is proudly holding back her
tears, they are running down her own cheeks and dripping onto the page.
That roller-coaster emotional thrill is what she demands in return for
her trust in choosing your book out of the dozens laid out before her in
the shop, library, on the internet.
That’s the promise you have to deliver on.
As human beings, we're bombarded by emotion. These are the most simple
and complex of feelings we ever experience. They colour the way we see
the world. They drive our actions for good or ill. They provoke
tenderness or violence. Fight or flight.
They are simple because they are instinctive, intuitive, straight from
the gut. You do not think, rationalise your reactions. You are
overpowered, swept up by something raw, atavistic, beyond your control.
True emotion is without artifice, deceit. It is pure. Honest.
Don’t stop to think just write down one emotion. The first that comes
into your head. Now.
Now write the opposite.
How many of you didn’t write a four letter word?
How many of you wrote two four letter words?
Love and its opposite, hate. The two most powerful emotions we ever
experience. They drive the best and the worst in us. Pick up your pen
and show love or hate in a sentence.
Not the obvious, the easy. I love my children, or I hate cruelty is a
given. Stretch yourself.
Make it something real, honest, something that gives you that little
stomach clench of love, dries your throat with fear.
Surprise me. Enchant me. Terrify me.
Make me feel what you feel…
While emotion is simple, our response to it is as complex and individual
as the person feeling it. Your reaction to loss, joy, grief is the
result of everything that has happened to you. Your feelings at the
death of a much loved pet will be very different at the age of seven to
those when you’re seventy-seven. No less acute, but coloured by
experience, by the different place you are in your life. By the
acceptance, perhaps, that there will be no more pets, a recognition of
your own mortality.
Emotion is what makes us human and as a writer, your history will give
you the tools you need to write. Those moments that stay with you.
Incidents – often small in themselves – that leave a lingering sense of
outrage or pleasure. Of resentment, excitement, helplessness, warmth,
betrayal, injustice, embarrassment that lodge in the mind and years
later surface without warning, the feelings so vivid that you can still
feel the hot blush.
Even in middle age my mother still talked about the moment when a
teacher she loved accused her of something she hadn’t done, refused to
listen to her. He was behaving outside his normal character and even
though, as a adult, she understood that he was having a bad day – maybe
distracted by some personal problem – her emotional reaction fixed the
moment in her memory. She felt as betrayed at forty, as she had at ten
years old. We all have those moments in our lives. Use them.
The writer may not have been through the same experience as her
characters, but we have all felt those moments of joy, of tenderness. We
all know loss, heartbreak, the death of a loved one, the hollowness of
disappointment. Search your memory. Relive a moment you’d rather forget.
Bring your own experience to the table, use it to colour your writing,
give power to your character’s feelings.
We’ve all read those skim over the surface sentences.
Her heart was breaking.
It was like nothing she’d felt before.
I want to know how she’s hurting. I want to feel her heart break. As for
that unique experience, I want her to share it with me.
I don’t want it in black and white, and I don’t want it purple. I want
it in 3D technicolour but most of all I want it honest.
Put yourself in your heroine’s shoes, dig deep, live what she’s
experiencing. Make the reader feel it, too.
Humour, like angst, taps into the reader’s emotions.
If you can make her feel, you can make her smile.
And if you can make her smile, you can make her cry.