Let’s face it, the premise of a ‘rom com’ is pretty straightforward: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets the boy in the nick of time for the happy-ever-after. We know pretty early on what’s going to happen on the last page and who our happy couple will be. Writing a successful rom com is tricky because it’s much more difficult to keep readers on their toes when they already know how the story ends. It is our job as writers to keep that journey from the ‘meet-cute’ to the resolution as entertaining and as full of twists and turns as we possibly can.
Reader satisfaction is paramount to me: get it right and they’ll read your next; get it wrong and they might never pick up another of your books again.
I started writing in 2012 with my trusty Writing a Novel and Getting It Published for Dummies at one elbow and, rather optimistically, a copy of Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook at the other. I'm writing my seventh romantic comedy at the moment and have recently had my first foray into the UK bestseller list with my new paperback, Wickham Hall and over the past four years I hope I have learned a little about the elements necessary to write a successful romantic comedy.
Firstly, the genre is romantic comedy, not pure comedy. For me, this means that there are funny moments and that the tone is light-hearted and feel-good but I don’t feel the need to maintain a laugh-out-loud storyline throughout the whole novel. The humour element needs to feel natural, not forced, and although I do love a bit of situational comedy, most of my comedy comes from the things my characters say.
The setting is very important to me. My readers have become used to my fictional worlds being places that they’d love to escape to and in all but one of my books, I’d decided on the setting before the premise. Sometimes the setting is based on a real place; for example, Wickham Hall is loosely based on Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire and sometimes it is purely in my imagination, such as my current work in progress. Once I know where I'm going to set my book, I begin to develop a premise. For example, with Wickham Hall it started out as this: a girl gets her dream job as an events organiser in a stately home but away from work, her challenging home life is far more difficult to organise…
Getting my main characters right is the thing which I spend most time on the the planning stage. At this point, it doesn't matter to me what they look like - that can come later - but they absolutely must be compelling and interesting, even if not entirely likeable.
And at the heart of their personality is their back story, particularly that of my female lead. Once I've got this in place, her story arc and therefore, the plot of the novel begins to come together. A quick one-page back story is the first thing I write, even before the synopsis; it sets the tone of the book and serves as a constant reminder when I get stuck as to what she is trying to overcome and what happiness means to her.
Most of my readers are women and I need to get them on the side of ‘our girl’ from the very first page. I try and create a characters we can empathise with and whom we’d like to be friends with. She must intrigue us and above all, she must be interesting enough to keep readers turning the pages until she gets her happy ending.
The leading man must be someone we all fall a little bit in love with even though we can see he’s not perfect. A bit of vulnerability goes a long way and I'm always a sucker for someone who is kind to children and dogs!
The chemistry between our two main characters has to be there right from the beginning. Something must happen to make that first meeting memorable or to trigger a new element to an old friendship. The love story element must be credible. I do this by building the tension and attraction in the relationship between the two characters gradually so that the reader can see exactly how their feelings towards each other change throughout the book. Our female lead can’t suddenly see him in a different light three quarters of the way through and think ‘Ooh, I'm in love!’
Of course, the path of true love would be really boring if it didn't have a few boulders to dodge. But the trick of the ‘will-they, won’t they’, is to make it a rough ride for our protagonists, but at the same time, keep it realistic. Readers will see straight through any false obstacles. Keep to the theme and ramp up the stakes as the story unfolds. If our couple falls out because of a misunderstanding, make sure that there really wasn't a moment when they could so easily have got the whole thing out in the open and sorted out, otherwise the reader’s attention will wane.
The ending is so important; these are the last few pages that the reader is going to read of my book and if I want them to ever pick up one of my books again, I know have to deliver! The reader is expecting a happy and satisfactory ending and there is such a lot to do in those last few pages: tie up loose ends from all the sub-plots, reinforce the theme of the book, show how each of the main characters have grown throughout the book and of course, the big romantic scene.
My goal is for a reader to finish my romantic comedy novel with a big smile on her face, a tear in her eye and a vow to go straight to my backlist and read her way through it. Now that really is a happy ending!
Cathy Bramley is the author of the best-selling romantic comedies Ivy Lane, Appleby Farm, Conditional Love and Wickham Hall. She lives in a Nottinghamshire village with her family and a dog. Her recent career as a full-time writer of light-hearted, romantic fiction has come as somewhat of a lovely surprise after spending the last eighteen years running her own marketing agency. However, she has been always an avid reader, hiding her book under the duvet and reading by torchlight. She writes and reads everyday and loves books by Jenny Colgan, Jill Mansell and Marian Keyes. She can never say no to Reese’s Pieces. You can follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook.