On Writing – Blending Humour with Emotion

Blending Humour With Emotion

I find the idea of talking about “humour” in the context of romantic fiction difficult. It is a truth universally acknowledged that while many of the techniques of writing can be taught, I doubt that humour is one of them.

What makes us laugh, what makes us cry is deeply personal. It is who we are and can never be forced. It only works as part of our unconscious writing voice. Something that comes naturally.

The stuff that occasionally spills over into my books, comes directly from my family. My Dad didn’t tell jokes, but he had a dry wit, as did my husband.

I had an aunt who could reduce us all to helpless tears of laughter when she talked about her life in service.

It wasn’t Downton Abbey.

May worked as a cleaner and barmaid in a large town pub. She’d tell us about dressing up in Mrs’ fur coat, smoking her cigarettes while she whizzed the carpet sweeper around the bedrooms. With all the actions. But she visited the old lady in her care home until she died.

And my mother, bless her, always knew what she meant but often said something very different. She died thirty years ago but her “sayings” have slipped into the family lexicon and when I find myself saying them it always brings a smile to my face, usually with a tear on the side.

Humour evoking emotion.

But I never set out to write romantic “comedy”.

I wanted to write for Mills and Boon and when I began my apprenticeship, writing the books that would be rejected, that meant the dark, dramatically emotional stories pouring from the pens of Charlotte Lamb and Anne Hampson.

Charlotte and Anne

They were doing what we all aspired to. Living in tax exile. Charlotte lived on the Isle of Man. Anne Hampson’s four book contract to launch Silhouette bought her a house in the West Indies.

I really, really wanted to be Anne Hampson so I wrote three dark, dramatic books that were — with good reason — turned down. The word “wooden” is burned into my brain.

My fourth attempt had a revenge scenario. My heroine was going to get her own back on the arrogant hero. I can’t remember why. The assistant editor who read it I was later told, had written me a very encouraging rejection letter.  When it passed the series editor’s desk for signature (this was in the days before email when manuscripts had to be sent by post – with the return postage!!) she asked to see what I’d written.

I’d failed at dark and dramatic. It was the touch of humour that got me over the first hurdle.

Just the first. I was told that my conflict wasn’t strong enough to carry the story and the woman who became my first editor suggested I think again, rewrite the first three chapters and send them to her.

Not a rejection. This was encouragement. I had written something that had caught an editor’s interest. It was my big moment.

I walked around in a bit of a daze for two weeks, just thinking and that was when something weird happened

The basic set-up, the frame of the story remained the same but instead of driving the agenda, I put my feminist heroine in a high-stakes situation where, in order to gain something of huge importance to her, she has to work with a man she’d met before. And yes, of course, it was in circumstances that meant she never wanted to meet him again. A tried and tested trope – do not dismiss them.

As a famous Irish comedian once said, “It’s the way I tell ’em.”

This was over thirty years ago, when romances were pretty much all dark and dramatic but in An Image of You, my feisty feminist heroine and her outrage at having to work on a photographic shoot for a Pirelli style calendar gave me humour.

Her every hackle is raised, but with no choice but agree to this challenge, she’s determined that the hero won’t recognise her.

Not revenge, but survival, and the minute she began to put together her disguise, everything fell into place.

So how does humour work in romance?

I imagine you all watch romcom movies?

Which are the ones that stay with you?

    • My Big Fat Greek Wedding
    • Pretty Woman
    • 27 Dresses

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, suddenly, it’s not funny at all, because this is her life. Always playing second fiddle to the girl who 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. He presses for more. She obliges with 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 trickles in, along with the emotion. It’s interwoven with character.

It’s about stuff that the reader instantly gets, evoking a response.

It’s the moment in Tempted by Trouble when my heroine opens the door in her “scrubbing the floor clothes” to a drop dead gorgeous man. Attempting nonchalance, she whips off her Marigolds and tosses them over her shoulder.

It has a touch of the Charlie Chaplin’s and would work as a visual gag in a movie but we’ve all been caught out not looking out best and the reader will empathize with the heroine. She’ll be smiling, hopefully, but also feeling her pain.

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.

Humour is great but we’re in the “emotion” business and it’s the smile of recognition from the reader that you’re looking for, recognition that will heighten the emotion.

So where do we find the smiles?

I was hoping 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 checked out books that seemed to offer the highest humour to emotion ratio, but unfortunately I don’t write handy snippets. I couldn’t find a humorous build-up followed by an emotional twist. The scenes tended to be long, switching back and forth between smiles, pain, and the occasional tear.

It does help if you start by putting your heroine in a situation with comic potential.

‘Elf & Safety

Commissioned to write a book for a mini series called The Fun Factor, in Mistletoe and the Lost Stiletto I had my heroine hiding out from her beastly ex as an elf in Santa’s Grotto.

It was a gift but while she’s making a fool of herself entertaining the children, the reader sees the scene through the hero’s eyes and he’s enchanted.

In Wedding At Leopard Tree Lodge, I set a celebrity wedding in the a remote safari lodge in Botswana. 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. From the minute the monkey stole the heroine’s toast there was only one way this was heading. But a shortage of rooms for the A list guests, jetlag, a bridesmaid catfight and absconding caterers were balanced against high stakes for the heroine and an emotional minefield for the hero.

In The Secret Life of Lady Gabriella, the story opens with Ellie March, a widowed drop-out teacher, working as a cleaner and house-sitter to support her dream of writing the great historical romance.

She has a drawer full of rejected manuscripts and she’s a bit of a joke at her writers’ circle. One evening, the exercise is to  write and submit an article for a magazine from a pile provided by the tutor. She’s late and all that’s left is “Milady” magazine.

In response to the sniggers, she writes a diary piece – ”Lady Gabriella’s Journal” — and has the last laugh when the formidable editor of Milady invites her to come and talk about a monthly lifestyle column.

It’s time to confess that it’s wasn’t real, just a writing exercise. She’s not a “Lady”, doesn’t have a home of her own, or a family and “entertaining” involves a phone call to the local takeaway. Or is it?

This is her carpe diem moment.

She’s a writer. She can use her imagination, so before she can lose her nerve, she borrows her sister’s suit and pearls and Ellie March is transformed into Lady Gabriella March at which point 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…

Until then she’s treating is a bit of a joke, but she’s caught out by the word “husband”.

Is she betraying the memory of her beloved husband, killed in road accident, by pretending to be this domestic titled goddess with three perfect children and a pony in the paddock?


Memory is the trigger, 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 tap into that resource, using it in the same way that a method actor reaches into himself, searching his own experiences to create a living, breathing character.

Think of 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 eyelids.

Present laughter evoking a memory, an absence, that has tears in our eyes before we know it.

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, along with 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 I thought how much my mother would have loved that, I was reaching for the tissues…

Music can do it, too. You’re at a party, dancing, having a good time and then there’s a song 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, a day on the beach…

Tap into those memories, use them and you can turn a scene from laughter to tears.

In the first of my ice cream trilogy, Tempted By Trouble, My heroine’s back story includes her flighty mother whose three daughters were each fathered by a different — and absent — man.

She makes light of it to Sean, and the fact that they all have February birthdays. Teasing him that if they are seen together the village busybodies will be marking their calendars and counting down the months.

My hero, sensing a story, is more interested in what happens in the summer and she finds herself telling him how, every June when the travelling fair comes to the village, she watches the men putting up the rides, the marquees. Looking for a likeness. Trying to 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 and wish he was still young.’

The comedy grows out of situation, the emotion comes from the character. Sean, who has father issues of his own, feels her need and gives her a different perspective – one that comes from his own loss and the scene turns on a sixpence.

In romance you can have emotion without humour, but you cannot have humour without emotion.

(I’m highlighting that because after I have a talk at the Romantic Novelists Conference, best-selling author Julie Cohen told me that was a light-bulb moment for her.)

We struggle to find fresh and exciting plots for our stories – conflict situations that throw our hero and heroine into a crucible where they are held together and forced to confront feelings they would rather ignore.

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 time.

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 compelling because, for her heart’s sake, it has to be resisted.

She wants to experience that moment of attraction. To ride the highs. 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 our books out of the hundreds 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 simplest and most complex of feelings we 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 don’t pause to think, to 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.

Love and hate

These  are the two powerful emotions that drive the best and the worst in us and the reader wants to feel every throat drying, stomach clenching moment.

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.

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 of pleasure or pain that lodge in the memory.

Eight years old, riding on the back of my Dad’s motorcycle on a Sunday morning trip to Christmas Common when the bluebells were in flower. The excitement of the speed, the colour, the lime green spurge that grew in the ditch. It all came vividly back when I read the opening of Enduring Love by Ian McEwan.

And I can still conjure up a moment, fifty years ago, when alone in my flat in Lusaka, someone tried to break in. I was frozen, my throat clammed with fear, unable to speak, scream, move.

You may not have been through the same experience as your characters, but we all have those moments buried in our memory.  Dig deep. Bring your own experience to the table, use it to colour your writing, give power to your character’s feelings.

Use your experience to surprise her, enchant her, terrify her.

Make her feel what you felt…

We’ve all read those skim over the surface sentences.

    • She hurt.
    • Her heart was breaking.
    • It was like nothing she’d felt before.

They give the reader nothing. I want to know how she’s hurting. I want to feel her heart break, feel the awe of the new.

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 to be real.

Put yourself in your heroine’s shoes, 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.

For more insights into writing romance fiction (and a lot of help for any other kind of fiction, too!) grab a digital download or paperback copy of Liz’s Little Book of Writing Romance.

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