Pink Heart Society regular, Avril Tremayne, is talking about how to balance comedy with dark moments in your writing.
Back in the day, I wanted to be a stage actor, so I’ve seen a lot of theatre in my time. But of all those plays, the one performance I will always remember is the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Irish playwright Patrick McDonagh, which starred the fabulous Pamela Rabe and Maggie Kirkpatrick.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a black comedy about an elderly mother and her ‘spinster’ daughter, who live together in a remote Connemara village. And yes, it is funny. And it is most definitely black.
I remember sitting in the dark with my husband, the Hon, initially just thrilled to be there, as I always am in a theatre...and then laughing out loud as the relationship between the mother and daughter unfolded in a series of hilariously toxic quips and stings…and then, in one brutally unexpected moment, a dark malevolence permeated the stage with one action, and suddenly I wasn't laughing any more.
I knew, in my analytical brain, that the clues to that moment were there from the start – in the sets, the props, the jokes – but nevertheless, I was chilled to the bone. Sitting here so many years later typing this, I can still feel the exquisite horror of that moment. (But I won't go into what happens for those who may yet see it and don't want to know.)
These days, in my own work, I call that moment the Aarrrggghh moment – and I keep it in mind from the first word I type, even though I never know how my story will actually unfold. (I'm a pantser, not a plotter.)
You might think that's a bit weird for a romantic comedy writer. After all, laughs, banter, and back-and-forth wit are my hallmarks – even a little slapstick if I can get away with it. But every writer needs to give their readers an Aarrrggghh jolt at some point, and in my view, the bigger the shift – say, from humour to high drama, after you've lulled everyone into a false sense of comedic security – the bigger and more satisfying the jolt.
Since it's Writer's Wednesday, I thought I'd share with you my three basic rules for wringing the most out of the Aarrrggghh moment, using a few examples from my own books (with bolding where necessary for effect) for those who want to see it in practice:
1. Lay the clues out for the reader early.
The shock of the Aarrrggghh has to be believable, so let the readers get a sense that there will be blood (even if it’s only metaphorical blood) from the get go, preferably when you’re in the middle of a little sparkling dialogue. It can be as simple as one throwaway line. Take this example from The Millionaire’s Proposition. In this scene, Scott and Kate are in the middle of negotiating their friends-with-benefits agreement and there's quite a bit of repartee, but there is just a little hint of the conflict to come, the hurt to come…
‘There’s no reason I won’t like it with Phillip just as much,’ she said. ‘What—you’d let Phillip go down on you on your desk during business hours, would you?’ ‘He wouldn’t want to.’ ‘And that’s why I’m the man for you. Because I would. I . And I would do it again in a heartbeat, Katie.’ ‘Kate. And it’s not a matter of liking. It’s a matter of being clear what the end-game is so nobody gets hurt.’ ‘I don’t get hurt.’ She looked startled. ‘Everyone gets hurt.’ ‘Not me.’ ‘You’ve never been hurt?’ Scott’s body tensed. . ‘Let me put it this way. There’s no need for either of us to get hurt. You mentioned the end-game. Why can’t the end-game be sex? Pure and simple sex?’2. Prime your readers by ramping up the tension in each and every chapter, no matter how funny the scene, so it's a constant build of tension before the wham!
It’s all about control. About not getting so carried away with your characters’ banter that the banter takes over the whole shebang. This is something I struggle with, because if there’s one thing I love, it’s funny dialogue. But if the dialogue doesn’t lead to a moment of realisation, you have to do one of two things: build in some tension, or get brutal and cut the quips. Here’s an example, from Here Comes The Bridesmaid, where dialogue leads to a moment of consciousness (even if he's not ready to understand it) for the hero, celebrity chef Leo Quartermaine…
‘I’m not glowering. I don’t glower.’ ‘Oh, you do. It’s kind of cute.’ ‘I’m not cute.’ ‘Sure you are—in that I’m-a-typical-male-hypocrite kind of way.’ ‘I’m not a hypocrite, either.’ ‘Go and get yourself nicely monogamised and I’ll believe you.’ ‘Monogamised isn’t a real word.’ That twitch at the side of her mouth. Leo felt his temper surge. ‘And I monogamous.’ ‘Yeah—but one-after-the-other monogamy doesn’t count if there’s a hundred in the pipeline.’ He wanted to haul her out of her chair and… And what? And , that was what. Nothing.3. When you make the switch, go for broke.
‘Ben’s coming back so I’ll leave you to it,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some dessert coming out for you.’ She bit her bottom lip. ‘Oh, dear—I really will need to start a diet tomorrow.’ Leo got to his feet. ‘Just get Ben to kiss you twice.’ Sunshine grabbed his hand to keep him where he was. His fingers curled around hers before he could stop them—and then his fingers stiffened. He pulled his hand free, flexed his fingers. Sunshine’s eyes flickered from his hand to his face. There was doubt in her eyes. And concern. And a tenderness that enraged him. He didn’t need it. Didn’t need Sunshine-bloody-Smart messing with his head or his goddamned hand. ‘Why are you upset with me, Leo?’ she asked softly. He was unbearably conscious of the scent of her. Jonquils. A woman who’d just stuffed herself silly with meat shouldn’t smell like flowers, so why did she?
If you’ve had people laughing all the way along, imagine how much more powerful it’s going to be when suddenly your characters are baring their souls, letting fly in a way they haven’t let themselves before, getting their hearts smashed. So don't hold back! I’m going to share a little of the high drama of From Fling To Forever here. The interesting thing about this book is that a lot – and I mean a lot – happens. There are at least three Aarrrggghh moments in this book, where the relationship between Ella and Aaron shifts dramatically, so bear in mind that you don’t need to limit yourself to one if the plot can bear it…
She leaned across the table. ‘Understand this: I’m not interested in you. I’m not here, after having worked a very long day, to see you. I’m here to see Kiri, who was in this hospital parentless. No father. No mother. Just a nanny. And me. Holding his hand while they drew his blood for tests. Coaxing him to drink. Trying to calm him when he vomited, when his stomach was hurting and there was no relief for the pain. Knowing his head was splitting and that paracetamol couldn’t help enough. So scared he’d start bleeding that I was beside myself because what the hell were we going to do if he needed a transfusion and you weren’t here? How dare you tell me after that to stay away from him, like I’m out to seduce you and spoil your peace and wreck your family?’ She could feel the tears ready to burst, and dashed a hand across her eyes. He opened his mouth. ‘Just shut ,’ she said furiously. ‘You know, I’m not overly modest about my assets, but I somehow think a fine upstanding man like you could resist making mad passionate love to a bottom feeder like me in front of Kiri, so I suggest you just get over yourself and stop projecting.’ ‘Projecting?’ ‘Yes—your guilty feelings on me! I have enough guilt of my own to contend with without you adding a chunky piece of antique furniture to the bonfire. It’s not my fault your wife is a drug addict. It’s not my fault you got a divorce. It’s not my fault your son got dengue fever. It’s not my fault you find me attractive, or a distraction, or whatever. I am not the cause or the catalyst or the star of your documentary, and I didn’t ask you to lurk around hospital corners, watching me.’ She stood, pushing her chair back violently. ‘I’m no saint, but I’m not a monster either.’ She headed for the door at a cracking pace, Aaron scrambling to catch up with her. He didn’t reach her until she was outside, around the corner from the hospital entrance. ‘Wait just a minute,’ he said, and spun her to face him. ‘This conversation is over. Leave me ,’ she said, and jerked free, turned to walk off. His hand shot out, grabbed her arm, spun her back. ‘Oh, no, you don’t,’ he said, and looked as furious as she felt. ‘You are not running off and pretending I’m the only one with a problem. Go on, lie to me—tell me you don’t want me to touch you.’Whew! That is some drama, and although in the actual scene it seems to bubble out of nowhere, that little altercation was just waiting to happen.
I’d love to know if you have any moments like my theatre experience with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, or from one of your favourite books, which stunned you to the core.
Meanwhile, I'll leave you with the blurb of my latest book, Escaping Mr Right, which is available for pre-order but not out until September 30. Some of the advance readers of this one have told me they've had some moments of great shock as the story has unfolded – and that, of course makes me happy.
Sometimes Mr Right is Mr Wrong, and Mr Wrong is definitely Mr Right...
Television reporter Chloe Masters is a woman of cool control . . . except when Casanova rugby league player Nick Savage is around. Then cool control goes out the window. Her boyfriend, Marcus, is everything she ever wanted - but it's getting harder to deny her body's reaction to Nick...
Nick Savage has been head-over-heels since he first laid eyes on Chloe - just a moment too late to stop her connecting with his team mate, Marcus. But when the goalposts shift and he and Chloe are thrown together on a week away, Nick dares her to get physical in whatever way she wants - with a kiss, a punch or anything in between. And if Chloe claims to feel nothing, he'll leave her alone for good.
How can Chloe say no to a week of mindless passion with the man she hasn't been able to get out of her head?
Trouble is, a lot can go wrong (or right) in a week...