David Nicholls’s secret formula to writing a hit modern romance

Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in Netflix's One Day
Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in Netflix's One Day - Teddy Cavendish/Netflix

If somebody had asked you a quarter of a century ago to name Britain’s most successful romantic novelist, your mind’s eye would have flooded with pink as you conjured up a vision of Dame Barbara Cartland. Asked the same question today, though, most people would picture not a flamboyant aristocratic authoress but a man, indeed something of an everyman: David Nicholls.

Nicholls, 57, assumed the position of the nation’s foremost heart-wringer in 2009 with his third novel One Day, which has gone on to sell three million copies in the UK and a further three million around the world. And 15 years on the book is now finding a new audience as the basis for a ratings-topping Netflix drama starring Leo Woodall and Ambika Mod as star-crossed lovers Dexter and Emma.

Today sees the publication of his sixth novel, You Are Here. There are always long gaps between his books, and he has insisted that it is pure coincidence that his latest is coming out just as the Netflix show has inspired a new wave of Nicholls-love.

One Day really took off in 2010 when it was issued in paperback. With every chapter set on the same day of each succeeding year – St Swithin’s Day, July 15 – the element of a random date allowed Nicholls to avoid clichéd romcom set pieces and dive instead into the nitty-gritty of quotidian life, the seemingly mundane days that saw Dexter and Emma’s friendship slowly blossom into love. As he has put it: “There’s no such thing as an ordinary day. I like the challenge of making often quite mundane days full of significance and full of intrigue.”

Nicholls has observed that he wanted “to balance the desire to write a big lush old-fashioned weepie and to write something that was a bit tougher, and a bit more realistic, a bit more down to earth.” Thus was established the Nicholls magic formula: unashamedly romantic storylines with echoes (often deliberately emphatic echoes) of classic romcoms, but concerning the lives not of soigné When Harry Met Sally-type New Yorkers or Richard Curtis poshoes but of ordinary middle-class people who have made a mild mess out of their lives and have little glamour to compensate for it. Characters who resemble the people his readers are or may have been at one time, in other words – albeit flatteringly endowed with a capacity for sitcom-worthy one-liners.

David Nicholls, Britain's most successful romantic novelist
David Nicholls, Britain's most successful romantic novelist - Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images

Whether because we live in a more egalitarian age or a more solipsistic one, readers now seem to want books written about people like themselves rather than Cartland’s debs and dukes. This is something Nicholls seemed to grasp from the first, with his debut novel Starter for Ten (2003) having the unglamorous, low-key setting of an unnamed provincial university in the 1980s. His second novel, The Understudy (2005), drew on his previous life as a struggling actor and was less successful, perhaps because it was too far removed from his readers’ experiences.

Us, his fourth novel, is my favourite. It alternates between scenes set in the past showing how Douglas Petersen and his wife Connie met and fell in love, and in the present, when middle-aged Douglas is desperately trying to convince her not to divorce him. It illustrates one of Nicholls’s abiding themes: how people change over the years without actually shedding their old selves, so that their altered personalities and priorities remain a cause of continuous surprise to them.

There is, however, a certain predictability and familiarity to much of Nicholls’s writing: the comic scenes in which Douglas eats soup that’s too spicy or takes drugs for the first time are very funny but not exactly original. It is notable that when Nicholls talked about One Day on the Radio 4 programme Bookclub, he apologetically used the word “corny” to describe a number of different scenes: there is a sense of a writer feeling slightly trapped by an audience-pleasing template.

Us, a comedy-drama series based on the book Us David Nicholls
Us, a comedy-drama series based on the book Us David Nicholls - Colin Hutton

His 2019 novel Sweet Sorrow is about Charlie, a 16-year-old pursuing his first love affair with one of his fellow cast members in an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet. I read it just after Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and I remember wondering what it would be like if Nicholls tried his hand at something so left-field, rather than structuring a book around the old crowd-pleaser R&J.

But as always the truth of his insights into very ordinary lives made Sweet Sorrow seem fresh: it is typical of Nicholls that his hero is not a handsome, dashing Romeo type, but is cast in the play as the unmemorable Benvolio, because the director thinks he has “a faceless, milk-and-water quality that is just perfect”. Nicholls is the poet of the Inbetweener.

Nicholls began his writing career as a scriptwriter on Cold Feet and other television series, and one can see that his novels have the carefully structured plot arcs of popular TV shows: but he is also steeped in literature. He has claimed as his greatest influences the mid-20th century US writers – John Cheever, Richard Yates, Updike, Roth, Salinger – who made an effort to “give ‘ordinary’ lives a real scale and drama”.

Nicholls has also adapted several of his favourite literary works as screenplays, and it is clear that they have fed into his fiction. When he wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film adaptation of Great Expectations (the one with Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch), Nicholls fans might already have been aware of his passion for Dickens; as he has put it, Starter for Ten “is stolen from Great Expectations. It features a ridiculous yearning for a woman who clearly will never love the main character back. And the characters; Alice is very much inspired by Estella and Spencer is a Steerforth character from David Copperfield.”

Thomas Hardy is also an abiding influence. Nicholls has said that his 2008 adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles “gave me the confidence to write something other than comedy”, leading him to add to One Day the tragic element that had been missing from his previous novels. Indeed the whole structure of One Day was inspired by a passage in which Tess ruminates on the unknown significance of certain days; while the scene in which Dexter’s passionate letter to Emma goes astray echoes the fateful misdelivering of Tess’s letter to Angel Clare, enforcing the Hardy-esque message of the huge importance in the course of our lives of lucky and unlucky chance happenings.

Nicholls is a keen Shakespearean, too: he updated Much Ado About Nothing for the BBC’s Shakespeare Re-Told series in 2005, and there is a good deal of Beatrice and Benedick in the mismatched-but-meant-for-each-other dynamic of Emma and Dexter’s relationship, and in their putdown-heavy repartee. It was no surprise to discover from Sweet Sorrow that Nicholls loves Romeo and Juliet too: like that play, One Day has the structure of a comedy but, having primed you for a happy ending, delivers a shocking death that gets you in the solar plexus.

Not everyone admires Nicholls: our reviewer, Claire Allfree, has found that the “cosiness” of Nicholls’s new novel means that “before long, it all becomes dull”. But that’s the risk of trying to reflect everyday life in fiction: and for many readers no British novelist currently at work has come closer to achieving John Updike’s stated aim as a novelist: “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

You Are Here is published by Sceptre at £20