I’m here to talk about a very serious subject — comedy writing. In writing, getting the comedic balance right is tricky. Years ago, a contest judge said my entry read like a series of jokes. Unfortunately, this was not intended as a compliment. What s/he meant was a novel shouldn’t come across like a stand-up routine. My challenge? Concentrate on the plot and narrative, and let the funny flow naturally. (Contest Judge, I hope I’ve done you proud!)
As you might have guessed from my debut YA’s punny title, This Is Your Afterlife is on the lighter end of the grayscale. That’s not to say there aren’t dark moments — the story revolves around murdered high school football star Jimmy Hawkins. It’s just his death is treated with a touch of humor and hope. Here’s an excerpt:
“Aren’t you psychic?” he taunts.
“Being psychic would mean I could see into the future.”
“Then what do you call this…this thing we have?” He gestures at the space between us.
I frown at that space. “You have what is called the afterlife. I have what appears to be clairvoyance.” Grandie was pretty clear on the distinction. “Psychics see the future. Clairvoyants and mediums see dead people. And argue with them, too, it seems.”
How did this even happen to me? Last time I checked, I didn’t have the Gift. I haven’t been struck by lightning, haven’t taken any hallucinogenic pills or eaten magic mushrooms. My sixteenth birthday would have been a prime time for spirits to make an all-singing, all-dancing debut in my world, but that day passed quietly three months ago.
Unless there were signs I missed. But what counts as a sign? Randomly sensing Grandie’s lavender perfume in the Bugle office? Could it be that she was trying to communicate then?
What bugs me is that I’ve been invisible to Jimmy for years. Now that he’s dead, he finally sees me. There is no justice in the world.
One of my favourite movie quotes is from Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Alan Alda’s character says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I’m not known for my love of mathematics, but this is one equation that makes a lot of sense to me.
Here are a few key ways to inject a dose of fun into your work:
Clever turns of phrase; flip an expression, observation or cliché on its head.
In terms of characterization, think of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. We expect lions to be courageous and majestic. But this lion, when we first meet him, is far from brave.
Use the rule of three. Create an element of surprise by starting off with an ordinary list and topping with something unexpected. For example: Harriet wanted nothing more in life than a comfortable pair of slippers, three-ply yarn, and a hot young Scottish laird. (Okay, that wasn’t my best example. It’s hard to write funny! Perhaps Harriet has plans involving the laird and the yarn?)
Take a real-life situation, even a serious one, and give it a humorous twist.
Puns are so punny! But they can get unfunny pretty fast. Don’t overuse them.
Physical comedy. Be careful of turning it into slapstick.
Absolutely. Again, like puns, alliteration can become absurd if overused. Some people look at alliteration as an abomination that should be axed altogether.
Keep in mind there are contraindications for each of these. Use sparingly. Always stay true to character. You can’t have a supreme court judge cracking wise at the bench. Unless she’s Judge Judy. But it’s okay for her because caustic wit forms part of who she is.
How do you know if you’re writing funny? It’s a promising sign if people constantly tell you, “Say, you’re really funny!” Or if they laugh with you, not at you. Like anything, humor is subjective. What’s hilarious to one reader might be tedious or even offensive to another. Test it on CPs and friends. Grab someone off the street and feed them a line. If you get hit with rotten tomatoes, or worse, don’t raise a chuckle, you may have missed the mark. Do your comedic situations make you, the writer, laugh? They say if you cry when writing a sad scene, it’s likely your readers will pick up on all that emotion you poured into it and cry, too. So I think the same goes for humor. Go ahead, LOL at your own jokes.
Tell me, when was the last time you laughed out loud? Got a favorite funny author or movie?
You’ve been a great audience. Thank you and goodnight!
When I signed my first contract for a little paranormal romantic comedy short story back in 2008, I didn’t have a clue about branding. But at least I knew I was completely clueless. I was ready to be a sponge and absorb all the wisdom I could about the wild and wonderful writing business. I […]
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