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Writing Comedy

These are my notes for a talk I gave, so forgive me if they jump around a bit – the talk did too. It’s not so much a comprehensive article as a grab bag of ideas.

So, you want to write a romantic comedy. The same rules apply to romantic comedy as with any romance. First and foremost you are writing a romance. You want your readers to identify with your heroine and fall in love with your hero. Your hero and heroine must be drawn irresistibly together by powerful forces of attraction and kept convincingly apart by some sort of barrier(s), whether internal, external or both. Your hero and heroine must be convincingly motivated to do what they do. But it must also be funny. 

So, what makes people laugh?

We often laugh when we expect one thing and get another. Mernitt refers to the comic reversal of how we expect to see things — e.g. Sophisticated people behaving in silly ways. (Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace) . Masculine people behaving in a feminine way (e.g. Tootsie) or vice versa (Private Benjamin). Private matters become public ) Who can forget the faked orgasm in the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally?)

Displacement of fear
Humor often plays on people’s fears. The closer to the bone the joke is, the harder we laugh. Because it’s not us — it’s someone else. It makes the frightening familiar. 

Recognition of the human condition
We laugh when we recognize something that’s true. It’s the “aha!” moment. Stand-up comedians make their living pointing out the foibles of human behavior. They make it funny by pointing it out in a way that we haven’t noticed before. It’s the element of truth presented in a fresh, surprising way that makes it funny.

Truth exaggerated
Comedy is like seeing ourselves or others in one of those fairground distorting mirrors. The images are recognizably ourselves, but exaggerated in some way. Comic figures are often over-the-top caricatures of human beings.

A comic world created
A comic world must be created, where the usual logic of how we live may be partially abandoned, but which has its own internal logic that we can accept. E.g. The Road runner, with the coyote who never dies. Hamish Macbeth (the TV series), with a whole cast of interacting characters.

Why does comedy go so well with romance?

Comedy is most effective when common, everyday themes are given an obscure twist, which helps us to see comedic events in our lives that we normally would not recognize.
Romantic comedy is not about laughing at other people, it is about laughing at ourselves. Falling in love is a huge challenge, because if it does not go smoothly (and no romantic comedy will go smoothly) it challenges all we like to believe about ourselves. And this is a positive mine of comedy material because we ALL do silly things when we are falling in love.

We do ridiculous things to impress (or even attract the attention of) the object of our desire. Serious, sensible, intelligent women are appalled to find themselves giggling shrilly at some completely inane joke uttered by you-know-who. Women who have memorized every diet known to womankind suddenly toss logic out the window and try — SERIOUSLY — to lose 20 pounds in a weekend! Strong, in-control, masterful men become dithery heaps of indecision when love slams into them — and don’t we LOVE to watch them floundering as they try to cope with the complete upset of their previously neat, well controlled little world!

Situation comedy

We all know the situation comedy from the TV guides, a comedy where much of the humor arises from the ridiculous, embarrassing or plain silly situation people are stuck in.

Typical situation comedy sources:

The fish out of water – e.g. the city girl in the country, the cowboy in the city, the technophobe inherits a computer company * the odd couple — the millionaire and Cinderella, the computer whizz and cowboy, the peace activist and the soldier, the criminal and the cop.

The “impossible ask” situations – the lingerie buyer who has to bring in a bail jumper (Stephanie Plum), the chorus girl who has to coach a football team, the pampered socialite who must joins the army: these are all modern day versions of “slaying the dragon”.

But in my opinion, a funny situation is not enough. The best comedy comes out of the interplay between characters and situation.

Characters in Romantic Comedy

Character is the key to any story, whether a psychological suspense, a dramatic romance or a romantic comedy. In romantic comedy, the characters must be just as convincing, just as real, even if they are comic creations and a little bit over the top.
Your readers must care about your characters.
Motivation is the key to good characterization. 

The other thing to remember is that quite often comedy does not come from characters “being comical”. The characters are not always in on the joke. 

Your heroine: She needs to have a goal we can sympathize with or understand. She needs to be likable — your readers should be able to empathize with her. She needs to be credible and believable. She needs to be complex. Typically a romantic comedy heroine is independent, perhaps a little unconventional, can be quite decided in manner, often fairly sure of herself. She can’t be too vulnerable and helpless, or the comedy might become uncomfortable. Remember, your characters will probably go through quite a bit of “torture by love”, so they need to be able to take it. 

Your hero: The most important thing is that he must be the sort of man your readers can really fall for, though he need not start out being instantly appealing to the heroine. He also needs to be credible, believable and complex. He should have a goal we can sympathize with. Never forget that you want your heroine and your readers to fall in love with this man — so if you make him look ridiculous or stupid, readers will either be made uncomfortable or be turned off. Romantic humor can be smart, funny, sassy and over the top — but never cruel.

Both hero and heroine should have a sense of humor, though they may not see their own actions in as humorous a light as your readers will. Both hero and heroine should be flawed. Flaws make a hero or heroine more realistic and also appealing to readers. Flaws can also a good source of both conflict and comedy. Even if they are opposites your hero and heroine will have interlocking needs which will become increasingly apparent to the readers. You need to convince your readers that these two people are the only possible romantic choice for each other, no matter how different they appear to be. Each completes the other.

The Comic Voice

Your unique voice is the key to selling your writing, and a unique comedy voice is crucial to success in writing romantic comedy. 
How do you know if you have a comic voice? You probably have a good comic voice if you:

a) write letters, postcards or emails which other people (but not your mother) tell you are entertaining and funny

b) can successfully entertain friends with funny stories about what happened at the office, for example. We can all tell jokes, but not necessarily well. (On the other hand, the ability to tell jokes aloud is not a sure guide to a successful writing voice.)

Comic devices

You can use a variety of these devices in your ms, depending on the style of comedy you adopt. I find this list useful for brainstorming sometimes, but it is in no particular order. And many of them will overlap — e.g. you might have a running gag, which is part of a character’s internal monologue and which uses absurdity and exaggeration. The best comedy fuses all sorts of devices seamlessly.

a) the element of surprise. Surprise is the key to good comedy writing. Surprises which really amaze the readers but which make sense in retrospect (i.e. are still believable) will add zing to your writing. At any particular point, try to anticipate what your readers want or expect, and then try to subvert it. However avoid the use of cheap tricks (like extreme coincidences) or your readers will feel manipulated instead of delighted. 

b) The running gag. This is a recurring theme or motif, which gains significance and /or humor as the novel progresses. It may become a shorthand symbolic reference, which speaks to the readers. For instance in my book How the Sheriff was Won, I use doughnuts as a running gag.

c) Puns, plays on words, repetitions. Part of creating your particular world of romantic comedy can come from the repeated use of particular words or phrases . However, repetition should also be considered carefully. It’s a fine line between amusing repetition and repetitive dreariness. Puns and plays on words should also be used sparingly.

d) slapstick antics. Again, these should be used sparingly, as most slapstick is visual and this is harder to create on paper. However the judicious use of some elements of slapstick can be quite effective, particularly if they come as a surprise to the reader. Slapstick can also be effectively combined and sometimes heightened by combining it with internal monologue, using point of view to give it a particular slant. For instance, the dinner party scene in Jennifer Crusie’s Strange Bedpersons degenerates completely into farce and ends with a slapstick moment involving the mother-in-law’s shoes. The action came as a complete surprise, yet in retrospect, all the signs were there, so it didn’t come as a cheap trick, but a splendidly hilarious moment. (If you haven’t read Jennifer Crusie’s early romantic comedies, then do so — they’re wonderful.) 

d) misunderstandings of all sorts, including eavesdropping. These are very useful devices and have been used for centuries. Men and women often interpret the same things in quite different ways, and so the field of misunderstandings is very fertile for romantic comedy. However IMO it’s better to concentrate on small misunderstandings and differences of interpretation than use a basic misunderstanding as the main source of conflict for your plot. It’s very irritating to have a hero and heroine floundering and flouncing around for 150 pages when a simple question back in chapter 1 would have put the situation right. 

e) absurdity and exaggeration. Most life situations are absurd when looked at in the right way. And exaggeration is the tried and true method for heightening the absurd effect. Again, the trick lies in pushing the exaggeration to an extreme which is funny and yet still recognizably “true”. Fawlty Towers does this. We don’t actually know anyone exactly like Basil Fawlty, but he’s enough like bits of people we know for us to find him believeable and hilarious. But if he was much more over-the-top, we could easily be turned off and find him boring. 
It’s a matter of taste, but I never bought the way that some gorgeous woman always fell for a Jerry Lewis character — he was just too over the top to believe in. He was too busy “being funny” to be real enough for me.

f) witty repartee and snappy dialogue. Witty repartee and snappy dialogue is a joy to read and listen to and extremely difficult to write. The best thing to do is to read it aloud. Workshop it, if you have a good person to bounce ideas off. But unless you really have a gift for witty repartee, use it sparingly. It’s better to have a few really witty lines than a lot of attempts to be clever which don’t quite make it. Don’t forget, your characters don’t have to be funny by spouting clever one-liners all the time. Often characters who are deadly earnest and who take themselves seriously are the funniest.

g) black comedy. Black comedy (i.e. comedy based on really dark subjects, like death, or tragic situations) can be used in romantic comedy, but it’s risky. Black comedy generally makes us laugh because it cuts so close to the bone — it’s a whisper away from tragedy and we laugh to dispel anxiety or in relief. Romantic comedy is feel-good fantasy. For instance, in my Duets How the Sheriff was Won there is a bus crash. It was originally a little dramatic because I like the contrast of drama and comedy, light and shade — I like to pull the rug out from under, so to speak. But my editor wanted me to cut the scene because she thought a dark scene was out of place in a Duets comedy. I wanted to keep the scene, because it was leading up to… (I’m not gonna say what!)… so…I lightened it, so I was able to keep some of the drama but not the darkness.

h) internal dialogue / monologue. This is an excellent source of comedy for a romance novel. It’s the perfect way to highlight the inconsistencies and contradictions of human beings. We say one thing, we mean another. We do one thing, we think another. We often having a running commentary going in our heads that is utterly opposite to the impression we are giving — or trying to give.

I) the comic twist. A fairly ordinary scene can be given a comic twist by something quite small, for example something which might make a character self-conscious, which will move the emphasis away from the main action onto something funny. Mernitt relates an instance where a scene in Murphy Brown was livened up by having her sidekick Miles have a goofy new hairstyle. His self-consciousness of it as he waits for her to comment on it lifted a fairly ordinary scene into a funny one

j) using a character’s frame of reference. All characters bring with them a set of experiences, expectations, assumptions about the world. You can often exploit these to bring out humor E.g. the character who is a chef, who will see most things, including romance, in terms of food. And often, the gap between different characters’ expectations will add to the comedy potential of your story.

k) minor characters. Your cast of minor characters is incredibly useful for a romantic comedy. While you should remember that you are writing a romance, and therefore the main focus should be on your hero and heroine, minor characters can be wonderful to add atmosphere, to provide a foil for the hero or heroine, to provide commentary outside the hero or heroine’s point of view and as very useful plot devices. Not to mention a splendid source of comedy. The minor characters also help to create the special world of your romantic comedy. What would Seachange be without Bob Jelly, or some of the other minor characters? (Seachange is a very funny Australian TV show). A good comparison is the wheeling-dealing Brian Quigley from Ballykissangel.

The Market for Romantic Comedy

There is a growing market for romantic comedy, whether it’s in category romance or in single title. There is also mainstream semi-romantic comedy, like Briget Jones’s Diary and others. The main category market is, of course, Harlequin Duets, and because it’s a fairly new line, there are still real opportunities for new writers. I talked to Birgit Davis-Todd (senior editor of Harlequin Duets) in New Orleans and when I told her I was doing this talk she said the 2 most important things to tell your audience is that the way to catch an editor’s eye is through Comic Premise and Comic Voice I’ve already talked about comic voice. Show your comic voice in the way you do your synopsis. Or maybewith the headline — Holly Jacob’s I Waxed My Legs for This? or Jackie D’Allesandro’s Naked in New England. A catchy title has “pick-upability” and shows you have a way with words.

Comic premise

A comic premise is about presenting the high concept — the story in a few sentences — which give your audience your novel in a nutshell. It must appeal to an editor’s funny bone if she is to want to know more. Encapsulate the conflict in the novel — but show its comic potential eg. This is my comic premise for my Duets book, How the Sheriff was Won:

Big city journalist comes to small town to run the local paper. She decides to while away her year in the sticks by having a fling with the local sheriff. But he doesn’t want to play. So how does she get his attention? By publishing provocative personal headlines about him.

An editor can immediately see the comic potential — the fish out of water (eg Big city journalist comes to small town), the conflict — she wants a fling, he doesn’t; the madcap element ( publishing provocative personal headlines about him.) and even a little alliteration to show a touch of comic voice (all the p’s). If you can make the editor smile or even chuckle with your query letter or synopsis, then you’re half way there. You will certainly get your partial requested. 

As well as the comedy elements, don’t forget all the usual best-selling romance concepts — the convenient marriage, the cowboy, sheriff, or mounty, the secret baby — they are all there in the romantic comedies, but with a comic twist. The best advice I can give is read widely in the genre until you find publishers who are publishing books along the lines of what you want to write and submit there. 

But whatever you do, you must ENJOY writing your story, because if you have fun writing it, then chances are, your reader will also have fun reading it.

Good luck!

© Anne Gracie

This article may be copied for individual study purposes. If you wish to reproduce it anywhere else, you must acknowledge me as the copyright holder. I would also appreciate it if you contacted me.

Useful References

  • Billy Mernitt, Writing the Romantic Comedy. Note — this is for screenplays, not novels) Harper Collins 2000 New York.
  • The RWAmerica website has an article on comedy by Duets author Bonnie Tucker.
  • I really liked this article about writing sit com.from Matthew Carless and Robin Kelly of Comic Relief, which I discovered some years after I wrote my article.