Sunday 7 September 2014

WRITING COMEDY – A Starter Kit from Bad Girl (Melodie Campbell)

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”
<from Rowena Through the Wall>

I hope you smiled at that line.  I think it’s one of my best. My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write comedies.  (This is a self-help group, right?)  Sure I’d like to kick the habit and write a ‘real’ book with literary merit. <author grimaces here>

Okay, so that’s a lie.  Leave The Goddaughter’s Revenge behind?  Not write a sequel?  I’m starting to hyperventilate.  Actually, I love writing comedies.  It’s in my blood.

Some people are born beautiful.  But most of us aren’t, and we look for ways to survive the slings and arrows of life.  Sometimes we choose to hide behind a mask.  That Greek Comedy mask was the one I picked way back.

Always remember this: Comedy has its root in tragedy. Making fun of our foibles is one way we cope.
As a means of self-preservation in the cruel world of teenagers, I looked for the ‘funny.’  More often than not, I made fun of myself.  This was easy to do.  I knew the target well and there was a wealth of material.  And it didn’t hurt anyone else, so people liked it.

When I left school and had a ‘real’ job, I started writing stand-up on the side.  I rarely delivered it – usually I wrote for others. That led to a regular newspaper humour column, and more.

So when it came to writing novels, I fell back into ‘safe mode.’  Write it funny. 

You can too.  Here’s a starter kit:

The rule of ‘WORST THING’
(aka: Never go easy on your protagonist.)

Comedy writers take a situation, and ask themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen now?’  <that’s the tragedy angle> And then, ‘what’s the funniest?’

What’s the worst thing that could happen to The Goddaughter when she is reluctantly recruited to carry hot gemstones over the border in the heel of her shoe?  Predictable would be: she gets caught at customs.  But I don’t want predictable.  I want funny.

Instead, the shoes get stolen. By a complete amateur! It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is. How is she going to keep this from her new boyfriend Pete, who thinks she’s gone clean? And what the heck is she going to tell her uncle, the crime boss?

Nothing, of course.  She’s going to steal them back.  Or die trying.

And hopefully the audience will die laughing.

TIP 1 – Adding Comedy via your Plot

Now take your novel:  Create a confrontation for your protagonist.  What’s the worst thing that could happen to her?  Then ratchet it up: what’s the most embarrassing thing, from her point of view?

Alternate between worst and embarrassing.  This keeps your reader intrigued, and raises the stakes.  They don’t know whether her next encounter will be deadly or hilarious.

TIP 2 – Adding Comedy via the way you put together Words

Now let’s step it up.  Add wordplay. Have a member of the cast says funny or clever things.  It doesn’t have to be your protagonist.  Sometimes it is best to make this character a side-kick. Examples: surprise, unexpected, sarcasm, exaggeration, words with double meaning

                                                         i.     Surprise or unexpected:
“I had the flu once.  It was terrible.  I couldn’t eat a thing for three hours.”
<from Rowena and the Viking Warlord>
This works because we expect to hear something else at the end: “I couldn’t eat a thing for three days.”  Instead, we hear “three hours.”  This is an example of the surprise or unexpected, plus exaggeration, giving us a chuckle.  But wait a minute: this is also self-deprecating.  Three in one.

                                                        ii.     Example 2: Remember how this post started?
“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”
This is an example of wordplay that requires the reader to have some prior knowledge or education. We know the original May West line, where the gun substitutes for something else.  This exaggerates the gun into something bigger.  The reader feels clever for getting the joke.
So…do you really want to join me in this reckless trade? Read below.

When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’  Then I give the genres (crime capers and time travel fantasy.)  My books are comedies first and foremost.  I look for plots that will lend themselves to laughs. 

This is different from authors who say they write humorous mysteries, for instance.  In this case, they would peg their books mysteries first.  The humour is secondary.

It’s tough writing comedy.  Here’s why:
1.      Everyone expects your next book to be just as funny or funnier than your last.
Example: Janet Evanovich.  Readers are complaining that her 20th Stephanie Plum book isn’t as funny as her earlier books.  They are giving it 2 and 3 stars.  Twenty books, people!  Think about that. I’m on my fourth book in two different comedy series, and I’m finding it tough to sustain the humour in book four.  Believe me, this woman is a master.

2.     When you write something that isn’t meant to be funny (or is mildly humorous but not comedy) people are disappointed.  But it’s not funny, is what I hear most.  Talk about type-casting.

3.     You will never be taken seriously for most awards.
Again, comedy – particularly in crime writing - is rarely taken seriously for awards.  This drives some writers nuts.  It seems to be endemic that books on the short lists are usually ones written with gravitas, on subjects that are ‘important’ or grim. To quote a colleague, “It seems to me, the more grim a book, the more merit is ascribed to it.”  Blame the Scandinavians.

4.     It’s hard to get published.
This is lamentable.  It’s hard to get a publisher for comedic novels. Many seem to be afraid of funny books.  Again, it may be the part about not being a ‘serious’ book, and thus not seen as an ‘important’ book.

Film suffers from a similar stigma.  How often these days do comedies win Oscars?

5.     The expectations are HUGE.
Not only will you be expected to produce a book with great plot, characterization, viewpoint, motivation and dialogue like all the other writers, but along with that you also have to make people laugh consistently throughout it.  It’s like there is a sixth requirement for you, an additional test that others don’t need to pass.  And you don’t get any more money for it.

Sucks, right? So why do it?
1.     Because good comedy is magic to some readers.  They love you for making them smile. 
2.     Because not everyone can do it. There is talent as well as craft.
3.     Because making people laugh is what you do.  You’ve done it since you were in high school.  Most of us who write comedy were the class clowns.
4.     Because you’re mad, like I am. Well at least, madcap.

We do it for readers. Hopefully, we’ve lightened their day with laughter, and in some cases given them a story they can escape into, over and over again.

Postscript:  THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE broke the rule and won both the 2014 Derringer and the 2014 Arthur Ellis award for best crime novella this year!  Author is still in shock.


  1. You do it well too, Melodie. Not many writers keep me reading into the early hours of the morning, making every heel dragging moment the next day worth it! Congratulations on your many successes.

  2. Sheri, you are a sweetie! Thanks so much for all your kind words. They make me smile inside.