Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Resources for Writers

On Developing Conflict and Structure

Why you shouldn’t – But you’re going to anyway – So here’s a Primer

B Team

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

I hope you smiled at that line.  I think it’s one of my best. My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write madcap 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 Bootlegger’s Goddaughter behind?  Not write a sequel?  I’m starting to hyperventilate.  Actually, I love writing comedies.  It’s in my blood.

A GREEK MASK

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.

COMEDY IS TRAGEDY BARELY AVERTED

People smarter than me have concluded that tragedy is the root of all comedy.  Making fun of our foibles is indeed one way to 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.

Lesson 1 (the first of 8):  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?’  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.

Yes, some people will turn up their noses and say this type of plot is silly. Reviewers may discount the book for not dealing with the ‘important’ issues of today.  So…do you really want to join me in this reckless trade? Read below.

THE TROUBLE WITH WRITING COMEDY 

When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’  Then I give the genres (crime capers, rom coms, 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 sixth book in a series, and I’m finding it tough to sustain the humour in book sixBelieve me, this woman is a master.

  1. When you write something that isn’t meant to be funny (or is mildly humorous but not comedy) people are disappointed.
  1. You will never be taken seriously for most awards.

Again, comedy is rarely taken seriously for awards.  This drives some crime writers nuts.  It seems to be endemic that books on the shortlists 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

Okay, you’re going to do it anyway, so here goes… 

Lessons 2 through 8:

Let’s go beyond lesson 1 now.  Of course, you don’t have to write comedies to get humour into your books.  All stories can benefit from a dose of bathos to make the pathos seem more piquant. Here is my primer on how to put laughter in your books:

2. Make the basic plot funny.

This is the hardest thing to do.  This is what makes ‘comedies,’ rather than books with humour. For this, I fall back on the best of the best, my favorite book to quote.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass.  The very premise of the plot is funny.  The construction plans have been filed for decades, but as no one on earth is aware of life beyond our own planet, of course the plans have gone unprotested. “Apathetic bloody planet…I’ve no sympathy at all,” says the Vogon construction leader before he blows Earth to smithereens.

 That’s a comedic premise.

How I work it: In The Goddaughter’s Revenge, Gina must mastermind a bunch of burglaries to get back fake gems before anyone finds out they’re fake, otherwise her rep is toast. That’s right – she’s stealing fake gems and replacing them with real. And of course, all the burglaries go wrong. Once again, the basic plot is nutty.

3. Make funny things happen in your plot.

Back to Hitchhiker’s Guide. What if…humans weren’t the only ones experimenting with animals in the pursuit of science?  What if…white mice were experimenting with humans? 

What if…the answer to the Meaning of Life is the number 42?

4. Make a theme in your novel funny.

Rowena Through the Wall is a comic time travel/sword and sorcery novel. It is also a spoof of bodice rippers, but few people have picked up on that.  (This baffles me, because it’s right over the top: she rips her bodice in almost every scene.) In the second book in the series, Rowena and the Dark Lord, she rips her skirt in almost every scene.  Readers love it, even if they don’t get that it’s a spoof. They look for it.  It is a theme that runs through the series.

5. Make a character in your plot funny.

This is the most common humour device in novels.  Shakespeare was a master at this. We have lots of examples here.

Again, let me return to the master, Douglas Adams. In my opinion, Marvin the depressed robot is one of the greatest inventions in comic fiction.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction?  ‘Cos I don’t.”

“Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh God, I’m so depressed.  Here’s another of those self-satisfied doors.  Life!  Don’t talk to me about life.”

 Can’t forget another unforgettable character: Grandma Mazar from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Hobby: Funeral homes. Sexual orientation: Bring it on! (time’s a runnin’ out) Crass, embarrassing, and delightfully unique.

6. Add Wordplay.

Examples: surprise, unexpected, sarcasm, exaggeration, words with double meaning

This is different from making your character’s ‘character’ funny to the reader.  In this example, a member of the cast says funny or clever things.

Example 1: Surprise or unexpected:

“I had the flu once.  It was terrible.  I couldn’t eat a thing for three hours.”

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.

Example 2: Remember how this post started?

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

(From Rowena Through the Wall) 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.

7. Riff off the reader’s own experience:

Also in Hitchhiker’s Guide: The Vogon monsters have developed a unique form of torture. They read their hand-written poetry to victims.  It’s excruciating. I’ve been to live readings just like that.  You bet I laughed when reading this.  And Douglas Adams wrote it for people like me who have been to poetry readings and – most likely- shared his reaction.

(Not all people will appreciate this humour. That’s okay.  Not everyone will appreciate every funny line you write, either.)

Why was Adams such a master?  He doesn’t explain it.  No laugh track here.  He shows you the scene and lets you make your own conclusion.

8. Emulate the Comedy Masters who do stand-up:

Don’t over-explain. Never point to a joke.  Just lay the line. You don’t even need to have the other characters in your book laugh.

How to accomplish this?  End the scene at the line.

From Rowena Through the Wall:

 “Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

<End scene>

 <scene: a particularly wacky medieval food fight>

The Earl appeared at the door. “What are you doing?!”

I poked my head out from under the table and wiped a shrimp from my hair. “We couldn’t wait for dinner, so we started ahead.”

<End scene>

          THE CAVEATS:

  1. Humour needs context.

So much of what makes us laugh depends on our previous experience, education, age and gender.  That’s why some people find Monty Python funny, and others don’t. (I am, by the way, a huge fan. Ditto for Gilbert and Sullivan. Outrageous satire of the establishment gets me every time.)

Don’t be alarmed if not everyone gets every funny line in your fiction.  They won’t.

  1. Can you take the heat?

Not everyone will see the humour, particularly in satire.  (Witness my bodice ripper spoof.)  In fact, some may be annoyed by it, if they perceive you are making fun of something they value.

Going too far: there is a fine line that all of us work against. The line will wobble a bit and sometimes we step over it. (Stand-up artists do this frequently by picking on people in the audience.)

If you are going to write humour, you have to be able to take the heat from going too far.

Final Words (will she ever shut up)…

Here’s the key, as I’ve discovered it:

The trick to combining humour and suspense is to play each against the other.  Taut suspense is broken up by bathos, making the suspenseful parts seen more dramatic.  And – as I have learned from writing the Land’s End series – one can make humour seem more funny by juxtaposing it against gripping danger. In fact, a steady diet of unrelenting wacky humour can make one grow blasé, just as a steady diet of porn might dull one to sensuality.

But why do it?  Why does an otherwise sane individual write wacky and some might say silly fiction, and risk the inevitable hit from some critics who say your book is without great literary merit? 

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.

2015Melodie Campbell

About Melodie Campbell

The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of Comedy.” Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis Award, and eight more awards for crime fiction. Last year, Melodie made the Top 50 Amazon Bestseller list, sandwiched between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.  She is the former Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.   The B-Team is her 13th funny book. 

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.