How Do You Know It’s Comedy?

Flickr photo, "Lady Writer" by Roberto Rizzato

Someone asked me yesterday how I know my novels are comedy. What a great question! I don’t think I can do it justice in one or two posts, but I can hit some points.

Writing comedy is just like writing any other genre. It has the same requirements: characters that are sympathetic and well-rounded, compelling plots full of conflict and tension, snappy dialogue and vivid settings.  The elements are the same, so what makes comedy different?

The tone and the ending.

Explaining the ending is easy: happily ever after.  The ending is intended to give that warm fuzzy feeling, a sense of satisfaction that all will be well in the characters’ world beyond “The End.”  In Christian romantic comedy, “The End” often involves a wedding or the promise of marriage.

The tone is lighthearted and should be maintained throughout the bulk of the novel. Because of the tone, it’s difficult to balance the characters’ issues with the fact the novel is a comedy. It’s too easy for a writer to get bogged down one way or the other. Either they concentrate so much on developing the character’s backstory and internal conflicts that humor seems lacking or out of place, or they concentrate so much on the humor that the characters are one dimensional and the plot is nothing more than a yuk-fest. It requires balance.

Looking at some movies may help illustrate the elements in comedy.

Failure to Launch*

Pitting two goals against each other is a frequently used comedy plot. Failure to Launch is a perfect example, pitting the goals of the two main characters, Tripp (Matthew McConaughey) and Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker).

Tripp is in his thirties, still lives with his parents and has no desire or incentive to fly from the coop.  Living with his parents provides a sure-fire break-up strategy. Once his girlfriends become too serious, he brings them home, where they realize he still lives with his parents and disappear in a huff of indignation. End of problem.

In her capacity as a “relationship consultant,” Paula has been hired by his parents to encourage him to move out of the nest. Her plan is to build Tripp’s confidence by illustrating how an attractive woman (herself) could find him appealing, take him through a series of vital exercies, then let him down easy, sending him out into the world–away from his parent’s home–with his newly developed ego. Of course, the joke’s on her. Tripp has no problem with self-confidence.

The bulk of the ninety-minute movie plays out their exploits and the love developing between them. But within the last thirty minutes, the viewers discover what baggage each character carries. Paula is in the “consulting” business because of a previous failed relationship. She prefers to date by contract, thereby keeping it strictly business and protecting her heart. As for Tripp, his fiancee died three years prior to the beginning of the movie, and he isn’t overly anxious to experience the pain again.

Now that we know the characters’ internal conflicts, the tone changes. We’ve reached a turning point.

Paula has “breeched her duty” by falling for Tripp, but worse, she now realizes that Tripp wasn’t a candidate for her kind of “therapy” anyway: he had suffered a true tragedy. She’s remorseful and hopes to make things right, but Tripp has discovered his parents paid for her to date him. He wants nothing more to do with Paula, and isn’t too happy with his parents either.

We go through a separation period where the tone is heavy between the two main characters and the comedy is maintained through the secondary characters. Then comes the reconciliation where the tone lightens, then the warm fuzzies and “The End.”

So, of a ninety-minute movie, roughly seventy percent off the top was used to develop the plot and characters through humorous situations, keeping the tone light. For twenty percent of the movie–within the last thirty minutes–the tone darkens, and the two main characters are separated. The comedy is maintained, but not through the major players. The final ten percent lightens the tone again with the reconciliation and the obligatory happily-ever-after ending.

This is just one structure for comedy, but the idea is the same in all of them: keep it light and supply the warm fuzzies.


* Although it’s rated PG-13, for more sensitive Christians I’d recommend catching the edited version of this film on TV.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Do You Know It’s Comedy?

  1. Sally Bishop says:

    I’m partial to using the secondary characters to keep things light. One generally has a comic personality and although they will follow the serious tone of the scene they will be the ones to lighten it up with a comment or enlighten the main character.

    It is not unusual for readers to believe that comedy is easy to write but to the contrary good comic timing takes a bit of talent and much practice.


  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    I like the explanation that comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin. It just depends on how you look at it.


  3. Sandra King says:

    This is a great post, Linda! And I do think whether something is a comedy or a tragedy can depend on one’s focus. Guess I should watch this movie. I probably don’t watch enough movies. I might learn something.


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