by Shirley Kawa-Jump
Quick — tell a joke. On paper, in the beginning of a novel. Then hope that a few thousand readers will not only get the joke, but remember you as a funny writer. Then repeat that for the next 400 pages, all while juggling plot, realistic characters and enough conflicts to fill a church. Sound difficult? It is, as anyone who has tried to write comedy will tell you.
There are techniques for writing comedy well, however. Some authors have an ingrained funny bone; others need to learn to pump up the humor. “I will warn you, however, that it ain’t easy being funny,” said Lynn Michaels, author of Mother of the Bride, her latest comedic release from Ivy/Ballantine. “Some days it’s just damned hard work. On those days, having a skewed view of the world can be most helpful.”
Michaels said her husband, Michael, is the source of inspiration for her sense of humor, which has become more a part of her books over the years. “I have a pretty loopy sense of humor, but Michael is a walking-talking study in timing and deadpan delivery. I’ve spent the last almost thirty years with him laughing my butt off.”
Holly Jacobs, who writes for both Silhouette Romance and Harlequin Duets, said she felt her voice lent itself to comedy. “It has to do with word choice and writing structure. My voice seems to have a comedic quality–it just sort of comes out that way.” Jacobs focuses on the humor strengths in her own life by writing books that focus on real-life humor, like children who refuse to behave.
To keep the story lines fresh, and remove the tendency toward slapstick, Jacobs said she will take a new look at her work. “Sometimes, if a scene isn’t working, or the book is sort of languishing at one particular spot, I find that I’ve made a wrong turn. Or, maybe worse, I’ve made a predictable turn. Rather than turning right, which is what you’d expect, I take a sharp left turn. When I do that, I tend to find the story picks back up.”
Pam Hanson, who is half of the mother-daughter writing team Jennifer Drew, said when she teamed up with her mother, who had sold 19 books already, the pair found their combined voice lent itself to comedy. They ended up writing for Duets. Hanson said writing comedy well springs from a number of approaches. “Barbara and I both like to see humor arise from people’s reactions to situations (could be because of some of the situations we’ve found ourselves in!) so one way to punch up the humor is to go back and see how characters react to wacky situations they’re placed in. In our March 2002 Duets Stop the Wedding! the hero and heroine stumble onto an unusual wedding reception, complete with an Elvis cake. Their reaction is where the humor in the scene comes from along with some other antics!”
The number-one requisite for writing comedy is having a sense of humor, said Jacobs. However, authors need to remember that story is the top priority in a book, not chuckles. “Even if you’re writing comedy it’s important to remember to create three-dimensional characters. Though these characters are funny, they tend to take themselves seriously. They have problems, they have goals. They love, they get hurt. If you make your characters too slapstick, your readers won’t be able to identify with them, and if readers can’t do that, then odds are the book isn’t going to work for them.”
Some authors excel at humorous one-liners, others create larger-than-life characters while some work on funny plots. Michaels said her books tend to be situational in humor. “It’s not the characters who are necessarily funny; it’s the situation that they find themselves in. The more irony in the situation — or the set-up, or whatever you want to call it — the more raw material you have to build a comedy.”
However, she added, the focus for her, as with the other authors, is always on the story. “Strong, believable characters are the foundation of any good story, comedy or drama. A cockeyed view of the world your characters live in also helps.”
On days when the funnies refuse to come, Hanson said she and her mother try to relax and wait for inspiration. “Eat M&M’s, check e-mail, shuffle papers on my desk around…and not try to force it!” she advised. “Then try to think what exaggeration of a similar situation could make it funny. If all else fails, eat more M&Ms!”
Jacobs distances herself from comedy when she’s stuck on a scene. She said she reads books that are not humorous, such as historicals or non-fiction. “I don’t know why it works, but it does work for me!”
Michaels said authors should take the pressure off themselves to be too funny. “You don’t have to be laugh-out-loud hilarious on every page. A smile will often times do just as well,” she said. When a scene falls flat, Michaels tries a number of tricks to make it funnier. “Dialogue is an excellent way to punch up humor. Being flip or sarcastic can lighten things up. And description. Find funny ways to describe things. You’ll get a smile even if you don’t get a laugh. Take a look at your scene. Have you got a prop or two lying around you can make use of? I got stuck in a scene like this in the book I’m finishing now. Fortunately, I’d put a hedge apple tree in this scene, so I had my heroine throw hedge apples at her sister’s house to vent her anger. Doesn’t sound particularly funny out of context, does it? But it works in the book to get my character out of a dark and very un-funny moment.”
Learning to write humor can seem like a daunting task, but all the authors interviewed said comedy can be a taught technique. “I really recommend analyzing romantic books and movies to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Hanson. “Look at the pacing of the stories and see where the humor comes in and why. And be wary, if the humor feels forced, it probably is.”
For more information, see Building Humor into Your Romance, by Anne Marble.
Copyright © 2002 Shirley Kawa-Jump