Log in

No account? Create an account
Previous Entry Share Flag Next Entry
8 Tips for Writing Comedy

I'm back! I hope you enjoyed Ray's guest post yesterday. Since he makes websites for a living, I figured those of us who aren't quite so tech-savvy could benefit from his experience. Speaking of drawing on experience, today I'm going to talk a bit about comedy writing, specifically how the rules of improvisational theater can also apply to writing fiction.

Starting in high school and stretching into grad. school, I did a lot of improv. It was a chance for me to be wacky and inventive with the added bonus of (hopefully) making other people laugh. As I've been revising one of my WIPs, I've been realizing that a lot of improv rules also apply to comedy in fiction.

1. Go for the unexpected. Cliched characters can sometimes get a laugh, but unusual, unexpected characters will surprise the audience and make them curious to see more. You don't want your audience groaning because they know what's coming next. You want them bursting into laughter because they can't believe a character just said/did that!

2. Don't deny anything. This is the first rule of improv and it carries over into fiction writing too. If one character says, "The world is ending!" and another character says, "No it isn't," the scene doesn't leave you many places to go. Chances are it's going to wind up being an argument, which can get boring really fast. But if the second character's response is, "I knew the chicken people would finally come!" - well, that gives you more to work with, doesn't it?

3. Have both leaders and followers. If you've ever seen an amateur improv troupe, this should sound familiar: A group of people standing on stage, yelling every line, trying to outdo each other. Not only can your ears start hurting after a while, the tug-of-war on stage can be tiring. If you have a strong character in a scene, s/he will pull that scene in one direction. Another strong character will pull it in another. A third one might just make it explode. Remember that even your strongest characters don't have to lead every scene.

4. Variety is the spice of life. One of the things that can work well in improv is to completely switch gears from one scene to the next. While fiction tends to be more fluid, it's still important to remember that not all scenes need to be at the same level of comedic energy. Some can be more serious or less tongue-in-cheek. You want your audience laughing, but you also want to give them a breather every once in a while, and there's nothing wrong with making them feel a few different emotions at once.

5. Use the callback. The comedic callback is when you introduce a line in one scene (usually just one word or one sentence) and then, later, preferably in an unrelated scenario, bring back that same line in a different context. This is usually hilarious because the audience appreciates the cleverness of the line being brought back in a new context where it's also funny. You don't want to overuse this technique because the joke will go stale quickly, but when put in the right place, a callback can be gold.

6. Amuse by omission. I was once in an improv scene in which another actor was about to teach me how to play a certain bizarre-sounding game (let's say it was something called "Toss the Chutzpa"). As part of the improv game, the scene rotated to another pair while the two of us froze. When the scene finally came back to us, the other actor said, "And that's how you play Toss the Chutzpa." The audience members had to use their imaginations to fill in what the lesson must have looked like, which let them imagine all sorts of crazy things. Also, the audience could see that we, the actors, had managed to get out of making up something that we didn't know ourselves. In fiction that is already self-referential, this technique of omission can work especially well.

7. Break the format. This is another method that needs to be used sparingly, but when a scene suddenly shifts into something completely unexpected (e.g. A character in a scene suddenly steps out of it and starts talking to the audience as if s/he is a narrator.) it can pull you out of the scene but in a way that makes you laugh. We see this in books that use footnotes in a funny way or that suddenly put in drawings or diagrams. These elements break up the flow of the story but also add to its humor.

8. Don't try to be funny. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's an essential thing to remember in improv (and in writing). If you're obviously trying to be funny and everything is a setup for a joke, the audience will see it coming from a mile away. But if you work to make the scene true-to-life, the humor will come out on its own. Don't aim for the joke; instead, aim to make the scene unexpected and interesting.

Overall, improv is very much like writing fiction. In both, successful scenes tell a story and focus on the relationships between the characters. Just as in writing, details and setting are what make improv scenes seem real; plus, if the characters are interacting with their environment, there's a lot more opportunity for humor than if they're floating in the ether.

But I think the most important thing to remember in improv and in fiction is to have fun! The worst thing you can do is put pressure on yourself to be funny. Instead, try out different things, see what works for you, and enjoy!

 Originally published at www.annastan.com. 

  • 1
Love this post! Almost missed it due to Christmas vacation, but I saw it linked on Cynthia Leticia Smith's roundup of links. Happy New Year!

Thanks for letting me know about Cynthia's link - I hadn't read her post yet. (And I totally squealed when I saw it. :-)) Happy New Year!

Awesome post!I think nobody can be brief as like your post!Thank you for bringing a well thought out and reasoned comment to the discussion.


  • 1