Fiction Tips for Crafting Comedic Scenes
“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” ~ Horace Walpole
Writing fictional comedy is the most difficult of all writing because it requires endless revision in word choices and an understanding in connections and contrasts. What’s laugh-out-loud funny to one person may hurdle over the head of another. And unlike movies, you don’t have the luxury of visual impact, so you have to carefully craft your descriptions to make them payoff. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be funny in real life to write funny. Some of the funniest fictional comedy writers are wallflowers at parties. I’ve met authors that had me rolling on the floor laughing at their witty prose, but in person found them to be quite demure. Fiction is a learned craft, whether it’s comedic fiction or romantic comedy. So let’s learn how to do it by breaking it down.
According to author Raymond Obstfeld, there are three basic genres in comic fiction: goofball, satire, and romantic comedy.
Goofball, or “anything goes” comedy, exists to make people laugh. There is no deeper meaning to the text, it’s simply one funny scene after the next. Think: Naked Gun, Scary Movie, Airplane. There are no real stakes so the audience feels free to laugh without getting involved in the characters too much. This is also the type of comedy that most book publishers don’t publish, so we’ll leave that for the screenplay writers.
There are satiric scenes, which describe a specific scene or moment, and there is satire, which describes the entire work.
Satiric refers to skits on SNL or Mad TV; satire refers to the world vision of such works as Gulliver's Travels and Fight Club. The goal for both (satiric scenes and satire) is to change the world view of the reader, or change the reader’s behavior. The technique used to achieve this outcome is exaggeration.
Start the story with amusing or over-the-top exaggerations in characterization and/or plot.
In the beginning of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver is a doctor who is shipwrecked in a land where he is a giant and everything else is tiny. When the palace catches on fire, Gulliver urinates on the fire, extinguishing the flames. Of course, the Lilliputians debate whether to honor him as a hero or execute him for desecrating the palace.
The opening of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club, starts with a scene where Tyler Durden sticks a gun in the [unnamed] protagonist’s mouth. “With a gun stuck in your mouth and the barrel of the gun between your teeth, you can only talk in vowels,” the protagonist says. And even though the building they are standing in is about to blow up, and even though the protagonist is about to be shot, he maintains a satirical outlook—he even takes time to explain his recipe for making napalm.
Next, the tone of the humor should become darker. Where the humor before seemed over-the-top or exaggerated, it now becomes very real. Stakes such as death and real-life suffering are game here. This is the part where your reader starts believing in your characters and empathizing with them.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver goes to another land in which he experiences the most savage aspect of human beings in the form of Yahoos, who viciously slaughter the kindly, more “humane” species, the horses who befriend him.
In Fight Club, we get to know the protagonist’s mental makeup a lot better, and realize that he has many problems, including insomnia, abandonment issues, etc., which causes him to endure many physical beatings and self-torture in order to “cure” his mental desperation.
- Finally, the story should end with the total devastation of the protagonist. Gulliver, having returned to England with all his naïve notions of hope about humanity, immortality and sex destroyed, refuses to leave his home because everyone outside reminds him of Yahoos. At the end of Fight Club, the protagonist realizes he’s Tyler Durden, his best friend and the person who blew up a building, created an anarchist revolution, and pulled the trigger on himself. He ends up in a mental institution (in the book, not the movie) with half of his face blown off.
Okay, you may be wondering why satire falls under comedy writing? Well, it’s the exaggeration of character and/or plot that make it comedic—and it’s the way the story is developed. For instance, if you took the opening scene of Fight Club and didn’t add the author’s humorous interior monologue and description, it wouldn’t be funny. Someone choking on the wrong end of a gun barrel without the monologue is a drama. Raymond Obstfeld gives a perfect example: Plant a bomb in a school and that’s a drama, possibly tragedy. Plant a bomb in a school and have a group of inept nerdy students find the bomb and toss it back and forth like a hot potato, nearly dropping it, and that’s comedy.
Yes, it’s still a bomb and lives are at risk. But in the drama, we don’t know whether lives will be lost; in the comedy, we’re certain they won’t be or, if they are, it will be handled in such an exaggerated way that it is funny (as in dark comedies such as the film Heathers).
This is something we’ve all read before: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Or, girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets back together with boy.
- First, the two meet and fall passionately in love.
- Next, the lovers must split in some way to create a plot. This is where the suspense and conflict of the story come in. Of course, the reader knows that they’ll end up getting together, but the question is how? Perhaps they split up because of egos—the couple has to give up some aspect of themselves to understand the weight of their love. Or, it could be something, or someone, that keeps them apart. Think: There's Something About Mary. Ted (played by Ben Stiller) is still in love with his high school prom date, Mary (Cameron Diaz), even though it’s been years after the humiliating incident that cut their date short. Ted hires Pat, a private detective (Matt Dillon) to track her down, but Pat ends up falling in love with her too, starting a battle for Mary’s heart.
- Finally, the lovers overcome their egos, problems, or the person that kept them apart and end up getting back together.
This plot is used time and time again with many romantic comedies—from There's Something About Mary to Pretty Woman. What happens in the text and scenes is what makes it a romantic comedy.
Types of Scenes
There are two types of scenes in humorous writing: situational and verbal. Situational depends on description and the physical setting that the characters are in to push the comedy angle. Throw four female single friends from different lifestyles and careers that are desperately looking for Mr. Right, and you’ve got Sex in the City. Throw a bigoted blue collar worker, mousy wife, sexy daughter and loud-mouthed liberal son-in-law together and you have All in the Family. Verbal comedy involves internal monologue, description, and dialogue.
Situational comedy has the same ingredients as a drama, but while drama explores the serious issues that arise from a particular setting, comedy makes fun of the situation the characters find themselves in. For instance, in Family: The Ties that Bind...and Gag! by Erma Bombeck, there is a story where all the kids who’ve grown up come home to take their annual family Christmas portrait. Here’s a passage:
He was wearing a wrinkled jacket with sleeves pushed up to the elbow, Hawaiian shirt, and balloon pants that revealed white ankles and bare feet.
His father turned to me and said, “For God’s sake, Erma, didn’t you tell your son we were going to take the family picture for our Christmas card?”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said.
“So, why didn’t you shave?”
“I did, just a few hours ago.”
“Did you put the blade in?”
“Sure, it’s the new stubble look like Miami Vice. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it before.”
“Of course I’ve seen it before...on winos and travelers whose luggage has been lost for three weeks.”
“Dad, it’s sexy. Gives you that I-just-rolled-out-of-the-sack look. You remember that. Hey, Mom, I’m going over to the coast for a couple of days to catch some rays. How about baby-sitting my pet.”
“I don’t need another dog. Is it messy?”
“Mom, would I leave you with anything messy? It’s all here...food and all. No sweat, honest.”
“You know how the neighbors feel about barking dogs.”
“I promise you. This animal won’t bark. I’ll put him in the utility room. His food is by the toaster.”
At that moment, his brother kicked open the front door. “I hope you’re satisfied,” he announced flatly. “I have a cold.”
By using situation in comedy, you end up with characters that are basically forced to communicate with each other, causing a humorous outcome. The scene continues as additional characters come into it and more witty dialogue ensues, and then the moment comes where they take their annual family portrait (and we find out what animal it was that Erma was supposed to watch):
One by one the family wandered into frame with wet hair, borrowed shirt, and shoes that didn’t fit.
As I struggled to give dignity to the moment, my daughter said, “Mom, why do you have a snake in your utility room?”
The camera clicked. The annual Christmas card portrait was captured for another year. One son sat there in the same sport coat and tie he had worn last year and the same bare feet. The other one’s mouth was crooked as he whispered out of the side of it how he felt like throwing up since the plane was late and he hadn’t eaten. The dog was licking the same disgusting part he had licked the year before. Our daughter’s eyes were following the blurred figure of her father trying to find his place before the shutter clicked. My lips were forming what looked like the SH word...when in fact it was the SN word [Snake]. They photograph the same.
This is a great example of forced situational comedy, yet it is so natural.
Situational comedy can also be dark comedy with awful things happening, but it is done in such an exaggerated way to elicit the darkness and the humor. This is similar to satire except that it seeks to reveal an insight into a situation in order to create compassion for the characters rather than frightening the reader into changing their behaviors or views.
Here is an example from the opening scene of Chuck Palahniuk’s first book, Invisible Monsters, where there’s a blazing fire, and almost everyone at the wedding reception has been shot.
Fire inches down the foyer wallpaper. Me, for added set dressing I started the fire. Special effects can go a long way to heighten a mood, and it’s not as if this is a real house. What’s burning down is a re-creation of a period revival house patterned after a copy of a copy of a copy of a mock-Tudor big manor house. It’s a hundred generations removed from anything original, but the truth is aren’t we all?
Just before Evie comes screaming down the stairs and shoots Brandy Alexander, what I did was pour out about a gallon of Chanel Number Five and put a burning wedding invitation to it, and boom, I’m recycling.
It’s funny, but when you think about even the biggest tragic fire it’s just a sustained chemical reaction. The oxidation of Joan of Arc.
Still spinning on the floor, the rifle points at me, points at Brandy.
Another thing is no matter how much you think you love somebody, you’ll step back when the pool of their blood edges up too close.
Now, this scene is very dark, but it’s not morose because of the narrator’s voice. The narrator takes time to talk about the style of the house, his thoughts on recycling, and his philosophies. It’s a situational comedy, although dark, because all these characters are brought together, but it’s the internal monologue that makes it come alive. And that’s where verbal comedy comes in.
Verbal comedy is the icing on the cake of a situational comedy. It can be done through internal monologue, narrator description, or the character’s dialogue.
Internal monologue is usually the first-person narrator revealing her thoughts, hopes, fears, and philosophies through her personal observations.
Here is an example from The Break-Up Diet by Annette Fix. In this scene, Annette takes her therapist’s advice and tries to find a hobby to help her get over her exboyfriend.
I flipped through the community recreation brochure. The class title jumped off the page. Why didn’t I think of it sooner? Golf lessons. Perfect.
Kevin always wanted me to learn to play. If I took golf lessons, I could turn pro. Join the LPGA Tour. And be in the perfect position to bump into Kevin at a tournament. Maybe he’d even see me on ESPN, or the cover of Sports Illustrated. By then, enough time would have passed, we’d both be more settled and it would be the perfect way to get back together.
It was all so absolutely and completely perfect. I could go on with my life without obsessing about Kevin, and then sometime—maybe ten or fifteen years from now—our separate futures would merge again.
I tore the registration sheet out of the catalog and began filling in the paperwork. Golf lessons. What a great idea.
This is a good example of how you can use interior monologue to be funny. It gives you great insight into the character’s overblown thoughts. She thinks that just by taking up golf as a hobby that she’ll be the next Tiger Woods.
Here’s another example of internal monologue from The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank:
My theory was that if you had breasts, boys wanted to have sex with you, which wasn’t exactly a big compliment, since they wanted to have sex anyway. Whereas if you had a beautiful face, like Julia, boys fell in love with you, which seemed to happen against their will. Then the sex that you had would be about love.
I told my theory to my friend Linda, who wanted to be a social scientist and was always coming up with theories herself. I’d concluded that breasts were to sex what pillows were to sleep. “Guys might think they want a pillow, but they’ll sleep just as well without one.”
She’d said, “Guys will sleep anywhere if they’re really tired.”
In this passage, Melissa Bank uses her internal monologue mixed with a bit of description. She says, “breasts were to sex what pillows were to sleep,” which is a comparison, but in descriptive comedy, the more common use is similes.
Description focuses on the amusing description of people, actions or setting. One way to achieve this is through the use of similes, comparing two seemingly dissimilar things to show their similarities in a funny way. A good simile adds depth to the story, and when done well, can make the reader relate to the characters that much more. On the downside, when they are done poorly, or there are too many of them, they can totally destroy a story. Here are some good examples from The Break-Up Diet by Annette Fix:
Bonita breezed through the patio doorway wearing a sundress, her short dark hair tucked under a woven hat. She set a tray of deviled eggs on the picnic table.
Bonita always decorated each egg half with a perfect swirl of yellow stuff, a little slice of Spanish olive on top, and a tiny parsley leaf tucked into the edge. It was almost an artistic crime to eat them. I once tried to copy her culinary flair and it just looked like a Dachshund with the runs crouched over the egg tray.
I leaned across the table and reached for one of Bonita’s masterpieces.
The simile in this passage is “I once tried to copy her culinary flair and it just looked like a Dachshund with the runs crouched over the egg tray.” By adding descriptive comparisons you gain insight into your main character’s thought process and your readers are more likely to be drawn into the story. Here’s another humorous comparison from Annette’s book:
It was a balmy night, unseasonably warm. Just the way I like it. The club was packed. Disco Saturday night—retro trendy, and more fun than the ’70s were the first time around. But that was when I was dancing to the Bee Gees in hopscotch squares, so what do I really know?
“Hey, let’s hit the patio for some fresh air,” Valerie yelled, flailing her arms to the “Y.M.C.A.” song.
It was stuffy and the press of bodies marinated in beer made the idea of fresh air seem like nirvana. On the patio, I fanned a puff of cigarette smoke out of my face and wondered what was so fresh about inhaling the second-hand ass gas of someone’s unfiltered butt.
Here she uses witty observation and comparison to get her point across. She could’ve simply said that she didn’t like cigarette smoke, but then you wouldn’t gain insight into the character. Another way to achieve this is through dialogue.
Dialogue is the witty conversation between characters that give them a voice to be funny. There are whole books devoted to crafting dialogue, and many times it comes down to beat, timing, and context to be funny.
“You know, the condom is the glass slipper of our generation. You slip it on when you meet a stranger. You dance all night, then you throw it away. The condom, I mean. Not the stranger.”
-- Marla Singer from Fight Club
Here is another example from The Break-Up Diet that takes place on a date at the movies after Annette had just washed her “skunked” dog the night before:
Tyler and I settled into the darkness. No popcorn. No drinks. He didn’t want to miss a single minute.
A radio active spider bit Peter Parker and Tyler watched raptly.
“Do you smell that? What IS that smell?” Tyler whispered, leaning over and wrinkling his nose.
I faked a stretch and took a sniff under one arm. Maybe my deodorant was on vacation after that run. “I dunno. What do you smell?”
“Something smells like a skunk,” he said.
The darkness of the theater hid the redness of my face. Should I tell him? Yeah, there’s a great idea. Um, by the way, that nasty smell of feral rodent ass gland—that’s me.
“Really? I can’t smell it,” I said.
“You’re lucky. It’s nasty,” he whispered back.
Dialogue can also be woven in with description, or interior monologue, as in this passage from The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank:
I’m having such a good time that I forget about the party until we’re on the elevator up. I say, “Maybe we should have a code for ‘I want to go.’”
He starts to make a joke but sees I’m serious and squeezes my hand three times. I okay the code.
The elevator door opens right into the loft. I was counting on those extra few seconds of hallway before facing the party, the party we are now part of and in, a party with people talking and laughing and having a party time. I think, I am a solid, trying to do a liquid’s job.
I am only a third joking when I squeeze Seth’s hand three times. He squeezes back four, and before I can ask what four means, our hostess is upon us. She is tall and slinky, with ultra-short hair and a gold dot in one of her perfect nostrils; I feel every pound of my weight, every year of my age, until Seth tells her, “This is my girlfriend, Sophie.”
I smile up at this ghosty-pale sweetie-pie man o’ mine.
As soon as our hostess slinks off to greet her next arrivals, I say, “What does four mean?”
“It means, ‘I love you, too,’” he says.
I want to be happy to hear these words—it’s the first time we’ve squeezed them—but I feel so close to him at this moment, I say the truth, which is, “I feel old.”
He puts his coat around my shoulders and says, “Is that better?” and I realize that I’ve spoken into his bad ear.
I love that passage because it combines all the elements of situational comedy, interior monologue, description, and dialogue. It’s an excellent example of what you can do when you utilize all the comedic elements in fiction to create believable characters.
So, what have we learned today? We’ve learned that this saying by an unnamed comic is true: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” We’ve also learned that you don’t have to be funny in real life to be funny on the page—but you do have to hone your craft. We’ve also grazed the topic of fictional comedic formulas. And the fact that you can learn how to write humorous scenes. We’ve also discovered that almost every type of fiction writing should at least contain periodic comedy. Even in dark fiction, readers can only stare into the abyss for so long. Humor also makes the reader care more about characters. So, when crafting your next novel or short story, remember the first rule: if it makes YOU laugh, then pursue it, develop it, and it will probably make others laugh as well. There’s no pleasing everybody, so you should start with what tickles your funny bone.
Thank you to Raymond Obstfeld for his excerpts from his excellent book on crafting scenes: The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. I can’t recommend this book enough. It should be in your writer’s library.