Posted On May 7, 2010 by Print This Post

Comedy is Serious Business

Today, we have a fun Friday treat, talking with author Kimberly Llewellyn about comedy in today’s market. I know many of us are personally invested in romantic comedy and are eager to see light contemporaries make a comeback in publishing. So what better way to kick off the weekend than with a little delve into the humorous? Welcome to RU, Kimberly.

Ryan O’Neal gave a TV interview discussing how he stayed by Farrah Fawcett’s bedside during her final days. He repeatedly begged her to please marry him. Weakly, she finally agreed,  then added in a barely audible voice, “Pre…nup.” 

Doesn’t that make you admire Farrah? Even in the face of death, she kept her wit along with her dignity. That’s levity amid gravity. It’s when you face dire circumstances and you must say or do something funny to relieve tension. Otherwise known as comic relief. Oftentimes, in the darkest of moments, comic relief is all you have left. This also holds true for books, light or dark. A witty retort, a running gag, or wisecrack is a welcome reprieve following a highly tense scene and will serve you well as a writer.

Here are some tips as you pursue comedy in your writing:

What are the comedy hooks? Some favorites include: the baby, the big fat lie, false identity, love triangle, marriage of convenience/fake marriage, newly engaged/married, the bride/the wedding, the big breakup/getting dumped, the holidays, fish out of water, the bet, forced proximity, opposites attract, pygmalion, supernatural event/sudden magical powers, swapping lives/identities, and lovers from two different worlds. 

Do some of these hooks look familiar? They definitely overlap with hooks found in the romance genre. What other hooks come to mind in romance? Do you have your favorites? Are any of them listed above? Can you combine some romance hooks with comedy hooks to create a special story of your own? When it comes to hooks, the bigger the better. It’s not just a wedding, it’s a big fat Greek wedding.

Assignment:  Think about your favorite romantic comedies. Can you think of hooks (or combination of hooks) that were used? For example, the movie, Sweet Home Alabama, primarily uses the love triangle hook and the wedding hooks.

Humor is a girl thing; sometimes, a guy thing. Men and women find different things funny. Know the difference in your story. This will add depth to each character. 

Assignment:  If you’re a woman, read guy magazines. GQ, Maxim, and Men’s Journal will give you real insight on a man’s sense of humor. (If you’re a guy, read Cosmo, to learn about women.) 

Write for a tiny audience. Look, death is universally awful. It evokes sadness in everyone. But humor is subjective. Trying to please everyone is the kiss of death. So write for yourself and also, say, for your best friend. You know which friend I’m talking about. The friend you laugh with until your sides ache and you can’t breathe. Yeah, that’s the one. Write to please her, to make her laugh. You’ll be funny and your audience will eventually follow.

Assignment: Take an existing funny scene in your WIP and make it more over the top without fear. You can always tone it down later if it doesn’t “work.”

Let the humor be organic. Sure, slapstick and screwball are great, but in today’s market, a comic perspective from a character we’ve grown to care about has a lasting effect. (“Hey, will you go out to dinner with me tonight?” “Sure, can I bring my boyfriend?” or “Do you believe in love at first sight or should I walk by again?”) Let the humor “stem from character” or let it happen “out of character.” In other words, the use of the reversal. (“Last night, I seduced a man wearing nothing but my stilettos. How he got into my high heels, I’ll never know.”) Hey, it’s your story. If you want grandma to be singing along to Fifty Cent, much to the horror of her granddaughter, then so be it. Comedy has one rule…rules were made to be broken. Or else why would they call it, “in stitches?” If the humorous act is motivated and makes you laugh, then go for it.  And remember, the joke is much funnier when the characters aren’t in on it. Remember Becky Bloomwood? She was the shopaholic with a serious addiction and mounting terrible debt who took a job as a columnist doling out financial advice.

Assignment:  Look at your hero and heroine. Can you give him or her a flaw that might arouse a chuckle? The angel who’s afraid of heights? The Navy Seal who’s terrified of mice? How about the poor vampire who faints at the sight of blood?

Let the painful truth be your guide. Truth hurts and you’ll  confess anything when in pain. The same holds for characters who have been tortured and tested. Putting your character in pain will keep him or her honest. Don’t believe me? Go back and watch the opening to Sleepless in Seattle.

Recall the painful incidents in your past and how you can laugh at them today. I can still recall my childhood, during my parent’s terrible divorce and the awful custody battle they had over me. (“You keep her!” “No, you keep her!”) Surely, you have some painful memories of torture and humiliation of your own that you can incorporate in your writing today. Being divorced hurts. Being a widow hurts. Being dumped hurts. Hurting is universal. It’s up to you to make it funny so it doesn’t hurt so much.

The truth about writing is that to do it well you have to practice til you sweat blood. The pain of it is, sometimes you don’t want to do the work. So, turn it into a joke. (I hate to work out; I won’t even do my writing exercises.) Or try it with some other occupation. (I’d make a terrible witch…I can’t even have a fainting spell right.) Or how about disabilities? Not so funny? Not unless a deaf person is talking in sign language to someone’s who blind. Or what about the nurse with her Masters in anthropology…does that mean she works in geriatrics? And don’t forget the painful truth about love and sex. (“How long does it take to please a man in bed?” “Who cares?”  or “I’m not dirty, I just write that way.” And anything with the word “vajayjay” in it.). Lastly, even a little potty humor is okay now and then. (Did you change your underwear today? Really? With who?) It’s not about “mean,” it’s about “comic perspective.”

Don’t be afraid to die on stage. Take risks with your wisecracks on paper and with friends. Sometimes you’ll get a laugh. Other times you’ll crash and burn. It’s okay. The other night I was out with some fellow authors. (Caution: name-droppings ahead, watch your step…) Julie Leto, Kathy Carmichael, and I went to see Gena Showalter at a major booksigning event. This night, we had to go through the store’s security metal detectors to pay for the books to be signed. As we passed, the security alarm buzzer went off. I rolled my eyes, pointed to one of them (I won’t say which one), and said to the cashier, “It’s my friend’s IUD. It sets off the alarm everywhere we go. Airports. Courthouses. Jail.” Fortunately, it got a laugh. My friends are tolerant of my wisecracking. But I’ve “died”  before, too. It’s part of the process. So, if you don’t get the laugh, just keep going. Practice, practice, practice.

Assignment: If you want to flex your comedy muscles further, read a book on comedy, like Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus.

So what about comedy in today’s market? Are you lamenting over the dark and dangerous books that are published because you write light and worry you’ll never find a home for your writing style? Do you long to add new funny words and catch phrases to your comic vocabulary that consists of ol’ standbys like, “sponge worthy,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” and “I’ll be back?” And when grown adults fight on TV and it always ends with, “Well, he started it!” do you still laugh? (Gets me every time.)

Okay, so you have a story with amazing characters and a terrific plot, but it’s on the lighter side. Not so dark. Not so edgy. Not so sellable in today’s market. What’s a writer to do? You have three options.

Ride out the storm. Publishing is cyclical. Continue writing what you love and wait for “your time.” In the nineties, comedy was hot. It will be again. Have your manuscript(s) ready for the time to strike. Pay attention to rumblings and murmuring amid writers, readers, and publishing professionals. Listen for clues that people want humor back in their lives. Pay attention to what experts, like Sue Grimshaw and Barbara Vey, have to say about where the market might be headed. Look at what agents are requesting; this is a good indicator of what they believe they can sell. Look for any hints that they are on the lookout for humor or light books. Watch the sales on Publishers Marketplace/Lunch. Any funny mysteries selling? How about lighter paranormal romances featuring angels or goddesses instead of vampires? What’s the buzz at writers’ conferences? It may be all “dark” right now, but have patience as you continue writing light so you’ll be ready for when the market turns around.

Carve a niche. Sometimes it is up to you to pave the way for the next trend. Isn’t that what Helen Fielding  did when she wrote Bridget Jones Diary and jumpstarted chick lit? Didn’t Diana Peterfreund do the very same with Secret Society Girl and tap into the “new adult” market starving for good stories? Keep writing and consider submitting your work to editors or agents so you are lined up for that moment when an industry professional is looking for something new. A new voice. A new writer. A fresh new style of storytelling with some fun.

Adapt to your environment. You know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and can decide if adapting is best for you. This harkens back to the “book of the heart” versus “book of the market” debate. Adapting isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you are savvy, write fast, have a complete manuscript under your belt, and are confident enough to combine your comedic elements with the dark, edgy stories of today, then go for it. If comedy is your weapon of choice, why not try a little gallows humor? The more grim the situation, the better your material. When the villain holds the machete up to the spunky heroine’s throat, and she says, “Let’s not lose our heads over this…” I’m gonna like her. You’ll add your own spin to the darker tale. However, if adapting would make you crazy, force you into writing something you hate, or “mess with your swing,” then stick with what you love, because comedy is no laughing matter.

Those are your three options. And no, “shrivel up and die” is not an option, o’ feisty one. When choosing an option, decide what is important to you. Talk to other writers. Start dialogue with agents and editors at venues like conferences and workshops. Study your favorite authors. How are they handling this topsy-turvy market? Are they sticking to what they do best despite the market? Or are they prolific enough to jump on trends? Are they adapting by taking their strengths and applying them to what is selling today?

As you make your plan of action, continue doing what you love while you develop your comedy writing skills. And if you’re a glutton for punishment and crave more comedy tips, see Secrets of Romantic Comedy at Manuscript Mavens. But for now, let’s wrap up with a joke:

How many romance writers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four. One to screw it in and three more to form a critique group to come up with a better euphemism for “screw.”

Final Assignment:  Can you list the comedic hooks in the following movies?

Knocked Up

Notting Hill

The Holiday

The Proposal

The Wedding Planner

What a Woman Wants

While You Were Sleeping

Share your answers to any of Kimberly’s assignments. Or feel free to ask her questions!

Be sure to come by for Monday’s lecture when author Karin Harlow will give us the scoop on what’s really happening in the world of New York publishing these days.

***

Kimberly’s Bio:

Known as “the Wedding Writer,” Kimberly Llewellyn is the author of five novels: three romances and two comedic women’s fiction novels (Tulle Little, Tulle Late and The Quest for the Holy Veil). She has worked with four major New York publishing houses: Avalon, Berkley (Penguin/Putnam), Kensington, and Prentice Hall (nonfiction). Additionally, she’s worked as a corporate writer and has published short stories and articles with various publications, including the St. Petersburg Times. She speaks at reader festivals, teaches writing workshops, and gives online chats when time allows. She promotes the joy of writing to the TV media, radio, newspapers, and magazines. She is the author of  I Want to Be an Author: Now What? offering insider hints and tips that will shave months and even years off a writer’s road to publication. Available June 2010. Fing Kimberly at: http://www.kimberlyllewellyn.com/, Twitter ((offers daily writing tips) http://twitter.com/KimLlewellyn, Facebook http://www.facebook.com/KimberlyLlewellynBooks, and CleverDivas.com.

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Discussion

16 Responses to “Comedy is Serious Business”

  1. Hi Kimberly,

    Welcome to RU! My writing leans toward the darker side, but I do add a bit of humor to break up the tension.

    Thanks for the great tips. Your IUD comment had me crackin’ up.

    And may I say how much I love your hair? :mrgreen:

    Take care,
    Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | May 7, 2010, 4:42 am
  2. Thanks for the tips. My writing almost always has humor in it. Why? Life’s crappy enough. I’d rather laugh. I always think it’s funny while writing, I crack myself up. That’s a good sign. :-)

    Have a great weekend!

    Posted by Sandi Sookoo | May 7, 2010, 8:11 am
  3. Morning Kimberly!

    I always put humor in my writing. Even if it’s just an email! Facebook and Twitter are great places for one liners, or some of the crazy things that happen in my day to day life. Currently it’s a running gag on the various animals my cats bring in that somehow end up in the shower. (You haven’t screamed really loud until you’ve whipped open the shower curtains and found a blackbird sitting in your shower!)

    My opening hook is usually an unexpected twist, generally with some kind of physical humor involved. My favorite is the heroine who gets run over by her own shopping cart. =)

    Great to meet you Kimberly!

    carrie
    *quick wave to Sandi!*

    Posted by Carrie | May 7, 2010, 8:26 am
  4. Hi, Kimberly. Thank you for joining us today. Wonderful post. I just finished reading the Comic Toolbox. It’s a great reference if we writers want to layer in some comedy here and there.

    I’d have loved to seen the cashier’s face after that IUD crack!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | May 7, 2010, 8:46 am
  5. Kimberly, welcome to RU!

    Believe me, I will read this lecture more than once and soak up every word. I have a couple questions for you:

    1. Do you consider writers like Rachel Gibson, SEP, Carly Phillips, Christy Ridgway and others authors of “romantic comedy” or just contemporary romance?
    2. How can a writer balance the humor with other emotion so that readers are just as caught up in all their characters’ feelings?
    3. Do you think most writers who add comedy to their writing are told at one time that their writing is “over the top?” I’ve definitely been accused on that one a time or two.

    Many thanks!
    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | May 7, 2010, 9:31 am
  6. This post was fantastic. I wrote one romantic comedy and had a blast doing so. I’ve had several agents read it and think it was good but, at last, said they knew no one would be buying comedy now. In any case, I would still write this again, knowing it would not sell because I had so much fun with it. Yes, when the market changes, I’m all in.

    One more thought–the movie houses love comedy now and it might be a good time to adapt unsold manuscripts to screenplays.

    Posted by Johnny Ray | May 7, 2010, 10:31 am
  7. Hey Kimberly,

    Great post! One that I’ll print and keep by my laptop to read again. My current wip is paranormal (no shock there). When this one started I knew it would be somewhat funny and was surprised when the dark tones wove themselves in as well. But it works. And I’m having a great time writing it.

    You know I LOVE your books!!! :grin:

    Vicki

    Posted by Vicki | May 7, 2010, 10:36 am
  8. I never knew I was funny until an honest moment with a friend and she said I am. Somehow, it always appears in my writing. And the editors I submit to seems to like it. Thank you for the post.

    Posted by vicki batman | May 7, 2010, 12:21 pm
  9. Fantabulous post, Kimberly.

    What I found extremely helpful is your comment: Sure, slapstick and screwball are great, but in today’s market, a comic perspective from a character we’ve grown to care about has a lasting effect. I recently had an editor tell me something very similar. I printed out your post for future reference!
    Thanks!

    Posted by Wendy Marcus | May 7, 2010, 1:19 pm
  10. Kimberly, what an awesome post.

    I write romantic comedy, and as Kelsey says, have been occasionally accused (wrongly! LOL) of it being over the top.

    I’m perplexed by this, since it doesn’t seem any more over the top than dark, angsty vampires, or a zombie apocalypse (neither of which I have encountered in real life, but then, my life IS rather tame most days).

    But perhaps it stems from the “subjective” tag, as you mentioned. I just hope the tides are turning in comedy’s favor, and soon!

    Posted by Donna Cummings | May 7, 2010, 3:27 pm
  11. Thanks for the tips. You always give the best advice! Life is serious for so many at this time..comedy is essential!

    Posted by Sheri Muller | May 7, 2010, 7:42 pm
  12. Great questions, Kelsey!

    Are writers like RG, SEP, CP, and CR comedy authors or contemporary romance authors? They’re both! IMHO (in my humorous opinion), they are contemporary romance authors with fantastic comedic timing. They offer even more than what is found in a straight romantic comedy…from a to-die-for hero to great emotional conflict that goes well beyond the boundaries of your typical comedy. We care about their characters and get sucked in every time.

    Balancing the emotion with humor takes practice. Take your time fleshing out characters so we can fall in love with him or her (refer to caring about characters above). Know their comic perspective, perhaps one that most of us can relate to so we can say, “Too funny!” (Like that one friend with so much Botox, she has her plastic surgeon on speed dial.) From there, when you throw in comic relief in a dire situation or add a comedy hook, we will laugh and we will cry right along with that character. Because we care. When you care about the character, you care about their hook. How will this character handle getting married? Or having that baby? We’ll worry how she will handle herself while things spiral out of “amuck” (for you “Office” fans!).

    I hope every writer incorporating humor has been accused of being over the top! It’s how we stretch the boundaries. It’s how we find our comedic timing. To learn what works on the page and what doesn’t. Or what works for the Canadian editor vs. the American editor. Jeanie London’s new romance is entitled, “Her Husband’s Partner.” Come on! Here in America, that’s hysterical! It’s a Superromance, from Harlequin Canada. The tagline? “He’s a good man–and one she can’t have.” Was the humor intentional? No. Was it lost on us? No!

    Comedy follows the 80-20 rule; 80% of what you try might not work, but that 20% will make you one funny writer with great timing. So, if you’ve been told, “that’s over the top,” or, “that’s not appropriate,” or “that’s not believable,” then keep going. Reassess and evaluate why it did or didn’t work. Continue to tinker. It’s the only way to know if you’ve gone far enough. I’m not talking about slapstick where there’s a fine line between funny and “just not working.” I’m talking about how far are you willing to push your characters (remember, make your character suffer). Humor stems from circumstance and your character’s outlook, so to look to those find your inspiration to keep it from feeling forced. I have a deal with my editor. I will go over the top and she will reign me in if needed (She’s tamed me only once, by a teeny bit).

    Sorry this post is long; I didn’t have time to keep it short! –Kimberly

    Posted by Kimberly Llewellyn | May 8, 2010, 10:54 am
  13. Did I mention the cashier at the B&N was named Evan? Poor guy.

    <> I love this comment! It’s in those honest moments when the humor comes out, even if it’s the “painful truth.”

    –Kimberly

    Posted by Kimberly Llewellyn | May 8, 2010, 11:00 am
  14. Here is the comment (didn’t come up in the previous post): “I never knew I was funny until an honest moment with a friend and she said I am. -Vicki”

    Posted by Kimberly Llewellyn | May 8, 2010, 11:02 am
  15. Sorry I’m late to the party. I am very glad to read an article about how to incorporate humor into writing CR. I have darker themes, but my characters respond to life’s sharper edges with humor and there are humorous elements in the WIPs. I was rejected for writing ROM COM so I fought that side of my writing. Then I made a decision to go for it. I’m much happier now and your article gives me HOPE that one day there will be a home for my works.

    Thanks again!

    Posted by Christine | May 9, 2010, 8:22 am
  16. Sorry I’m late to the party – I got lost. Great article! I will save to my faves for when I need some humor advice in my writing.

    Posted by lisa grace | May 11, 2010, 2:24 pm

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