Posted On October 7, 2011 by Print This Post

Author Janet Mullany – How to Write Funny

Can a historical romance be funny? Absolutely! Author Janet Mullany joins us today to talk about humorous historicals.

Thanks for inviting me to guest blog! My books are either funny historicals, mostly, or books where terrible things are done to poor Jane Austen; my latest, out this week, is JANE AUSTEN: BLOOD PERSUASION, where Jane’s a vampire. It’s not sidesplittingly funny but it has its moments. So naturally I thought I’d write about how to write romantic comedy.  

Quite honestly I have no idea how to write romantic comedy. Yes, you need a strong voice, you need a sense of timing, you need well-chosen words—but isn’t that what every writer strives for? I am not one of those writers who claim that it takes all sorts of terrible angst and sweat to produce a funny line. I can’t help myself. I write a passionate love scene and lo and behold, there’s a banana peel on the bedroom floor. It just happens. I think if you’re a funny person who likes to tell jokes and loves word play and puns you’ll do ok. Otherwise, I think you should stick to a heroine obliged to have sex with half a dozen alpha males to save the world, and then you get into the situation of unwitting comedy. Doesn’t that just beg for someone to intone, “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it?” 

From the reactions to my funny historicals, the first one of which was The Rules of Gentility, some readers were confused. Should romance be, well, that funny? Isn’t love a serious business? And should romantic comedy go beyond the witty repartee and one-liners that seem to define the subgenre? 

I say yes. So, as an example of comedic craft, let’s funny up a very famous proposal scene. 

… to her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In an hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. He sat down for a few moments, and then getting up, walked about the room. Elizabeth was surprised, but said not a word. After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began, 

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” 

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed.

[1]Finally he sank onto a chair.

[2]An unmistakable sound filled the room. 

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Elizabeth said. “It is one of Mr. Collins’ [3] whoopee cushions. [4] Lady Catherine de Bourgh is most insistent that there be one in every room.” 

Well, it’s not that great, but this is how it works. At [1] we get the first deviation from Austen. If you know the scene, he does not sit down, so you know something is going on. [2] is the leadup to [3] the joke when you realize what indeed they both heard and [4] is an additional bit of absurdity, the cherry on the cake, if you like, which both relates it to the truth of the book—Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the clergyman’s overbearing and micromanaging patroness; and the deflation, so to speak, of Darcy’s dreadful proposal.


 What makes you laugh?


Here’s a quick look at Janet’s latest book JANE AUSTEN: BLOOD PERSUASION

It’s 1810 and Jane Austen settles down to some serious writing in the peaceful village of Chawton. But it’s not so peaceful when the Damned introduce themselves as her new neighbors. Jane has to deal with the threat of a vampire civil war, her best friend borrowing her precious silk stockings for assignations with the Damned, and a former lover determined to hold a grudge for eternity.


Explore diversity in fiction when IRMC Books, a publisher of multicultural and interracial romance, joins us on Monday, October 10th. 


Bio: Find Janet online at where there’s a contest, an excerpt from JABP and lots of info about her books (including the funny ones).

Twitter @Janet_Mullany


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24 Responses to “Author Janet Mullany – How to Write Funny”

  1. Hi Janet! I think humor is almost always a plus. It can break the tension after an emotional scene, and I also like humor in opening scenes. I’ve even read scary mysteries that had some humorous scenes – I think they call it “morgue humor.”

    Humor is hard to get right, though – as you said, timing plays a large part. I think it plays into an author’s voice – either they’re a funny writer, or they’re not. I’m not sure it can be forced.

    What do you think – can humor be learned?

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | October 7, 2011, 6:52 am
    • Can humor be learned? I think learning to write humor is possible. But some people just aren’t funny, so I think they may be a lost cause.

      Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 10:58 am
    • @Becke–I think my reply to you got eaten, so trying again: can humor be learned? Writing humor can be but having a sense of humor that translates into a written form is something else.

      @Mary Jo, absolutely first person lends itself to humor. Not only do you have the character’s take on everything, but also the huge amount of author involvement necessary to carry of first person successfully. It’s all about manipulation.

      Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 11:02 am
  2. Morning Janet!

    I adore using humor in writing. =) I’d use even more if I thought I could get away with it. My sense of humor tends to run toward slapstick, and Lucy and Ricky tend to pop out. On my revisions, I generally have to cut that out, but it gives me some great one-liners. That’s why I’ve always love Janet Evanovich for her humor. Some of her scenes have made me laugh so hard I cried.

    Thanks for posting today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 7, 2011, 7:18 am
  3. Hi Janet,

    I use humor in my writing. I tend to write in first person and give my heroine a sharp tongue. It’s easier to spar with the hero.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 7, 2011, 8:00 am
  4. Hi Janet!
    Adding humor is not as easy as people think. When I first started writing, some of my work was referred to as slapstick – and not in a good way. It took lots of hard work for me to get it right!

    Posted by Wendy S. Marcus | October 7, 2011, 8:40 am
  5. Hi Janet. Thanks for hanging out with us today. What makes me laugh in a book is finding the unexpected. Sometimes, I love when a really heavy, emotional scene has a snarky comment to ease the tension. That to me is like gold!

    It really is an art though. I think Harlan Coben is a master at it. He writes really taught thrillers, but he’ll throw in a funny line here and there that cracks me up. There was one about a “psychotic Tonto” in one of his books that made me laugh out loud.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 7, 2011, 10:41 am
  6. @Wendy and @Carrie–of course you can use slapstick! Who told you you couldn’t? Yes, it may raise a few eyebrows and you don’t want too much of it–a lot of the pleasure of reading something funny comes from the humorous variants. I love a bit of funny stuff with a dog.

    Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 11:04 am
  7. @Adrienne, absolutely breaking–or ramping up–the tension is one of the best uses of humor. I’m not familiar with Harlan Coben but my favorite funny authors are Terry Pratchett and Anna Maxted–both English, but so am I.

    Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 11:07 am
  8. Hi Janet,

    I love reading humorous novels. But I like ’em dark, too. It’s really great when an author can take a darker story and inject humor to lighten the moment from time to time. Gives the reader a little break.

    I’ve tried ease the darkness in my writing through secondary characters and every once in awhile I’ll let the H or H have a humorous line.

    Bespelling Jane is in my TBR pile. Now I’ll have to add Blood Persuasion. 🙂


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 7, 2011, 11:37 am
    • Tracey, I think the romance genre suffers from a need to define books as dark or light–I know a lot of it is marketing but I think it makes for a more interesting story if the two aspects can exist side by side, or overlap.

      Thanks for buying my books!

      Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 12:21 pm
  9. Hi, Janet –

    So happy to have you at RU today!

    I absolutely gravitate toward books featuring a character who can make me laugh. (Shout out to Carrie on the Stephanie Plum thing. I don’t care what anyone says, Evanovich is a genius.)

    I’ve had people tell me I write “over the top,” which bummed me out for a while because they didn’t mean it in a complimentary way. But I had to remember that OTT is me.

    Do you have any suggestions for how writers can learn to bring more humor into their work?


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 7, 2011, 11:37 am
    • Hi Kelsey! Yes, embrace your OTT-ishness. It’s part of your voice.

      I think bringing in humor can be very risky. One of the scenes of which I’m most proud is in Rules of Gentility, which I was going to quote instead of my P&P rewrite, but it’s far too long. It’s a scene where the heroine, not a particularly profound girl, visits the hero (not a particularly profound guy) at the home of his mistress. Their child (hero/mistress’s) is sick and possibly dying.

      Now this could have been extremely squicky. What I wanted to do was make the reader laugh and cry from one sentence to another. The main “joke” of the scene is that Philomena takes over from the household’s exhausted maidservant, and finds herself having to do dishes and take the doctor’s hat and gloves when he comes to call. The hero realizes the humor of the situation (she’s quite incompetent) but he knows he’ll only be able to laugh about it if his son recovers. (He does.)

      Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 12:36 pm
  10. Hi Janet,

    For some reason the Bridget Jones books make me laugh so hard I cry. “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.” I find this line hysterical. I mean, even as I’m writing it, I’m giggling like a fool.
    I think romances are hot beds for humor, and slapstick situational humor at that. Because you’re throwing two unwilling people together in crazy situations, when it’s not tragic, it has to be funny, right?
    Also, it seems like the one part of writing that can be killed with editing. Do you find that humor has to come out in spontaneous bursts or can it be layered in?



    Posted by Sonali | October 7, 2011, 12:09 pm
    • I love Bridget Jones too! That’s a great example of having a humorous narrator riffing on a subject.

      Can humor be layered in? Possibly. It may be like adding in sex scenes to “heat things up.” Sometimes when that’s done you start listening for the boom-chicka-chicka soundtrack as the heroine sashays into the scene wearing her sexy undies.

      Question is, why would you want to funny it up? What would it add to the direction of the scene and all that good stuff?

      Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 12:43 pm
      • 🙂 is that like the ‘boi-oing’ sound effect(a la three stooges) after your character says/does something funny?

        Well, sometimes you know that something funny is supposed to happen, like this scene in which my very dark and sad heroine who never laughs anymore needs to have the hero make her laugh, make her feel like her old self again, etc. But I had the hardest time making what he says truly funny. (it’s still only marginally funny) which makes me wonder, if that stuff can be added in.

        Posted by Sonali | October 7, 2011, 1:25 pm
        • In that case I think the joke could be as lame or corny as you like so long as it’s something that resonates with both h/h. So it could be, for instance, some sort of catch phrase that relates to happier times for them both, or maybe he could tell her a joke and remind her of the circumstances when he told it to her the first time (“coke came out of your nose” etc.). Does that make sense?

          Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 2:14 pm
          • It totally makes sense. And that’s kind of what I did. I would’ve liked it to be LOL funny, though.

            Posted by Sonali | October 7, 2011, 3:05 pm
  11. Hello Janet!

    Sorry I’m late!

    Did you set out to write humor or did it just find its way onto the page?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 7, 2011, 2:40 pm
    • @Jennifer, I just can’t help myself which is odd because when I first started writing I thought my niche was as a writer of dark, gritty historicals. But I figured out that I could combine the two elements, to a certain extent. My first real attempt at comedy was The Rules of Gentility, which I started writing for my own entertainment after finishing a ms. where everything was gloomy and dark–even the weather was bad–and it acquired a life of its own. Originally it was a pastiche of Bridget Jones/trad Regency but I couldn’t come up with viable equivalents for the cigarette, alcohol units and weighing sessions.

      Posted by Janet Mullany | October 7, 2011, 2:55 pm
  12. I loved “A Most Lamentable Comedy”. The heroine Caroline (hey that rhymes!), like most women in her predicament, didn’t have many options. But the humor woven into the story and Caroline’s hilarious internals, tempered the gritty reality of her situation.

    I just ordered “The Rules of Gentility”.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 7, 2011, 3:52 pm

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