I’ve written stories for as long as I’ve been able to form words, and I’ve always loved the idea of writing a comedy. As a child I use to dabble with my own sitcom. It was called “Welcome to Reality”, and thankfully no one ever had the misfortune of reading it.
This dream went on hold, however, when I was at university. I studied writing and we had a series of lectures on comedy. This was my sobering moment when I realised how incredibly difficult writing comedy really is. What makes us laugh in everyday life is totally different to what makes us laugh at a book or a programme on the television. This realisation made me totally re-think my ambition to write a comedy.
A Flair For It
It was when I was writing my third book, Free as a Bird, that it all changed. In Free as a Bird there are twists and turns and misunderstandings throughout. When I got feedback from my editor, he said if the stakes weren’t so high he could see the book being funny. It was too dramatic to be a comedy, but the mix-ups and manipulation could have made it quite amusing. He told me he thought it was clever and I clearly had a flair for that type of writing. He told me I should try a comedy next.
My thoughts went back to university. Comedies are incredibly hard to get right. But his words stuck.
The Right Premise
I already had the idea for my next book all laid out. It was going to be about a group of three friends who create their own superhero just for fun. But then he becomes real and starts sorting their life out for them in disastrous ways. This idea might sound amusing but it came from a dark place. I was unhappy with my life and I wanted someone to come and sort things out for me. It wasn’t originally meant to be funny.
But then I remember being in a daydream one day (as is normal for me) and thinking about the comedy potential. The whole premise was hugely amusing. A superhero coming to life and causing chaos. It was going to be much better suited as a comedy.
This is my comedy writing tip number one. If you’re going to write a comedy, don’t write about something serious and then try to be witty to make it funny. If you really want it to be funny, you need the premise to be funny. Don’t think just because you make your mates laugh, you can translate that to a comic piece. It’s a totally different technique.
Tip number two is give yourself a broad scope where a lot can happen. The more specific your plot is, the less flexibility you’ll have for the comedy. A superhero coming to life can go anywhere. And I let it.
When I wrote Emmett the Empathy Man, I just wrote it as it came. I didn’t deliberately think about jokes I could put in there. I like to write about my experiences, so I put in bad dates I’d been on and I wrote about being made redundant (something I’m far too familiar with). But with the right characters and the right premise, it made it funny.
As I was writing Emmett the Empathy Man, I thought it was quite amusing. But that didn’t mean anything. Would other people find it funny? I sent it off to my editor, and then to my beta readers, and I was so relieved to get feedback that it had made them laugh too. That to me was like winning a medal. My younger self would have been extremely proud.
I’ve done readings of Emmett the Empathy Man at talks and at Storyteller events. I’ve read different parts of it and every time the audience has laughed. Even at things I hadn’t thought were amusing. And every time I've wanted to sit down in shock. I did it. I actually wrote a comedy novel. I actually made people laugh. That to me is a huge achievement.
I don’t think to myself I’ll write a drama next and then a comedy. I have a plethora of ideas and I choose the one next that I’m most excited about. Normally one idea will keep niggling at me and I’ll write more and more notes about it. Before I know it, I’ve planned in thirty-five chapters. That’s when I know what book I’m writing next. It just sort of happens of its own accord.
I had an idea that I wanted to write about someone who was invisible. The notes were building up and my chapters were coming to life (in the planning stage). That’s when I realised this was going to be much better as a comedy. Alice, my invisible main character, suddenly starts to be seen again whenever she’s in the company of a man that makes her want to heave. Throw in a love triangle on top and it couldn’t be anything other than a comedy.
My book, Invisible, is more rom-com than Emmett. There are some serious moments too and plenty of ups and downs, but my editor and beta readers have all told me that it made them laugh. I hope other people find it funny too.
If you want to write a comedy, don’t start off with a few jokes. Don’t think about what has made you laugh in real life. Don’t put in silly or stupid characters that say pathetic things. Find an amusing premise, create characters that your readers will empathise with and then put them through the mill. But make the stakes light and make it entertaining for your audience. And most of all, have fun. If you don’t enjoy writing it, who will enjoy reading it?