Writing Comedy

One of the writers from a writing group I lead made an interesting comment. “In comedy, characters are static and do not change,” she said. “Comedy is best when kept simple.” She referred to writer Susan Hubbard’s essay on writing humorous fiction in the handbook on Creative Writing. I am not familiar with Susan or the Handbook, but the comment intrigued me.
Without having the essay to read and understand, I relied on my wits—never a good default. But here are some thoughts the writing friend prompted:
1. In order to communicate comedy often has to be kept simple. Pies in the face and slapstick comedy for sure. But lots of other kinds of comedy, as well, succeed if kept simple. However, I’ve been reading George Saunders’ book of stories, 10th of December and sometimes the humor there is very subtle. Woody Allen’s humor is intellectual and often dependent on a wide literary knowledge.
2. I think often comic characters change–not the Seinfeld ones, but Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Gary Paulsen in one of the most hilarious books I’ve read, Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered. Also, think of Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexi—ridiculously funny books, but the characters grow and change. Romantic comedy films almost always require that the characters change, don’t they?
2. I suppose formulas are objectionable, But just as The hero’s journey isn’t set in stone and for all people and all books, plot structures aren’t for all people. I do think they can be a wonderful aid, however, for analyzing our books and diagnosing a problem. For that reason, I encourage writers to think of what the main characters of their stories want and what their needs are—internally. What flaw within themselves keeps them from attaining their “want?” I also think it’s crucial to figure out the major dramatic question of the book so that the need and predominant question drive the book.
3. Contemporary lit really snubs all rules–so experimental–like A Visit from the Goon Squad by Egan. Think of the Wonderful Life Of Oscar Wao by Diaz–he has footnotes in that text. So to claim a rule that in Comedy characters don’t change is probably begging to be refuted.

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About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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