Writing Romantic Comedy
(May 4, 1999)
Romantic comedy is a thriving sub-genre at the moment. New humor lines have launched in the past few years and are launching still. In addition to these, time-tested lines that have traditionally leaned toward angst-filled stories seem more open now to lighter, funnier plot-lines peopled with quirky characters. This interest in funny, light-hearted love stories doesn’t surprise me. In our stress-filled, hectic world who can’t use a good laugh now and then? But writing breezy, funny-bone ticklers is often anything but a breeze. Why? Well…for a lot of reasons. Included here are just a few of the problems a writer of humor encounters. In my own work, I try to keep all this in mind. Sometimes, I do. Other times, I just cross my fingers, write, and see what happens. (Not a simple thing to do – writing with crossed fingers!)
In my opinion, a writer either has a voice for humor, or she doesn’t. If she doesn’t, probably no amount of work or study’s going to change that. If she does, writing comedy is still tricky…and sometimes scary, too. Because, for the most part, young or old, male or female, the same types of things usually make people sad or frightened or tense. Humor, though, is much more subjective. What a person finds funny is often determined, at least somewhat, by not only the generation in which they grew up, but by their sex.
Let’s look at the age factor first. My husband and I recently celebrated the second anniversary of our 39th birthdays. Yet, we laugh right alongside our teenaged sons when watching episodes of Seinfeld. On the other hand, my parents and parents-in-law, products of the depression-era, scratch their heads and shrug. They just don’t get what all the snickering’s about. Old Andy Griffith Show reruns are more to their liking when it comes to situation comedy. My husband and I enjoy Andy, too. But the kids tend to roll their eyes skyward at the antics of Barney, Goober, and the rest of the Mayberry gang.
Then, there’s the gender thing. It seems to me that men’s humor is much more physical than women’s – more in-your-face. And there’s almost always a punch line involved. Take The Three Stooges, for example. Men seem to think they’re the height of hilarity. Now, I’m sure there are at least a few women in the world who find the Stooges bonking one another over the head to be insanely funny. Personally, though, I don’t know a single one. Women’s humor seems to be more subtle and multi-layered then men’s. Less about laughing at what’s happening to someone than about laughing with them. I think women are most amused by situations they relate to, so that ultimately, they’re not only laughing at the character or the situation in a novel or movie, they’re also laughing at themselves.
Once, the adult members of my family were watching a newscast in which a woman was being interviewed about an important world event. The interviewee wore large, obviously heavy clip-on earrings, and as she talked, the left one slipped slowly farther and farther down her ear until the lobe was stretched about two inches long. (It seemed that long, anyway!) Other than moving her mouth to talk, the woman stayed still as a statue and, despite a growing glint of panic in her eyes, kept her cool and made it through the interview. She didn’t even flinch when the earring finally dropped from her ear and disappeared from view. My sisters, my mom and I were not so composed. We laughed hysterically, tears streaming down our faces, shrieking when the shiny bauble finally ran out of flesh and dangled precariously at the tip end of the woman’s ear. Mind you, the men in the room were amused, but they didn’t carry on like us. In fact, they seemed slightly baffled by the intensity of our reaction. Now…were we laughing at the woman? I don’t think so. True, we found the situation funny, but more than laughing at it alone, I think we were laughing at ourselves. We’d all suffered similar predicaments – times when we wanted desperately to present our best image, but some crazy something happened to make us look silly, instead. We could relate to what that poor woman must’ve felt. And, I believe a big part of what made us laugh was imagining the thoughts running through her mind…thoughts we’d had ourselves in the past.
Since the romantic comedies I write are marketed more toward women than men, I try to sprinkle my stories with predicaments, conversations, and attitudes that tend to amuse the fairer sex. Often, I turn to my personal experiences with the women in my life when pondering ideas for adding humor to my writing. What do we talk about when we get together? What topics, situations, and attitudes make us laugh? As for age, this is often tougher. It’s not easy to find a story line with which women of any age can relate. I tend to concentrate on things more common to younger women. After all, more “mature” women have been there, done that. Chances are, they’ll remember.
Too, I strongly believe the best humor derives from a character’s response to a situation, rather than simply the situation itself. For example, if that woman being interviewed would’ve reached up nonchalantly the second she felt the earring slipping and had re-secured it, the situation wouldn’t have been nearly as funny. Instead, she froze. This response, and what occurred because of it, generated the humor. In my novel, Body & Soul, the middle-aged heroine’s soul switches bodies with a twenty-year-old woman who has just interviewed for a job working with the heroine’s husband. Now, if the heroine had been so fearful she’d chosen to lock herself inside the apartment until she figured out how to switch back, there would’ve been no story…and no humor. Rather than the situation of the body switch sparking the humor, it is sparked by her decision to accept the job with her husband and, later, their interactions with one another as they face his growing attraction to a woman he isn’t aware is his own wife. In other words, the characters’ reactions to the situation create the comedy.
And finally, there’s chemistry. In the best romantic comedies the chemistry between the hero and heroine almost snaps and sizzles. To see what I’m talking about, look at Audrey Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib, or Doris Day and Cary Grant in A Touch of Mink, two of my favorite old romantic comedy movies. (And the old ones are the best, in my humble opinion!) Besides learning a lot about what makes humor work in a story, you’ll feel better, too. Less stressed. It’s true what they say…laughter is the best medicine!— Jennifer Archer
E-mail JenniferRead an AAR Review of Jennifer Archer’s Body and SoulRead an AAR Review of Jennifer Archer’s Once Upon a DreamRead an AAR Review of Jennifer Archer’s Shocking BehaviorRead about Andrea Ryan, who secured and edited this Write Byte
Andrea Ryan I’m 29 years old and live in St. Louis with my wonderful husband, who tolerates my marathon novel reading, an Irish Wolfhound, 2 cats and an African Grey Parrot that loves to talk. I don’t have any children (yet), but I have two extremely adorable (but very demanding) brand new nephews so I’m trying to get in all the reading I can until having children hits me! I have a B.A. in Russian and Spanish and speak, read or write 5 languages. I’m working on a Masters of Public Health degree (long career story) and working full time, so I’m having to find creative ways to squeeze in books between work projects, mid-terms and finals.
I started reading romance when I was about 15 (Laurie McBain, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Judith McNaught) and was hooked immediately. If Judy Bloom counts, then I started with Forever on my school bus in 6th grade. Then, my mom caught me reading Wifey and I was banned from reading romance until high school. That was actually okay with me since I got the shock of my life with that book, anyway.
I primarily read romance (any kind), but will take a break whenever Anne Rice comes out with a new book and sometimes read mystery/suspense. My dad wrote three books when I was a kid and I’ve had a secret desire for years to write a novel. (Will never happen). I love to write, but I leave the books in the book store to those truly gifted (which is not me). My husband doesn’t understand why I read romance, but, coming from a man who flew F/A-18s with the Marines, I don’t take it personally and just tell him to go away.
Although my list keeps growing, some of my favorite authors are Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Judith McNaught, LaVyrle Spencer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Diana Gabaldon, Patricia Gaffney, Geralyn Dawson, Connie Brockway, Loretta Chase and Eve Byron. I can’t imagine life without romance books!
Feel free to e-mail me here.
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