Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's a Serious Business

Comedy. It's not as easy as you would think. Back when I was acting, actors were always surprised how hard it is to pull off a comedic scene. Drama is easy; comedy is hard.

Luckily, I have always been able to do comedy, in fact my problem comes from finding comedy almost anywhere. This has led to my current dilemma with my manuscript. I'm starting to wonder: Is there too much comedy?

I'm dealing with a serious subject: murder. I'm dealing with characters who all have individual agendas. Serious business. A chance to delve into psyches and discover what makes each of my characters tick. Fascinating; well, it is to me! But I keep throwing in comedic moments. I can't seem to help myself, it's like a disease.

Here's an example: I have several of my characters sitting down to dinner. There has just been an incident. No one is looking at each other and there's that awkward silence filling the room. Then someone's stomach rumbles. I know this is funny, but is it appropriate in a murder mystery?

I've told myself and it can't be serious all the time; life isn't like that. There's comedy everywhere. I don't want to write a book full of brooding silences and squeaky doors and mysterious strangers slipping silently through secret doors. Although knowing me, I'd make the secret door the one that squeaks!

I've put comedy into my scripts and it's certainly present in my mystery games. But in my book? I'm writing a mystery in the classic setting of an English country house and I can't seem to stop my characters from having comedic moments. It's not occurring on every other page, and I don't have some hapless innocent slipping on a banana peel, (yet) (no, don't worry, even I wouldn't go that far) but every now and then, it's funny.

Is the occasional bit of comedy appropriate when writing a mystery? Surely making a reader smile would be considered a good thing? Or do I need to break the habit?

How much comedy do you incorporate; and if you do, is it on purpose or are you like me and it just seems to show up?


  1. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. And who's to say what is funny, anyway?

    I don't intentionally aim to write funny; if something funny shows up, well, then I have to decide if it fits.

    Bottom line: If it feels right, go with it. If not, pull out that hatchet and get cutting.

  2. Elspeth - I consider comedy a gift. If you have it, use it. I, myself, don't have the comedy DNA, so although there are a few light moments in what I write, I don't incorporate funny things deliberately. I wish I could. Since I'm not nearly as talented as you are that way, it sounds too forced coming from me.

    So how much comedy is "OK," and how much is "too much?" I think Alan is right. One size doesn't fit all. There's no reason in the world that you can't have funny moments in an English country house right after an incident. If it flows naturally, why not? Agatha Christie did it all the time. For instance, in Hallowe'en Party, Ariadne Oliver, Christie's fictional author, visits Poirot right after she's been present at a murder. She's obviously badly shaken by the incident, but even in that disastrous moment, the exchange she has with Poirot is funny. Comedy that flows naturally can enhance a story.

  3. Alan; That's the rub, isn't it? Does it fit? I shall wait awhile and then look at the entire manuscript with a wry and judgmental eye.

    Margot; Thank you for your kind words. I shall take comfort in them when I get out the editing red pencil!

  4. I think comedy ALWAYS has a place. Even a mystery can be livened up with a little comedy in the right places. One I think of offhand that I think(?) qualifies as mystery is Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. That could be suspense or crime...but whichever category it fits in, I loved the fact that there was humor mixed in with the tension. It made me bond with the characters more and enjoy the story. There's no reason it has to be serious ALL the time!

  5. Murder mysteries can have humor, sure! Go for it.

    Straight From Hel

  6. I think some comedy is great! I love a novel that changes tones and moods, one that gives you those unexpected moments. Comedy also will act as a foil for your tragic moments - making them that much more striking!

  7. As you pointed out comedy isn't easy, so few can do it and do it well. You ought to stick to your guns, Elspeth. I like to read books with humor, it can really add to the pacing. Naturally, certain scenes would cry out for a bit of humor and others would be ruined by it. I can't wait to read it!!!

  8. Steph; So do I! I guess the trick is to have it in the right places.

    Helen; Thanks, I probably shall.

    Jemi; I hadn't honestly thought of it acting as a foil; although of course you're right. Added bonus!

    Elizabeth; When I reread my post I did think I should change the beginning, I didn't mean to toot my own horn. You're right, comedy does add to the pacing. Thanks for the three exclamation marks; I shall gaze on them the next time I consider pulling my hair out in frustration.

  9. I was just watching a documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some were concerned that the film would be seen as a comedy; George Roy Hill explained it as telling a truth. If Newman and Redford were successful in that telling, then we'd believe them. They didn't play comedy and they didn't play drama. They played their truth of the characters and their relationship to one another.

    In my own experience, Ordinary World is much more serious than Faking It, and Andi is in mourning. But I saw moments of humor in the midst of that, and comedy is re-generative. I wanted that aspect, and to stay true to Andi, even despite her tragedy.

  10. Elisa; My goodness, I wish I could justify it as 'telling a truth'. I honestly don't think much on that level, I'm just telling a story the best way I know how.

  11. Maybe it's the protagonist's stomach that rumbles. She can watch who ignores it, who looks embarrassed, who makes a witty quip. And maybe this can further the plot, while characters and readers chuckle at the humor.

  12. I like when there's a bit of comedy in the midst of suspense - adds a certain element of realism and here you are, reading, all serious - and something funny takes place. Refreshing. And fun!

  13. You know, this is a very interesting subject. I use a LOT of humor in my books. Reviews I get are quite laudatory in that regard. But in a WIP I have right now, the Protagonist and his girlfriend go to a comedy club and I've been trying to write a good standup comedy routine. And I'm just not getting it ... I've done several drafts and ran them by some trusted readers and they're all like ... sorry dude, just not very funny. Sigh - it is a completely different animal writing "with" humor and "writing humor." The standup comics get their stuff to work a lot with inflection, facial expression and body language - which does not translate to the written word. But I'll keep trying, either that or scotch the routine and just adjust the scene to make reference to the stage performer. We'll see.

    Marvin D Wilson

  14. I think humor plays a great role in releasing tension and making characters more likable. It can draw readers into a book and lull them into a false sense of security...then you suddenly drop a body in the middle of it. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  15. I recently read an excellent detective novel (Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz) which is hilarious and yet it is about a woman being raped in a jail cell by a police officer. Serious stuff but the humour was absolutely spot on.

  16. I wish I could write comedy. I tend to overexaggerate and thus it's not funny.

  17. Don't stifle yourself, whatever you do. The best books are the ones in which the author's "voice" comes through. If you change it, you not be true to yourself.

    Not saying some editing might not be in order. I mean, not everything has to stay...but I wouldn't worry too much about having too much comedy. If it's funny, it's funny. And the other commentators are right, serious stuff can also be funny...maybe it just depends on what sort of overall atmosphere you're going for.

  18. Comedy in a serious work is almost a necessity. Without it, the reader just gets pounded with the pain of serious reading

    Best, Galen


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