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Building Humor into Your Romance by Anne Marble

Building Humor into Your Romance

by Anne Marble

You may have heard the anecdote about the aged actor who was on his deathbed. An overeager student asked him what it was like to die. The actor replied, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

In many ways, that actor was right. Humorous romances can be hard to write. Also, readers won't take your books as seriously. On top of that, even if you get it right and thousands of fans love your book, there will be others who don't get the joke. Don't despair. If you can make enough people laugh, you have done your job.

Comedy will never be easy to write, but here are a few tips to smooth the path.

Use Character-Based Humor

Many people try to divide comedy into two types, physical comedy (slapstick) and character-based comedy. However, the distinctions don't always work. The best slapstick is based on character. The standard pie fight scene is mildly amusing. A pie fight that starts because the mild-mannered hero finally decides to defend himself against the company bully is better. Best yet is seeing the hero's stuffy boss get hit with that pie -- especially if the hero was trying to get a promotion from that boss.

How does this translate into writing romances? Before you put a funny bit into your story, ask yourself "Is it as funny as it can be when it happens to this person?" If the answer is no, find out what's missing. Maybe you're concentrating too much on incident and not on character. Ask yourself if the comedy flows naturally from the character and plot.

Let's say you're writing a romp set in Regency England. Your heroine is clumsy and keeps dropping things into the punch at Lady Sophia's ball. Hysterical, right? Uhm, it could be better. The humor doesn't stem from her character, it stems from her clumsiness. That gets old quickly. Try this instead. Your Regency heroine is a bluestocking who is making a study of insects. During the ball, she spots a particularly fascinating insect fly in through an open door and land on Sir Reginald. She can't help herself. She has to go examine it, even if it means coming up with an excuse to converse with the infamous rake.

Don't be afraid to make fun of the hero, too. Arrogant heroes and stuffed shirt heroes are ripe for comedy. Let's say your hero is a stuffed shirt duke who never slips up. How does he react when he meets the spunky heroine? Emma Jensen's Regency romance Best-Laid Schemes explored this concept masterfully.

Use the Fish Out of Water

One great comic device is the fish out of water. The frontiersman visiting Almack's, the duke forced to travel in the Old West, the cowboy in the boardroom... All these have comic potential. They don't react to their environment in the same way that the "locals" do. Because of this, they also present a great way to introduce information about the setting to your readers. Everything is new to them, just as it is to the readers. When they see the setting, they won't think "Oh it's another day on the ship, ho hum." They will think "I didn't know the waves could get so big! Is that a whale? Look at those men climb the sails..."


Comedy has a lot of leeway when it comes to accuracy. For example, readers who pick up a Medieval romp don't expect it to have the same level of accuracy as a serious Medieval romances. Humorous romances with a historical setting usually use the history as "wallpaper" rather than as a detailed setting. Too much setting could disrupt the comedy. For example, fans don't mind that that Julie Garwood's Medieval romances don't have the level of detail found in the serious Medieval romances written by authors such as Roberta Gellis.

However, don't let your guard down too much in the research department. Sure, not as much detail is required in funny romances, but don't use this as carte blanche to avoid doing research. Readers will still be yanked out of the story if your Medieval heroine dines on corn on the cob or if your Regency heroine visits the Eiffel Tower.


In comedy, there are times that you can get away with using stereotypes. If the hero of your comic romance is a cop, few readers will mind that he's not haunted by his past, that he doesn't blame himself for the death of his partner, that he doesn't have nightmares about a shoot-out that went wrong. He can be an alpha male, comfortable in his masculinity, and befuddled by the pretty new neighbor. This gives you more room to concentrate on plot. The hero in Hannah's Hunks is stereotyped in many ways, and that didn't hurt the novel at all.

However, most of the time, you should get away from the stereotypes. Far far away. Sure, start with the stereotypes if you want, but twist them around. It's no longer funny if a cop eats doughnuts. It's funnier if he has a doughnut box in his office, but he uses it as a cage for his pet lizard while he munches on organic bagels and Boca burgers.

Strike a Balance

Into every life, some rain must fall. And into every comedy, there must be some drama, some conflict. Otherwise, no matter how funny it is, the story doesn't move. The hero and heroine must strive for something, and they can even struggle at opposite ends of a conflict. The real trick is balancing the comic and the serious. One of the masters of interspersing the comic with the serious is Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Have you ever drawn with gel pens on black paper? Some colors are so bright that they take over the whole picture. Serious plot threads can overcome the comic romance unless used sparingly. Try not to jar your readers when the real world intervenes with the humor. Don't leap from humorous banter to a disgusting crime scene. Also, don't let your comic romance suddenly turn into a suspense novel for seven chapters. Recognize that some plots might not work in a funny romance unless they're worked into it carefully.

Shakespeare's comedies are full of potential tragedies. In Much Ado about Nothing, Claudio thought he had been betrayed by his fiancee Hero, and he repudiated her in public. What saved Much Ado from becoming a depressing story about a stupid, distrustful twit? The banter between Beatrice and Benedick, the real main characters of the story. Much Ado is more popular than Measure for Measure. Why is that? Perhaps because Measure for Measure is about a straight-laced official who wants to execute men for having sex out of wedlock and doesn't manage to balance the serious plot with the comedy.

PC or Not To Be

Should comedy be politically correct? Probably not. If you worry about offending somebody, you'll have a hard time being funny. As you write, let the humor flow. If you're still worried about offending readers, come back to the story during the rewrite and look for problem areas.

At the same time, do avoid jokes that make fun of ethnic groups, sexual preferences, the disabled, and so forth. Yes, there have been funny romances that used this type of humor. Those jokes usually fell flat with readers.

Don't Be Too Silly

Yes, I know that doesn't make much sense -- neither do the plots of many funny romances. When readers curl up with a comic romance, they expect the plot to be a little silly. They are willing to stretch their willing suspension of disbelief. But they don't want that willing suspension of disbelief to snap and hit them in the face like a cheap rubber band.

Just as with a serious romance, a contrived plot can be poison to a funny romance. Imagine that you're writing a comic romance about a modern-day prince who disguises himself as a cab driver to search for potential brides. That has potential. But then, the plot starts getting away from you. He never learned to drive, so he keeps crashing the cab. Despite that, he's extremely popular with the customers because he's so darned cute. He finally finds the perfect woman, but he crashes the cab and she dies, and he soul ends up in a vase, and he has to find a new body for her... Enough already! Comedy plots don't have to get top honors on the logic test, but they should at least pass the final exam.

The Importance of Voice

Voice is one of the important tools a writer of funny romances can have in her toolkit, and it can also be very hard to find. Not all comedies rely on voice. By developing a unique voice, you can lift your romance to new comic heights. Or you can work in a subtle tone. Patricia Cabot is a master at this. Her humorous romances have to be savored because you don't want to miss the fun.

Don't Try Too Hard

Don't force the humor. If you approach the white page and tell yourself you're going to write something funny, you'll probably end up with a mess. Or a blank page. Humor should flow naturally. If you labor it, readers will find it labored. If you don't find it funny, neither will your readers.

Wwhatever you do, avoid making your characters laugh at each other's jokes. Many readers hate that because it comes across like the laugh track on a lame sitcom. If the jokes are funny, they don't need the "help." If they aren't funny, no amount of forced laughter will help them.

And don't forget to have fun!

For more information, see Writing Romantic Comedy, by Shirley Kawa-Jump

Copyright © 2002 Anne Marble
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