Jonathon Pinnock’s latest, The Truth About Archie Pye, was published last week (huge congrats!) so I thought it’d be a fine thing if he were to come over here to celebrate. And he has, with his top tips for writing a comic novel…
Ten Top Tips for Writing a Comic Novel
Don’t drown in swathes of description. Humour needs to move fast, and dialogue is a splendidly economical way to show character. Think about the different ways in which different people can describe the same thing and what that says about them. Also, it can be a great way to show a relationship in action. Listen to how people discuss and argue – how they talk over each other and ignore the other person altogether.
Listen to the Rhythm
All writing needs to have a sense of rhythm, but for comedy it is everything. It’s the only way you can control the timing of the joke.
Don’t be lazy. Fix your point of reference exactly and the reader will be drawn in. Instead of saying “she sat alone in her bedsit, picking at her meal for one”, say something like “she sat alone in her bedsit, picking at her Findus individual ocean fish pie.” Victoria Wood was the master of this – study her.
Most of plotting in the end comes down to logistics: ensuring that person X arrives at Y at the right time with Z. Comedy arises when any or all of these go wrong. Play with all these possibilities. Give your protagonist a terrible time. Set him/her off on a quest and then strew rocks in his/her way. Read PG Wodehouse’s “The Code of the Woosters” to see how a master handles logistics in comedy.
Don’t linger on anything – especially a favourite gag. Once it’s done, move on to the next one. Pretend you’re writing for the Fast Show. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, it won’t matter because there’ll be another one along in a minute. Running gags are great, but make sure they build and don’t just repeat.
Avoid Clichés Like a Plague of Feral Badgers
If you’re tempted to use a cliché at any point, you have basically two choices. Either (1) take it out altogether or (2) subvert or develop it. Think of Blackadder’s plan that was “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University.”
Be Fair to Your Characters
Don’t create characters just to be the butt of jokes. Remember they have feelings too. Are they entirely passive? Do they have agency? Are you being fair to them? Are you punching down or up? They can still be really terrible people and have terrible things happen to them, but they must absolutely deserve it.
Avoid Info Dumps
This is a rule of writing in general (although I maintain that a well-executed exposition can cut an awful lot of flab – consider the first five minutes or so of the film “Serenity” for example), but it does apply especially to comedy. If you have a load of information to get across to the reader, make sure it’s done in an amusing way. Have something else going on in the background. Use something like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the only expositional device in literary history to have given its name to an entire book.
Don’t Overdo It
Don’t rely excessively on relentless devices like puns and in-jokes that will eventually wear the reader out. But if you can’t help yourself, make sure you REALLY overdo them. There’s no middle ground.
Ignore All the Above
Humour is MASSIVELY subjective. If you’re confident that what you find funny doesn’t fit the above template, go for it. If you find it funny, chances are someone else will.
Jonathan Pinnock’s THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was published by Farrago Books last week. A surprising number of people seem to be enjoying it.