Thursday, 11 March 2010

Funny You Should Write That: Part 2

Some of the tricks mentioned in part one for structuring individual jokes can be expanded and applied to creating the perfect comic storyline. However, before I start discussing how best to do this (and how I personally go about structuring a novel) I want to look briefly at the two forms of non-novel writing which I find the most useful when thinking about the structures of my books.
Two Act Sit Com with Multiple StorylinesThe basic structure for a sit com, whether British or American, is essentially that of a two act play. The viewer is quickly introduced to the ideas and themes which will be explored in the episode; a crisis occurs roughly at the midway point (just before the ad break if the show is on commercial television); this is often temporarily resolved or (more likely) suppressed in some way, only to escalate further later on. Finally there is an enormous crisis, and this is either resolved (on the whole, US sit coms like tidy endings), or we fade out on a scene of complete and utter chaos (think back to almost any episode of Fawlty Towers where we leave Basil in the most hideous mess). Within this basic two act structure, the writers will be weaving a web of storylines – usually at least three. The main storyline, known as the ‘A’ story, dominates the episode; and there will usually be two lesser plots running alongside it (‘B’ and ‘C’). Sometimes, if there is a very strong ‘B’ story, a minor plotline known as a ‘runner’ (sometimes not much more than a running gag) will be used to break up the action. This use of different storylines is important in creating pace and tension – you flip from one to the other leaving the viewer desperate to know what happens next; and for creating peaks and troughs of interest at different times in the different storylines. It is easy to see how this use of multiple plot lines criss-crossing each other is excellent fodder for the novelist. Marian Keyes is a brilliant exponent of this technique. She will have at least two main storylines running in a book, sometimes set at different points in time, and flip between them every few chapters leaving the reader with a cliff-hanger each time she does so. Thus, in Rachel’s Holiday we switch between Rachel’s life in the re-hab centre and her previous life in New York, being given just enough time to become fully absorbed in one setting before we are snatched away and deposited in the other. The result: a complete and utter page-turner.
Alan Ayckbourn once said that the aim of farce was to take the audience to a completely ridiculous place by way of a carefully constructed series of entirely logical steps. The audience have to be able to say ‘yes, I can see how that would happen’ at each of those steps, or they will never be able to suspend their disbelief enough to accept the dénouement that is awaiting them. Farce has to be planned; there is no way (unless you have a brain the size of Einstein’s) that you are going to be able to sit down and write one off the top of your head – you need to know in advance who your characters are, what their conflicts are going to be, where you are going to begin and – most importantly – where you want to end up.
Farce thrives on muddles, mistakes and lies. Take the Feydeau farce A Flea in her Ear: this begins with a wife mistakenly thinking her husband is having an affair. To test him, she gets her best friend to write him a suggestive letter inviting him to an hotel with a seedy reputation and goes there (with the best friend) to await his arrival. The husband, however, believes the letter is meant for his best friend, hands it over and the friend quickly heads off to the hotel where, of course, the husband’s wife and friend are waiting. The husband then shows the letter to the wife’s best friend’s husband who recognises his wife’s handwriting and runs off the hotel vowing to kill her. We are nowhere near the end of the play but you can see already that the whole thing is completely out of hand – and, importantly, how Feydeau draws us in by making sure each step builds on what has preceded it. Sophie Kinsella is an author who draws brilliantly on this tradition of farce: Becky Bloomwood, largely through her own inability to say ‘no’, repeatedly finds herself in ridiculous dénouements with the reader wondering how on earth she is going to extricate herself – and yet, when you come to think back through the chain of events that led her there, each link in that chain is a logical progression from what has gone before.
Now let’s look at a few of the ‘joke’ techniques that can be expanded to add structure to your novel.
The Rule of Three
Just as when you are writing an individual funny, the Rule of Three can be useful in plotting a novel. Like the individual joke, you will need to create a ‘list’ of three linked ideas, although these will be events or scenes rather than a few words. For example, maybe one of your characters’ goals could be worked into a sequence of three scenes that are dotted through the novel – maybe a proposal of marriage (two failed attempts before the question is successfully popped), or perhaps a request for a promotion (the boss refuses to listen or disaster strikes each time the character opens his mouth the ask for the pay rise). Remember that the first two events/scenes of your list of three can be similar but a twist will need to be applied to the third for it to work successfully.
The Subversion of ExpectationAgain, as with an individual joke, this can be used to comic effect in your plotline. For example, you could build up one character as a super-villain, only to have him exposed at the end as a big softie. Or maybe the heroine suspects the hero of having an unpalatable aspect to his character, only to find out at the crucial moment she has been wrong all along.
Funny Characters
Everyone from Jane Austen to John Cleese uses characters who are in some way amusing. Occasionally these play to preconceived stereotypes (although of course the clever author will subvert the reader’s expectation that it is a stereotype!) or use characters with an obvious comic defect – Mrs Malaprop, for example, and her numerous literary descendants. In my opinion, though, one of the cleverest ways to create a comic character is not to go for the obvious, but to play your characters’ goals and conflicts off against each other to create comic moments: think Basil Fawlty with Manuel, Blackadder with Baldrick and Martin and Frasier/Niles. I recently read Twenties Girl and noticed that this is something which Sophie Kinsella does with aplomb (particularly at the start of the book) by setting up Lara and Sadie’s goals as a sort of battle of wills and waiting to see who wins – with hilarious results. As with individual jokes, simply being mean to a character (particularly if they are weak or disadvantaged in some way) is never funny; and I do think it is terribly important that rom com heroines are strong, capable women rather than pathetic wrecks without any sense or chutzpah who only just manage to muddle through. Remember that the funniest characters will always be the most original, or those which approach their goals and conflicts in a fresh way.
How I Structure my BooksI like to start with a hero and heroine who have some fundamental conflict between them – even if, like Mark and Lucy in Tug of Love, it takes a chapter or two before you find out what it is. Then I try and ‘double conflict’ my heroine by putting her in an awkward position outside of the main love story so she is now fighting on two separate fronts. With my main characters’ goals now in place, I know where I am heading and set course for a pre-planned mid-point. At this mid-point (mid-points, by the way, are the perfect device for avoiding the dreaded saggy middle) I try to create a scene which contains the potential for the hero and heroine’s problems to be resolved – only I’m not going to let that happen! Instead, in a hopefully comic manner, I dangle it tantalizingly for a few pages before whipping it away again. About three-quarters of the way through, comes the moment when the reader needs to think there is no way things can ever work out – the Point of No Return - when things for ther heroine are looking as bad as they can possibly get. However, because I write comedy, my books have to have a happy ending: so, somehow, the heroine has to save the day and triumph wonderfully over adversity. Then she and the hero resolve any outstanding issues between them before riding off romantically into the sunset.
Of course, none of this is set in stone, but I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going. This structure gives me flexibility whilst at the same time nagging me to make my moments of crisis and resolution are properly spaced out within the narrative and well balanced. It’s a structure I’ve scavenged from a number of sources, including Hollywood rom coms and the great Jane Austen herself (she loves her mid-points, does Jane!)
Whilst this is in no way supposed to be a definitive tutorial on How You Must Structure Your Rom Com, I hope it has helped. I find that sometimes one can be carried away by the creative flow and, by having this (or any!) structure in place in the back of one’s mind, it can the pace and balance of one’s writing. I do think comedy needs more forethought and structure than other genres (detective fiction perhaps excepted) because culturally we have a strong expectation and feel for the rhythms of comedy – and as a writer you might as well play to those expectations. Whatever you are writing though, enjoy it – because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Happy writing!

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