It’s not that people don’t laugh at funerals. But they do try to do it quietly, and get embarrassed when they get caught. Usually there’s some elderly aunt who shoots them the fish-eye. Why? Funerals are solemn, sad occasions – people know better than to look like they’re having fun.
Writing a book is nothing like attending a funeral, except that sometimes writers feel like they’re going to die or kill themselves before the book gets done. And writers who would never laugh at a funeral in real life might find themselves doing so in print. Have you ever read a light, funny chick lit book where the heroine’s younger brother is fighting a painful, terminal battle with cancer? Probably not – or if you did, it was probably self-published. Cancer in the middle of a chick lit book is like laughing at a funeral, or maybe crying at a birthday party. It doesn’t belong. It destroys the whole atmosphere.
Yet new writers make this mistake on a fairly regular basis. It might be due to the overuse of the Hollywood term “dramedy,” which implies an even meshing of drama and comedy. Usually, though, most dramedies are dramas with some funny dialogue or a few mild pratfalls.
Almost all genres offer some comedy – even Shakespeare used comic relief in plays like Hamlet (“Alas, poor Yorrick”) and Macbeth. So what is the difference between comic relief and laughing at a funeral? The first step is knowing if you’re writing a comedy or a drama. My English teacher (and probably yours) differentiated Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies by having us examine the ending – a happy ending meant it was a comedy. (Presumably this was because we were not sophisticated enough to get jokes written in the 16th century.) This tactic is still valid today. If you’re writing a comedy, the humor is built into the premise of the story. The funniest books and movies out there feature characters who have no idea they’re supposed to be in a comedy. (Characters in TV shows seem to know; that’s why they’re always telling jokes.) The guy who dresses up like a woman because he’s desperate to spend time with his children and can only do that as their babysitter is pretty desperate. He’s not laughing. But we are.
A typical comedic premise has someone pretending to be someone or something she isn’t. It’s a story in which the protagonist pretends to be someone of a different age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, or their own twin. Or they’re an FBI agent pretending to be a beauty contestant, or a boss pretending to be an employee. Something sad and a little scary might happen to someone during the course of the story, but it’s not someone especially close to the protagonist, or the scare is a false alarm. None of Mrs. Doubtfire’s children got hit by a car.
On a similar note, if you’re writing a drama about a lawyer who returns home to help his terminally ill mother, don’t have him dress up as his female fraternal twin to romance the doctor who’s treating her so he can steal drugs to help her commit suicide.
Simply put, if you’re writing a comedy, stay away from plot points that would show up on the news --- dying children, battered women, drive-by shootings, etc. And if you’re writing a drama, keep the comedy limited to comic relief – some funny dialogue or a few small character reactions.
Issues with tone jar the reader right out of the story. They reveal a storyteller who’s inconsistent and unaware of which emotions she’s trying to elicit from the reader. If you have great ideas for comic set ups and tear-jerker endings, there’s no reason why you can’t write more than one book. But trying to stuff everything into one work of fiction is like trying to put chocolate cake on pepperoni pizza. They taste great separately, but together, what a mess!