Finding the funny: Advice on writing a comedy

June 04, 2019

How do you write a comedy? Jeff Norton is the best-selling author of nine novels for young people – read his advice for finding the funny…

Author Jeff Norton and his book cover

I always thought that to write a funny story, it would help to be funny. And since I never considered myself that funny (certainly not the by the measures of comic greats), I had never given myself permission to write comedy.

But I’m inspired by characters, particularly characters who don’t fit in. So one day, I dreamt up the idea of a twelve-year-old boy called Adam Meltzer who has OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder – he likes everything clear and in its right place). And then I killed him.

Are you laughing yet?

I hope not, it’s not that funny. But what if Adam was stung to death by a genetically modified, death-defying bee… a zom-bee. And what if that zombee allows Adam to come back to ‘life’ as a zombie, well a zomboy… and he’s totally grossed out about himself. I mean, if you have OCD, probably the worst thing imaginable is living with decomposing flesh. In Adam’s words, “it’s awkward and gross, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.” And I suddenly realised the key to writing funny (for me anyway) is that no matter how ridiculous the situation is, the characters take themselves completely seriously. And thus the character is in conflict with their situation. Adam is disgusted by himself, but he has to learn to ‘live’ with it. To me, that’s funny. And would Adam want to eat your brains? No, he doesn’t even like rare steak.

Or take his best friend, Corina. She’s a vegan… vampire. She’s a vegan vampire. Now, what do we know about vampires?  They like to suck blood, right? So how about a vampire that refuses to give in to thousands of years of blood-sucking tradition. That puts her in conflict with her parents, her past, and her very sense of identity.

I created Adam, Corina, and their pal Ernesto and put them into a book called “Memoirs Of A Neurotic Zombie.”  We tend to think of zombies as brain-eating monsters, not as anxious or neurotic. I’ve upended the expectation.

I like to take notions and turn them on their heads. I also love sub-cultures… those little groupings of people that have their own codes of conduct. Sub-cultures are ripe for comedy.

School is a sub-culture. It’s got its own rules (both written and unwritten), a pecking order, and social norms. And it’s funny to upend them all. When I wrote my new book, ‘Alienated: Grounded At Groom Lake’ I wanted to explore the subculture of American high school… but through a very different lens: aliens!

I wondered, “what would a high school for aliens be like?” And into the mix, I tossed in two very reluctant human characters, Sherman and Jessica Capote. If high school wasn’t weird enough, all of their classmates are aliens; thirty-eight different species of aliens from all over the galaxy. But what do these aliens care about? The same stuff as human kids: who sits where in the cafeteria, who is best at sporting events, and who has a crush on who. Sherman and Jess are in a completely ridiculous situation, but they take it seriously and that’s where both the conflict and the comedy comes from.

So for your writing, if you want to try for funny, think about taking a character and putting them in an unusual setting and see how they react.

Good luck and get writing!

Jeff Norton is the best-selling author of nine novels for young people. Some of them are funny, some of them are not. His latest book series, DINO KNIGHTS, publishes on 4th June. Learn more at jeffnorton.com

Experimenting with different writing styles is great fun, and children can get a lot of inspiration from reading different genres. Check out our Creative Writing course and recommended reading lists for different ages to help them get started.


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