How to Write Funny Novels...And Why You Shouldn't

We've got a V.I.P. guest on the blog this week. She's Melodie Campbell, bestselling author and the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

She's also hilarious.

She contacted me last month because she liked one of my blogposts. (See, blogging is an effective networking tool!) She saw we share a love of funny books.

A lot of North America's best comedy comes from Canada. From much of the original cast of Saturday Night Live to up-and-coming comics like The Daily Show's Samantha Bee, to superstars like Seth Rogan, Leslie Nielsen, Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers, Canadians have always known how to make us laugh. (You can supply your own joke about the mayor of Toronto here.)

Maybe it has something to do with wearing plaid shirts and those hats with the earflaps. The key to good comedy is not taking yourself too seriously.

My family say I got my quirky sense of humor from my dad, who was born in Canada, so that may be why I share Melodie's compulsion to write funny books.

Also, we both started our careers in the theater doing stand-up and improv comedy. The biggest compliment I ever got in my acting career was from an old Borscht Belt comic who came backstage after seeing me in Auntie Mame and said, "I didn't see you act funny once in that whole performance." Then he broke into a grin and added. "You don't act funny. You THINK funny. That's the secret to great comedy."

I think funny. Like Melodie, I can't help it.

Melodie is right in warning you away from this dangerous habit. An amazing number of people hate comedy in books. Most of the best comic novels have an average of three stars on their reviews.

People might laugh their heads off at Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids and adore the antics of the guys in the Hangover movies, but when it comes to books, they want things to be politically correct and above all, "serious".

They want kick-ass heroines who can leap tall buildings at a single bound and never break a nail (or a smile), and heroes with six-pack abs and Cristal incomes who want to settle down and raise organic kale.

Melodie gets one-star reviews that say, "The heroine mentions being celibate for a while then has sex with at least 5 men in a month. Her boobs fall out of her dress at every opportunity. Most of the time, she doesn't even notice; other people have to point it out to her."

Like that's a bad thing.

My one-stars say stuff like, "This girl doesn't make the decisions I think she should", and "This book sets women back 100 years." (That one gets my feminist hackles up. As Helen Fielding says, "If women haven't reached the point where we can laugh at ourselves, we haven't come very far, have we?")

And then there's my favorite: "Why can't Camilla get a real job and stop looking for Mr. Right?"

Well, here's the thing: if our characters always made good decisions, there would be no story (you can read Kristen Lamb on the subject here), and if they got a clue, wore sensible shoes, and stopped looking for love in all the wrong places, they'd stop being funny.

Can you imagine reviewing films and TV this way?

"Leslie Nielson is on a plane about to crash and all he can say is 'don't call me Shirley'? So unrealistic. Anyway, the pilot didn't say 'Shirley'; he said 'surely'."

"Lucy Arnaz should stop hanging around with Ethel and stop trying to impress Ricky all the time. Why doesn't she get a real job? And where's the character development? She never learns."

When did people decide that fictional characters are supposed to be role models? The protagonists of our culture's earliest novels were mostly naive or deluded bumblers, from Cervantes' Don Quixote to Fielding's Tom Jones and Voltaire's Candide.

You don't read Cervantes or Fielding or Voltaire to escape into a fantasy about your idealized self. But people have been entertained by their stories for a lot of centuries now. Maybe that's because, as a recent study proved, laughter really is the best medicine...Anne

Writing Funny Novels 
Why You Shouldn’t – But You’re Going to Anyway – So Here’s a Primer 
by Melodie Campbell 

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

I hope you smiled at that line. I think it’s one of my best. My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write comedies. (This is a self-help group, right?) Sure I’d like to kick the habit and write a ‘real’ book with literary merit.

Okay, so that’s a lie. Leave The Goddaughter’s Revenge behind? Not write a sequel? I’m starting to hyperventilate. Actually, I love writing comedies. It’s in my blood.

Some people are born beautiful. But most of us aren’t, and we look for ways to survive the slings and arrows of life. Sometimes we choose to hide behind a mask. That Greek Comedy mask was the one I picked way back.


People smarter than me have concluded that tragedy is the root of all comedy. Making fun of our foibles is indeed one way to cope.

As a means of self-preservation in the cruel world of teenagers, I looked for the ‘funny.’ More often than not, I made fun of myself. This was easy to do. I knew the target well and there was a wealth of material. And it didn’t hurt anyone else, so people liked it.

When I left school and had a ‘real’ job, I started writing stand-up on the side. I rarely delivered it – usually I wrote for others. That led to a regular newspaper humour column, and more.

So when it came to writing novels, I fell back into ‘safe mode.’ Write it funny.

Lesson 1 (the first of 8): The rule of ‘WORST THING’

(aka: Never go easy on your protagonist.)

Comedy writers take a situation, and ask themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen now?’

And then, ‘what’s the funniest?’

What’s the worst thing that could happen to The Goddaughter when she is reluctantly recruited to carry hot gemstones over the border in the heel of her shoe? Predictable would be: she gets caught at customs. But I don’t want predictable. I want funny.

Instead, the shoes get stolen. By a complete amateur! It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is. How is she going to keep this from her new boyfriend Pete, who thinks she’s gone clean? And what the heck is she going to tell her uncle, the crime boss?

Nothing, of course. She’s going to steal them back. Or die trying.

And hopefully the audience will die laughing.

Yes, some people will turn up their noses and say this type of plot is silly. Reviewers may discount the book for not dealing with the ‘important’ issues of today. So…do you really want to join me in this reckless trade? Read below.

The Trouble with Writing Comedy

When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’ Then I give the genres (crime capers and time travel fantasy.) My books are comedies first and foremost. I look for plots that will lend themselves to laughs.

This is different from authors who say they write humorous mysteries, for instance. In this case, they would peg their books mysteries first. The humour is secondary.

It’s tough writing comedy. Here’s why:

1. Everyone expects your next book to be just as funny or funnier than your last.

Example: Janet Evanovich. Readers are complaining that her 19th Stephanie Plum book isn’t as funny as her earlier books. They are giving it 2 and 3 stars. 19 books, people! Think about that. I’m on my third book in two different comedy series, and I’m finding it tough to sustain the humour in book three. Believe me, this woman is a master.

2. When you write something that isn’t meant to be funny (or is mildly humorous but not comedy) people are disappointed.

In fact, one award juror told me (way after the fact) that she didn’t consider my Agatha Christie-style whodunit for an award short list because it wasn’t laugh out loud funny like my other books. (It wasn’t supposed to be.) She admitted she never gave the book a chance because I was ‘all about comedy’ in her eyes.

My rep ruined my chances.

3. You will never be taken seriously for most awards.

Again, comedy is rarely taken seriously for awards. This drives some crime writers nuts. It seems to be endemic that books on the short lists are usually ones written with gravitas, on subjects that are ‘important’ or grim. To quote a colleague, “It seems to me, the more grim a book, the more merit is ascribed to it.” Blame the Scandinavians.

4. It’s hard to get published.

This is lamentable. It’s hard to get a publisher for comedic novels. Many seem to be afraid of funny books. Again, it may be the part about not being a ‘serious’ book, and thus not seen as an ‘important’ book.

Film suffers from a similar stigma. How often these days do comedies win Oscars?

5. The expectations are HUGE.

Not only will you be expected to produce a book with great plot, characterization, viewpoint, motivation and dialogue like all the other writers, but along with that you also have to make people laugh consistently throughout it. It’s like there is a sixth requirement for you, an additional test that others don’t need to pass. And you don’t get any more money for it.

Sucks, right? So why do it?

(Okay, you’re going to do it anyway, so here goes...)

Lessons 2 through 8

Let’s go beyond lesson 1 now. Of course, you don’t have to write comedies to get humour into your books. All stories can benefit from a dose of bathos to make the pathos seem more piquant. Here is my primer on how to put laughter in your books:

2. Make the basic plot funny.

This is the hardest thing to do. This is what makes ‘comedies,’ rather than books with humour.

a. For this, I fall back on the best of the best, my favorite book to quote.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass. The very premise of the plot is funny. The construction plans have been filed for decades, but as no one on earth is aware of life beyond our own, of course the plans have gone unprotested. “Apathetic bloody planet…I’ve no sympathy at all,” says the Vogon construction leader before he blows Earth to smithereens.

That’s a comedic premise.

b. How I work it: In The Goddaughter’s Revenge, Gina must mastermind a bunch of burglaries to get back fake gems before anyone finds out they’re fake, otherwise her rep is toast. That’s right – she’s stealing fake gems and replacing them with real. And of course, all the burglaries go wrong. Once again, the basic plot is nutty.

3. Make funny things happen in your plot.

Back to Hitchhiker’s Guide. What if…humans weren’t the only ones experimenting with animals in the pursuit of science? What if…white mice were experimenting with humans?

What if…the answer to the Meaning of Life is the number 42?

4. Make a theme in your novel funny.

Rowena Through the Wall is a comic time travel/sword and sorcery novel. It is also a spoof of bodice rippers, but few people have picked up on that. (This baffles me, because it’s right over the top: she rips her bodice in almost every scene.) In the second book in the series, Rowena and the Dark Lord, she rips her skirt in almost every scene. Readers love it, even if they don’t get that it’s a spoof. They look for it. It is a theme that runs through the series.

5. Make a character in your plot funny.

This is the most common humour device in novels. Shakespeare was a master at this. We have lots of examples here.

a. Again, let me return to the master, Douglas Adams. In my opinion, Marvin the depressed robot is one of the greatest inventions in comic fiction.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”

“Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh God, I’m so depressed. Here’s another of those self-satisfied doors. Life! Don’t talk to me about life.”

b. Can’t forget another unforgettable character: Grandma Mazar from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

6. Add Wordplay.

Examples: surprise, unexpected, sarcasm, exaggeration, words with double meaning

This is different from making your character’s ‘character’ funny to the reader. In this example, a member of the cast says funny or clever things.

a. Surprise or unexpected:

“I had the flu once. It was terrible. I couldn’t eat a thing for three hours.”

This works because we expect to hear something else at the end: “I couldn’t eat a thing for three days.” Instead, we hear “three hours.” This is an example of the surprise or unexpected, plus exaggeration, giving us a chuckle. But wait a minute: this is also self-deprecating. Three in one.

b. Example 2: Remember how this post started?

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

This is an example of wordplay that requires the reader to have some prior knowledge or education. We know the original Mae West line, where the gun substitutes for something else. This exaggerates the gun into something bigger. The reader feels clever for getting the joke.

7. Riff off the reader’s own experience:

Also in Hitchhiker’s Guide: The Vogon monsters have developed a unique form of torture. They read their hand-written poetry to victims. It’s excruciating.

I’ve been to live readings just like that. You bet I laughed when reading this. And Douglas Adams wrote it for people like me who have been to poetry readings and – most likely- shared his reaction.

(Not all people will appreciate this humour. That’s okay. Not everyone will appreciate every funny line you write, either.)

Why was Adams such a master? He doesn’t explain it. No laugh track here. He shows you the scene and lets you make your own conclusion.

8. Emulate the Comedy Masters who do stand-up:

Don’t over-explain. Never point to a joke. Just lay the line. You don’t even need to have the other characters in your book laugh.

How to accomplish this? End the scene at the line.

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”


The Earl appeared at the door. “What are you doing?!”

I poked my head out from under the table and wiped a shrimp from my hair. “We couldn’t wait for dinner, so we started ahead.”

The Caveats

1. Humour needs context.

So much of what makes us laugh depends on our previous experience, education, age and gender. That’s why some people find Monty Python funny, and others don’t. (I am, by the way, a huge fan. Ditto for Gilbert and Sullivan. Outrageous satire of the establishment gets me every time.)

Don’t be alarmed if not everyone gets every funny line in your fiction. They won’t.

2. Can you take the heat?

Not everyone will see the humour, particularly in satire. (Witness my bodice ripper spoof.) In fact, some may be annoyed by it, if they perceive you are making fun of something they value.

Going too far: there is a fine line that all of us work against. The line will wobble a bit and sometimes we step over it. (Stand-up artists do this frequently by picking on people in the audience.)

If you are going to write humour, you have to be able to take the heat from going too far.

Final Words (will she ever shut up)

Here’s the key, as I’ve discovered it:

The trick to combining humour and suspense is to play each against the other. Taut suspense is broken up by bathos, making the suspenseful parts seen more dramatic. And – as I have learned from writing the Land’s End series – one can make humour seem more funny by juxtaposing it against gripping danger. In fact, a steady diet of unrelenting wacky humour can make one grow blasé, just as a steady diet of porn might dull one to sensuality.

But why do it? Why does an otherwise sane individual write wacky and some might say silly fiction, and risk the inevitable hit from some critics who say your book is without great literary merit?

We do it for readers. Hopefully, we’ve lightened their day with laughter, and in some cases given them a story they can escape into, over and over again.


Melodie Campbell experienced a personal best this year when Library Digest compared her to Janet Evanovich.

Melodie got her start writing comedy. In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications, including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 5 novels. Melodie has won six awards for fiction and was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards.

Her first book, Rowena Through the Wall, hit the Amazon Top 100 Bestseller list. The Goddaughter’s Revenge, a comic mob caper, is her fifth book.  Melodie is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Her column "Bad Girl" runs in the satirical magazine, The Sage: Canada’s Best Source for Misleading News and Opinion. Lots more at

What about you, Scriveners? Why do you think comedy gets no respect? Do you have a compulsion to write funny? Have you ever wondered why books full of gore and torture are considered "good" fiction while upbeat stories that makes you laugh are considered trivial time-wasters? What's your favorite comic novel?

Anne is off visiting other blogs this week. You can read her guest post at BoomerLit Fridays on why the ebook revolution is great for Boomers, and she'll be interviewed by Carmen Amato on Carmen's blog on Thursday, November 14th.

Bargain Book of the Week

The best way to get started with Melodie's comedies is with her first "Canadian Mobster" book, The Goddaughter. $2.99 on Amazon US, Amazon CA, and Kobo, 

"Campbell's comic caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans. Wacky family connections and snappy dialog make it impossible not to laugh." (Library Journal 2012-09-01)

"Campbell tells a hilarious story of the goddaughter of a mafia leader drafted into a jewel-smuggling operation." (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 2012-10-11)

"Perfect as an airplane read, or for waiting in the doctor's office, or standing in line at the DMV, or even for snuggling under the covers with a bout of flu...Throw in some drop-dead, laugh out loud funny hotel room and restaurant scenes...Bottom line: you['ll] find yourself quickly finishing one of the fun-est and funniest books I've enjoyed in years!" (Tutu's Two Cents blog 2013-02-06)


Looking for a market for your humor writing? The Family Farce may be what you're looking for. They're looking for humor that's dark, snarky and irreverant. Fiction, columns, essays and interviews are all welcome. They're also looking for cartoons, videos and song parodies.

Tin House Shirley Jackson Story Contest. This is a fun one. The prestigious litmag Tin House has acquired an unfinished Shirley Jackson story. They invite readers to finish it. Submissions should be 2,500 words or fewer (not including Jackson’s prose). Winners will be published on the Tin House website and be awarded some Tin House swag and the collected works of Ms. Jackson. Deadline November 17th.

Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers Entry Fee: $15. A prize of $1,500 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories is given quarterly for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not been published in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. The editors will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a story of up to 12,000 words with a $15 entry fee during the month of November. Visit the website for complete guidelines. Deadline: November 30, 2013

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

Labels: , , , , , , ,