Everyone loves a good laugh. Comedy has been around for as long as people have been telling stories. It’s more of an umbrella term than it is a genre, but there are certain things all comedic stories have in common.
What is Comedy?
This might seem like a silly question. A comedy is a story that makes you laugh, right? In the literary sense, comedy is defined as, “work that is amusing and satirical in its tone, mostly having a cheerful ending.” According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories, comedy is about more than just laughs. In his book, he stresses that comedies follow the specific pattern where the central conflict becomes more and more confusing until it results in a single clarifying event at which point things become clear and work out for the best.
The Three Acts of a Comedy
Although many types of stories fall under this umbrella term, they tend to follow a similar three-act structure. To help break down the structure, I’ll be using examples from one of my favorite classic comedies is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
The Shadow of Confusion
The reader is introduced to the main character and the central conflict of the story. In Much Ado, we’re introduced to two couples who are clearly meant to be together: Benedick and Beatrice and Hero and Claudio. Beatrice and Benedick are being kept apart because they think they hate each other, while Hero and Claudio are plotted against by the evil Don John. He convinces Claudio that Hero has been untrue and he should use their wedding day to instead publically shame her.
It Gets Worse
Like the title suggests, the conflict of the story is heightened. After publically (and wrongfully) shaming Hero, Claudio and his compatriots take off. Hero fakes her death to guilt the truth out of Claudio, meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick confess their love to each other and she asks him to kill Claudio as proof of his devotion to her.
The Confusion is Lifted
This is where the clarifying event takes place. Everything is explained and the bad guy is punished. In the case of our example, Don John’s plot is revealed and Hero is pronounced innocent. Hero’s father tells Claudio that to make it up to him, he can marry his other daughter. This turns out to be Hero, who isn’t actually dead, and all is right with the world! Everyone gets married!
Types of Comedy
Like I said, comedy is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a few types of stories. The four types found most often in literature include:
Rom-coms are probably the most well-known form of comedy. As the name suggests, this is a comedy in which the central conflict is the romantic relationships between characters, like Much Ado About Nothing.
Comedy of Manners
This is a comedy set in some form of high society. The conflict centers around the breaking of social norms and the intrigue of relations between “ladies and gentlemen.” These types of comedies satirize the escapades of the upper-crust in order to point out the absurdity of social customs.
Comedy of Humors
This type of comedy draws from the old theory that the human body contained four “humors,” or liquids, that controlled their personalities. The conflict of this type of comedy comes from the dominant personality traits of the characters. Where a comedy of manners is a social commentary, a comedy of humors is more concerned with human nature.
Otherwise known as a dark comedy, this is either a tragedy with comedic elements to lighten the mood or that might end happily. (500) Days of Summer is a good modern example of this subgenre. In case you don’t know, it’s a classic tale of boy meets girl except the boy and girl don’t end up together. BUT boy does meet another girl in the end, so all’s well that ends well (a Shakespearean example, if that’s more your thing).
Obviously, none of this has anything to do with whether or not your writing is funny. But that’s because something can be classified a comedy, even if it seems light on the jokes, based on its structure. Hopefully, your situations and characters elicit a chuckle or two from your readers, but either way if you’ve followed this form, you’ve written a comedy!
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