Friday, April 22, 2011

Formula Doesn't Equal Easy

Humorists, like romance writers and, to some extent, mystery writers, catch some flak because, for whatever reason, it gives the impression of being 'easy'. Which, as anyone who has tried to write comedy knows, it isn't.

Why would people think it's easy?

It occured to me as I was reading Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer (I was inspired to learn more about comedic writing because of Wodehouse) that one of the reasons people think writing funny is easier is because there are formulas. Things like reversals. Things that can be put into acronyms, pneumonics, and formats that can be otherwise memorized.

Meaning that if you stick to the pattern VOILA! you will be funny.

Well, in that case, why isn't every comedian Robin Williams or any one of the Kings of Comedy or the Blue Collar crew?

Let's take one of the formulaic pieces offered by Comedy Writing Secrets: knowing the audience. This seems fairly obvious, doesn't it? But this isn't as easy to gauge as you think. Robin Williams has note-takers who tell him what got the biggest laughs and what didn't and he adjusts his routine accordingly. The Blue Collar guys bank on the idea that, while you may not be related to the guy with the car under weeds in his front yard, you have seen it. And Bill Engvall's schtick about stupid signs...he's not making fun of a group directly, he puts the audience in the position of power because it's a "You know that guy but you're not that guy, of course" kinda bit.

But for every Robin Willams, Bill Engvall, Bill Cosby, and Steve Harvey you've got a bunch of unnamed comedians trying to break out in the club circuit. The club circuit guys know the routines, know the formula, but for some reason or other (maybe just dumb luck) they haven't hit it yet.

However, my guess is that Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac (God rest his funny soul), and D.L. Hughley as well as Williams and the Blue Collar dudes, have skill sets that allow them to read and engage an audience differently. Perhaps it's note-taking, perhaps it's just paying attention to the local enviornment. Whatever it is--and playing at these levels, it's not dumb luck--they have it and they use it.

Which is the same for writers like Nora Roberts, who gets simultaneously knocked and praised for being Queen of Romance. Just because there's a formula to romances and just because, sure, you can predict happy endings and sex and what order they come in doesn't mean creating something like that is easy. Roberts has a skill set which allows readers to engage with her writing, she mixes up the complications--capable of portraying medieval, Western, supernatural, mysterious worlds to mix it all up--and the reader is left satisfied.

If it's so easy to engage the reader, to create creative complications within a framework, develop language that doesn't come off too hokey (because let's face it, there are only so many adjectives for 'hard' and the hard-core romance reader don't buy into really hokey description anyway, regardless of what the outside world thinks), and to make characters an audience will keep coming back to...why isn't every romance a mega-bestseller?

Dudes. Because it isn't easy.

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, I used to have that attitude, too, until I tried a romance. Yikes.

    Having a formula for a specific kind of story doesn't mean you can do Mad Libs. They don't come pre-written with a few blanks to fill in.

    And, really, isn't all modern writing done in what could be called a formula? Whether it's a 3 Act or 5 Act, Hero's Journey, etc., there are certain key elements that go into every story.

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  2. Hear hear! It doesn't help to tell my mother I'm starting a new story and to hear her say "just add a romantic element to it and sell it, you'll make millions!" Or words to that effect...

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