Comedy guru Evan Smith explains how to use dramatic suspense to boost a story’s humor.
What producer or exec ever said, “Jeez, this script’s too funny, can we fix that?” Okay, if you’re writing Handmaid’s Tale or a Lifetime movie, they might say that. But in comedy, when have you ever stopped hunting for additional ways to make a story funny? And who hasn’t finished typing a scene and looked back to realize, “Ugh. Lots of words, no jokes.”
You know you can’t start forcing ill-fitting jokes on characters or interrupt the plot to insert a string of one-liners, but a funny story needs to stay funny from beginning to end, right? So here’s an idea, just one of the many things you might try, but it’s something you might not normally think of: add suspense! Make the story bigger, scarier, add close calls, raise the stakes, get characters screaming and running, throw a dead body in there!
Okay, dead bodies don’t always fit. I’m exaggerating to make a point, which is—however subtle or crazy your story is, adding suspense can boost a story’s humor in a natural, organic fashion. Really? Here’s the deal.
Comedic stories need to develop in a compelling, logical fashion just as dramatic stories do; they’re not barely-structured standup routines or unrelated chapters in a David Sedaris book. (Not that we don’t love those books—Sedaris is a funny guy.) The good news is that dramatic tension (suspense) keeps viewers on the edges of their seats, so everything that happens in a suspenseful story, from plot twists to punchlines, gets a bigger reaction. Even a modest joke can seem funnier thanks to the much-needed release that it provides.
And that makes sense, just think about it. Suspense is a key component in all levels of comedy, even the briefest, smallest of jokes. First, you introduce the subject of the joke…then you set up the viewers by cueing them to expect a certain outcome, generating suspense… then you pull the rug out by surprising the viewers with a punchline that pays off the joke in an unexpected way, releasing that tension. In comedy, at all levels, suspense is not only helpful but necessary.
So, if you’re trying to boost the humor in a sequence or scene, and if you also think your story could benefit from adding (more) suspense, here are some ways you might make that happen.
BOOSTING COMEDIC SUSPENSE
HAVE PLANS GO AWRY
Main characters should be the ones who drive the story, right? So if the story’s lead is trying to get from Point A to Point B, why shouldn’t Murphy’s Law intercede just as it does in real life? Example: In The Spy Who Dumped Me, Mila Kunis’ and Kate McKinnon’s characters are running for their lives and decide to hijack a sporty Jaguar from an elderly couple. But it’s a stick-shift and neither knows how to drive stick, so rather than speed away they barely coast forward in neutral, grinding gears, as the two angry car owners beat on the windows. Instead of seeing the standard hijacked-car escape sequence that’s become a cliché in action films, going from Point A to B was changed to a bump-up-the-suspense gag—a gag so funny that it earned a spot in the movie’s trailer.
RAISE THE STAKES
This approach is straight out of the action-thriller-suspense handbook. Suspense goes up when there’s more at stake, and the greater the suspense, the bigger the laughs. In the film Game Night, a group of friends regularly meet for some serious parlor games—they’re so competitive that it’s fun to watch them scheming against each other. But when a member of their group is suddenly kidnapped by murderous criminals, the suspense and humor ratchet way up as these regular folks race to beat the bad guys.
ADD ENEMIES AND OBSTACLES
Bill Hader’s series, Barry, has a great premise: A hitman from the Midwest travels to LA on a job and catches the acting bug, but he just can’t escape his criminal past. The idea of a former hitman taking acting classes despite having little talent is funny, maybe funny enough all by itself to sustain a series.
But on this show, the main character is also constantly confronted by greedy past associates, deadly new enemies, offers he can’t refuse, and suspicious police detectives. So when Barry’s late for a rehearsal, it’s likely due to his just having survived a gun battle. And when he finally emotes on stage in a convincing manner, that’s because he just murdered an old friend who planned to blab and feels bad about that. Barry as a wanna-be actor is funny, but the added suspense of having Barry chase that dream while fending off murderous opponents bumps this show’s humor up to a whole other level.
DESTROY SAFE HAVENS
When things are bad, scary, or life-threatening, usually one can retreat to a safe haven and all is well. In fiction, characters might run to a lover, friends, family, their home, a public building, a crowded space, the police, etc. Viewers find comfort in those options—we’d run there too. But safe-and-secure doesn’t do much for a story’s suspense or humor, so why not try depriving a character of those options? Example: In Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, spoiled movie stars making a war film are stranded in a real jungle when their director, their only link to civilization and safety, is suddenly killed. Better yet, the actors think this is a clever ruse to enhance their performances so they take crazy risks to show off for the camera, generating even more suspense and bigger laughs.
Of course, many comedies feature small, realistic stories rather than fantastic life-or-death tales, but they can still benefit by blocking the main character from turning to their comforting safe havens. In Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig’s character quickly loses all of the things that ground her lackluster life—her job, her apartment, a worthless boyfriend, a worthy boyfriend, and the lifelong BFF that she cherishes above all. In Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan’s character turns her back on her geeky friends after being accepted by the superficial “Plastics,” and later attempts to reconcile after her schemes backfire—but her friends are no longer interested in being her lackeys.
Actually, the same friendship arc appeared in Lady Bird and I Feel Pretty, and perhaps every dating comedy ever produced, so it’s probably best to delete this dump-your-true-friends trope from your safe-havens list. Or if you must use it, at least find a new approach as Wedding Crashers did: Owen Wilson’s character has a falling out with best friend and co-crasher Vince Vaughn’s character, and in desperation replaces him with the worst possible choice in friends, funeral-crasher Chazz Reinhold (played by an uncredited Will Ferrell). This clever story didn’t just eliminate the Wilson character’s main source of support, adding tension using the old convention, it replaced Wilson’s BFF with a new friend guaranteed to make his life worse! A fresh twist that added even more suspense and humor.
LET HUMILIATION WORK FOR YOU
In many comedic stories, the lead character is the one who screws everything up. He, she, or it decides to pursue a goal but takes inappropriate action along the way—they lie, cheat, scheme, take a foolish shortcut—and that backfires bigtime. They try to solve or cover up the problem but usually make things much worse, and by the final act everything is on the line: they must either risk total disaster and go for it, whatever “it” is, and probably fail in front of everybody, or give up their dream and return to a boring life. Think Wedding Crashers again, when Owen Wilson’s character interrupts a large wedding to proclaim his love for the woman he misled. And Dinner with Schmucks, when Paul Rudd’s character sacrifices his career to show support for his odd friend, and then later confesses his relationship blunders while his ex-fiancée eavesdrops.
A character’s fear of having his screw-ups exposed not only adds to a story’s suspense, the resulting humiliation can be a terrific way to boost humor when a story thread is finally resolved. He screwed up? Reveal it in public! In front of the people who matter most! At the worst possible time, in the worst possible way! The character still wins the day, usually, and the victory rings louder because he has earned it by coming clean.
These are just a few examples of how a writer might use suspense to boost humor. A great thing about this approach is that the resulting jokes seem organic and natural because they flow from the characters’ actions instead of feeling forced onto the page.
Of course, you can overdo it, adding so many complications that you weigh the story down, making it convoluted and unwatchable. So here’s a tip—don’t do that! Be judicious, proceed with caution. But if you think it might help, try foiling a character’s plans here, maybe raise the stakes a little there, and if you see an absolutely perfect spot to throw in a dead body…
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Comedy Writing: From Jokes to Scripts