Ciao, SEers. On March 21, I started a series of posts on the seven basic plot types, as defined by Christopher Booker. So far, we’ve covered Rebirth and Tragedy. Today, we’re going to talk about Comedy.
Comedies aren’t necessarily laugh-out-loud humor pieces, although they can be. Essentially, these are works with happy or uplifting endings. The tone throughout will typically be lighter than that of a tragedy, but it can still be a dramatic story.
A comedy is about triumph over adversity. A series of problems—often mistakes or secrets—stymie the hero. Characters are out of harmony because of frustration, selfishness, bitterness, confusion, lies, etc. Finally, clarity is achieved and the ending is a positive one. Many times this resolution is depicted through a marriage of the hero and heroine. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that most romances and fairy tales fall into this category.
Here’s a list of some of the better-known comedies:
- Much Ado About Nothing
- The Merchant of Venice
- Singin’ in the Rain
- Guys and Dolls
- Ocean’s Eleven
Here’s a basic template for writing a comedy. I’ll use Guys and Dolls as my example.
- Establish the Status Quo.
This really isn’t a surprise. Most works establish the storyworld before introducing the inciting incident.
In the case of Guys and Dolls, Sky Masterson is a gambler—not just a high roller, but the highest of rollers. A bit of a legend. He’s been known to bet ridiculous amounts of money on the most trivial things. He’s in town during Nathan Detroit’s big floating craps game, but he’s not really interested in it. Isn’t interested in a side bet Nathan tries to goad him into, either. On the other hand, we have Sister Sarah, who runs a mission. She’s a pure as they come. But her mission is failing, and she needs sinners to work with or the mission will be closed.
- Confusion and Isolation
The purpose here is to stack everyone against each other. Sow the seeds of misunderstandings and keep everybody apart.
In Guys and Dolls, Nathan needs money, and Sky won’t take his side bet, but he’s interested when Nathan wagers he can’t take Sarah to Havana. This is new, and so he accepts the challenge. And he wins. He gets her to Havana, where she gets drunk and admits her love for him. Meanwhile, Nathan uses her absence to host his floating craps game at the mission. When Sky and Sarah return and she learns what happened, she blames Sky, who was actually oblivious. Now she’s angry with him for using her and humiliating her, and he’s confused because he’d been winning her over, and now—through no fault of his own—he’s lost her.
- Raise the Stakes
This is where more confusions are added to the mix, and the puzzle looks impossible to solve.
In Guys and Dolls, Nathan tries to pay Sky, but Sky lies (to protect Sarah’s reputation) and claims he lost, so he pays Nathan instead. Nathan’s game can then continue, and Sky goes to it even though he declined the invitation before. Instead of betting the guys for money, he puts his money up against their “souls” so he can help Sarah. If he loses, he’ll pay out a fortune. But if he wins, they have to go to the mission so it doesn’t close—not a typical wager for any of these men.
- Problems Solved
All of the miscommunications finally come to light, and the confusion is cleared up. The characters get their happily-ever-after ending.
In Guys and Dolls, Sarah learns that Sky was not involved in the craps game at the mission and that he really does love her. So much so that he helped save her mission, and without asking anything of her in return. After the confusion is cleared up, they realize they’re in love, then the gambler and the mission “doll” end up getting married.
Contemporary comedies are often resolved with a happy ending for a romantic couple—a wedding, or at least the decision to be together. Romances aren’t the only comedies, though. Any situation with a “comedy of errors” (see what I did there?) that ends in an uplifting way qualifies.
Have you written a comedy? Do you have a favorite you’ve watched or read? Share in the comments.