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Beware the Biting of the Lips: Body Language Found in Fiction That You Don't See in Real Life

A few days ago, after many moons of waiting, I finally received a book I'd reserved at the public library—a work of women's fiction that has topped bestseller lists and earned critical praise from several impressive-sounding newspapers and journals. I wasn't much interested by the premise, but I felt I should keep an open mind and see what the fuss was about.

I read approximately one and a half pages before I ran into the fatal flaw, the dead fly in the soup that ruined the entire meal: the lip-biting.

Lip-biting is one of those contagious habits that fictional characters pick up from other fictional characters. It hops from one book to another, from paperback romances to cozy mysteries to thrillers. A heroine biting her lips is fictional shorthand for "she's nervous, indecisive, and weak-kneed in general."

Now I ask you—and think about this carefully—when is the last time you saw somebody bite his or her bottom lip in indecision? If I may venture a guess...never?

The only times I've seen people bite their lips, they weren't nervous—they were acting coy. Search for "bite lips" in Google Images and you'll find female celebrities trying to look humble or sexy by biting their bottom lips. They think it looks primal and alluring, like Angelina Jolie. Or they simply have an overbite, like Kristen Stewart.

The biggest clue that it's not a natural behavior: you rarely see it done by heterosexual men, either in fiction or on the red carpet. Have you ever read about a hero who bites his lip shyly? No. It's a cutesy feminine behavior, and one usually calculated for effect.

People do have nervous habits. They wring their hands, pick at things, chew their nails, and jiggle their legs. Perhaps a few do bite their lips, but as I've never yet encountered one, they can't possibly bite them nearly as often as heroines do in novels. I once read a book that, as revealed by a quick search, contained more than twenty instances of the clause "I bit my lip." That unfortunate heroine must have had to deal with chronic bleeding of the lips by chapter five.

Some other things characters do in fiction that people rarely, if ever, do in real life:

  • Twirl locks of hair flirtatiously
  • Loosen neckties nervously
  • Remove spectacles dramatically
  • Juggle hot things comically
  • Pucker nipples in excitement
  • Faint in shock

And so on.

Modern writing is heavy on facial expressions. We convey surprise with a widening of the eyes, anger with a knitting of the brows, and displeasure with a pursing of the lips. Moods are mostly conveyed through smiles and frowns; writing the name of an emotion outright is considered "telling, not showing."

I've heard writers who grew up pre-1950 blame this trend on the invention of the television. I blame many things on the invention of the television, but this is not one of them. Long before the television, long before the light bulb even, writers filled their books with facial expressions.

From Jane Eyre, published 1847:

He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now...The frown, the roughness of the traveler set me at my ease: I retained my station when he waved to me to go, and announced—

"I cannot think of leaving you, sir, at so late an hour, in this solitary lane, till I see you are fit to mount your horse."

He looked at me when I said this: he had hardly turned his eyes in my direction before...He stopped, ran his eye over my dress...In two minutes he rose from the stile; his face expressed pain when he tried to move.

From Middlemarch, published 1871–72:

Dorothea wondered; but the smile was irresistible, and shone back from her face too. Will Ladislaw's smile was delightful, unless you were angry with him beforehand: it was a gush of inward light illuminating the transparent skin as well as the eyes, and playing about every curve and line as if some Ariel were touching them with a new charm, and banishing for ever the traces of moodiness. The reflection of that smile could not but have a little merriment in it too, even under dark eyelashes still moist, as Dorothea said inquiringly, "Something amuses you?"

Or from The Age of Innocence, published 1920:

Newland Archer, leaning against the wall at the back of the club box, turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the house. Directly facing him was the box of old Mrs Manson Mingott...On this occasion, the front of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs Lovell Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs Welland; and slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stage-lovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out above the silent house, a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast...She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.

In most books you pick up, you'll see similar emphases on the movements of eyes, mouths, and lungs. It's so common that finding the samples above took only ten minutes; I simply plucked old books off the shelf, opened them to semi-random pages, and had my pick of suitable passages to copy here.

Books in other languages and cultures do it too. I remember in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fourteenth-century Chinese classic Sweetie read a while back, the author described the tearful eyes and shy smiles of a duplicitous temptress in detail. It's not the fault of television, it's the fault of human nature.

When we interact with people, our eyes stick to their eyes, with the other facial features in the periphery. Most of our communication is through tone and expression; we read people from their eyes and voices, and the words they say are largely immaterial to our impressions of them. Five people can deliver the exact same sentence and their audiences will take it five different ways. Voice can't be conveyed well on a flat page, so naturally writers focus on the face. When we fear the constant rise and fall of eyebrows is giving our readers motion sickness, we come up with other types of body language, particularly regarding posture and hand movements.

And this is fine, I think, provided that it's (1) not overdone and (2) accurate.

The problem isn't that we try to dramatize scenes with body language. The problem is that the body language we write about isn't real, but learned from other novels. The epidemic of lip-biting—or hair-twirling, necktie-loosening, etc.—is the result of authors regurgitating what they've seen written in other books without thinking. These writers need to spend more time observing people in real life, instead of relying on fictional accounts of them.

The Bechdel Test Is a Joke. Literally.

A few days ago, I learned something that is likely common knowledge among people considered educated members of society: the Bechdel test is a joke. Literally.

Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip

This popular acid test for representation of women in fiction originated in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985, almost three decades ago. For some reason or another, it cottoned on and became the standard by which critics and scholars measure gender inequality in movies, books, and TV shows.

The problem is, it's a lousy one.

The three criteria of the Bechdel test, as originally written in the strip, are:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man.

Some people add bells and whistles by requiring that the two female characters be named, that they never talk about a man once during the length of the work, etc. But none of these modifications correct the central lousiness of it.

Because this "test" was intended as a joke, it was written to be glib and pithy, not useful. Its lousiness isn't the fault of the comic artist, but the fault of the people who took the joke and ran with it as if it were a serious model.

The problem with this test is that it doesn't measure what it seems to measure. The number of female characters and the content of their conversations are only symptoms of the real problem, which is the shallow portrayal of women in fiction. It's a cursory arm-chair analysis, the equivalent of trying to figure out if you have cancer by checking your ailments against the list of symptoms on WebMD. Feeling achy and tired does not mean you have cancer. Having cancerous cells means you have cancer.

Likewise, failing to feature two women who have at least one conversation that's not about a man doesn't mean a work is sexist, and succeeding doesn't mean it's sexism-free.

A book I read this week technically passed the Bechdel test. It featured two female characters—the protagonist's on-and-off wife and his on-and-off girlfriend—who had an awkward conversation without mentioning the man who linked them together. But both of these characters were seriously underdeveloped and were defined entirely by their relationship to the hero.

Another book I read this week probably failed the Bechdel test. The central characters were two competitive middle-aged sisters, and in every conversation they mentioned a man at least once. But I considered this book one of the very rare ones that was hardly sexist at all. Every character, male or female, was fully fleshed out, and the two sisters had their own goals and drives that had nothing to do with the men they happened to be married to.

When women talk to each other, they talk about the people in their lives, and many of the people in their lives are going to be male. Fathers, husbands, sons, daughters' boyfriends, coworkers, bosses, neighbors...Unless your characters live in a dystopian fantasy world in which males don't exist, several of them are going to be men, and they will need to be talked about.

The Bechdel test judges characters based on one aspect, and one aspect only: biological sex. But in a fictional world that's truly sexism-free, sex doesn't matter—people are people, and their sexes are merely an accident of birth. Sure, gender affects the way people dress and behave, but their identities shouldn't begin and end with "she's a woman" or "he's a man."

It's time to move on from the Bechdel joke and start evaluating fiction with real questions, questions that measure genuine sexism in either direction.

Are the characters defined by more than their looks?

In fiction aimed at men, the answer for female characters is usually "no." And in fiction aimed at women, the answer for characters of both sexes is usually "no."

In thousands of books and movies, a woman is good and lovable if she's pretty. A woman is evil and unpleasant if she's fat, ugly, or too sexy. A man is heroic if he's tall, lean, and handsome; he's a villain or a loser if he's short, chubby, and has bad skin or a big nose.

The first book I mentioned in this post, about the hero caught between his wife and girlfriend, frequently answered this question with, "No, no, and no." The girlfriend's character could be neatly summed up as, "She's tall and stacked." The wife's character was, "She's not as tall or stacked as the girlfriend." The two were so barren in personality that if you'd swapped the women's names in random scenes, I wouldn't have detected the difference. (One guess which one the hero chose. That's right, the stacked one.)

A second example is Carl Hiaasen's Star Island, written for a male audience that enjoys crude humor. The two leading ladies are pop idol Cherry Pye and her body double, Anne. How do you know which girl is "good" and which one is "bad?" Well, Anne weighs five pounds less, her hair is a shade lighter, and her breasts and face are naturally lovely, while Cherry had to have plastic surgery. Obviously, since Anne was born more beautiful, she's the better person.

And it's not any better on the other side. In most books for women with romantic elements, how do we know who's the hero? He's the hottest guy in the room. The heroine falls in love with him because his chiseled jaw, piercing eyes, and bulging muscles make her heart go thumpity thump. She's never passionately drawn to him because of his wit, his sense of humor, his generosity...it's the pecs, pure and simple.

Appearance can be a good way of conveying character, if the elements described were a choice. No woman can will her breasts to grow larger or her legs to grow longer. But we do express ourselves through clothing, jewelry, makeup, the way we carry ourselves—these are valid descriptors of personality.

But when genetics substitute for character—when writers demonstrate that a man is foolish by going on about his big ears, or that a woman is uptight by making her bony and beak-nosed—we have a problem.

Do the characters conform to rigid gender-based stereotypes?

A formula for a likeable heroine:

  • Weak
  • Shy
  • Humble; believes she's undesirable when she's really attractive
  • Passive; does as she's told and suffers in silence
  • Adorably clumsy and/or airheaded, especially in the presence of hot guys
  • Good at cooking and/or baking
  • Incompetent in the face of science and technology, has a poetic heart and loves the arts but thinks computers are run by little green elves who live in the hard drive
  • Cries at the drop of a hat
  • Traumatized by physical/sexual/emotional abuse committed by a man who was supposed to protect her (husband, boyfriend, father, teacher, etc.)

A formula for a likeable hero:

  • Strong
  • Aggressive
  • Confident; knows his worth and commands the attention of the whole room simply by standing still and looking dignified
  • Active; goes after what he wants and gets it
  • Smooth and suave, especially in the presence of beautiful women
  • Good at sports and/or fighting
  • Has a sharp, rational mind and little patience for the arts
  • Rarely shows his emotions, but when he does he's not all sappy about it
  • Traumatized by the loss of a woman he was supposed to protect (mother, little sister, lover, wife, etc.)

These templates were established sometime in the Middle Ages, and you can still find them in many published novels today. When I start to think up examples, I quickly get depressed by the sheer number of them.

Imbuing a protagonist with one or two gender-prescribed traits doesn't make a writer sexist—but if the character has several from one list and none from the other, they're in questionable territory. It's especially questionable when a writer portrays a character as unlikeable by giving them traits that would be desirable in the opposite gender, which brings us to...

Do the characters promote gender-based double standards?

Bad books push a system of morality that's heavily gendered. The heroine is good because she's humble and bakes divine brownies, the second female lead is bad because she's confident and career-oriented. The hero is good because he's strong and arrogant, the second male lead is sub-par because he's weak and sentimental.

Or if the trait is considered universally desirable, a more subtle form of sexism is to make a big deal about how a character has it despite being a woman/man. The heroine is a rare and coveted specimen because she's the only woman in the cast with some semblance of a spine and a brain. The hero shocks the fictional world by being chivalrous and decent, unlike all of the heartless jerks around him who grope waitresses and laugh loudly at offensive jokes.

Some questions within the question:

Is the hero a good guy because he's strong, aggressive, and promiscuous, but the second female lead is an evil slut because she has the exact same qualities?

Is the villain a bad guy because he's violent towards women, but the heroine is awesome because she kicks men in the crotch and threatens to chop off their balls if they call her a "chick" one more time?

Is the heroine's lovable best friend a liberated feminist who rants that all men are idiots, while her hateful boss is a chauvinist pig for saying the same about women?

And so on.

Are the characters of the gender opposite the protagonist mere decoration?

Many heroes across genres are deep, well-rounded, and complicated. But then their wives serve no purpose other than to welcome them home in the evening with a smile and a fresh-baked apple pie...and then maybe get murdered later. Their female secretaries exist to sashay around in pencil skirts and do as they're bidden. Their mistresses exist to dole out the lovemaking and disappear without fuss. The plots these heroes act out concern only fellow men—male detectives, male criminals, male warriors and leaders and friends—and the women are only there to freshen the place up a bit.

And many heroines across genres are equally deep, well-rounded, and complicated, but their supporting male characters are thinner than tissue paper. Love Interest #1 is fiery and sexy and sweeps her off her feet, and then he goes off to do whatever it is menfolk do. Love Interest #2 is kind and generous and takes her to romantic dinners, and then he obediently waits for her to decide if she's going to stay with #1 or not. She has complex relationships with her mother, her sister, her friends, and her enemies (female, of course), but the men simply wander in, give the readers a bit of eye candy, and exit stage left.

***

You should avoid writing a book that answers "yes" to any of these questions not only for moral reasons, but for the simple quality of writing as well. If you write to gender stereotypes, your characters will be flat, dull, and utterly artificial. How many people living on this planet fit neatly into the "masculine" or "feminine" ideal? None.

If you write realistic, complex characters, you'll naturally break the stereotypes and standards. Then you won't have to worry about whether two women have a conversation in which they don't mention a man, or any other arbitrary test; your books will be rich enough that nobody will have grounds to accuse you of sexism even if you "fail."

Truth: The REAL Backbone of Comedy

In October of last year, I wrote a post called "Tragedy: The Backbone of Comedy." After showing how the basic structures of tragedies and comedies are the same, which is fairly "duh," I said, "A simple switch in tone and mood can flip one to the other."

When I wrote that post, I knew my attribution of humor to "tone and mood" was superficial. Comedies can have a dark tone or a light and fluffy one, and they work just as well either way. The wide variety of funny books and movies demonstrates how meaningless tone and mood are: Dr. Strangelove is slow and absurd, Airplane is zippy and zany, Charlie Chaplain films are sentimental, Lemony Snicket books are, as he warns the Reader, "filled with misery and woe," etc.

But I didn't know how to explain the real difference between tragedy and comedy, so I left it alone. And I kept plugging away at my work in progress, laboring under the assumption that comedy was something magical in the voice, something to do with pacing and word choice, something that was learned over time and couldn't be succinctly defined.

Then last week I discovered YouTube videos of an interview with Steve Kaplan, a seasoned comedy screenwriter/director and author of The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny (you can watch the full-length video or pick and choose from segments by topic). Watching them during my lunch break, and adding what Steve says to my own understanding of the comedic, I had my "By Jove, he's got it" moment.

My new definition: Comedy is telling the truth when people expect a lie.

I've read advice from comedic writers who say you inject humor by throwing in the unexpected. This is probably why those writers' books aren't very popular. "Random" does not equal "funny." Sitting in my townhouse in my quiet suburban neighborhood, I don't expect gangsters to bust down my door and shoot me dead. But I wouldn't consider that terribly funny.

Other writers believe you can make anything humorous by quickening the pace. I was guilty of fueling that myth when I said, "Almost every 'serious' story turns comedic if you do it faster." But if a scene that's supposed to be funny isn't, you can't make it funny by doing it faster and louder. Walk into a movie theater and pick almost any big studio comedy, and you'll find oodles of fast and loud and very little funny (those horrible, horrible commercials for Sex Tape spring to mind).

Still other writers think you can turn anything funny by tossing in drugs, violence, and/or references to male genitalia. Sorry, but the word "testicles" cannot breathe life into a dead, rotting comedy.

No, the real backbone of comedy is truth. Specifically, the truth you're not "supposed" to say.

Heroic vs. Comedic Characters

In drama, both authors and readers operate under an elaborate conceit. Dramatic heroes are not real people. They're strong, sensitive, complicated, passionate, and oh so very serious. If they have flaws, they're chosen from a very specific set of acceptable ones: emotional vulnerability, stubbornness, hubris, etc.

They are not, for example, clumsy. Imagine if Hamlet walked out on the stage and said, "To be or not to..." and fell flat on his face.

The audience would burst out laughing. The conceit that Hamlet is an exclusively angry, philosophical, tortured prince would be destroyed—he'd be revealed to be a very real, red-faced young man in tights.

This is the real reason that playing Hamlet "faster" makes it funny. Fast, on its own, is not funny. But fast-forwarding strips away the conceit that this is a very important play about very important topics and it must be taken seriously.

A heroic character is one with all but one or two ignoble personality traits stripped out, leaving an ideal. A comedic character is one with the omitted traits left in. As the Average Joe or Jane, they can be weak, lazy, petty, oblivious, and downright silly.

Say a hologram of a beautiful princess pops out of a robot and tells the teenage hero he's her only hope to save the galaxy from the forces of darkness (or the old guy down the street is, whatever).

The heroic character thinks this is perfectly reasonable and promptly sets out with his trusty light saber to eradicate evil from the universe.

The comedic character says, "Heck no, I like my limbs where they are. I'm sure you're a very nice princess, give my regards to Dad, sayonara."

And a comedic scene is one in which people act like people, not like idealized heroes and heroines.

Say a ramshackle group of rebels invades the spaceship of the Big Bad Guy and takes over a control center. Central command calls the center to ask what's going on.

The heroic character prudently ignores the call or, being ever-prepared, cleanly impersonates a storm trooper and gives the appropriate response.

The comedic character answers the call nervously. "Uh...everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?"

Surprise without Truth Isn't Funny

Imagine the following scene.

Guests in neat black suits and conservative dresses file into a funeral parlor. A portrait of an elderly man stands next to a casket heaped with flowers. His comparatively young widow cries quietly while her friends pat her on the back.

Then the door bursts open, and a beautiful woman marches in with a young boy in tow. The woman pushes past the other guests and stands before the casket. She holds the boy's hand firmly and tells him, "Tommy, say goodbye to your father."

Now let's predict how this scene would play out in different genres.

Soap Opera: The wife would faint dead away, her glamorous friends would react with stony faces and righteous rebukes, and the main players would take turns making eloquent and assertive speeches (e.g., "You will pay for what you've done to this family!").

Hard-Boiled Mystery: The detective would sit back and watch with a cold, critical eye as the pastor quietly leads the mistress and her son out of the parlor, the guests whispering behind their hands. He would think about motives and opportunities and how the man with his arm around the widow's shoulder is acting a little too familiar, and how the widow's show of surprise at the mistress's appearance was a little too practiced.

Blockbuster Hollywood Comedy: A cat fight would break out between the mistress and the widow, or the mistress and the widow's friends. A loud black or gay person would yell, "Oh HAIL no, she di-in't!" The casket would get knocked over and the dead man would come tumbling out with a hard-on under his burial suit, and someone would crack wise about rigor mortis while the guests held their noses and gagged at the smell.

In any of the above cases, the scene wouldn't be funny at all—especially in the comedy. Nobody acts like a real person. Nobody feels, for example, confused or out of their element. Nobody makes an authentically unexpected move. They all follow their established fictional roles to the letter.

How do you make it funny? Put a real person in. This person is, for example, the second cousin once removed of the deceased. He's never met the guy, but his dour Great Aunt Velma, who holds the family purse strings, has strongly hinted that anyone who fails to be convincingly heartbroken by the tragedy will be written out of her will.

He stands in line to pay his respects, but he has no idea what to say. He thinks he should probably pray with a somber expression. He rehearses in his head, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death... He can feel Aunt Velma's beady eyes boring a hole in his back as he steps up to the casket.

And then the mistress appears, shoving him out of the way. Our man watches, agape, as she makes her bold declaration. The funeral parlor falls quiet. He looks around, but nobody makes a move. The widow is blinking dumbly, shocked out of her tears, and Aunt Velma's beady eyes are popping out of their sockets.

So what does our man do? Does he draw himself up and declare the hussy will pay for what she's done to this family? Does he coolly and calmly take charge of the situation like a hero, or shout obscenities like a clown?

No. Instead, he does what many real people do during a crisis: pretend that everything is okay. He bows his head, and into the awkward silence loudly recites, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."

Obviously, there's a difference between behaving realistically and behaving like a real person. Few people would make fools of themselves like our man above—most would stay quiet and do nothing. But that would be boring. A small amount of conceit is still necessary because this is, after all, fiction.

But the scene isn't funny when there's no authenticity at all. The people who made the Hollywood comedy version of the scene assumed the scene would be funny because it's wacky. But a wacky event isn't funny if the characters' reactions to it don't ring true.

Truth without Surprise Isn't Funny, Either

And the reverse, stating the truth when it's not unexpected isn't funny either. This is the fatal flaw of sophomoric humor. Crude humor is supposed to be funny simply because it's rude—it highlights things you're not supposed to talk about in polite conversation. But these days, "polite conversation" is exceedingly rare. Vulgarity is so far from unexpected that I'm actually shocked, shocked, when a so-called comedy for adults doesn't contain a single reference to defecation or penises.

Real humor isn't simply unvarnished honesty, but surprise honesty—honesty that defies the expectations that conventions have implanted in the audience.

In Dr. Strangelove, a nutcase US military officer sends his planes to attack Russia with nukes, which could trigger a Doomsday Device and end the world. American ideals and action movies have trained us to expect that, in this dire situation, the president will be very stoic and strong and do everything he can to stop the attack. Instead, while the world is about to end in 20 minutes, the president is on the phone with the Russian Premier saying, "I'm sorry too, Dmitri. I'm very sorry. All right, you're sorrier than I am. But I'm sorry as well. I'm as sorry as you are, Dmitri. Don't say that you're more sorry than I am because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are. We're both sorry, all right?"

Or in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur prances up to a castle on an invisible horse, his servant banging coconuts together. Yes, it's silly and mildly amusing. But it's not really funny until, after Arthur gives his royal introduction, the castle guard says, "You're using coconuts! You've got two empty halves of coconut and you're bangin' 'em together!"

1. At the time the movie was made, radio and theater trained us to suspend disbelief and accept that the sound of coconuts banging together meant the actors were riding horses, even if that's not what horse hooves sound like and there was obviously no real horse present. You don't expect another actor to point out the coconuts, any more than you expect a gangster in a black-and-white movie to aim a toy gun at someone and say, "This is a prop, but you's gonna pretend it's real, see?" (This particular gag probably worked better on the stage than it does in the movie, since a theater audience would have accepted the invisible horse without question.)

2. Plays, movies, and fairy tales teach us that people are supposed to worship kings like gods, bowing and scraping and doing everything they command. You don't expect a loyal subject to talk back to the king, or to forget about him and get distracted by a casual discussion of whether a swallow could carry a coconut.

3. Medieval legends and their numerous retellings portray King Arthur as a great and powerful leader. You don't expect Arthur to be a fool himself, plainly admitting to the coconuts with "So?" but continuing his royal speech anyway. The camera angle downwards also destroys the conceit—he's just a regular bloke in a funny hat, tiny and powerless compared to the castle wall and the empty fields around him, which makes his posturing all the more ridiculous.

That's what the "truth" part of comedy does—exposes people to be regular blokes even in the most dramatic situations. The funniest character isn't the zany or quirky or crazy one, it's the average one freaking out. John Cleese explained the evolution of Monty Python's acts, "We used to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly...we came to realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do something silly."

The Secret to Funny: Stop Being Funny

So how do you write comedy? Stop trying to be funny.

When you're trying to be funny, it's very easy to fall into the trap of being fake. If there's a blank spot in your story and you ask yourself, What would be funny here?, you'll probably come up with something wacky. But wacky for the sake of wacky isn't funny.

What you should ask instead is the same thing you'd ask yourself when composing a dramatic story, What would my characters do here? The difference is that, when you're composing a drama full of heroes (or villains), you answer with what they should do. But in a comedy, you answer what they would do. What they would do might not seem funny at first, but rest assured, the funny is in there somewhere.

Example: A heroine wakes up with a hangover and finds her boss, whom she's always hated, in bed beside her.

What Hollywood says she would do: Scream her head off and hit him with a pillow.

What she should do: Be a calm, rational adult and wake him to discuss what happened and how they're going to deal with it.

What she would do: Blink at him, uncertain whether this is a dream or reality. She'd prefer to believe it's a dream. She'd lie back down and squeeze her eyes tight, hoping he'll vanish before she opens them again. When he wakes up and taps her on the shoulder, she'd curl up and ignore him. He'd ask, "Where's your bathroom?" and, after an awkward pause, she'd eek out, "Down the hall to the left."

Only the last option has the potential to be funny. Because people are so accustomed the Hollywood version, the "what she would do" scene subverts conventions with the unexpected truth that people avoid upsetting issues to the point of being ridiculous.

Sitcoms and movies can lazily fall back on loud-mouthed fools telling fart jokes, and people will laugh because decades of exposure to bad comedies have trained them to think "flatulence equals funny." But in written humor, there is no laugh track. There are no actors with bug-eyed expressions and flailing limbs. You have characters, word play, and truth—that's all. But really, that's all you need.

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