Writing 101: Comedy and Tragedy

There are dozens of different book genres, but when you get right down to it there are only two types of books: comedies and tragedies. Do you know which type of book you're writing, and what makes the difference between the two?

Comedy and Tragedy

Dustin Hoffman explains the nature of book writing beautifully in Stranger Than Fiction, one of my favorite movies. In the flick, he tells Will Ferrell the difference between a comedy and a tragedy: "Tragedy you die, comedy you get hitched." It's a pretty simple explanation, some might say trite, but it's also true. Every fiction book falls somewhere inside the comedy-tragedy spectrum. Sometimes, it's easy to tell which kind of book you're reading. Really clever writers keep you guessing until the very end. But when you're writing, you have to know which direction you're pursuing...because if you don't, no one else will be able to figure it out, either. 

  • Comedy


Comedies are funny, and generally they have relatively happy endings. There's a common misconception that comedy stories can't be serious. This is absolutely false. In fact, it's a great idea to blend humor into your dramatic scenes, because that makes them a whole lot easier for readers to take. When a book is too dramatic and too heavy, it's going to turn readers off. Life is already dramatic and heavy, so don't be afraid to lighten up a little when you're writing. People read to escape their reality. Don't make the world they're escaping into one sad, heavy event after the next. Some writers add specific, funny characters into their stories to lighten up the mood and provide some much-needed laugh lines. This is a device known as comic relief. Comedy always has a place in any story.

But if you're writing a story that can be identified as a comedy, your main character has to overcome their greatest obstacle and/or defeat their foe (the antagonist, or villain, of the story). In almost all cases, the main character is alive at the end of the comedy and the reader has a general sense that their life is going to work out okay. Some writers craft beautiful, tear-soaked tragedies, only to flip the audience on their heads at the end of the book and resolve the whole thing with a blissfully happy ending where the main character is alive and well. It can be an effective writing device, but it can also be a bit of a slap in the face to the reader. So if you're going to write a happy comedy ending, make sure it makes sense. The ending must fit the rest of the book, and shouldn't necessarily come too abruptly. It's also important to note that the hero, or protagonist, of any comedy story is likeable. The most well-known type of literary comedy is probably the romantic comedy, in which a couple comes together after several funny obstacles are put in their way.

Literary comedy examples: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Bridget Jones's Diary, Freaky Friday

  • Tragedy

Tragedies go for tears, not laughter. In a tragedy, people are going to die. In many cases, the main character is going to die at the end of the book. Tragedies contain a lot of drama, and more than one very sad and heart-wrenching scene. Every good book contains some tragedy within it, and it's okay to add a little sadness even into a very funny comedy. It's never  easy to make your reading audience laugh or cry, and the secret is to find a good balance. Don't just hit them constantly with sadness, but also don't lighten your tragedy with too much humor that might take away from the seriousness of the book. 

In a tragedy, the villain of the book doesn't necessarily have to win. Many great tragedies have been written where the hero wins but still dies. In many tragic endings, however, the book ends quite sadly. Goodness, love, chivalry -- these things have not prevailed. One of the most famous, and well-known, examples of literary tragedy is Romeo and Juliet. Other examples include Bridge to Terabithia and The Shipping News. At the end of a tragedy, your readers ought to be in tears. 

Comedy and Tragedy, Redux

The greatest stories blend elements of comedy and tragedy together in the same book, allowing readers to experience a full gamut of emotion. When it's done well, it becomes a wonderful adventure of hope, sadness, laughter and loss. When it's done badly, it becomes a roller-coaster ride that jerks readers back and forth, excruciatingly so. Pay attention to how you're feeling when you're reading your work, and how much your feeling, and how many times your feelings are changing. You want to keep your audience engaged and involved...but you don't want to jerk them around.

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