PETE'S COMEDY WORKSHOP
Pete answers your questions about writing funny stories – and gives you some tips too.
How hard is it writing something which you hope is funny?
First of all I never, ever sit down and think. ‘Right, I’ve got to be hilarious now.’ That would just terrify me. Also, I don’t think of comedy as a genre, in the way horror or detective stories are. It’s more a style, a way of looking at life. So first of all you have to think about plot and your characters. That always comes first.
Can you give an example of what you mean?
Yes. One day I visited a neighbour’s house. There, up on a wall she had a plan for each of the three children’s leisure time. ‘I don’t want them to waste a second,’ she told me. I thought and thought about that for ages. Then I began to imagine who would absolutely hate having their life totally organised by their parents. I pictured a boy who was bottom of the class in everything. A boy who had only one ambition – to become a comedian. As I imagined his reactions – and what he would do – I began to smile. That character, of course, became Louis the Laugh and the book ‘HOW TO TRAIN YOUR PARENTS.’
Do you worry about your stories being funny?
Oh yes, I’m constantly worried about that. And when I show early drafts to friends, I’m always listening outside the door, hoping I can hear them chuckling! But the comedy has to flow out of situations and characters. It can’t just be added on. That always feels phoney.
Do you hear your comic characters in your head?
Great question and yes I do. I believe the voice of your characters is especially important in funny stories.
Why is that?
Well, you know how some people you meet are just naturally funny. It doesn’t feel forced either. I aim for something exactly like that in my books. So humour just seems to be bubbling out of a character. The person may not even believe they are funny. Look at Adrian Mole or Archie in ‘Trust Me I’m A Troublemaker.’
What’s the best part of writing a comedy?
Normally when I’m writing a story it’s rather like trying to talk on the phone on a train, where you keep losing the signal. So I might write a couple of lines, and then stop and think for a bit … and then maybe write another line. But occasionally the character just takes over and talks away for pages and pages. I don’t feel as if I’m doing much at all, except scribbling down everything which my character tells me. It’s magical, exciting, mysterious. Those days are very rare though.
Do you have days when you don’t feel at all funny?
Most days. A couple of tips – sometimes a warm-up can help. So don’t start writing right away, maybe copy down a paragraph from your favourite funny book. I often do this and it always relaxes me and often frees up my imagination – and humour. The famous writer, Ernest Hemingway also had a suggestion. Before you finish one day – write down the first line you will need to get you started tomorrow. So next day there it is waiting for you. And you’ve begun without any worry at all.
Do you have favourite funny books which inspire you?
There are so many, I collected all Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books and Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings’ stories too. I loved Roald Dahl of course, but also Edward Eager, who wrote highly ingenious, witty fantasies such as, ‘Half Magic’ and ‘Seven Day Magic.’ Later I became a huge fan of Sue Townsend’s peerless Adrian Mole books. I also really like books like ‘Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn’ by Eve Garnett which is not exactly a comedy and yet she seizes the humour in every one of her characters and situations. I admire too, a book I read recently, ‘Love Simon.’ by Becky Albertalli. This manages to be both heartbreaking and hilarious... I could go on and on.
Have you got any tips for young, aspiring comic authors?
Yes, don’t be put off by your first drafts. The book in your head can seem brilliant, then when you put it down on paper it appears so flat and dull and disappointing. That happens to me all the time. My first drafts are almost always very, very bad. You have to push past that and keep going. Don’t be afraid to cut too. It’s vital for all stories but especially funny ones. Flabby, over-written scenes can ruin your comic rhythm.
And finally, you have to write from your heart. Find characters and themes you really care about. The humour will follow.
P.S. Writing is really just imagining and pretending. So never be afraid of it. Or think you can’t do it. Just relax and have fun.
With special thanks to:
Little Green Junior School
Chater Junior School
Marlborough Secondary School
And my niece Zoe, for asking me so many interesting questions.
It was a pleasure to answer them.