"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Edgar Degas

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Difference between Comedy and Tragedy



“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” MelBrooks

One of the first things a writer has to decide after a story has presented itself to him or her, is how to tell it. Is it told from a character’s point of view (first person)? Is the reader a character in the story (second person)? Or, is the writer God (third person)? For obvious reasons, the third person narrative is far and away the most popular choice among writers.

After settling on the point of view, a writer must decide on the setting (of time and place), tone, voice, depth, contrast, brightness, resolution and, perhaps most importantly, whether the story is a comedy or a drama. Put dramedy out of your head. Dramedy is a freak of nature best drowned in the bathtub when nobody is looking. The less said about dramedy the better.

To help explore the options available to determine whether a story is a comedy or a drama, let’s examine a common storytelling trope: A middle-aged man falls in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter. For the most part, this is the stuff of comedy. Broad comedy. Farce. If the middle-aged man is lucky it will be a bedroom farce.
 
The middle-aged man is a fool. To any audience that’s paying attention to the human condition, he is a comic figure. They can see what he cannot - that he’s not really in love with this poor woman. He’s lustful, terrified of his encroaching death (or at least that of his libido), chasing an illusion of happiness and youth that do not exist. He is slightly insane. But, to this character, he is not delusional. He is in love. His love for this woman in pure and true. The entire universe turns on the axis of his love for her. In both comedy and drama, this man is an idiot, and not worth overthinking as a character. There are two other characters who will decide the story’s mood.


The first is his long-suffering wife. Is she aware of his feelings? If so, is she hurt? Amused? Embarrassed for him? Does she confront him? Ignore it and hope it passes? Leave him, or beg him to stay? What do I know - I’m not God. But if we consider, for the purposes of this essay, that the story is being told in the third person narrative (and therefore I am God), we’ll have the wife amused, embarrassed or unaware for comedy, and hurt, confrontational and leaving or begging him to stay for drama. Here’s a handy tip: Don’t make her a shrew. It’s lazy storytelling, and not very nice.

The other character, of course, is the object of the old fool’s desire. She’s the key to the whole comedy/drama thing. Is she aware of his feelings for her? How does she feel about him? Does she find him charming or repugnant? Is she flattered or frightened? When she sees him coming does she want to grab his broad shoulders or her can of mace? Does she dream of being tied up and ravished by an older gentleman and, if so, what’s her safe word (and her phone number)? Is she smart? Beautiful? Married, or otherwise encumbered? Does she castrate hogs for a living? The answer to each of these questions will decide what type of story you’re telling. Here’s another handy tip: Don’t make her a cipher, or perfect, or a blank screen to project his desires on. She won’t thank you for that.

You should be aware that there will be some loss of your story’s subtler comedic elements if it is made into a movie starring a famous actor who proudly parades his child-bride down the red carpet.

So, it’s up to you, God and/or Goddess. Have fun (but not too much, you see what happened to the last guy) and create characters of depth and complexity who bear little or no resemblance to the people in your life.

Maybe you should start out writing fantasy. How do you feel about talking animals?