How to Write Black Comedy
Black comedies are an art not many writers can master, if only because it helps when your sense of humour is dark and twisted to begin with. It’s for this reason I am not going to tell you how to write off-colour jokes or aberrant observations; after all, these are subjective elements, so it takes much time and practice to write like that, but what can get you started is to understand the structure of a black comedy. What are the rules you should follow to begin constructing a story with darkly comedic elements?
1. Explore a sobering topic
Most black comedies involve subject matter which people may find unsettling or discomforting. Death is one of the most enduring, of course, given how it looms large over much of society’s deeper fears about their own mortality, so making light of this topic can certainly invoke nervous laughter and be considered darkly comic. Violence, too, and (by association) murder, along with other crimes society deems to be deeply serious (such as terrorism, abuse, drug use, disease, rape, even suicide), are furtive territory for any aspiring black comedy writer.
The intimate nature of sex—irrespective of orientation—can be disarming enough to the reader to prove darkly amusing, and this obviously extends all the way out to sexual depravity and perversion. Black comedies can also explore discrimination against others (against race, gender, etc.) and challenge religious convention, but what unites each topic is this sense that they should make the reader nervous or anxious in some way. In a nutshell, a black comedy should trivialise a subject most right-thinking people would be troubled by, or worried about, so this remains a good starting point.
2. Play with morality
The notion of good versus evil is obviously very black and white, so a dark comedy should aim to navigate the terrain of grey morality. Blurring the lines between right and wrong, much humour can be found if you consider how people do the wrong thing for the right reasons, or the right thing for the wrong reasons. In either case, life is complicated, and if we can see evidence that the characters in your story are imperfect and seemingly incapable of a sense of propriety, then watching them wrestle with moral dilemmas can prove amusing to some.
What’s often typical in black comedies is witnessing the short-sightedness of human nature—we notice how people are unable to foresee the consequences of their actions, witnessing their inability to face up to or correct their mistakes once they appear. Intention and foresight become important, as does the idea of moral transgressions. At what point will your character do something beyond the pale to preserve their own self-interest, or the interests of others, and how low will they go? Humour naturally arises the deeper they stoop.
3. Revel in failure
At times, black humour should often play out like a comedy of errors, or even a tragicomedy, which aims to surprise readers by presenting us with flawed characters who face up to failure. Cringe comedy is very much of this ilk, so writers should revel in this opportunity; after all, it is often how people fail which causes amusement to the reader, so make your characters fail big, fail hard, and fail often. Let life beat them down, but always give them a slither of hope so they can dust themselves off and try again.
It’s at this point the idea of moral impediments comes in. What exactly would someone do to improve their lot in life? Would they wilfully inflict misery upon others in order to further their own ends, or would they hold fast to accepted behaviours whilst keeping their own state of disequilibrium at a low ebb? It’s navigating this fine balance which makes black comedy such a fun genre to write, especially if you throw a provocative subject matter into the mix.
4. Toy with futility
Black comedies generally flirt with notions of pointlessness and futility. Whether it’s adopting gallows humour—that ironic sense of amused resignation one feels preceding an inevitably grim consequence—or gung-ho nihilism in its purest form, a black comedy should wrestle with a character’s eventual acceptance of being ineffectual. Obviously, over time, your character should face this realisation with good humour, despite how strange their predicament may be. Think of it like you’re poking a beehive with a stick and laughing at the prospect of getting stung.
Once a particular arc comes to a head, your character may end up feeling as though life is ultimately a futile endeavour, perhaps with events culminating to challenge their very disposition to the core. Much like a high farce, the plot of a black comedy should ramp up plot points to the point where nerves are tested and outlooks shaken. This, along with covering one of the deadly serious topics as mentioned above, is what makes black comedies so effective at lifting up a rock and exposing the ant’s nest that is humanity’s inner nature.
5. Embrace fatalism
There is something bitterly ironic—and therefore humorous—about the notion of fatalism. From a philosophical viewpoint, embedding an underlying theme of fatalism in your story will only entrench that feeling of powerlessness we all feel when life is proving difficult and challenging for them.
If your characters feel like they have no control over events, or that their efforts to change the course of what’s happening are having no effect at changing the story’s outcome whatsoever, then the notion of ‘free will’ seems like something of a myth. Alternatively, you could also craft an anti-hero—someone who maliciously instigates negative change upon others purely for the sake of it, thereby becoming paragons of mischief and confirming the reader’s suspicion that (as Jean-Paul Sartre would have it) “Hell is other people.” Either way, by the end of your black comedy, your reader should feel like they’re pawns in some kind of cosmic game—either they are victims to a destiny which they have no way of staving off, or their life is beleaguered by ill-intentioned adversaries who wish to deny them their agency.
In the end, although these rules can help you begin shaping a black comedy, it’s down to the writer to root out humour from dark subject matter. Unfortunately, that is the one thing you cannot teach—you’re either the sort of person who sees life that way, or you don’t. For those who do, however, I hope this article proves useful to some degree.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.