Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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How to Write Comedy Part 1, Physical Comedy/Slapstick

by Ellen Buikema

Three main categories of comedy, often used in combination, are:

  1. Physical comedy
  2. Verbal comedy
  3. Situational comedy

Situational comedy involves characters, environment, and events. One, two, or all of these will need to be comedic in order to make the humor work.

Verbal and physical humor build up comical circumstances. Verbal comedy sometimes implies physical comedy without acting out the physical events. Each category offers something different.

Physical Comedy

Physical comedy is an ancient form of expression. The audience secretly delights in the misfortune or pain of a performer.

Physical comedy often depends on this sense of play which remains popular for all ages, eras, and cultures. Our bodies are vulnerable, and we make strange movements and sounds: pass gas, vomit, gurgle, gesture grandly, laugh in odd ways, and twitch.

It also deals with our interactions with physical objects such as:

  • Avoiding being hit by an object:  Pie fights.
  • Trying to get an object to perform the right way:  Animals misbehaving.
  • Keeping an object from getting away:  A hat that keeps moving with the wind.
  • Trying to keep some object from falling:  A vase on a narrow table.

We see the humanity of these acts and find them funny. Our interactions with animals and people take on the humor of both bodies and objects.

Physical comedy can be over-used. Bathroom humor is a staple of physical comedy, but too many fart jokes can spoil the story. Physical comedy can also be abused. If a humorous act has an element of bullying, the act is humor no more.

Empathy, one of Comedy’s Building Blocks

We wince when someone trips over an ottoman. We laugh in relief when the character pops right back up, unharmed. Having one character push another character over that sofa in an act of nastiness, changes the mood entirely. We feel fear and anger for the character who has been abused.

Physical Comedians

Some of the most well-loved comedians are physical comedy masters.

Some physical comedians worth studying are Jackie Chan, Rowan Atkinson/Mr. Bean, Martin Short, Adam Sandler, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett. Actress Mabel Normand, who I learned about while researching historical fiction, was the first woman to throw a pie at Charlie Chaplin, another great physical comedian.


Slapstick is a form of comedy using overdramatized physical activity, far and above the boundaries of typical physical comedy. It may involve both intentional and unintentional violence, often resulting from inept use of items like ladders and kitchen implements.

The word comes from a device developed for use in the physical comedy style known as commedia dell'arte in 16th-century Italy. The slapstick was made of two thin slats of wood, which make a "slap" when hitting another actor, with little impact needed to make a loud sound. The physical slap stick is used in Punch and Judy puppet shows, which are far less popular than they once were due to the violent themes.

A more contemporary example of slapstick humor is an actual slap stick, included in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as the planet Vogsphere’s method of punishment for any being on the planet who tries to think. The Vogons’ noses are higher up on their heads as all the slaps forced their noses higher.


Jim Carrey, a master of physical comedy, uses slapstick in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Here is the script for your perusal. Per screenwriting norms, the actions are not woven into the narrative as they would be in novel form but instead are included as stage directions in the manuscript.

Not all slapstick humor involves large, exaggerated movements. The following scene from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series shows a different type of slapstick.

Slapstick humor from Life the Universe and Everything

Arthur Dent, at a party, describes the horrific events he has recently endured to a man who looks interested in listening to him.

“The little man nodded enthusiastically.
"Ah," effervesced the little man, "and did you have a wonderful time?"
Arthur started to choke violently on his drink.

"What a wonderfully exciting cough," said the little man, quite startled by it, "do you mind if I join you?"
And with that he launched into the most extraordinary and spectacular fit of coughing that caused Arthur so much by surprise that he started to choke violently, discovered he was already doing it and got thoroughly confused. Together they performed a lung-busting duet that went on for fully two minutes before Arthur managed to cough and splutter to a halt.

"So invigorating," said the little man, panting and wiping tears from his eyes, "what an exciting life you must lead. Thank you very much."
He shook Arthur warmly by the hand and walked off into the crowd.”

Life the Universe and Everything by Douglass Adams

Two other authors who come to mind are Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Prachett. Both write wonderful comedy. Kurt Vonnegut’s work runs dark, and never disappoints. Breakfast of Champions has great physical comedy. Pratchette’s Color of Magic, first in the Discworld series, has wonderful examples of slapstick humor.

For more information on this topic, Davis Rider Robinson’s The Physical Comedy Handbook breaks down physical comedy in detail, which will be useful for writers, actors, and directors.

Do you enjoy slapstick humor? Who is your favorite physical comedian? What literary physical comedy do you think everyone should read at least once? When is slapstick funny, and when is it not? Why?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Perlinator from Pixabay

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A Big Picture Solution to "The Writing Bottleneck"

by Jenny Hansen

Break thru your writing bottleneck! Shows bullet breaking bottle

Every writer gets stalled, frustrated, and just plain stuck sometimes. Sometimes it's life, sometimes it's illness, and sometimes it's the story. I’ve been dealing with cancer since last November. Talk about a writing bottleneck! Nothing kills the writing mojo like chemo, amiright?

But last January, before chemo, I watched a talk by Collin Jewett, CEO of Superhuman Academy, called "How to identify and fix your bottleneck (in your business and your mindset)." He gave us a formula that absolutely blew my mind, and I’ve been wanting to blog about it ever since.

What was the formula, you ask?

Results = You + (Clarity x Attention/Energy x Action x Time)

The formula made no sense to me when I first saw it. In fact, I was scratching my head until I saw the word “Time” at the end. Time has been my nemesis since forever. My relationship with time only became worse as my responsibilities increased with motherhood and entrepreneurship.

When someone asks what is preventing me from reaching any goal, my #1 answer is always Time.

A-ha, I thought. It’s got to be a right-to-left equation, since time is always the culprit, right?

Um, no.

Mr. Superhuman Academy blew my mind with his explanation of this formula, stressing that you always start fixing from the left. But as I listened to him, and thought about both my writing business and my day job business, I realized that “time” actually isn’t the biggest culprit to my productivity.

The biggest culprit is lack of attention over there on the left side.

By not digging deep enough into the left side of the equation, I sabotage my time and prevent myself from streamlining the work.

Let's break this equation down...

You = Self-care

Prioritizing self-care is the first step in escaping your bottlenecks. If you're not hydrated, caught up on sleep, exercised, or starting in a good mental place, EVERYTHING will take longer. Starting from the left, you and your well-being bring the power of your creativity into the equation.

Clarity is often shortchanged.

Clarity is sometimes assumed to be easy. The simple truth is that clarity is rarely easy. Clarity is the most important part of results, but it is the part of the equation that people skip the most often. They want to get doing, so they skip on ahead to "action."

Action is Seductive

Action, even when it is scattered rather than focused, makes people feel accomplished. In writing terms: if I write a scene I am moving forward. But what if your scene doesn't move the plot forward, or develop your character? What if the scene accomplishes nothing, except making you feel that you did something by writing that day?

It's easy to get stuck in Action. To try to do too many things at once, and fail to do anything all that well. When action isn’t focused, you waste a ton of time. By focusing your energy on completing only one thing (that moves the story forward), you're more likely to move smoothly on to the Attention/Energy category.

You shortchange yourself by focusing only on time

When I solve right to left by thinking everything is a time problem, I end up wasting my most precious commodity — time. Considering time is the most finite resource in the whole equation, digging into this formula made me feel a bit dumb.

Then I ran a search and realized that most people with even the slightest bit of attention deficit have extraordinary trouble with time management, procrastination, perfectionism, and organization. I felt a teensy bit better when I realized that even though my attention deficit is low on the overall scale, I am constantly moving a boulder uphill when it comes to those "executive functions."

The best articles I found on time and ADD:

looking through the bottleneck

Other Roadblocks in the Equation

Sometimes the enormity of novel writing leads to "analysis paralysis." Writing is hard on the best of days. But when I look at the formula above, I think perhaps analysis paralysis can come from a different source. Mine often does.


  • You don’t have clarity about your character’s motivation.
  • You haven’t nailed down the big turning points in your story.
  • You haven’t made the protagonist’s goal tangible enough.
  • You don’t have a strong antagonist.

Note: For all the pantsers, the above is probably a second draft bottleneck, but it is still a writing bottleneck.

To recap the formula for writing:

  • Clarity is the stage where you define your values, characters, themes, etc and narrow your focus to a single problem that you can solve.
  • If this is done well, you know where to put your Attention and Energy.
  • Those clear goals make your passion bubble up so you are driven to take Action (and write in a more focused manner).
  • Actions taken with clear focus take less Time.

This formula unlocked the secret to Flow...

After digging into this formula, I began to understand that nirvana-like state called “flow.” Previously, I thought "flow" was some sprightly unicorn who only visited other people.

Steven Kotler is an expert on Creative Flow, describing it as “..an optimal state of mind where you are at peak performance, you feel your best, and your creativity and problem-solving abilities can be up to four times as powerful. Everything around you seems to disappear. Time flies and the creativity pours in when you’re in the Flow.”

While I listened to Mr. Superhuman Academy speak, I finally understood why “flow” has so often eluded me.

I was solving the formula from the wrong direction.

Solving the formula above from left-to-right feels utterly foreign to my slightly disorganized, slightly ADD brain. Probably you don’t have my kind of brain, but I feel pretty secure betting that you’ve got my love/hate relationship with time. Almost every writer does.

We all have lives overflowing with responsibilities and “must do’s.” Often, we spend our energy and attention on action rather than clarity because there is just so much to get done.

Cancer both filled and cleared my plate.

Cancer sucks up most of your time with medical stuff, and doesn't leave time for much else. But all my diagnostic and chemo time taught me a few things about “clarity” that I might never have stumbled upon otherwise.

First of all, when you have cancer "getting well" is your most important job. Everything comes second to that, including how you use all that hurry-up-and-wait downtime.

Using downtime for "writing good"

I learned to use that downtime for the non-writing part of writing. While I was motionless in MRIs and scans, or horizontal from chemo side effects, thinking was about the extent of my writing capabilities. I had to spend my time over on the left side of that equation because I had no energy for action. Cancer treatment crowds your schedule with crappy choices and endless delays, but it sure does give you lots of clarity.

Spending all that time pondering story questions (like those bullet points above) meant that when I sat down to write, I experienced much less frustration and got a lot more done. It was an interesting lesson for me and my busy brain.

Contemplation time had far more importance than I was giving it!

When does Teamwork help?

Sometimes a story challenge or roadblock is more than you can solve on your own. This is where critique groups, writing groups, writing forums, and writing friends come in.

If you don’t have clarity in characters, storylines, or motivation, you will feel very very stuck (and possibly very frustrated). This is when a lot of writers stop believing in the viability of their stories, especially if they’re newer to the writing game.

Note: These murky story moments are when those new story ideas start looking like shiny attractive alternatives.

Your story matters, and I hope you don’t give up on it!

Final Thoughts

If you can't do this on your own, find a writing friend or hire a story coach you trust and talk it over until you have clarity. You’ll work better if you know where to put your attention and energy. Remember, if you’re stressed out about focus, then you can’t take action. Or you take ALL the actions, just to do something to move your story, published novel, career, [insert other roadblock here] forward.

Unless you are retired (with lots of help) or independently wealthy, your writing time is limited. Use it wisely!

So, what is your bottleneck? It isn’t the same for all writers. Do you get stuck in terms of clarity, energy/attention, action, or time? Which section of the equation frustrates you more than the others? Please share your story with us down in the comments!

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides storytelling skills, LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

Article images from Depositphotos.

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The Rules of the Story You Write

by Lynette M. Burrows

Image is of glowing lights in green and pink and purple and dark grass-like fronds surrounding an open book, it's pages about to turn.

When you ask a writer what they do, the answer is often “I write” or “I write stories.” But that’s not entirely true. Writers create and solve problems, we create characters, a time, a place, a mood, and more. All of those things are parts of a story, yes. And they come together as a story, but the story in your head, the words you put on paper (electronic or otherwise), only sets up the rules of the story. Your reader accepts those rules and interprets the story in her own way. 

What are the Rules?

There are rules about how to construct a story. Rules about when to introduce characters and who comes first. There are rules about genre and pacing and all the other parts of the story, but those aren’t the rules of your story.

The rules we’re talking about aren’t about how the story is constructed. The rules of your story are in the words you put on the page. Words that describe character, tone, theme, time and place, conflicts, strengths and weaknesses. Your reader picks up on the rules as she reads. How your reader interprets your words tells her what these rules are. 

 Be warned, if you don’t follow those rules, you will lose your reader. 

Writing is Not the Reverse of Reading

Much of what a reader experiences when she reads a book is not on the page. Read that sentence again. 

It has been scientifically proven that when a person reads fiction, it causes changes in the left temporal cortex of the brain. The left temporal cortex is an area of the brain associated with responsiveness to language and the primary area of nerves that involve both sensory and motor functions. 

These changes caused by reading fiction are called embodied cognition. More simply, the neurons in the brain trick the mind into thinking it’s actually experiencing the story. 

That mind-over-matter trick our brains play when we read changes the words you’ve written into a story the reader experiences with details supplied by her memories and associated feelings. The words you’ve written trigger those memories and feelings, but they are not the same as the memories and feelings you experienced or thought of as you wrote the words. Nor are they the same as any other reader reading those same words

Set the Reader Up

What is a writer to do when the reader makes the rules? You  prime the pump, set the stage so to speak. In my post “Create a Compelling Plot with What-But-Therefore” I take use the story Rumpelstiltskin as an example. It’s a good example for reader’s rules as well. 

Example Set the Stage

The first lines of Rumpelstiltskin by the Grimm Brothers:

By the side of a wood, in a country a long way off, ran a fine stream of water, and upon the stream there stood a mill. 

How do you see that in your mind’s eye?

Collage image of photographs of a windmill, an aged water mill building, and a wind mill on a farm.

Does the “wood” surround the mill, stand beside it, behind it? A country a long way off may mean somewhere in Europe to someone in the US. But if you’re in Europe, do you see Great Britain or China or the US? What about if you’re in Australia?

A fine stream of water can be narrow or wide, deep or shallow. The word mill could mean a water-powered mill, a wind-powered mill, or a mule-powered mill. Where is the stream in relation to the mill? 

Now you may be thinking, how vague that is. But it’s a fairy tale that has lasted through the ages because it allows the reader to fill in the details around a timeless story. You’re probably thinking I’m writing something else. How vague do I need to be?

Write your first draft as something you enjoy reading. If you like a lot of descriptive details, include a lot of description. Prefer more action? Put in more action. 

Your second draft is where you want to be selective with you reader in mind. Don’t beat her over the head with an image you see. Select a few things that are important to the action or cause a deeper resonance with the theme or the character or the situation. Remove any details that don’t add something to your story.  

Example Set the Theme, Characters, and Problem

The miller’s house was close by, and the miller, you must know, had a very beautiful daughter. She was, moreover, very shrewd and clever; and the miller was so proud of her, that he one day told the king of the land, who used to come and hunt in the wood, that his daughter could spin gold out of straw. 

The author of this tale, as the Brothers Grimm set it down, is sparse in the details he gives. Yet, by the third sentence, we know or infer a lot about this world, the time period, the relationships between the king, the miller, and his daughter. And we have a strong hint of what the story problem is. There are no extraneous details. The reader is left to imagine what the characters look like. She infers that the miller loves his daughter. She muses that the miller has some kind of relationship with the king because he told the king about his daughter.  Suspicions swirl in her head that the miller’s pride in his daughter will get someone in trouble. Finally, because the tone and the words in a country a long way off, the reader expects this to be a folktale or fable.

Example Set the Tone

Every word you use in your story, helps set the tone. In Rumpelstiltskin, we’re told the king is greedy and he sends for the daughter and says if she values her life, she’ll spin a pile of straw into gold 

It was in vain that the poor maiden said that it was only a silly boast of her father, for that she could do no such thing as spin straw into gold: the chamber door was locked and she was left alone. 

The reader takes those words and envisions the beautiful, shrewd and clever daughter begging the king to understand. The reader can feel how distraught the daughter is when she sits down in one corner of the room and bewails her hard fate.  

Note the word choices, in vain, silly boast, chamber door, locked, and left alone. They all convey tone that builds the tension in this story. There are no extra words to fill in the details. Yet, the reader sees this story in her mind’s eye. If she’s hooked into the story, she experiences embodied cognition and lives the story.

Trust Your Reader's Interpretation

The modern-day reader is typically more sophisticated than the original Rumpelstiltskin audiences. They may or may not be hooked enough in the Brothers Grimm version of the story. But the lesson this tale gives is that the writer must trust the reader to pick up on the set up you’ve penned. The original author of this tale set up the action and the conclusion of this story in such a way that their readers are willing participants and satisfied readers.

The miller’s daughter becomes queen and the droll-looking little man who spun the straw into gold for a price returns and demands her first born child. She shrewdly makes a deal, if she guesses the little man’s name within three days she shall keep the child.

She sends out messengers to find names. The first day guesses all the names she could remember. The second day she guesses comical names. Finally, a messenger returns with a story and a name. 

The reader knows the queen has won the bet and keeps reading for the victory.

If the originator of this tale had the daughter convince the king that the straw into gold was a boast, or she didn’t become queen, or as queen she gave up her child, or if she had the king’s men kill the little man, the rules of the story would be broken. This tale would not have survived as a spoken tale and never made it to the written tale we know. 

Never Break the Rules of the Story

The rules of a story have to do with reader expectations, genre tropes, and reader interpretation.  

The reader expects a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. She expects the miller’s daughter to be shrewd and clever, expects to feel a growing threat, and expects a shrewd and clever queen to win the day.

Your reader picks up your story because something about it intrigued her, made her believe that this book could transport her to a place and in a way that will entertain her. She absorbs the rules of the world, character, the problem. 

Your job as a writer is to never break those rules. An out of place detail, a poorly chosen word can jolt your reader out of the story. Don’t make your characters act in uncharacteristic ways (without a compelling reason). Don’t have a story solution appear when your main character hasn’t won a hard-fought battle, or lost something, or learned something. 

Edit for the Reader

The first draft is yours. It can be all the things you want it to be.

Your second draft is for the reader. The story is no longer yours (unless you never intend to publish it). Take off your my-story-my-baby “writer” hat and put on a more objective, best-version-of-the-story “editor” hat. 

Edit away any of your first draft hesitations. If you think a particular line or scene is very clever, re-examine it. Does it add value beyond cleverness? If not, cut it. Cut ruthlessly. Add judiciously. And always keep the rules of your story and your reader in mind.

Mold your story into a version that allows your reader to experience the story her way. 

How Does the Writer Know the Reader’s Rules?

A good writer’s group that critiques in a constructive way can help you figure out when something doesn’t ring true. The group may identify a specific thing as wrong but it’s important for you the writer to look at how that fits with the bigger picture. 

It’s also important to get feedback on more than a few pages at a time. First readers willing to read the complete manuscript and give you feedback can be invaluable in helping you see where you’ve bent or broken the rules of your story. Value the questions they have. Evaluate the places they say are slow, difficult, or unbelievable. 

Photo looking up, surrounded whisps of clouds and by bookshelves full of books reaching upward to birds soaring in a cloudy sky with a hazy yellow sun.

Honor the reader. Honor the story.  Remember that whatever you show in the beginning of the story establishes the rules of the world and the characters of that story. Create rules that invite your readers to immerse themselves in the story.

Your story should be a gateway, a road map, not a catalogue of details. Set the stage with the right rules and sensory detail and your story will set your reader’s neuron’s alight and she’ll experience your story in the best possible way. 

Have you read a story where the author broke the story’s rules? Did you finish that story? 

How do you ensure your story’s rules are never broken? 

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.

Her Fellowship series takes place in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. It’s a “chillingly realistic” alternate history and a story of unimagined heroism. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ. She is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or Twitter @LynetteMBurrows or on her website.

Image Credits

First image by Yuri from Pixabay

Middle collage by Lynette M. Burrows with photos by Enrique, Daniel. and Alfred from  Pixabay

Final image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

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