I love when something in a book is so well timed, so perfectly stated that I laugh aloud. It’s not something I typically expect from a book, so when it happens, it knocks me out. I read the line a few times, still chuckling. I back up and read the whole paragraph again, imagining the humorous scene in all its glory. If it’s funny enough, I’ll interrupt my husband and force him to listen to five minutes of backstory and then read him the scene. Unbelievably, he puts up with this. What a keeper.
My point is that I adore humor. I believe it’s a powerful tool for writers. Sadly, I feel there are very few books that get this reaction out of me. And I mean not even the faintest chuckle or flicker of amusement. I don’t require that all humor be so great that I fall out of my chair busting my gut in the fetal position, but I want to find some trace of lightheartedness. I believe it makes your world and your characters more real. Let’s discuss.
Until you develop the knack for it, I think humor is one of the most challenging aspects to add to your writing. It’s unteachable and subjective—you couldn’t get a worse combination. If you’ve experienced creative writing workshops, you probably know that there’s usually at least one person in the class that’s just plain funny. And they usually write to that strength. You sit there, re-reading their story, listening to other writers rant and rave about how funny it was, and you wonder how they do it. But these people that are talented with humor can overdo it. The story is funny—and that’s all. That’s why I don’t want anyone to be intimidated by these outrageously funny writers because even though it seems like people are always drawn to humor, those writers still have their weaknesses.
It’s death by comparison. All writers do it, and they really shouldn’t. On top of that intimidation, if you’ve ever been involved in theater or film, you probably understand that fear of an audience responding to a joke with awkward silence. I know I’ve experienced both of these situations, and if you have too, maybe you’ve given up on even trying. But humor is important, so don’t give up on it.
For all that I say I don’t like Shakespeare, I’m a wholehearted believer in his strategy of comic relief. If you read his tragedies, you will see that inserted throughout all of the darkness and horribly grim situations are comedic scenes. Not to say that I find them particularly funny as a modern day reader, but even still it works on me. Shakespeare understood what many authors fail to see. If your story is heavy, you must balance it with lightheartedness to keep your readers going. You must give your reader highs with the lows, even if it is only a tiny moment. I’ll say it again—it makes your world and characters more real. No matter how desperate a situation may be, there are always those who will use humor as a mechanism to protect themselves and push on. But how to do it subtly, artfully, realistically, and successfully is the challenge. So here is where many writers go wrong.
Rarely has slapstick humor ever worked on me in a book. What is successful in movies simply does not always translate to the written word. I think the reason is that it’s harder to visualize and believe. Something utterly ridiculous in a movie, like someone tripping and causing a domino effect of other people falling, cause people to laugh. In a book, the reader has to work to visualize it, and it is more likely to break their suspension of disbelief. I usually find myself feeling embarrassed on behalf of the character more than I feel amused. There was a series of books that I read where, somehow, in the first three books the main character ends up in the “final battle” either naked or only wearing something like underwear with rubber duckies on them. Never once did I find this funny. I visualized it and felt annoyed. I felt disengaged and distracted from the story by something utterly ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make slapstick successful; I’m saying it’s very hard to do. In my own writing, I cut a piece of slapstick comedy because I realized it was done at a character’s expense and was both unfunny and unreasonable.
The Comic Relief
I think it is a great misconception that there is one character assigned to be the funny guy. This poor character has no other responsibility than to show up at appropriate moments, throw out a hilarious comment, and then disappear again until they’re needed for another chuckle. Again, this is something you do in movies. While I’m fine with having a character that tends to be funnier most of the time, I believe that every character should have their moments of humor. You know, like in real life. Some people have really dry humor, enjoy puns, have idiosyncrasies, are excessively sarcastic, self-deprecating, pessimistic, oblivious, gullible, or have dark or morbid humor, but the fact is that all people (and all characters) have the potential for humor. Sometimes humor can be entirely circumstantial. Sometimes it comes not from one character but from how two characters interact with each other. The more you write for your characters and understand them, the more you’ll understand their sense of humor and find ways to naturally insert it into the story. But if you place the responsibility of all your humor on one character, your story will be stiff, formulaic, and not believable.
This one is really quite simple. Sometimes we see an opportunity for hilarious brilliance. But the timing is terrible. Your characters are about to die. They need to hurry. The tension and conflict is at its greatest. I don’t care how funny it is; don’t do it. Sometimes it’s important not to break the tension, and, besides, it’s not realistic. It’s like those scenes in the movies where the characters are in the final battle. The world can be quite literally crashing down all around them but the two love interests have time to stare into each other’s eyes and go in for a slow motion kiss. And I’m left screaming at the TV, “Now is not the time, people! Move along.”
This can happen if someone is too good at humor. They overdo it. It goes too far. They know they’re being funny so they keep adding more on top of it. Remember that less can be more. I see this happen with stories that set a comedic tone from the beginning. Unless your intent is to go full blown comedy, be wary of this because you have to keep topping yourself, and when your reader is expecting humor, it is that much harder to accomplish it, and, at the same time, it is that much harder for them to take your story seriously. I always think of The Avengers II. The opening scene where Iron Man swears and Captain America admonishes him with, “Language!” all the while they’re pummeling people to bits. I admit, I laughed, but I would argue that it was a detriment to the movie overall. Suddenly, I couldn’t take it seriously because the characters weren’t taking it seriously. These characters were unstoppable. The threat of Ultron felt minimal. Come on. These characters talk about how they’re going to remodel their kitchen while fighting to save thousands of people. Clearly, they’re not concerned, so why should I be?
The best advice I can give you is to fully understand and develop your characters. Know that if your character is likeable, it is far easier to make them funny. Readers will never find your humor funny if it is coming from a character they don’t like. Additionally, don’t take yourself too seriously or your story will be the bad kind of funny. It will be funny when you are trying to be serious, and you’ll be left wondering why readers aren’t taking your overly depressing, tragic, sob-story seriously. I advise you to not be afraid and give it a try. Revisions and beta readers are there to help you know where to cut out what’s not working, but the more you try it, the better you’ll get at it, and the more natural you will find it to be.
By: Rachelle Clifford