Writing & Thinking Funny

Humor could be the cure for whatever ails your novel – no kidding

by Hyphenman on Feb 04, 2016

Humor often pops up in life unexpectedly and even surreptitiously. That’s how it ought to be in your novel.

Some people think their story is too serious, too grounded in tragedy, too full of misfortune to leave any room for humor. Shakespeare didn’t think so. He punctuated his tragedies with humor, sometimes all-out hilarity.

Humor is a powerful device. It not only can offer comic relief but advance a plot and develop characters.

If you can master laugh-out-loud humor, you’ve created a visceral reaction to your words. That, in turn, builds an indelible bond between your story and characters and the reader’s mind. What could be better?

How on Earth, you might wonder, do you master it?

The good news is that it’s not as difficult as you might imagine. The bad news is that it’s still difficult.

Look at what makes us laugh. The antics of a pet or a child can crack us up. So can a good joke. What else? [CONTINUED] A funny story. An outrageous situation.

Anyone can make everyone laugh, friends and strangers alike, regardless of age. You can make a child laugh by making funny faces. You can amuse a grandparent by relating a funny experience. You can make colleagues at work chuckle by mocking a co-worker, or the boss, or yourself.

So how do you write funny? Exactly the same way. Almost.

Humor, like all good writing, depends on timing and rhythm. Beyond that, the keys to being funny are juxtaposition and the unexpected.

You can insert humor into your story through funny dialogue, funny thoughts, and funny situations. (A funny character can work, but I regard that as a cheap way out: The story will only be funny when that particular character shows up. In other words, humor won’t be integral to the story, as it ought to be.)

My novel in progress is about slavery and the Underground Railroad. It’s a very serious story with often tragic overtones, including the separation of families, the murder of a slave, and the hanging of another slave. Yet it is packed with humor in scene after scene.

Here’s but one example. A Quaker woman and her non-Quaker, manipulative niece spend a day shopping. The niece talks her aunt into buying an ornate and ostentatious hat with a long ostrich feather on top. That’s the first breakdown of barriers as Quakers believe in plain and simple dress. Such a hat could get the aunt rebuked by her religion or, at worst, disowned by it.

That’s the set-up. From the hat shop, the two women go to a matinee performance by the leading actor of the day. That’s another taboo, which would also have severe consequences for the aunt.

Because the aunt has never seen a stage production, she is full of questions. As she whispers her often funny inquiries to her niece, she moves her head back and forth, causing the ostrich feather of her hat to swish in front of the patron behind her. He asks her to remove her hat, and when she refuses, he demands in a booming voice that she take it off, so loudly that it disrupts the production. When the aunt replies that she will not remove her hat, the leading actor himself breaks character and asks for the ushers to physically evict these “two harlots.”

But the scene is not over yet. As fate would have it, a reviewer is seated in the audience, and the whole fiasco makes the newspapers. The aunt worries that her husband will see the story and want to divorce her.

The husband does see the story. But instead of being upset with his wife, he tells her how much he admires her for sticking to her convictions and then professes his love for her anew. It seems the husband had had a similar incident when a marshal in a courtroom had asked him to remove his hat, and he steadfastly refused. So he could relate to his wife’s situation.

Beneath the humor and humiliation, we learn a lot about three of the major characters. We see how manipulative and devilishly clever the niece is. We see how susceptible the aunt is to the niece’s persuasion, yet how implacable she is to a stranger questioning her conduct. And, finally, we see how deep the love is that the husband has for his wife and how perceptive he is to see the connection between his wife’s behavior and his own.

So while we’re making our readers laugh, we’re giving them valuable information.

To write humor, you first have to think of it and find it. You do that by asking “what if?”

What if, for example, you had a dying patient in a hospice? What’s funny about that? What could you add? How about an obsequious and prissy orderly who spills a specimen of urine all over himself and then makes a big fuss about it?

That’s what I mean by juxtaposition and the unexpected. Incongruity, a relative of juxtaposition, can also make for humor. A pratfall, like with the orderly, is incongruous with a terminally ill patient.

To make the humor work, it has to be believable and logical. If I were writing the scene with the orderly, for example, I would introduce him in the background, say adjusting the sheets or refreshing the water of some flowers in the room. The reader has to know he’s there and what his function is before he has his big accident.

As you try to think of ways and places to add humor, remember that you’re the puppet master, not one of the puppets. In other words, don’t get so caught up in your story that you lose sight of the whole.

Finally, know that you’re the tester. If the scene doesn’t make you laugh, it’s probably not funny. So season it and spice it up. If it’s still not funny, throw it out and try again.


THE LAST WORD: If you shortchange humor in your story, you’re also shortchanging your readers.

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