Ways to Add Humor into Suspense – First Page Critique: WOW

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

I have another first page critique. An anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words for critique at TKZ. It takes guts, folks. My feedback is below and please comment with your observations.

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I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure. If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it. There was that Nieto Senetiner Malbec from Argentina, I was holding for a special occasion, for example.

Anyway, the chard went flying, the bottle hit my hardwood floor, didn’t break, the amber liquid flowed out. As for me, the impact of the slug jolted me forward. I tripped over my feet and did a full body slam on the deck.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me. We’re talking serious, heavy duty, outdoorsman leather soles here. All I was grateful for at this point is that I still wore my bullet proof vest from work. No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that. I worked in a dentist’s officer. Name’s
Wowjewodizic, by the way.

I stayed still, bit the inside of my cheek to distract me from the pain in my back and waited. Waited for the, what’s it called, the ‘coup de – something or other,’ where the bullet enters the back of the skull and you don’t care where it goes next because you’re dead.

Then it occurred to me, this guy, or gal, probably not likely due to the heavy feet, didn’t use a silencer. This was a full on, make-a-lot-of-noise, gunshot. He wasn’t concerned about the blast drawing attention from the neighbors. Then again, my nearest neighbor was three miles away. And it was raining. It does that a lot in Portland, Oregon.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: This story feels like a cozy mystery with liberal use of humor through the first person voice of the protagonist. in this scene, someone is shot and yet I don’t feel any danger. In the first few lines, the reader learns the protagonist is shot and yet there is far more importance placed on the awkwardness of an insect bite.

I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay and a bullet slammed into my back. Below the right shoulder blade. More to the center. That difficult spot where if you’ve got a rash or insect bite it’s impossible to scratch and not look like you’re having a spastic seizure.

The author voice detracts from any suspense. If the point is the humor, I would think a whole book would make it a challenge to get through, at least for me. I want a plot to follow and characters I care about when they’re in real danger. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, I prefer a more subtle use of humor. At the foundation of every story needs to be a solid plot with escalating stakes and conflict.

STICK WITH THE ACTION – The action of the protagonist getting shot is completely masked by the mental meanderings of the voice, making leaps between wines, insect bites, the gender of the shooter by how weighty the footsteps are, and Portland weather.

In this intro, there’s a seesaw effect of telling a bit of the story, then wading into a distraction of backstory or awkward asides told through the voice of the character. It gave me the feeling of constantly treading water until I’m exhausted, trying to figure out what the story is about. When distractions outweigh the plot, a reader can lose track of the plot and not finish a book.

SETTING – There’s very little setting written into this excerpt and it takes awhile for the reader to piece together where the protag is. A wine cellar is mentioned, but it’s not until the protag mentions “my hardwood floors” that the reader sees he could be at his home. There are subtle ways to add setting without hindering the pace if the descriptions are part of the action. As a reader, I like to get a feeling for setting in books I enjoy.

LINES BEST USED IN DIALOGUE – The line below is an example of how the author could have stuck to the action of the shooting, yet gotten the humor across through dialogue with another character. Witty repartee with a detective, for example, would allow the author to pepper in humor without overdoing it.

If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar that was more unique than a domestic Chardonnay, even though it had a pleasant balance of oak to it.

FIRST PERSON/GENDER & RAMBLING NARRATIVE – It’s not until this line (toward the end of the 3rd paragraph) that the reader knows the protag is a man–only 3 words. As a practice, I like to get the gender straight at the start whenever I write first person. I love the intimacy of that voice, but there are challenges to it. In the case of this excerpt, I think the author absolutely listened to the protag and wrote down every word they heard in their head, but in first person, you have to direct the action and what you want revealed about your character. It’s too tempting to ramble away from the plot.

No, I’m not a cop, not a private dick sort of guy, no security guard, ex-military or something like that.

RUN ON SENTENCES – I found these sentences hard to follow and the punctuation bothered me. I understand the need to write quicker thoughts in an action scene, but I don’t consider this an action scene with all the asides and random thoughts that detract from the flow. The author might consider breaking these sentences apart. Rather than one long sentence, it could make the writing flow better and improve the natural cadence.

There I was, face down, flat on a hard wood floor, my back hurt like hell and I heard heavy footsteps crunch their way over to me.

REALISM – I found it unbelievable that the protag would lay there and wait for the shooter to finish the job, while he’s trying to figure out ‘coup de – something or other,’ determine what gender has heavier footfalls, whether the shooter used a silencer, and the rainfall in Portland, Oregon.

TYPO – Unless this is an obscure job I’ve never heard of, ‘officer’ should be ‘office.’

I worked in a dentist’s officer.

USE OF HUMOR IN BOOKS

Many authors use humor in their suspense thrillers in various ways: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, Harlen Coben, Lawrence Block, Robert Crais, Elmore Leonard, John Sanford, to name a few. There are countless more who have found ways to add humor to their books. I’ve added an excerpt from one of Carl Hiaasen’s stories below. He and Janet Evanovich tip the scale more toward humor than suspense, but have developed a great balance and a loyal reader following.

Excerpt from Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl intro:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that said: “Ramrod Key.”

Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.”She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.

The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.

“I got a date,” she explained.

“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”

“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”

In this example, Hiaasen puts his serious minded characters in outlandish situations using his tongue in cheek humor to allow things to play out. He sticks with the action of a car crash (the disturbance) until the reader finds out what caused the wreck. The dialogue lines are funny, too. The humor is downplayed and yet very present and fluid. It’s how Hiaasen sees his story unfolding. His use of humor is subtle and becomes a thread that holds the story together and creates his author voice. The idea of placing very earnest characters into a complete farce, and yet allow them to confront things in a serious-minded way, it adds an element of the absurd that becomes funny.

WAYS TO ADD HUMOR

1.) Add a funny character, whether it’s the protag or a secondary character.

2.) Have your serious-minded characters confront absurd and escalating situations without seeing the humor themselves. They are facing life or death. Only the reader gets the joke.

3.) Know how to separate or add humor into a suspense/action scene. I recently wrote a scene where I didn’t expect there to be humor. My hero is in a shootout but he gets a cell phone call from a girl. What does he do? I wrote the scene all action, then came back to add in the moments where I thought he might realistically answer that call, without him looking silly or stupid. It gave insight into him and added unanticipated humor to a tense scene. I also underplayed the phone call and made it seem normal, until you see what he’s doing while he’s talking to her.

4.) Throw in the unexpected. Imagine your serious character getting jolted by something he or she never saw coming. How would they handle it?

5.) Develop witty banter between characters in conflict or dare to write characters with different kinds of humor. Pit an educated cynic up against someone with crude bathroom humor in a juxtaposition of character types. You’ll find these characters take on a life of their own in your head and it’s lots of fun to write. Making each voice distinctive in humor is key.

DISCUSSION

What do you think of the anonymous submission, TKZers? Any feedback?

 

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29 thoughts on “Ways to Add Humor into Suspense – First Page Critique: WOW

  1. Good points, as always… though I can see the narrator/protagonist seeing this as an “out-of-body” kind of third/first person POV…

    I was, however, distracted by the crunching footsteps on the hardwood floor~ with no indication of anything that might be the cause of said crunching, especially given the statement that the bottle didn’t break when it hit the deck.
    Also, and not trying to pick nits, but the use of “hit the deck” seems to belie or contradict the statement that he’s not ex-military~
    In any event, I’d be willing to turn the page for a few more to see where this is leading…

    • Hi George. Good comments. Thank you.

      I read “hit the deck” and pictured him on a boat. That cliched phrase took both of us out of the story for different reasons. Interesting.

  2. This was entertaining for me. I heard Andrew Dice Clay telling a story here. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it has somewhat of a Dragnet feel, just the facts, no alarms here, move along. But that’s okay to me if this is aiming for humor. It won’t stand for the entire story, but for an opening, I think I would read more.

  3. I’ve seen many manuscripts where the humor distracts from the story, so this writer is not alone.

    But one important thing this writer has going for him or her is voice. I liked the voice.

    So, whatever you do, dear writer, keep on learning and writing.

  4. Congratulations, brave writer. You have an engaging voice that caught my attention, with quirky ironic humor, and the beginning of an intriguing protagonist–someone who works in a dentist’s office yet wears a bulletproof vest.

    But…the implausibility of the situation stretched my credibility too far. Nobody except a robot could react to being shot in the back, even through a vest, with such detachment. The physiological reactions of the body are involuntary, shock, fight/flight reflex, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. No matter how well disciplined and trained the mind might be, the body will still react.

    Jordan’s suggestion for the first line solves that problem nicely–establishes the humor and voice, but without the hero’s implausible/impossible reaction to being shot. Her other suggestions are spot on, as always. Hiaasen’s handling of the juxtaposition of humor and violence are the perfect study guide if you want to write laugh-out-loud crime.

    Like the other commenters so far, I would turn the page and see what this brave writer is up to. Keep working and you’ll have a winner.

  5. I agree with Jordan and all the comments here. This excerpt has an engaging voice. However, crime needs to be realistic, even when mixed with humor. Getting shot through a bulletproof vest hurts A LOT. Some people break ribs with a well-placed bullet to the vest. Checking my disbelief at the door to this extent might be too much to ask. Keep working on it. I have no doubt you’ll find the right balance.

    Love the piece from Hiaasan, Jordan. “Sunny but cold as a frog’s balls” is hilarious!

  6. I like this piece quite a lot. The crunching boots threw me, too, but I didn’t find the narrator’s attitude distracting at all. Knowing nothing else about this character (it is, after all, only the first page), I sense that this is not his first rodeo, and likely not the first time he’s been shot. I’ve known people just like him in the emergency services, guys who stay cool and wry-witted even in the most dangerous circumstances.

    I’m also confused as to why such a cool customer would just wait to be shot rather than fighting back. Those guys I mention above are also the sorts who would tear in half the person who were stupid enough to shoot without killing.

  7. Humor is difficult to write and timing may be the main problem in this piece. In the razor girl sample, the question of what she was doing is given the space to fester for a moment,then we get the baba-bing, bada-boom. It’s not only funny, it’s shocking.
    In the submission, maybe it would work better if the character is shot but doesn’t realize it, until he turns, sees the shooter, cusses, then falls.

    • Hi Brian.
      As you did, I tried imagining a rewrite, using the basic premise as much as possible. My only suggestion was to stick with the action but pull out clever dialogue lines.

      Yours made me chuckle.

  8. I enjoyed chuckling through the writer’s submission–nice job doing something different, dear writer! And then I appreciated your observations, too, Jordan, but most especially, I liked your “ways to add humor” addendum at the end–I copied and pasted it onto a document for future reference (attribution included). Thanks for taking the time to add those tips!

    • Hey Rick. Sound like you might be a guy who loves a chuckle when you read. I remember being in an airport when I read a funny line in a Robert Crais book. I laughed out loud and had to call my husband to read the line to him. Humor is great in print.

  9. I love me some Carl Hiassen.

    I liked some things here, but not others. First off, if he lives in the city limits of Portland his nearest neighbor is a whole lot closer than three miles away. Maybe if he lives near Portland, in, say the Gorge area or the Willamette Valley (since he likes wine), but three miles is still a stretch. Doesn’t it hurt to get shot? I hate when in books/movies someone or other gets shot, but it’s really not a problem, they’re calm, or they get up and start chasing someone, running a marathon, whatever. I’m also wondering how successful he is at playing dead to the shooter when there’s no blood. Maybe it should be a red wine instead of white and have made one hell of a mess. Or maybe the bottle did break on the way down, and he cut himself on the glass, and that blood convinces the shooter he’s dead.

    I would excise the remainder of paragraph 1 from “If I knew” and completely rework paragraph 2. Find a way to introduce the bulletproof vest and gender in the first/second paragraph. As for the rest, before tackling that rewrite think about what, exactly, you’re trying to convey here. I think you can get that across along with voice/humor in less space.

    As someone living in the NW I don’t know how much more rain I can take this season before I take a razor to a place other than my nether regions.

  10. This page grabbed me from the first. Definitely a strong voice. I agree with your comments, Jordan, and like the other commentators, wonder why the protagonist didn’t try to run, hide, or otherwise protect himself. Also, why would you choose a good bottle of wine if — as in the case of this one — it’s going to wind up spilled on the floor? But you’re off to a good start, brave author. Keep going.

  11. Thanks, Jordan. This critique is very timely for my work in progress, a murder mystery comedy. I learned bunches about not letting the humor deflate the suspense and sense of danger. Hopefully I haven’t done so in the following recently written paragraph, where my protagonist is trying hard not to be found by a bad guy: Here’s a paragraph I wrote today for my work in progress: The goon’s heavy breathing was right outside his coffin when another sneeze came forward. Mr. Who tried to squelch it by pinching his nose and covering his mouth, but it couldn’t be stopped. When it let loose, a blast of air burst through his tight lips, sounding very much like a fart. At least he thought it was his lips.

    • Hey Double D. I laughed at your new paragraph. Thanks for the chuckle. I hope you’ll explore some of the elements I listed as ways to infuse humor into your writing. I’m happy you’re writing & encourage you to keep trying methods that may work for you.

      I find humor in writing comes off best when “less is more.” One of my first manuscripts was a romantic comedy that will never see the light of day. But after I decided that humor must be part of my stories, I focused purely on the main genre(s), like many authors do, almost ignoring the humor. It was then I found different ways to keep humor in all my stories, once the pressure was off that I didn’t HAVE TO BE funny. Now I explore diff methods & it’s fun.

      Thanks so much for submitting your story. You’ve encouraged lots of good discussion on the topic of humor. Keep the faith, baby.

  12. I rethought this line & would suggest a “less is more” approach.

    Your version:
    When it let loose, a blast of air burst through his tight lips, sounding very much like a fart. At least he thought it was his lips.

    Rewrite:
    When it let loose, a blast of air burst through his tight lips, making an obscene sound. At least he thought it was his lips.

    This rewrite takes the word “fart” out & forces the reader to think about this scene & what your character meant by the last line. Less can be more.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Jordan–and for the suggested, less is more, rewrite. I see your point. It definitely adds some class to what used to be crass. Yet it still retains some humor.

      • Don’t get me wrong. I chuckle at bodily functions. No class here, but in writing, you don’t know who will pick up your books so I tend to find different ways to infuse humor in a subtle way. I have tons of respect for writers like Evanovich and Hiassen who can write a whole book of humor and be known for it. But the basic rules apply about a plot and character development and pacing. Good luck DD.

  13. I don’t have much to add to what Jordan already posted. I feel the author is trying too hard to be funny, and this seriously detracts from the action. The rambling style definitely doesn’t work here. There are classes offered on writing humor (i.e. https://www.ed2go.com/online-courses/get-funny). Like other writing skills, writing satire/parody/spoof, etc., takes a considerable amount of practice. It’s not something that can be forced.

    I spotted some issues with tense. For example:

    “If I knew this was the night someone was out to kill me I would have brought something up from the cellar…”

    This should read: “If I had known…”

    However, one could argue that when writing in first person, characters don’t have to use perfect English. However, there should be a comma between the independent clause and the dependent clause (between “me” and “I”). This is non-negotiable.

    There are other issues with grammar, punctuation, and such. A good editor is a must.

    I spotted many examples of overwriting. For starters, I’d get rid of the filler words like “anyway,” “for example,” “as for me,” “or something like that,” “at this point,” “what’s it called,” “by the way,” “then it occurred to me,” “sort of guy,” and the like. I don’t want to say “never” use these words/phrases, but there were too many of them on the first page.

    I’d use “unlikely” in place of “probably not likely.” Why use three words when one will do?

    There are a number of repeated words. For example, “heavy” is used three times on the first page.

    Jordan gave some terrific feedback, and I agree with all of it. I hope the brave writer will carry on. Revision is the fun part!

  14. I have a different take on both excepts. The first one. “I levered the cork out of a bottle of Chardonnay …” I stopped at that point. Who talks like that? Levered? Only writers with Theasures talk like that. I kept reading in the hopes the author created a character that authentically talked like that. Not so. There are other places where the writer shows how clever he is at the expense of a real character in a real situation. My suggestion is for this writer to get out of their own way and let the character speak. Then follow the other suggestions mentioned in the post. If I were looking at this in a book store, I’d put it down after the opening phrase.

    That said, I see a lot of potential in the writer, there is a strong sense of storytelling.

    The second excerpt is terrible. The entire thing is a cliche, dumb woman driving hits a car because she was doing something dumb while driving? Really? Couldn’t think of something better than that? It sounds like a man who has no idea how real woman talk. The dialogue was painful. I did not believe any of it. You need to have believable characters. Period.

    I thought the attempts at humor in both excerpts were mediocre at best. For me the best way to use humor is to let the characters live. People are hilarious. You don’t need to do anything. Both excerpts are weak on character.

  15. Brave writer, it is very difficult to write humor well, and you should be applauded for attempting it. Many writers never will, and you are already ahead of these folks. Good writing doesn’t happen by accident or dumb luck. It happens by giving yourself permission to start somewhere. Let me offer a bit of support and encouragement, because I think the folks here have covered most everything else.

    “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost Almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan

    “Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing…I rewrote the first part of Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.” — Ernest Hemingway

    As you rewrite the first page, remember that not every line has to be side-splitting humor. The level of humor required depends largely on the genre. To use an example from film, “EuroTrip” is a comedy that’s a laugh a minute. In other genres, like mystery (for example), you can use a lighter hand. Remember that a strong story with fewer laughs is better than a weak story with a joke on every page. Gear the number of laughs toward the genre that you’re trying to write.

    Some recommended reading:

    “You’re Funny: Turn Your Sense of Humor Into a Lucrative New Career” by D B Gilles

    Good luck, brave writer. Pay attention to the critiques, but don’t let them discourage you. Have a great day! ♪♫♪♫♪♫

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