On Using Humor in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I received the following email the other day, and present it here with the sender’s permission.

Dear Mr. Bell,
Your Great Courses lectures on writing best-selling fiction are packed with helpful information, and because of them I’m now making progress with my fiction-writing. But I struggle with humor, since I am not naturally funny. I rarely come out with anything that makes people laugh, and when I do, it’s usually accidental.
I’ve begun reading Try Fear, and am impressed by how masterfully you inject humor into your fiction. Would you recommend a resource for learning to write humor?
I’m a children’s writer, with a couple of non-fiction articles and one book for the educational market to my credit, but I’ve caught the fiction bug and am attempting the leap from nonfiction to fiction. I’d be grateful for any suggestions you have on learning to write humor.

Great question, and one I don’t remember addressing before.

Let’s first distinguish between two types of book-length fiction: the humorous novel and the novel with humor. In the former case, the whole enterprise is based on getting laughs. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a prime example. In the latter type of novel, humor is used for what the dramatists call “comic relief.” Shakespeare employed this device frequently, most famously with the gravediggers in Hamlet.

As to the first type, I don’t have anything to offer, except: proceed with caution. It takes a rare talent—like a Douglas Adams or a Carl Hiaasen—to succeed with this kind of novel. Also note that comic novels don’t sell much as compared to their more serious cousins. Early in his career Dean Koontz tried his hand at a humorous novel, a la Catch-22, and determined this was not a genre that paid. Since going serious, with humor sprinkled it, Mr. Koontz has made a few bucks.

So let’s talk about humor used on occasion in an otherwise serious novel. Why have it at all? Comic relief, as the name implies, is a spot within the suspense where the audience can catch its breath. It delivers a slight respite before resuming the tension. It’s sort of like the pause at the top of a roller-coaster. You take in a breath, look at the nice view and then…BOOM! Off you go again. It adds a pleasing, emotional crosscurrent to the fictive dream, which is what readers are paying for, after all.

I see three main ways to weave humor into a novel: situational, descriptive, and conversational.

Situational

You can insert a scene, or a long beat within a scene, that takes its comic effect from the situation the character finds himself in. For an example I turn to the great Alfred Hitchcock, who almost always has comic relief in his masterpieces of suspense.

Like the auction scene in North by Northwest. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has been mistakenly tagged as a U.S. secret agent by a group of bad guys. At one point, Thornhill walks into a fancy art auction to confront the chief bad guy (James Mason). But now he’s stuck there with three deadly henchmen waiting in the wings to send him to the eternal dirt nap.

So Thornhill hatches a plan. Act like a nut and cause a commotion so the cops will come in and arrest him, saving him from the assassins. This is how it goes down:

How do you find situational humor? You look at a scene and the circumstances and push beyond what is expected. Most humor is based upon the unexpected. That’s what makes for the punch line in a joke, for example. So make a list of possible unexpected actions your character might take or encounter, and surely one of them will be the seed of comic relief.

Descriptive

When you are writing in First Person POV, the voice of the narrator can drop in a bit of humor when describing a setting or another character. The master of colorful description was, of course, Raymond Chandler, through the voice of his detective, Philip Marlowe:

It must have been Friday because the fish smell from the Mansion House coffee-shop next door was strong enough to build a garage on. (“Bay City Blues)

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (Farewell, My Lovely)

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. (The Long Goodbye)

For descriptive humor, listen to your character. Use a voice journal to let the character riff for awhile. You’ll unearth a nugget or two of descriptive gold.

Conversational

Dialogue presents many possibilities for humor. First, you can create characters who have the potential for funny talk. Second, you can take create conversational situations where such talk is possible. I had two great aunts who lived together in their later years. They had a way of subtly sniping at each other over minor matters, which was always a source of amusement to me. So I put them in my thriller, Long Lost, as two volunteers at a small hospital:

Just inside the front doors, two elderly women sat at a reception desk. They were dressed in blue smocks with yellow tags identifying them as volunteers. One of them had slate-colored hair done up in curls. The other had dyed hers a shade of red that did not exist in nature.

They looked surprised and delighted when Steve came in, as if he were the Pony Express riding into the fort.

They fought for the first word. Curls said, “May I help—” at the same time Red said, “Who are you here to—”

They stopped and looked at each other, half-annoyed, half-amused, then back at Steve.

And spoke over each other again.

“Let me help you out,” Steve said. “I’m looking for a doctor, a certain—”

“Are you hurt?” Curls said.

“Our emergency entrance is around to the side,” Red said.

“No, I—”

“Oh, but we just had a shooting,” Curls said.

“A stinking old man,” Red added.

“Not stinking,” Curls said. “Stinko. He was drunk.”

“When you’re drunk you can stink, too,” Red said.

“That’s hardly the point,” Curls said.

And it goes on like that.

I think you can develop an ear for this kind of humor by soaking in the masters of verbal comedy. Start with Marx Brothers, especially their five best movies: The Coconuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup.

Listen to the classic conversational routines of Bob Newhart (available on YouTube). My favorite is “The Driving Instructor.”

Also on YouTube: Bob & Ray. The great thing about their skits is how they play them with dead seriousness. That’s where the humor comes from, which is a lesson for writers. This isn’t about jokes. It’s about natural humor found in a fully developed dramatic situation.

If you want to do some reading on the subject, you might pick up a copy of Steve Allen’s How to Be Funny. Allen was one of the great verbal wits.

There’s also a little gem of a book on writing comedy. It’s the nearly-lost wisdom of Danny Simon, Neil’s older brother (whom Neil and Woody Allen both credit with teaching them how to write narrative comedy). Danny Simon never wrote a book on the subject. He did teach a famous comedy writing class in Los Angeles. Thankfully, one of his students took copious notes and organized them for posterity. That student was me, and the little book is here.

The floor is now open for discussion on these matters. Meanwhile, I can’t resist leaving you with my all-time favorite Bob & Ray routine. Enjoy!

+15

34 thoughts on “On Using Humor in Fiction

  1. The Hubster loves Hiassen, Dave Barry, and Janet Evanovich.
    I inherited my dad’s sarcastic sense of humor (which too many people don’t understand, so I have to keep it reined in.) He was also fond of word play. In my books, I’m more of a “lighten the mood” humorist, because trying to be funny comes across as though I’m trying to be funny.
    What works for me is the banter between two of my characters, although I did get an email from a reader who loved a line I put in to be descriptive, not humorous.
    (For the record, this is from Deadly Production, the book I offered as a free download in my post on Wednesday, https://killzoneblog.com/2020/12/dreams-goals-and-a-gift.html . It’s available through the 18th.

    At any rate, I wasn’t looking for humor as much as showing how Gordon perceived the woman in this clip. The bit my reader laughed at is italicized in case you don’t want to wade through the rest of the paragraph.

    She stood and crossed the room, extending her hand. “Marianna Spellman.”
    Mari-ah-nah, she pronounced it. Big-city woman was Gordon’s first reaction. And not big as in Denver, but big as in New York, Los Angeles, or maybe Chicago. Gordon took in the fingernails with polished white tips—a French manicure, he recalled Angie saying. Smooth olive skin. Deep chestnut hair, streaked with strands of amber. Brown eyes outlined in black, shiny brown lids, and eyelashes that almost brushed the lenses of her rectangular black-rimmed glasses. A pert upturned nose that didn’t match the rest of the Mediterranean appearance. After-market, he surmised. Full red lips painted almost the shade of her short-skirted red suit. Knee-length shiny black boots—the high-heeled, pointy-toe kind, not the cowboy variety most people around Mapleton wore.

    • Yep, we sarcastic types have to watch it, don’t we? Our culture is fast losing a real sense of humor and an appreciation of irony.

      And your italicized line seems just right…subtle and in keeping with the character. Nicely done.

  2. Hahahaha. Hilarious video! Thanks, Jim.

    I’m rarely at a loss for comic relief content. Coletta men have a wicked sense of humor. I’m constantly jotting down their one-liners. My brother-in-law’s new(ish) thing is for us to only text in Italian. None of us speak Italian, per se, so composing a text takes TIME. Receiving a text is even more fun. We never know what it’s gonna say till we translate it to English word by word. By the time we finish we’re laughing so hard we can barely respond. And I steal it all for my novels. 🙂

  3. Thanks for a great post, and for the book links. The way you have organized and categorized it makes it easier to remember and use. I tend to use too much comic relief. It is my natural way of speaking. While writing my first (unpublished) book, an editor told me the book contained too much humor for a thriller.

    I’m currently reading Long Lost. I loved the scene with the two dear ladies sitting at the reception desk. I’m in and out of a hospital all the time, and I could see the two volunteers vying to help a visitor, smiling sweetly, while kicking each other behind the counter. I broke out laughing and had to read the paragraph about hair color to my wife. I knew, when I read it, you had experienced something to inspire that scene.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback, Steve.

      Interesting comment by the editor. Yes, in a thriller, we don’t want too much, lest it overtake the tone of the genre. I feel that way about other things, too, like language and explicitness. It’s a delicate dream we weave, isn’t it?

  4. This post pasted a big smile on my face and gave me more than a few chuckles.
    Now I need to move my Kindle copy of “Long Lost” to the top of my virtual TBR pile, I loved that little excerpt. Bob Newhart’s “Driving Instructor” is one of my favorite comedy routines of all time, Newhart is brilliantly hilarious in a masterpiece of one-sided conversation. He used that to good affect on the “Bob New Hart Show,” too.

    I could go on about the Marx Brothers, but will just say I agree–their dialog is worth study. In fact, I need to go do that again. And Steve Allen, a master of comedy with an incredible intellect. One of my favorite MST3K bits is Joel’s invention, “The Steve-O-Meter,” which allows the user to tell if Steve Allen has already thought of something. I ordered a copy of his book you linked to, as well as your own on Danny Simon’s approach to comedy.

    Humorous situations, or at least my attempts at creating them (I’m a comedy legend in my own mind), figures heavily in my first library mystery. I figure at the very least, I’m making me laugh out loud at the keyboard, so that’s a win for me 😉 This post and the books will definitely make the funny funnier. Thank you!

    Have a great Sunday, Jim.

  5. Thanks, Jim! Now I have to watch North by Northwest yet again…

    You made me smile, though. Which is getting harder these days.

    I’ve already thought of a scene in one WIP that I could work a little subtle humor into…it involves a precocious three-year-old. In my Mom experience, shouldn’t be too difficult.

    After all, my son outran me one day about forty-three years ago, snatched one of those giant Santa Ana, CA garden snails up into his fat little fingers, and snacked on it before I could upend him and shake it out of his mouth.

    Toddlers are a source of endless amusement. And so honest! 🙂

  6. I cannot imagine trying to write a book in the category of a humorous novel. That doesn’t sound like a fun (or funny) undertaking to me. 😎

    As to injecting humor into a novel, I’ve never been intentional about it. I’d say humorous injections are few but when they occur it’s just where they fit naturally.

  7. Excellent post. I can’t help but inject at least a little humor in my fiction but I have the opposite problem as the letter writer. I AM very funny and have always been the class clown, so to speak. When I tell friends or acquaintances for the first time that I’m a writer, they always say, “I bet your stories are hilarious!”

    “No!” I say. “They’re dead serious edgy noir.”

    That’s when they roll their eyes. Oh well.

    • As a fellow class clown, I can relate, Philip. The first time I can remember injecting humor into what should have been a serious piece was a history paper in junior high. It was pretty darn clever, and fortunately the teacher was young and hip, and gave me an A and a marginal note that read, “Very funny.”

  8. Humor is real natural for me in real life, and I can stand up comedy it all day. But when I tried it on paper, it always comes off as corny or not forward moving. I also haven’t found books very funny, but can’t go a movie watch without finding humor in it. Maybe it’s the format, actors have so much more to work with than we do, or maybe I don’t read the right books.

    Do you have any advice or examples of situational humor in books?

    • To Kill a Mockingbird has a lot of situational humor, especially scenes involving Dill. It’s masterful how Lee makes it all so natural, filtered through Scout’s voice.

  9. Hi Jim. Great article.
    One writer who taught me how to use humor in a novel is Robert B. Parker. Especially in dialogue. His humor releases tension, reveals character, and moves the story forward. I know he’s influenced how humor sneaks into my writing.
    Thanks for all you do to encourage writers.
    Have a Blessed Christmas.

  10. The British have the humor novel down pat with their dark sarcasm, cynicism, and world views. Christopher Moore always mixes various genres with a mystery plot for some serious weirdness. In his SHAKESPEARE FOR SQUIRRELS, set in the world of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, the jester Pocket from KING LEAR must solve the murder of Puck, and it’s done in noir fashion with more attention paid to the vulgar humor and the rifts on the play than the murder, but it is a solid mystery. And Jasper Fforde’s mysteries are awesome.

    Urban fantasies use a snarky viewpoint character as the humor go-to. Cozy mysteries with their small towns filled with weirdos tend to be both situational and character driven. Straight mysteries rely mainly on situational moments of dark humor. Action/adventure has physical comedy and heroic bon mots. Romances use witty dialogue as well as situational humor.

    A few humor elements not mentioned.

    The chaos character explodes plot bombs into sane moments for both plot reversals and humor. Loki in THE AVENGERS movies when he’s not the main bad guy is a chaos character.

    Playing against type expectations. The big bad anti-hero with a fondness for kittens is playing against type. The whole tavern scene in TANGLED is filled with bad guys playing against type with their dreams of being a concert pianist with the hook hand or collecting glass unicorns, and they are happy to sing about it.

    Character misunderstandings where both are at cross purposes in conversations with the reader aware of what’s happening. I had a scene in a romance where the hero is talking about his plans with his golden retriever puppy the next day, and the heroine thinks he’s talking sexy times with his girlfriend. Tummy rubs and snuggles can be R-rated.

    • Good examples of “the unexpected,” which is the essence of humor.

      The English and the Spaniards seem to have it, in different ways…not so much the Germans, though. Goethe is not exactly a laugh riot.

  11. I loved that scene in Long Lost with the two volunteers at the hospital. I also had two aunts who couldn’t agree on anything. Every conversation devolved into a difference of opinion, often about their growing-up years. One would start to reminisce, and the other one would interrupt to correct her, and on it went. I was thinking about including two spinster sisters in a future novel to get that effect.

    I have a character in my mystery series (can I call two books a series?) who keeps things light. She’s an actress, and she shows up in disguise at interesting times. She can also put on a cockney accent or spout a bit of Shakespeare at will. Most of the people who have reviewed the books or given me feedback mention Cece as their favorite character.

  12. You’re a thought disturber, Jim. This is a much-appreciated Sunday morning read and makes me think of comedic greats like Newhart (who didn’t love Larry, Darrel and Darrel), Peter Sellers and his Clouseau character, and of course the Carol Burnett skits with Korman and Conway. Man, to be able to capture comic genius like that and weave into a novel with humor…

  13. Jim, you distinguish humorous novels and novels that use humor incidentally, and then say that humorous novels are hard to write and don’t sell well.

    But what about all the cozies that incorporate humor as an essential part of the story, often starting with puns or other humor in the title? They seem to come out in droves and sell well–with whole sections of B&N devoted just to cozies.

    • Good point, Eric. Cozies do sell. It’s a recognizable genre, with a mystery plot at the heart of it. It would be an interesting study to compare these sales vis-a-vis thrillers, etc. Thanks for chiming in.

  14. Jim, I love your advice to the effect of finding natural humor in a fully developed dramatic situation. Two examples come immediately to mind. The first is the John Dortmunder series — books and short stories — by the late Donald E. Westlake. Dortmunder was extremely unlucky but dogged in his pursuit of the dishonest dollar. The other is Laurel and Hardy. Hardy, in the middle of a frustrating situation, would often break the fourth wall and favor the audience with a baleful look that communicated so much. Laurel, for his part, would when berated by Hardy for some shortcoming would start crying while talking a high-pitched voice so that only one out of every four or five words were understandable. Both were and are hilarious.

    Thanks for reminding us about how the job gets done, Jim.

    • Joe, thank you for bringing up Donald Westlake. A perfect example of a terrific comic writer. He could sure change lanes, though, when he wrote as Richard Stark.

      And, of course, Laurel and Hardy. What can one say? I just watched two of their immortal silents, You’re Darn Tootin and Big Business. Lifted my spirits sky high.

  15. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 12-17-2020 | The Author Chronicles

Comments are closed.