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!

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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.

***

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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Humor in Mysteries

Nancy J. Cohen

My reading preference leans toward humorous mysteries. Why? There are enough tales of horror in the daily news. I aim to escape into another world when I read at night, to ease my mind into sleep. If I’m reading a thriller with a rollercoaster ride or a suspense novel with a sense of dread, that doesn’t induce a calm state of mind. So I turn to lighter works for that escapism.

I do the same in my own writing. I’d rather have you smile than cry while reading my stories. Murder by Manicure is a perfect example. I’ve updated this earlier work, so it’s available in a new Author’s Edition. Revising the story brought me the same joy as when I originally wrote it. Besides the heroine’s wry outlook on life that is one source of humor, I’d set up a situation with a friend that would get her in trouble. Marla is a hairstylist and salon owner in sunny Palm Haven, Florida. In the same shopping center is Bagel Busters, a deli owned by her friend, Arnie.

MURDER BY MANICURE small online

One day, Arnie rushes into Marla’s salon. Here’s the condensed version of what happens:

“Marla, you have to help me!” The big man’s mustache quivered, and his dark eyes regarded her wildly.

“What’s wrong? Are your kids all right?”

“Yes. That’s not the problem. It’s Hortense.” Arnie wrung his hands. “She’s a former classmate. We went to high school together, and she had a crush on me. The ugliest dog in school, that was her. A real fresser, too. Ate everything in sight. And now she’s here! Oy vey, what am I going to do? She’s on her way over here.”

“So? You can exchange a few reminiscences and then she’ll leave.”

He leaned forward, breathing heavily. “You don’t understand. She likes me. Hortense said she’d been sorry to learn my wife had passed away, and how difficult it must be for me to raise two kids on my own. I could tell from her tone of voice that she’s still interested in me.”

“Hortense never married?”

“She’s divorced.” His brows drew together. “I said the only thing I could think of to get rid of her. I told her I was engaged.”

Marla smiled gently. “Arnie, how could you? The poor woman probably just wants an hour of your time.”

“No, no. She’s moving back to Palm Haven. I had to discourage her. Tell me you’ll play along.”

“Huh?”

“I knew you wouldn’t mind, since you’re such a good friend.” Taking her by the elbow, he steered her into the rear storeroom. “She’ll come to the salon. Tell her off for me, would you please?

“Me?” She wrinkled her nose. “Why would she come here?”

“Oh, God,” he moaned. “I remember how her second chin jiggled when she waddled down the hall. She was the only girl with frizzy black hair whose boobs were overpowered by her blubber.” His eyes grew as round as bagel holes when the front door chimed. “That may be Hortense,” he croaked. “Marla, you have to save me. I’ll give you free bagels for a year.”

Marla meets the woman, who turns out to be a buxom blonde. The story continues….

“Hey, Arnie,” she called, eagerly anticipating his reaction. “Someone here to see you.”

All eyes in the salon turned in their direction as Arnie shuffled toward the front, gaze downcast like a condemned man.

“Congratulations, Arnie,” crooned Hortense. “You have a lovely fiancée.”

Marla, entertained by Arnie’s sudden, shocked glare as he raised his eyes, didn’t catch on right away until she heard snickers from her staff.

“Don’t tell me,” she said to Hortense. “Arnie told you we’re engaged?”

You can imagine the hijinks that follow. And hopefully, readers will want to follow Marla’s crime solving exploits as well. It’s the personal connection to your characters that keeps bringing readers back for more. In this example, we have situational humor. Other sources can be physical antics like slapstick comedy, snarky comments, or outrageous characters. What methods do you employ to bring levity to your work?

 

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FUTURE WRITERS OF AMERICA . . .

By: Kathleen Pickering

200px-George_Spanky_McFarland[1]Today’s blog will make you laugh. So, you’ll forgive me for reposting an email I received from one of my California writing buddies. Since the content is writing-related, I believe the post is relevant. Besides, it’s so damned funny, I want you all to enjoy a laugh on this lovely Tuesday.

Listed below are actual analogies and metaphors written by high school students who had the great sense to entertain their teachers by submitting these fanciful descriptors in their essays. Enjoy!

The 2010 winners (and I dare say, future writers of America) wrote:

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke  with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws  up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He  was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic  came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal  quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field  toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

14. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

15. John and Mary had never met.  They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

16. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River.

17.  Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted  shut.

18. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

19. The  plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil.  But unlike Phil, this  plan just might work.

20. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

21. He was as  lame as a duck.  Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real  duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

22. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

23. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

24. He was deeply in love.  When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

***

I know. Get their names. We have agents waiting! When you stop laughing, please feel free to add your own analogy or metaphor.  Here’s mine:

He tickled her with hands like a gangster, making it hurt to laugh, so she punched him.

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