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

Your Writing Sweet Spot

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Things were tough at the moment. I hadn’t worked in a studio for a long time. So I sat there, grinding out original stories, two a week. Only I seemed to have lost my touch. Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is, they didn’t sell.” – Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard

Ah, poor Joe. We can feel his pain (not really, since he’s narrating this as a corpse floating in a swimming pool. But I digress). Still, I love how screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett captured the writer’s dilemma—what should I write that has a decent chance to sell?

For writers still operating in the world of traditional publishing, that question is more important than ever. Publishing companies are being squeezed and must concentrate on big hits to survive. This makes it harder for a newbie to break in or, if they manage to get ushered through the gates of the Forbidden City, to receive what used to be called a “decent advance” and marketing support.

Indie writers must be market conscious, too, as the crush of content and reading choices grow ever larger. If you want to make decent scratch you have to provide products (plural) that a good number of people will want to buy.

The danger, of course, is the temptation to jump on a trend, or try to replicate what’s already been done. But demanding readers don’t want something that feels same-old. They want to be delighted, surprised, swept up. So do acquisitions editors.

They all want originality.

Just not so much that they can’t figure out what ride they’re on.

Which reminds me of the famous quip by Samuel Johnson who had been asked to review a manuscript. He wrote, “Sir, your book is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”

Um, ouch.

(As long as we’re on the subject of literary snubs, I can’t help but quote what is reputed to be the shortest book review ever, attributed to Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”)

So how could we have helped Joe Gillis? Where is the sweet spot for the writer who needs to sell in order to get his car out of hock?

As I assert in Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, the sweet spot is where you find the most joy. Way back in 1919, a professor of writing at Columbia University, Clayton Meeker Hamilton, said this:

In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it. (A Manual of the Art of Fiction.)

I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in the writing, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.

“For the first thing a writer should be is––excited,” writes Bradbury in Zen and the Art of Writing. “He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.”

“Let her go!” says Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write. “Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate!”

You liked to play those things when you were a kid, right?

So play! Here are three ways to do it:

  1. Go to risky places. Bungee jump off the Bridge of Banal. The cord of a solid concept will keep you from crashing into the gorge.
  2. Have fun with minor characters. Make them spicy, not mere walk-ons. Never underestimate the power of comedy relief in a thriller. Alfred Hitchcock did it in almost every film (e.g., Thelma Ritter in Rear Window; Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt).
  3. Make things harder on the main character. You thought that setback was bad? Make it worse. (This form of joy is not veiled sadism; it’s plot happiness! Readers will love you for it.)

So what about you? Where do you find your writing sweet spot?

+10

My Kind of Thriller

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently working on a new thriller titled The Girl in the Window Who Saw the Woman on the Train Before She Was Gone. I don’t believe in chasing trends, unless it’s this one.

Actually, I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

Another example: Cary Grant as the ad executive in North by Northwest (1959). Because of a terrible coincidence, he’s taken to be a master spy by two thugs who kidnap him outside of the Plaza Hotel. Cary is going to spend the next two hours on the run. His only consolation is that he gets to meet Eva Marie Saint.

One more, and this one is chilling because it was based on a true story. In Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Henry Fonda, a happily married musician, resembles a gun-toting holdup man. He’s arrested and put through the wringer. Will the real culprit be nabbed before they lock the prison doors on Hank?

So why does the “ordinary man/woman” or the “domestic” thriller resonate so well? Perhaps because 1) it’s easy to empathize with the main character; and 2) it helps us deal with one of our darkest fears—having evil show up at our doorstep.

We read these kinds of thrillers, in part, to reaffirm our hope that there’s a moral force in the universe, that justice will prevail, and that we can get through anything if we hang on with courage.

Plus, we all like getting lost in the fictive dream of a page-turner. Escapist entertainment, Dean Koontz once said, is a noble enterprise, considering what we have to put up with on this spinning orb.

So in that spirit, I offer you my latest thriller, Your Son Is Alive.

The idea for the book came from playing the first-line game. That’s where you just make up first lines that grab, not knowing anything else. One day I wrote this: “Your son is alive.”

Who says it? And why? And to whom?

I had to write the novel to find out.

So I did. The ebook is available from Amazon this week at the special launch price of $2.99:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

(The print version will be available soon.)

As always, I have tried to write according to Hitchock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” 

Do you have a favorite kind of thriller?

+6