Thursday, April 14, 2011

L is for Laugh

L is for Laugh or "How to Write Funny".

I must admit I have a soft spot for writing that makes me laugh.

The basis for humor is surprise, the unexpected. We laugh in surprise at the union of two things that don't fit together. Comedian Steven Wright is famous for this: "All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand."
So is author Janet Evanovich. In One for the Money, "Food is important in the burg. The moon revolves around the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and the burg revolves around pot roast."

A key point is: humor depends on expectations, so is subjective.

Comic elements include:

  • Repetition: For example, a little later in One for the Money, "Two years ago, when Grandpa Mazur's fat-clogged arteries sent him to the big pot roast in the sky, Grandma Mazur had moved in with my parents and had never moved out." Notice the pot-roast again? :)

    Or, how about this, also from Evanovich, "I was saving myself for marriage, or at least for college. 'I'm a virgin,' I said, as if this were news. 'I'm sure he doesn't mess with virgins.'

    'He specializes in virgins! The brush of his fingertips turns virgins into slobbering mush.'"

  • Switches/Reversals: This refers back to the surprise angle, e.g. Mark Twain said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
    Humor often utilizes expectations to achieve reversal. As an example, when Dorothy Parker was challenged to say something funny about horticulture, she replied, "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think."
  • Exaggeration/Extremes: In William Shakespeare's King Henry IV Part I, Falstaff tells Bardolph his red nose is "…an everlasting bonfire-light! Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern."

    Regarding exaggeration Connie Willis says in "The More and Less of Writing Humorous Fiction" exaggeration and understatement are two of the most important techniques of humorous writing. "To exaggerate is to enlarge or overstate the truth... Stretching the truth makes it funny." As an example, Ms. Willis quotes Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome in which three men in a boat attempt to open a can of pineapple but they've forgotten the can opener: "Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocketknife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the think with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup."

    Regarding the opposite extreme, understatement, Connie Willis says, "Understatement is less—much less. Instead of stretching or coloring the truth, understatement downplays it, describes it with restraint." For example, how does the pineapple episode end? Jerome uses understatement: "Harris got off with merely a flesh wound."

  • Indecision: This is particularly effective when used with exaggeration or repetition.
  • Convention Suspension: For example, in Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment: "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish, or the woman." is an example of convention suspension.
  • Wordplay: e.g. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is the premiere example of literary nonsense and contains a number of nonsensical poems and songs, for example: Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you're at! / Up above the world you fly, /Like a tea tray in the sky. / Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you're at! Note this is also an example of parody. Malapropisms are a perfect example of wordplay (pun intended!) as well.

Historically, literary humor has been satire and parody, think George Orwelll's Animal Farm or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Modern fiction has seen an explosion of humor with Chick Lit, Urban Fantasy and other genre fiction. Readers love humorous fiction. Many of the most popular authors are humorous, e.g. Jennifer Crusie, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, P.G. Wodehouse, etc. Janet Evanovich has sold millions and millions of books. Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mystery series featuring Sookie Stackhouse is quite humorous (see below).

Literary humor often comes from characterization, from characters' reactions. In Jennifer Crusie's Fast Women: "The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she'd been going to hell for a year and a half anyway."

According to David Bouchier "A Funny Character is a Caricature. Funny characters are unusual, strange, odd, perhaps obnoxious and always extreme."

Voice is very important. Jennifer Crusie says, "Humor in fiction is based in voice, which is why humor is so different from writer to writer and why a strong voice is essential in writing comic fiction."

There are also special genre considerations. In "Take my Wizard…Please! The Serious Business of Writing Funny Fantasy and Science Fiction" Ester M. Friesner suggests writers be aware of the easily recognizable types in their genre and then set readers' expectations on their ears. For example, how would we expect the gum-shoe detective, the naive ingenue, the bitter divorcee, the wizard, the elf, the robot, the pirate, etc. to behave? Have them do the opposite.
For example, in Montrous Regiment Terry Pratchett has a scene in which soldiers conclude the serious military Borogravian National Anthem with "The new day is a great big fish!"

Does anyone have any favorite funny writers to recommend?

Have fun making your readers laugh! :)

Bonus quote from Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark:
A handsome vampire with thick black hair combed into an improbable wavy style strolled up out of the woods… The newcomer was husky, taller than Bill, and he wore old jeans and an 'I Visited Graceland' T-shirt. …the more I looked at the vampire, the more familiar he seemed. I tried mentally warming up his skin tone, adding a few lines, making him stand straighter and investing his face with some liveliness.
Oh my God.

It was the man from Memphis.

… 'Sookie,' Bill said warningly, 'this is Bubba.'

'Bubba,' I repeated, not quite trusting my ears.

'Yep, Bubba,' the vampire said cheerfully, goodwill radiating from his fearsome smile. 'That's me. Pleased to meetcha.'

…I said, 'Is that who I think it is?'

'Yes. So now you know at least some of the sighting stories are true. But don't call him by his name. Call him Bubba! Something went wrong when he came over—from human to vampire—maybe it was all the chemicals in his blood.'


  1. LOL! Wonderful post! For some reason, I have issues writing non-humorous fiction. There are some really heavy topics out there and I always seem to lighten it up. Makes it easier to deal with while I'm writing.

    However, tomorrow will be the heaviest, non-humorous post I've ever written.

  2. Thanks, Shelly! :)
    Good luck with the heavy post.

  3. Great post. As a humor writer, I found it helpful and interesting. I am now following you.