Monday, July 18, 2011

Make 'Em Laugh - Writing Humor in Fiction

Anyone here love to laugh?
Just stick me in the Mary Poppins’ scene where they have tea on the ceiling with Dick Van Dyke.
I love to laugh.
But laughing, and writing humor are two very different things.

Using a fantastic article from the latest edition of Writer’s Digest and combining it with some things I’ve learned along the way, I want us to look at the fine art of writing humor.
Now, I am no Mary Connealy, Deeanne Gist, or Janice Thompson – nor do I have the wit of fellow Alley Cats, Krista Phillips or Sarah Forgrave, but I know a funny scene when I read one.

Humor is about distorting reality or turning it on its head in some way. Kind of like those carnival fun-mirrors. The image might still be you, but it’s funny looking because your lips look like they’re up by your forehead or it appears that you’re eating your feet. Distorted. Funny.
Let’s look at some important tips to writing humor based on Leigh Anne Jasheway’s list from Ways to Improve your Writing By Thinking Like A Comedy Writer (Writer’s Digest, July/August 2011)

 Incongruity – “Incongruity is the main reason we laugh.” Its’ the whole idea of expecting one thing and the unexpected happens. What’s so funny about the Cliffs of Insanity swordplay scene in the move The Princess Bride? It’s unexpected. Two guys are trying to kill each other, all the while being so very polite, and complimenting each others’ skill in fighting.

It causes your brain to hiccup. Wait, that’s not what I expected.
That’s why I think that God has a sense of humor. The Bible is FILLED with incongruity.

A shepherd boy becomes a king.

A hot-headed fisherman becomes a mighty servant of God.

A donkey talks?
A man is swallowed by a great fish to get him back on God’s path

A man in a landlocked country is told to build an Ark

The CREATOR of the world is born as a baby

 Keep Them on Their Toes – basically it’s when the writer changes directions from the expected course. “Misdirection” – as Leigh Anne Jasheway refers to it.
This is particularly true when phrases we know are changed.  That’s why we get such a kick out of kids’ sayings. My daughter once looked out the window and said, “It’s raining hats and frogs.”

 Use Familiarity to your Advantage – the ‘running gag’, a situation, character, or phrase that the reader can always expect to bring the comic relief. We all can think of that particular character. The one who enters the scene and we grin, knowing they’ll provide a silly phrase, foible, or witty comment to make things a little funnier. Even in the epic movie, Lord of the Rings, we knew that Gimli (the dwarf for those of you who are not Tolkien-ites or elves) is going to provide us with some humor any time he is on the page or screen. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s Mrs. Bennet (among others).

 Employ the Power of Play – if you’re a little silly, have fun pets, or young kids, use them to provide the necessarily inspiration. To write funny, you need to have the internal tools to do it. Which means…. A playful spirit yourself. Leigh Anne says “Make sure your inner 5-year-old has a chance to play at least once a day, and even more often when you’re facing a deadline.”

Use the Power of 10 – Before deciding on a perfect title, character name, or plot point, make a list of 10 possibilities and pick the best one. Don’t stop with just one or two – go all the way to 10.  “It takes more writers approximately 10 attempts at a joke to create the funniest punch line.”

Expose Yourself – learn from other funny authors. Expose yourself to their work and discover the way they make you laugh.

How do we add humor?

Well, here are a few ways:

Through witty dialogue – male-female banter, sarcasm, overexaggerations, complete honesty (usually internal monologues J.
Using interesting or funny similies & metaphors. Shannon LAusch refers to this as Wordplay.

Situational Humor – where the situation is just plain funny.

Parody – a ‘spoof’ off of something else

Slapstick or physical humor – think Lucille Ball or Sandra Bullock-type comedy here (Three Stooges too, if any of you writers even know who those are ;-)

Here are a few examples:
Here are the first lines from Laura Jensen Walker’s book, Miss Invisible.

One size does not fit all

“Not women like me,” I muttered as I tried to wriggle the cotton peasant skirt over my double-wide-trailer hips in the cramped dressing room.

Or what about this wonderful clip from Liz Curtis Higgs latest masterpiece, Mine is the Night. (gentle humor)

Jack looked at her beneath the velvety blue sky, riding as close as he dared.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your employment, Mrs. Kerr. I’m afraid I must dismiss you as my dressmaker.”

She pretended to be greatly offended. “Lord Buchanan! Is this how you repay my many hours of service?”
“Even worse, madam, I insist you marry me within the month.”

Elizabeth laughed softly. “I believe I was the one who proposed marriage.”
“So you did, my dear.”

Lorna Seilstad really shows some nice physical humor in her newest release, A Great Catch. Her heroine is a Lucille Ball act-alike.

In this scene, Emily Graham is trying to cut and eat a waffle, while her soon-to-be love interest, Carter, is at the table talking to her grandmother. Btw, Emily has a sprained wrist – so she only has good use of one hand.

Emily bit her lip and used the side of her fork to try to cut off  the corner (of her waffle). Ah. Success.

She glanced up and caught Carter grinning at her. Heat flooded her cheeks and she dropped her gaze back to her breakfast. Even without looking, she knew he was still watching. She’d show him she was a woman who could tackle anything – big or small.

Her grandmother thumbed through the ledger. “And Carter studied finance, Emily. Since your brother is busy running your father’s business, I’ve asked Carter to help me manage my assets.”

“But I thought – “ Emily jerked. The bite of waffle on the tip of her fork, drenched in strawberry syrup, went flying across the table.

Instinct alone propelled Carter to catch the chunk of waffle midair. The contents squished in his palm, and he grabbed his napkin from the table.

Fun, eh?

Okay – last example. How could I pass this up without putting in some of Mary Connealy humor?!?

From her book, Sharpshooter in Petticoats:
Mandy is trying to get her telescope from Tom Linscott, who just kidnapped her kids (so to speak) and has told Mandy that she’s marrying him (which in Mandy’s mind is still a matter of question).

Mandy said, “I’d like it now, please, Mr. Linscott.”
A far more earthly phrase full of dire threats and insults was pressing to escape from her lips. But the children were close at hand.

“Call me Tom.” Then Tom tilted his head and in the dark seemed to look down at Angela. “And you can call me Pa, little girl.”
“Pa!” Angela kicked her feet, which stuck out almost straight on both sides of the broad backed black Tom rode. Mandy could just barely see her little moccasins.

“Do not call him Pa!” Mandy could not sit idly by while that travesty occurred.
“Pa!” Catherine, on Mandy’s lap, twisted around and grinned up as if the order were a joke.

Jarrod’s legs were encased in that papoose-like pack on Tom’s back, but the little boy’s arms were free, and he waved them wildly and yelled, “Papa!”

“That’s right. I’m your pa. You might as well call me that right from the start.”
If one of our goals as writers is to grab the readers’ attention and hold on – then learning to write humor is a fantastic way to do that. Not all of us are humor writers, though, but even sprinkling it into more dramatic pieces can make your work stronger.

Your homework? Go play with some kids or pets. Look for the fun, imagination, and humor in the moments – and incorporate the joy into your writing.

Do you have any examples you want to post of your own writing humor?

photos courtesy of


Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, what a thorough post, Pepper! I plan to come back to this one over and over.

Oh, and I like your homework. I think I might just do that this week. :)

Pepper said...

By 'thorough' did you mean 'long-winded'? ;-)

Miss Good on Paper said...

That scene in Mary Poppins is one of my favorites of all time! I just watched this movie with my neice last weekend and remembered how funny it is. I'm a big fan of humor, too. Lorrie Moore is my favorite humorist (at least in fiction). I enjoy David Sedaris, too.

-Miss GOP

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love situational humor!

And the article in WD was educational indeed as was this post.
~ Wendy

Joanne Sher said...

Fabulous post, Pepper. Great examples. And I LOVE to laugh (hahahaha)- and read funny writing. Wanna try to work some into my style too. Thanks!

Jessica R. Patch said...

Great post, Pepper! I love all sorts of humor, sarcastic is my fav.

Lorna is very humorous. She had me cackling in Making Waves.

Casey said...

I love sarcastic humor. I just finished Never the Bride by Cheryl McKay and Rene Gutteridge last night and MAN that book is packed with excellent humor that really is unnexpected but so totally works. :)

Angie Dicken said...

I don't write a lot of humor in my books, but my crit partner, Ashley Clark, can crack me up with her romantic comedy! I love to laugh, just don't write it much. :) Good post, Pepper!

Jan Marie said...

Great post - very informative and thought-provoking! I like to use irony/satire in both my writing and everyday conversation but, sadly, find that many people just don't get it - there is a tendency to take it too seriously which, of course, defeats the purpose.

Keep up the good work!
Jan Marie

Faith said...

LOVED this post! humor is always a great thing to add to a book.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Pepper, I loved this post too. I'm a wannabe humorous writer. I didn't know there were things you could do to add humor to writing. Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm with Sarah, I'll be back to this post many more times. Thanks so much for sharing!

Pepper said...

Miss GOP
Mary Poppins never gets old, does it?
Love it!

Pepper said...

Situational humor is one of my favs too. Setting up two characters for embarrassment or awkwardness helps too, doesn't it? :-)

Pepper said...

I love to read humor too - in any genre.
Good luck with adding in the laughs. For me, sometimes it flows naturally, other times I have to think through the situation and plan for it.
Either way - it's fun to write

Pepper said...

Oh Jess
I am a SARCASTIC fan!
Of course, The Alley Cats do not know this, so don't tell them. K?

Pepper said...

Humor? You like humor?
Are you serious? ;-)


I would think humor is a necessity in intense WF like you and Casey write. Just enough to give the reader a moment to digest the deep topics.

Pepper said...

Jan Marie,

We need to take humor seriously, right? To take it seriously means we care enough to write it well :-)

Yeah, I understand the 'not getting it' part, though. Do you find satire particularly difficult to write?

Pepper said...

Completely agree. If the book doesn't have ANY humor, I find it hard to read.
That's just me, though. There are plenty of GREAT books without humor - they're just not the books I usually choose to read.

and humor can be added in mild form. That's why I added Liz Curtis Higgs book in the mix. It's not a humorous book - but she sprinkles enough humor into it.

Pepper said...

Jeanne T,
So glad you enjoyed it. I needed it as a refresher course ;-)

Pepper said...

Love the pic, btw

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great post Pepper!
Humor is difficult to write. I find the only way to crank out those gut bustin' sentences is to follow exactly, precisely, and completely your prescription for homework to the "tea" (as Mary Poppins might add)
Oh, and Casey's new pic IS lovely.

Lauren F. Boyd said...

I agree that kids are a great source of inspiration and humor - for both writers and non-writers alike!

Great post, thanks!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I have what my family describes as a "British" sense of humor, bizarre and it took my husband a LONG time to "get" our family jokes. I definitely think humor is something I could work on in my writing. :)

Pepper said...

I'm an Anglophile.
Share your humor with me, Luv. ;-)

Pepper said...

Hey Lauren,
Glad to 'see' you at The Alley!
Kids are such founts of inspiration...and other things, but let's not talk about the 'other' things :-)

Krista Phillips said...

WONDERFUL post, Pepper!! You hit the nail on the head! Posting examples... I have some but I'll save them at the moment, LOL.

I think humor is in the eye of the beholder too. And that makes it HARD. Where one person might be rolling on the floor, the other might be rolling their eyes.

Too... humor comes natural. if you force it... you're more likely to get the "eye-rolling" response.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I love Mary Poppins because of Dick Van Dyke and his goofy character! To me, it makes the move!

I love humor in books, though I look like a silly goon grinning while reading...especially out in public!

Great post, Pepper!