Writing 101: Writing for comic effect
This post started life after reading Steven McKinnon's first novel, 'Boldly Going Nowhere'. There are a lot of serious moments in his story but there are just as many funny ones. I laughed. Out loud. A lot. That's why I've asked him to contribute to this post, he's a successful writer (SPFBO finalist with Symphony of the Wind) and he is amazing in the way he uses humour too. Not easy. But let me hand over to our Glaswegian expert on All Things Funny.
People relate to humour. We use it as a coping mechanism and as a way to make sense of the world. Take Terry Pratchett – his Discworld is filled with witches, vampires and trolls, but these are often ciphers
for real-world inhabitants. The plot surrounding Thud!, for instance, centres around the bloody history between trolls and dwarfs. As a Glaswegian, it’s impossible to read Thud! and not think about sectarianism and the Catholic-Protestant divide. It’s a sad fact that there are many, many more parallels.
Just because something makes you laugh, doesn’t mean there isn’t an important message behind it. Actually, it usually helps to make the message sink in. (See: Blackadder Goes Forth, The Great Dictator, Life of Brian... Literally any satire.)
It'd be strange if there was a total absence of humour in any story, I think. The hard-boiled detectives in films noir deploy zingers every minute, and even the bleakest grimdark fantasy books burst with irony, wit and wry observations. Even when humour isn’t a focal point, it helps break down the barrier between reader and prose. It makes the characters relatable. There are plot-reasons to include humour, too – who doesn’t enjoy a bit of rapid-fire banter to keep the sexual tension simmering between two potential lovers, or when a character remarks that the gore from an exploding head looks just like his mum’s home-made raspberry jam? (…That last one might just be me.)
Humour often comes through in my own writing because it’s what attracted me to reading in the first place; I devour anything that can make me laugh. My comfort reads – the books I read again and again – are favourites because they make me laugh. (My first favourite author was Roald Dahl, and his work is filled to the brim with grotesque humour. This may explain a lot…)
I mean, occasionally I'll think of a one-liner and try and include it in a scene. (Or construct a set-piece around it. Or a chapter. Or writing an entire book simply to justify a pun.) But if it doesn’t work, it gets cut. 99% of the time, though, it’s not pre-planned and just my personality coming through. Every author has their own voice, so of course their humour is going bleed onto the page, along with their sweat, tears, hair, the alcohol, spirit, oh God make the pain stop…!
Including a joke can benefit for technical reasons rather than narrative ones; every story has a rhythm to it where the emotional intensity ebbs and flows, so occasionally I’ll make a point of injecting some levity into a chapter after a dour scene. A book that’s 100% torture and anguish would get boring very quickly.
It also makes it more fun to write! When I’m in the first-draft stage and hitting a road block, mining some humour from the scene often turns that block into a bump.
(Just be careful not to dig too deep and turn that bump into a *puts sunglasses on* p(l)ot-hole.)
Writing is work, sure – but sometimes a laugh is the best thing for the story and the author.
Thanks Steven! I'm grateful for your thoughts and inspirations. If you haven't read his stories (what the hell have you been doing with your life??) then you must. I insist! You won't regret it. You can find out more about this work here. For a guy that writes visceral violence in his fantasy stories, there's also great humour!
Steven has explained why humour is important and given you examples. Let's look at HOW humour works now. I love the warning about this issue from the author of Charlotte's Web, EB White. "Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people aren't interested - and the frog dies." He's right of course but it helps if we've got a vague idea of the principles, doesn't it? So here are a few "rules".
Humour is about disruption, unpredictability and juxtapositioning. The pay-off shouldn't be expected. Here's an example: "I told my pychiatrist everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous. Everyone hasn't met me yet." This joke uses the Rule of Three. It establishes a pattern where the third statement is the payoff and provides the misdirection, the unpredictable ending. Such as:
"I was raised as an only child. My brother and sister took it pretty hard."
"Can I get you anything? Coffee? Doughnut? A better attitude?"
"When I die, I wanna go like my grandpa…peacefully…sleeping…not screaming like the passengers in his car."
The Cliche Subversion. Take well-known sayings, phrases and quotes and change the ending. It's like the previous rule but where we're already familiar with the saying itself. "You can lead a horse to water - especially if he stinks." Here the inversion focuses on 'stinks' rather than 'drinks'. There's the joke from Rosanne Barr, "The way to a man's heart is through... his chest with a knife." Technically, it's called 'reforming' - like this one: "What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger."
There's the Humorous Metaphor too. You compare one thing with another but the other item must be funny. The comparable qualities need to remain otherwise it doesn't work. 'She grew on him like a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature beef.' 'Even in his old age, Grandpa had a mind like a steel trap, one left out in the rain and rusted shut.' Often the more ridiculous, the better - remember maintaining the comparable qualities is crucial. What image does this conjure? 'The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.'
Irony is for the witty. It is spotting something odd and drawing attention to it in a pithy way. Like how the Bible is the most shoplifted book in America or how the condition of not being able to pronounce the letter ‘R’ is called rhotacism. It's making a point and adding an odd or incongruous follow-up. 'The world is full of apathy, but I don’t care.' There's this great one from Mark Twain: 'Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.' This one from Jon Stewart uses the Rule of Three and Irony - 'I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.'
But I'm going to finish this post by reinforcing Steven's earlier point. Writing humour is often an extension of your own voice. It's what you find funny, acknowledging that not everyone else will. It's also a case of not setting out to make 'jokes', humour is as much about observation of situations and people and finding that juxtaposition I mentioned. It also needs to be concise and precise in its phrasing - that comes down to editing. And we all know there is nothing remotely funny about that!!