Being funny on the page is very different to cracking jokes in real life. It’s a skill that can be learned and practiced. You don’t need a natural knack for one liners or comedic timing.
I think it was Oscar Wilde that once said, humour occurs in two situations:
- Where an ordinary character is thrown into a ridiculous situation—like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
- Where ridiculous characters exist in ordinary situations—like Oscar Wilde’s characters in The Importance of Being Earnest.
This type of humour works on a plot level; the examples above show how the technique applies to the story concept. However, it can also work on a micro-level to add snippets of humour to your writing. Your character may, for example, overhear an absurd story on the tram—or the hero in a romance may discover a spider in his shoe, which leads him to kick the object, hit the wall and break his toe, causing the heroine to have to drive him to Emergency). When in doubt, push the idea to its most extreme and then pull back until you find that sweet spot. For example, in the previous example, the hero might have found the spider, kicked the shoe, knocked over a candle and caused a fire, spotted the spider, left the fire to kill the spider, missed the spider and kick the wall, put a hole through the plaster, broken his foot. From there, you can pick and choose the elements that are most humorous and work with the story.
This type of situational humour is an event and it needs to fit the story. If it isn’t relevant to the plot it’s just distracting the reader. It may even bog down the pacing or affect the mood. So be careful how you use it.
Another way to incorporate humour into your writing is through reverting expectations. This is also a great way to add interest to your writing, even if making your reader laugh isn’t your end goal. A great way for beginners to build this skill is to start with a cliché – and twist it. For example, here’s one from Beth Conny who has written about this technique: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — and then blame others.’ If you want to try it at home, start with ‘As cold as’ or ‘white like’ and either finish the simile with a unique, exciting conclusion, or connect the simile with another part of your story. What you’re trying to do here is to surprise and delight the reader into amusement.
If all else fails, self-deprecation is arguably the easiest form of humour – and also deprecating observations about other characters, although there’s a thin line between funny and cruel. When in doubt, have the character reflect upon what they perceive as their flaws. This is not only an opportunity to add humour; it’s also a great way to subtly weave in character description, backstory, motivation and development.
DID YOU KNOW?
…that audiences in preview sessions originally disliked or were ambivalent towards the protagonist in Wicked the musical, Elphaba? The writers tackled the problem by giving Elphaba a sense of humour and making it the hit it is today. Writing funny can make your characters more likable, it can lighten the mood on a darker or suspenseful novel, it can bring a moment of unexpected joy to a reader, it can drive home a message, or it can reveal something about character or plot. It may even be that unexplainable “it” factor that your work in progress is missing.
Sarah Gates is the author of Love Elimination, which will be published by Harlequin MIRA in 2016. Sarah burns anything she tries to cook and struggles to walk without bumping into things, but she can whistle and hum at the same time.