OK, first the news: Sorcery and Cecelia is the Sizzling Book Club pick this month and Caroline and I will be joining their Live Chat on Wednesday, December 19 (that’s Wednesday, one week from today). The live chat starts at 9 pm EST and runs for an hour and a half; Caroline and I will be showing up for the last half-hour, starting at 10 pm EST.
Which makes this a reasonably good time to talk about humor, I think.
Humor is a lot harder to write than most people think (unless they’ve tried stand-up comedy themselves). In spite of this, humor also tends to get less respect than most other sorts of fiction. Making people laugh requires a clear eye, a clever mind, and an impeccable sense of timing, among other things, yet a lot of people seem to think it’s easier and less deserving of respect than serious, dramatic fiction (as if one can’t be serious about being funny).
Yet a leavening of humor can add a lot to nearly any book, even the most serious of them. A touch of comedy can give the reader a much-needed break from the story’s relentless march toward doom and destruction. Even Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies have occasional comic scenes and comic characters.
There are a whole bag of techniques for writing humor, most of which Connie Willis discusses in her article on “Learning to Write Comedy: Why it’s impossible and how to do it.” Unfortunately, the web version has most of the formatting stripped out, including the capital letters, but it’s still a really excellent article on the topic. I am now going to repeat some of what she said, only from a different angle.
Specifically, I’m going to start by talking about different categories of humor, beginning with physical humor and slapstick. This is just what it sounds like – exaggerated fake violence and bodily harm used for comic effect – and it’s more often seen on stage or in movies than done in writing. It covers everything from the Three Stooges slipping on a banana peel to Wile E. Coyote blowing himself up with his own bomb. In novels, the best examples I can think of are in Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld books, especially The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Or the scene in the second Harry Potter book in which the inept wizard, Lockhart, causes the bones in Harry’s arm to vanish.
The techniques used most often in physical humor are exaggeration, understatement, and surprise. The fake violence or harm is exaggerated, unexpected, over-the-top – nobody would really react to a nosy neighbor by going after them with a bazooka – while any realistic consequences are minimized (Wile E. Coyote would be dead within the first thirty seconds of the cartoon if he were suffering anything close to the actual effect of the bombs, falls, pianos, etc.).
Farce and screwball comedy also make use of surprise, understatement, and exaggeration, but this time, it’s not harmful actions that are blown up out of shape, it’s everything else: the setting, the characters, the social interactions, even the norms that the readers expect a story to follow (coincidences are normally considered something to avoid in a novel, but they’re a staple in farce and screwball comedy). The Marx Brothers movies fall into this category, and yes, they also use a lot of physical comedy as well.
Word play is important here, and so are unexpected contrasts and lateral or divergent thinking (taking things literally that everyone would normally understand as metaphor or idiom, putting lots of emphasis on things that would normally be considered unimportant while ignoring the real or important stuff, etc.). Gracie Allen was the all-time mistress of lateral thinking.
Parody, satire, and irony mock individuals, aspects of society, organizations, genres, events…pretty much anything, actually. It isn’t necessarily mean-spirited mockery – Pratchett’s later Discworld books fall somewhere in this spectrum, and I don’t see how anyone could reasonably call them mean-spirited. They’re all about word play and language, while still making use of all the other tools in the comedy toolbox
Two more techniques that occur in pretty much every form of comedy are contrast and comic patterns. Contrast is, perhaps, a variation on surprise or defeated expectations, but I think it’s important enough to rate its own position on the list – one of the reasons the absent-minded professor is a stock comic character is the contrast between his presumed intelligence and his absent-minded behavior. Comic patterns are another important tool, whether they’re things we’ve all absorbed from our culture (the way the title of this post leads you to expect a joke), or whether they’re something that the writer has set up through repetition over the course of the story, like the over-full closet that always drops a pile of junk on top of whoever opens the door.
The thing about all these categories is that, as you can guess from the kinds of examples I was using, they mostly have their origin in classifying plays and movies. You can, therefore, move from purely physical, non-verbal humor to comedy that relies more and more on word play for its effect.
In a novel, however, the elements of language are an inevitable part of every single kind of humor the writer wants to do. Novels and short stories are language, and nothing but; even physical humor must, in a novel, be conveyed to the reader through words. And the tools and techniques of comedy and humor work on both levels – that is, the action and characters and so on need to be funny (exaggerated, understated, unexpected, etc.), but the sentences the writer uses can also employ the same techniques, just on a smaller and more constrained level.
Unexpected word choices or comparisons, emphasizing the “wrong” thing, delivering over-the-top silliness in a deadpan, matter-of-fact style (or using wildly exaggerated purple prose to describe someone’s bacon-and-egg breakfast) can all add a lot to a series of funny events. Above all, there’s the comic tone – the presentation that tells the reader that nothing that happens in this scene or story is to be taken perfectly seriously, even if it appears that very serious things are happening.
Of course, any of these things can also detract from the humor of a piece if they’re done in the wrong spot at the wrong time – the equivalent of a stand-up comic blowing his/her timing. As with stand-up comedy, the only ways I know of to avoid this are a) to read and watch a lot of the best comedy you can, learning as much as possible by osmosis and then studying it to try to wring even more out of it, and b) to practice a lot.