This article first appeared in the October 2012 edition of First Draft, the newsletter for the Guppy chapter of Sisters In Crime.
My grandson is a child of many words, most unintelligible, but I’m proud to report his first sentence was “I funny.” Not too long after that, he branched out to say, “You funny.”
Clearly, he enjoys humor and laughing. Not so unusual when you stop to consider that we all enjoy a good laugh. Humor makes us feel better and chases the blues away.
But we’re all different people with different senses of humor. What’s funny in Jersey may not be funny in New Orleans or San Francisco. Or is it?
How does anyone write funny and reach a vast audience?
Within my stomping grounds, I know exactly what funny is. Hearing someone mangle the pronunciation of a local place name, now that is funny, like when someone says dah-mear for what is clearly dem-ree, even though it is spelled Demere.
The cat brushing the dog back from his food bowl, that’s funny.
The matrons at church who sit down in a mushroom cloud of lavender-scented powder, that’s funny, if you aren’t in the fallout zone.
There are several lessons in these three examples. Outsiders are fair game and often a subject of ridicule for insiders. It’s easier to laugh at someone else’s misfortune. When a result is unexpected, it is often funny. Certain types of people react in predictable, often humorous, ways. People are entertained by pet antics.
If we all know what funny is, how do we insert humor into a story? After researching the subject, I’ve created a list to help you get started.
Ten tips on how to write funny
1. Regular writing rules apply to humor. Have a good structure, be aware of pacing, and build anticipation. Also, fine-tune word choices, vary sentence structures for maximum effect, and use the power of three in lists.
2. When creating a list of three in the situation setup, use alliteration to make it memorable: he looked downtrodden, dumpy, and dirty. When using a list of three to be funny, make the third item unrelated to the first: I need to buy flour, sugar, and dynamite.
3. Sensory details make the written word feel real. They allow the reader to discover the humor of a situation.
4. Start with a funny topic or situation. Spend time on the setup. Exaggerate, fabricate or misdirect before tossing in the punchline for comedic effect. Before the punchline, put the funniest word at the end of a paragraph. Blindside the reader with a comedic turn.
5. Here’s a fact I didn’t know when I researched humor online. “K” sounds and hard g’s are funny to our ears. Case in point: My toddler grandson thrashes and hollers “Stuck!”when he’s ready to get out of his highchair. Everytime, his exclamation brings a smile to our faces.
6. Humor is closely related to fear and despair. Laughter provides a release from anxiety, ratchets down the tension, and gives the reader a moment of respite.
7. Put a character in a fish-out-of-water setting to see his/her fears emerge. Add a twist that forces the character out of his/her comfort zone.
8. The best humor is always self-directed.Use character flaws and humanity to create humor.
9. When writing a mystery, keep in mind that solving the mystery is the driving force of the novel. Humor should be used sparingly in a mystery to make sure the comedy doesn’t derail the mystery.
10. Sarcasm is hard to pull off and better left alone.
Some examples from my books
When I sit down to write romance and mystery, my goal is to weave lighthearted family antics into the darker tales to balance the light and the dark. I use observations of real life to add comedic flavor in my books.
In the first book of my Cleopatra Jones cozy series, In For a Penny, Cleo’s mom cooks up wacky creations like spickle fish lasagna, a combination of spinahc, pickles, tuna fish, tomato sauce, and noodles. Mama claims to need to express her creativity while cooking, but her menu choices are bizarre and funny – if you don’t have to eat them. However, Mama chose to exercise her creativity on a night friends from out of town visit due to a death in the family. One of the teenaged boys eats a big bite, pronounces it wonderful, then he gets the last laugh as the others gag on spickle fish lasagna.
The dog in the story, Madonna, is heartbroken due to her owner’s death, and she enters into a power struggle with Cleo over where she will sleep. Since possession is the name of the game, the dog hops in Cleo’s bed every chance she gets.
In book two of the series, On The Nickel, one of the first scenes shows Cleo and her best pal hiding in the bushes behind the church spying on the police investigation of a hit and run fatality. They’ve already been told by the cops to steer clear of the area. As they’re jostling for position, Cleo falls through the bushes, right into trouble.
Also in that book, Cleo’s youngest teen extensively prepares for the arrival of Madonna’s puppies. But at the critical time, Cleo and her best friend are summoned out of town. Cleo’s new boyfriend is tasked to deliver the puppies, while the women-folk go bail out her pal’s boyfriend who decided to “streak” at the shore to prove he’s not dull.
Death, Island Style uses situational comedy. Craft store owner Mary Beth gets glue globs stuck in her hair from a children’s craft class gone awry. A neighboring shopkeeper takes her next door to the pharmacist to dissolve the glue. He takes one look and cuts the chunks out, leaving glob-sized holes in her hair.
Mary Beth also gets into trouble collecting seashells. She didn’t realize hermit crabs live in conch shells, and when she left some conchs overnight in her shop, the next morning the place reeks of death. Sure that she’d come across another dead body, she calls the intrepid pharmacist, who treats the venture like a SEAL team extraction.
Murder in the Buff relies on social awkwardness, misdirection, and an early birds-and-the-bees talk with a youngster. To start with, my sleuth, Molly, is newly separated from her husband, and her newspaper boss sends her to the nudist colony to pick up an obituary. She doesn’t want anything to do with naked people, and her means of coping with the awkward situation is that she can do anything for a minute.
Molly’s emotions are raw from her husband’s infidelity, so a few scenes later, she rams his pickup truck. She isn’t hurt in the slow speed crash, though his truck is toast. Her young son tries to figure out what adultery is, and the words he choses are from his experiences with their randy retriever, leaving Molly tongue-tied and her husband miffed.
Humor can be found in all walks of life, but to weave it into your prose requires good editing skills. Take the time to get it right and receive the best payoff – happy and devoted fans.