Craft

To Joke Or Not To Joke: Writing Humor

Mara: Hey everyone! I’m Mara, you might know me from the #chillwritingtips series (1, 2, 3).

Meg: And hi, I’m Meg! I wrote that weird how to be a CP post about a slug. Welcome to a new post by Writer’s Block Party.

Mara: (We’re like Mel and Sue from THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW!)

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Meg: (In that we no longer, and never have, hosted a television show?)

Mara: (MEG! If we’re going to do a post about humor we need to prove that we’re qualified to talk about humor.)

Meg: (I’ve established that I’m very funny.)

Mara: (…)

Meg: (STOP IT!)

Mara: It is in our humble opinion that humor is an underutilized tool in many novels.

Meg: We believe humor belongs not only in comedies and relatable tweets about the writing process, but also in fantasies, gruesome horrors, and intense science fiction thrillers.

Mara: Think about it—HAMILTON makes you laugh in the first act and then emotionally destroys you in the second.

Meg: Yeah! Or something like CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND that’s meant to be a comedy but deals with heavy topics (pretty well I might add!)

Mara: ANYWAY, the occasional lighthearted touch can add depth and dimension to anyone’s work, and we’ve got four tips about how you can incorporate it.

  1. Humor brings us closer to your characters. We love being close to fictional people. It’s totally healthy and not weird.
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    Everybody is funny in some way. Many people are unintentionally funny. Characters feel more real when they’re a little socially oblivious, or overeager, or uptight, or prone to blurting out embarrassing things in front of their love interest. The character doesn’t have to find their situation funny for us to find it funny. In fact, few things are more funny than somebody taking a situation that is, objectively, a little ridiculous, entirely seriously. As readers, we eat up those earnest emotions. And also laugh at them. Humans are so tender, yet so cruel.

    There are also lots of ways to use humor as a nifty characterization hack. Want to give us another glimmer of insight into your character? Show us their sense of humor. If they think torture is funny, that’s a thing we should probably know. Worried your character is nothing but an unlikable jerk? Give them a sharp, witty edge that makes their jerkiness fun to watch. Unhappy that your characters have been discussing the world building for two very dull pages? Have them toss around their unique, lighthearted opinions to break it up.

  2. Humor provides balance.
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    You know when you watch a really sad movie and you’re like, “Oh man, now I need to watch some funny cat videos until I remember what it’s like to feel.” Sometimes books and readers need those moments, too! Humor acts a part of the full range of the human experience—it is part of the balance of emotion characters (and us regular humans*) feel.

    Humor acts as a moment of light; if an entire book is dark, the darkness can lose some of its impact. It doesn’t do well for Umbridge in HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX to simply be cruel, no it’s disturbing that she has all those cat plates in her office. It’s arguably pretty comical when Harry sees them because it’s not what we expect to be in her office, but also… it’s terrifying.

    Also, humor is not inherently light. Harry certainly isn’t laughing when he walks into Umbridge’s office. Without heartfelt moments between Harry and his friends, or the magic of Hogwarts in general, we wouldn’t truly understand the intensity of characters like Umbridge or Voldemort.

    *Not all of us can be magical bird hybrids** that soar around the underworld trying to save the mother of one of our love interests.***
    **hybirds
    ***This is a joke

  3. Humor is about more than sarcastic one-liners. Not that there’s anything wrong with sarcastic one-liners.
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    Everybody knows that YA protagonists are “snarky AF,” as the kids would say. Here at Writer’s Block Party, we endorse the responsible use of snark. But we also encourage you to consider a wider variety of things that can be humorous, including, but not limited to:

    Back-and-forth banter where the characters are evenly matched. We love watching two sharp wits butt up against each other. The characters can be having fun, or they can be really, really not—think Leslie versus Ben in the Model U.N. episode of PARKS AND RECREATION.

    Characters in undignified situations. Sometimes, we just like to laugh at somebody else’s misfortune. Sitcoms like BROOKLYN NINE-NINE are great at putting the characters in positions where everything has gone so very wrong and they’re totally in over their head. Bonus points if the character’s flaws, like their overconfidence, got them into the situation in the first place.

    Perfectly timed actions. Characters can convey a lot with a single look or gesture. Here’s a classic example from HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS: 

    “Not today, Mr. Weasley,” said Dumbledore. “But I must impress upon both of you the seriousness of what you have done. I will be writing to both your families tonight. I must also warn you that if you do anything like this again, I will have no choice but to expel you.”

    Snape looked as though Christmas had been cancelled.

  4. Humor is subjective, but you should probably know why the chicken crossed the road.
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    The most important thing I remind myself while writing a joke or snappy one liner is that I should be laughing. As writers, we are also our own first readers, and if we aren’t laughing, most likely no one will be. Sometimes what I write and find funny might not—scratch that, will not be—what Mara finds funny. And that’s okay. I might find a line Mara didn’t intend to be funny to be hilarious.

    I also didn’t want us to leave this post without noting: You do not lose depth in character or plot when you use humor. Whether you’re writing a comedy or an intense fight scene, humor does not devalue your work. I think Shakespeare’s works are a great example of the attempt (albeit pretty successful) to turn the plays, majority of which were comedies, into something more sophisticated. Shakespeare’s bawdy and lewd comedies are taught as high literature in high schools and colleges. On one hand, it shows that something humorous can be transcendent, but it could be a case of “It’s funny, BUT LISTEN I PROMISE it’s also really intelligent, etc. etc.” You don’t have to prove to anyone why humor and laughing are worthwhile, in your life or in your writing.

    Humor is intelligent, and sometimes it’s not. But neither is inherently better than the other. And what we laugh at gives us full range as people.*

    *hybirds


Mara: Now that your lives have been changed forever, we have a little reading list for your viewing pleasure.

Meg: I recommend GABI, A GIRL IN PIECES by Isabel Quintero and HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones. Two totally different books, but ones that use humor as part of the narrative!

Mara: And I recommend THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas and AN ENCHANTMENT OF RAVENS by Margaret Rogerson.

Mara & Meg: We both highly encourage everyone to read REBEL SEOUL by Axie Oh and the upcoming ACE OF SHADES by Amanda Foody.

Meg: (How are they good at everything? Is that fair?)

Mara: (No, it’s definitely not.)

Meg: We think these books do a great job because they showcase books that do not exist solely to be humorous (though there’s nothing wrong with that!)

Mara: Rather, these books use humor as one of many tools to create stories that capture the entire human experience.

Mara & Meg: Happy reading, and happy laughing!

Mara: (I think we nailed it!)

Meg: (Good job Sue!)

Mara: (I thought I was Mel?)

Meg: (Maybe we should’ve discussed that before the post…)

Mara: (I’m just saying if anyone is going to be Mel, it’s going to be me.)

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7 thoughts on “To Joke Or Not To Joke: Writing Humor

  1. This was indeed a fun read 🙂

    I recently had trouble with a joke. I had a good set-up, but not the exact finisher I needed.
    So I asked my girlfriend to help me finish it, and she did great on her first try!

    It is important to remember that humour is a social thing 😉

    Like

  2. Hello~ I am foraging into the wilderness that I’ve always wanted to go, but was too afraid. I now know in my bones its my turn. I am so new I squeak, BUT now that I have reached an (ahem) mature age, I see that fear is a waste of my time. I see your natural and seamless humor and I am struck in my funny bone immediately. The meme’s are a hoot. Thank you for seeing the importance of humor and how it can change everything for the better.

    Lisa

    Like

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