Putting Humour in its Place

As any of you who are regular readers here will likely know, when it comes to the written word, I’m a humour junkie. It all started back in my childhood when I picked up a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And through the years I’ve scrounged together quite a collection of signed first editions of humourous novels, and some non-fiction as well.

Though I have a love of many different types of fiction, there are several reasons I lean toward humour. But the primary one is that it’s incredibly difficult to write.

Sure, all writing is difficult—you’ll never hear me deny that. But trying to write funny adds an extra layer of difficulty. Why? What’s so hard about being funny?

There are dozens if not hundreds of ways to be funny. You can have standard world with a sarcastic narrator, everything can be slapstick, or the premise of your story could just be downright bizarre…I could go on and on. But very nearly all of it—in fact nearly all non-written humour as well—comes down to just one thing. Delivering the unexpected.

That isn’t to say that everything unexpected is funny—but the expected is sure not to be funny.

This is particularly important to understand because the corollary to my love of reading comic fiction is that I also love to write comedy. Or at least I used to. Actually, that’s a little misleading…I still love to write it, I’ve just lost the knack. But I’m trying to get it back.

In her essay “Learning to Write Comedy or Why It’s Impossible and How to Do It“, Connie Willis (one of my favorite comic and non-comic writers) says:

There’s no step-by-step method for writing humorous fiction (Step 4: Insert clever wordplay every sixth line) and no easily learned formula. It’s not possible to be taught to write comedy—I doubt if it’s possible to be taught to write anything—but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. And the way to learn to write comedy is to watch and read comedies and analyze what you’re watching and reading.

So I’ve delved into some of my favorite comic gems, both to try to reignite the spark but also to try to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. During this exploration I’ve also picked up some non-comic books, an even some downright depressing ones and I’ve found out something a bit unexpected.

There is humour everywhere. Nearly every book I’ve read that’s even half-decent has some humour tossed in. Often hand-in-hand with very serious subject matter. John Varley is a great example of this. No matter what his subject matter at least one of the characters—often the first person narrator—has an acidic sense of humour, which peeks it’s head out at some very inopportune times. Even authors who chronicle real-life horror, like the authors of Schindler’s List and Night, juxtapose light humour with the atrocities they describe—the humour making the sadness more poignant.

But why is humour so difficult? To oversimplify it, the situations that create drama and sadness are nearly universal. But what we find funny is much more diverse, and is colored by things like, where we grew up, what our family was like, our education, our friends, what we read, what we learn, and to a certain extent what we are told is funny by others.

Death is one of those things that is universally sad, but a good author can change the timing, or a critical word and some people will find it funny—but not everyone. The trick is to use humour to enhance the story, while not letting the story rely on the humor. That way if one joke or another falls flat, the reader is still involved in the story, instead of feeling left out of something.

To be certain it’s a delicate line, but it can add so much depth to your stories, and your writer’s toolbox.

This post was originally posted on Write Anything
where six writers talk about the trials and
tribulations of their writing lives. And each
Tuesday the soapbox belongs to me.

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