April 19th, 2013

WriterStrong: Adding Humor to Your Writing

Writers in the Storm welcomes back James R. Preston with tips on how–and when–to add humor to your WIP, no matter the genre. Here he is with a fun-filled Laugh?  I Thought I’d Die WriterStrong post.

James R. Prestonby James R. Preston

There’s this PI investigating a murder at a nudist camp in the hills above LA . . .

See the possibilities?  Maybe you do and maybe you don’t.  Stay tuned.

But seriously, folks, I want to talk about funny stuff, why I like it and try to use it, and offer some suggestions on how to handle it.  I use examples from movies as well as books, because even a bloated, three-hour modern screen epic is more accessible than, say, Moby Dick, or even Notorious Nineteen.  (And, BTW, how many essayists can mention Evanovich and Melville in the same sentence?)

What’s in this for you?  Fair question.  I can’t make you funny, but I can point out examples and show you how to look for humor in places you might not have considered.  At the end of this essay you will have places to look for some laughs.  You will be alert for humor and I’ll bet most of you travel with a notepad and pen and jot stuff down, and if you decide you want to add a chuckle to your work you’ll have places to look.

I will offer rules for inserting banana peels into your stories.

Why should you listen to me?  Well, I am proud when people tell me my mysteries are funny as well as emotional.  And once when I was teaching a computer class at ConAgra one of my students asked me if I’d ever been a stand-up comedian.  Um, that was a compliment, right?

I was sort of hiding from two guys who either thought we were in business together or who wanted to kill me.

“Sort of hiding” because I was fairly sure that the guys in question would take Door Number Two and try to shoot me, a lot.

That’s describing Read ‘Em and Weep, one of my Surf City Mysteries.  Humor is about tone, and that bit tells the reader I’m not Mickey Spillane.

Most of the readers of Writers in the Storm write genre fiction.  Love is important; so is murder.  Why do we need funny incidents?  Well, your readers want to be entertained, to spend a few hours away from the kids, the boss, the chores.  If you do your job well, the issues the people in your story face are serious.  See the fine blog from Fae Rowen for more on just how serious those issues need to be.

So a dash of pie-in-the-face provides a break.  What you need to decide is whether or not you want to provide that break.  Not everybody does.  Wow, read Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, or Silence of the Lambs, but brace yourself.  They are, by intent, grim reads.  Wonderful, but like a cup of black coffee.

For a really hilarious bit in a classic giant-bug movie, look for Fess Parker’s brilliant, hilarious bit in Them.  Ask yourself why it’s funny, and why the punch line, where the FBI agent promises to speak to the doctor about his release — and then tells the doctor to keep him locked up — caps it off.  More importantly, ask yourself why it’s there.

I got a million of ’em.  You want another monster movie with at least one laugh?  Check out Alien.  No kidding.  It goes by very quickly, but one of the characters is testing the creature’s blood to see if it really is acid.  He borrows another character’s pen, sticks it in the puddle of blood and the end promptly melts.  Yep, deadly acid.  He calmly says, “Here’s your pen” and returns it to the owner, whose expression is priceless. Contrast that with Aliens, which is described by the creator as “40 miles of bad road.”

Or contrast any of the Stephanie Plums with any of the Reacher books.  Both writers are enormously talented, one likes a good laugh, the other tells a harrowing story.

In this example my Talented Amateur has followed two suspicious characters as they buy some beer.  He loses them, and then . . .

. . . from the smell they’d finished off the malt; from the looks on their faces they were ready to start on me. They slammed me up against the wall and pinned my arms to my sides. On tv Sonny Crockett or Magnum would have lashed out with a shoe, smashed their kneecaps, and then beaten the truth out of them whether they knew any truth or not, all on his way to saving the girl and getting the woman. Guess what? I tried to lash out with my shoe and break a kneecap but they moved out of the way and slammed me back against the wall again which hurt a lot, only because my ribs were still sore, normally I’m a lot tougher, so I held still, hoping they would get scared wondering what I was planning and run away. I guess they were able to control their fear, since they didn’t run away.

“Are you following us, asshole?” The taller one seemed to do most of the talking, maybe because he knew more words.

I believe there are two basic rules for using humor.

Rule Number One:  Decide ahead of time whether the tone of your work will allow for humor.  If it won’t, don’t force it just because your favorite author is a very funny lady.

Rule Number One, Revisited:  Tell your story and let the people in it decide if they are funny or not.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Two rule number ones?  I make no apology.  Writing is serious, difficult work.  It is also, by definition, complex.  There are many roads to And They Lived Happily Ever After.  And only you can pick which one to take.  That’s your job.

Me?  Why, I was penning serious, thoughtful adventures until my hero started talking and would he take me seriously?  No-o-o-o.  Some characters just got no respect for Us Serious Authors.

Rule Number Two: Be consistent!

If you write a series and it’s hilarious, keep it that way.  Stephen King is a treasure, a genius, but in Needful Things he gives up all his wit and warmth and, well, for my money it’s a mean, mean book, completely different than of the rest of his work.  Ditto for Laurence Sanders and The Case of Lucy Bending.  Evanovich, Crais, John D. MacDonald, all are consistent.  Unless you are a genius I suggest the same to you, and if you are a genius you certainly don’t need my advice!

Okay, we’ve talked.  What can you do?  Here’s your assignment.  Look for humor in what you read and watch, and make some notes.  Very quickly you will see a pattern, things that tickle you.  Or you will find that whoopee cushions are not your cup of tea.  (And if anyone can top that for Mixed Metaphor of the Week, let me know.)

I’ve put my guy, T. R. Macdonald, through some funny incidents like yelling, “Bad dog! Bad dog!” as he is getting his pants ripped by vicious pit bulls, but I have yet to top one of the masters.

Remember that PI at the nudist camp?  From the pen of Richard Prather, in Strip For Murder and with thanks to Kara Lennox for her bookends advice in “Plot Fixer: Weak Black Moment and the End Does Not Satisfy.”

Fleeing from thugs, Prather’s hero Shell Scott escapes by grabbing onto to a huge helium-filled balloon and releasing the rope holding it down.  He clings to the slowly-deflating gasbag as he floats down out of the hills and over the city.   After a while he notices that people are staring up at him, pointing and laughing.  Then he drifts to a gentle landing on a window ledge at City Hall, into the arms of waiting police.  Naked.

I haven’t topped that.  Maybe you will.

Send in your humorous discoveries.  I think we will find them v-e-e-r-y interesting.  Ah, Laugh-In.  Gone but not forgotten. But seriously, how do you approach humor in your WIP? What is the funniest situation you’ve ever gotten your characters into?

James R. Preston's Surf City Mysteries SeriesJames R. Preston has written four books in the award-winning Surf City Mysteries series.  The most recent is Pennies For Her Eyes, the story of a young woman who wants T. R. Macdonald to help her surf Maverick’s.

His next signing is July 20, at Book Carnival in Orange.

20 comments to WriterStrong: Adding Humor to Your Writing

  • James, people find me funny when I’m not trying to be. Not sure if that’s good or bad…
    I may have to get down to the Book Carnival and see you!

    • LOL Laura, that’s great. Yes, it’s good — you are effortlessly humorous. But, what do you find funny? Is your WIP not funny?
      Best,
      James
      PS. And it would be great if you could make it to Book Carnival July 20! If you do be sure to come up and introduce yourself.

  • Thanks, James. Glad you mentioned Janet. In her time she has given readers more belly laughs than … well than whoever. I also like the kind of humor that comes from left field. I will tell you and WITS a secret. Back in the day when year books were put together by the A Team and some students got Most Likely to Succeed. What did I get? Under my photograph it reads … Most LIkely to Make You Laugh. And did I mention is was an all girls science oriented school with 810 seniors? Before they discovered Vicki Lawrence people told me to take a one way ticket to Hollywood and audition for Carol Burnett since I was her long lost sister. Naturally, the funny bone has gone through all the same tortures my other bones have gone through since the dreaded “middle” moving towards “advanced” years … but that funny kid is still in there and now and again she surprises me. Don’t you love surprises?

    • I can see that yearbook picture now, but I will refrain from any “big hair” comments. Under mine it should have said, “prototypical nerd.” One of the many things that impress me about Evanovich is her balance. Grandma Mazur shoots the roast chicken, and later Evanovich is making a profound comment on how our culture treats the elderly. Amazing stuff. Thanks for the contribution, and what do you find funny now?
      Best,
      James

  • I find humour simply comes out of characters’ reactions. Tony Stark in The Avengers is a brilliant example of having humourous reactions and funny lines that would only work in his mouth because they are responses that fit his character: he snarks.

    • Yes! Good call! The byplay between him & Captain America is hilarious. There’s a reason Tony is back in Iron Man 3 . The Human Torch in The Fantastic 4 has some good snarks, too. Thanks!

  • […] Writers in the Storm welcomes back James R. Preston with tips on how–and when–to add humor to your WIP, no matter the genre. Here he is with a fun-filled Laugh? I Thought I'd Die WriterStrong po…  […]

  • Thanks. I will try to follow your suggestions. I guess I am just not a funny person, and rarely find humor in other people. My stories are dark, but I think a little humor would give the readers some breathing room. But I certainly don’t want to trivialtize (is that a word) my subject matter. I think this is something I need to work on. Again, thanks.

  • Hmmmm. I’d say, if it flows naturally, great. See statiscan’s post above. If the story and the characters are dark, so be it. The Thomas Harris books are amazing, but there aren’t many laughs when one of the main characters is a cannibal. Although I can see a spin-off on Home & Garden TV — Cooking with Hannibal. No, that’s just wrong.

    All kidding aside, thanks for commenting, keep writing, and if it’s dark, it’s dark.
    Best,
    James

  • Although my WIP is part drama, part soul searching, with a little awkward romance…I have already considered how I can include humor around certain factors regarding my protagonist. For example, she has never seen a baby, seen a dog, heard music, or witnessed affection between a man and a woman. I am certain that when she experiences these things for the first time, humor will be part of the equation.

    • Wow! That sounds like a challenging, interesting project. Considering the way you describe your protagonist, I can see how the romance would be awkward. Good luck!
      Best,
      James

  • I think you can have humor even with dark stories. The TV show JUSTIFIED is dark, but there are some incredible characters with funny lines. Sometimes character’s reactions to what is happening in the scene can be wonderfully funny.

    • Yes! This falls in the “Wish I’d thouight of that example” file. I suppose there are two branches “Families?” of humorous writing. Evanovich, along with Laurence Sanders and Vincent Lardo in the Archie McNally books, is taking a light tone, and producing funny books. In your example, the humor is used for a break. Both are valid, good approaches when executed correctly.
      Anybody out there want to share something humorous from their work? I think we all would enjoy it. C’mon, I showed some of mine , , ,
      Best,
      James

  • I need to do a better job keeping up. Loved the post, tweeted and reblogged.

    • Oh yeah? YOU need to do a better job of keeping up? HAH, I say, HAH! I wrote the blog and did I see your comment when it came out? No -o-o-o. I was probably doing something important like washing the car or (way more likely) taking a nap.

      Anyway, all kidding aside thank you vey much. I appreciate the responses, and love getting to answer back. My reception at WITS and now on your page says a lot about romance writers and their sense of community. And they will accept a mystery guy!

      Thanks again. I’d go downstairs and brag about this to my wife but she is buried in the new Amanda Quick. (For guys reading this: don’t miss the cover of this book.)

      Best,
      James R. Preston

  • Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Thank the Lord for WITS. This is another fantastic post.

    • Thank you, Liza! It was fun to write. I was hesitant about the 50’s monster movie examples, but figured, “What the hell. Who doesn’t love giant bug movies?”

      I checked out your page, and Ella’s and they both definitely rock! Nice job.

      Best,
      James

  • What a great post. I have yet to find out if I am able to be humorous or not.