June 30th, 2017

The Not-So-Funny Truth about Writing Humor

Susan Donovan

Do you think I’m sexy?

        No, this is not Susan

Well? Do you? This is not some rhetorical Rod Stewart question. I’m totally serious.

Do you think I’m sexy?

Perhaps not. So let’s move on to the next question.

Do you think I’m funny?

See where I’m going with this? The truth is, “funny” is a lot like “sexy.” Both are in the eye of the beholder.  This is depressing news for those of us who attempt to write fiction with a comedic twist, because it means that despite our skill and effort, the reader gets to make the call (Yet another part of this business beyond the author’s control…). Of course, there are things we can do to increase our chances of hitting a reader’s funny bone, and I’ll mention a few of them, but humor writing is never a sure thing.

Here’s what I mean: meet Woman A and Woman B. Both want as much “sexy” in their lives as possible. Woman A thinks nothing’s hotter than when her lover laves her earlobe – she can’t get enough of that oral-aural action!

The exact same move sends Woman B racing to the bathroom for Q-Tips and isopropyl alcohol.

That’s humor writing.

In addition to being an author, I’m a writing coach.  Clients often ask me to help them understand the nuances of writing humor, but before I share what I’ve learned over my long career, I tell them this true story.

My second novel – Take A Chance on Me – was released in 2003. The romantic comedy/suspense was about a pitiful, hairless dog who witnesses a murder and the cop and animal behaviorist who must solve the case. Since this was before Goodreads became the go-to outlet for snarky, soul-crushing reader commentary, I got a lot of emails from people who’d purchased my book. 

One day, a reader wrote, “I laughed so hard I tinkled myself. You’re the funniest author I’ve ever read.” Later that day, another reader had this to say about the very same novel: “I feel embarrassed for you. There’s nothing that makes me cringe more than a joke that misses the mark. I know some people think you’re funny. I’m not one of them.”

And that, right there, is why humor writing ain’t for sissies. We authors can study the art form and hone our skills, but what makes one reader laugh until she wets herself is simply cringe-inducing for another. Same book. Same day. Opposite reactions – and it’s all out of our control.

If you’d like to incorporate comedy in your women’s fiction, I recommend you writing for yourself – write what makes you laugh.  Read the your WIP  and circle anything YOU find funny. Even better, if you find yourself chortling while you’re writing, you’ve got something. Mark it. Later, go back and analyze why, exactly, you find it funny. It could be because the writing veered off in a surprising direction. It could be because you used exaggeration, or a joltingly unexpected descriptive phrase. Or maybe you wrote a line of inner dialogue that perfectly encapsulated a character’s eccentricities.

This might be obvious, but keep in mind that women’s fiction readers tend to enjoy gentle humor  — such as the self-deprecating inner dialogue of the main character – instead of stinging Don Rickles stuff. All forms of humor share a common structure, however. For a great roundup of humor principles, see the decidedly NSFW http://theweek.com/articles/449236/how-funny-6-essential-ingredients-humor.)

 In my experience, a funny novels do two things:

  1. Provide a mix of physical comedy (action), humorous dialogue, and funny character-specific POV narrative;
  2. Elicit a wide range of reactions, such as a quick chuckle, the wry smile, the silent “okay-now-that’s-funny” nod, and, if you’re lucky, one put-down-the-book and howl moment. 

Remember, if you can laugh at your own writing, then your work has the potential to be funny to someone else – not everyone else, mind you, but someone out there will enjoy it. So take heart. Listen to beta-reader feedback, but stay true to your own compass. And rewrite and rewrite until you’ve made that humorous bit as shiny and perfect as possible.

Thanks for taking the time to read my little blog post. I know some of you may not find me funny. That’s okay.

Because I’m sexy, right?

Hello?

What do you think, WITS readers? Do you have any tips to add to Susan’s? What author do YOU think is funny?

 *     *     *    *    *

Susan Donovan is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-seven novels and novellas published by St. Martin’s Press, Penguin USA/Berkeley Books, HQN, Amazon, and Hachette. She’s a former newspaper reporter with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. Susan provides one-on-one author coaching via phone, Skype, or FaceTime. She and New York Times bestselling author Darynda Jones are coaches-in-residence at the Adobe Cottage Writer’s Retreat in Placitas, New Mexico, a private space for peace, beauty, and word count.

For information about the writer’s cottage and personalized coaching, please visit www.adobecottageretreat.com and www.susandonovan.com.

 

20 comments to The Not-So-Funny Truth about Writing Humor

  • Excellent post about the pitfalls of writing humor (or sexy prose). The bottom line is that you can’t please everyone all the time. Or more likely, you can only please a few people at any time, so first and foremost, as a writer you must please yourself! Humor is so subjective. I dislike Don Rickles-type humor, yet so many think he is (was) hysterical. I won’t read a book that uses that kind of humor, but many will. Likewise – sexy books. I like romance with mostly subtle uses of sex, and many readers agree with me – but many others prefer exotica. When I wrote my two romantic suspense novels, I included just a few sex scenes, and the characters are (metaphorically) under the sheets – no graphic images. Many readers expressed relief that I left it up to their imaginations; several reviewers said they’d prefer more explicit sex and why’d I leave that out? Humor/Sex – touchy subjects. Susan does a great job explaining that here. Thanks!

  • I’m with Roughwighting – So much of the humor nowadays is so MEAN! I still can’t watch most Adam Sandler movies, because I cringe my way through them.

    I try. Mostly I try to use odd, funny comparisons – like:

    My grandmother was New-Age before it was new, trying every religion, every weird philosophy out there. Hampering her enlightenment is the fact that she has the intellectual depth of a kiddie pool, and the attention span of a caffeinated gnat.

    Does it work? Hey, it entertained me, and writing IS all about ME, right? Right?

    Thanks for the wisdom, Susan!

  • I’ve been thinking about going back to a WIP I wrote a while back because every time I read it, it makes me laugh *and* cry. Yes, it’s currently in hot mess mode, and needs a lot of work, but this post has encouraged me and given me some starting points for when I pull it out. Thanks!

  • The ability to see humor in everyday situations is a unique gift. But more important and more difficult is the ability to recount it in the written wor
    Thank you. Great article.

  • Sometimes I write stuff that I think is funny, but I don’t know if it really is until someone else laughs too. But I guess I’m on the right track, given your advice. Thanks for it! Great stuff.

  • Great advice and a key point you make is that “humor writing ain’t for sissies.” As if writers aren’t sensitive enough about their writing, I think those aiming for humor might be even more sensitive–and the reactions of readers more diverse. So you have to arm yourself with this article’s insights, accept not everyone will laugh no matter what you do, and just go for it.

  • Thanks for the feedback. Just go for it… I might have to put that on my office wall. 🙂

  • Why would someone write an actual email to an author with such a negative comment? Did they think was some sort of author out-reach program? That’s just rude.

    I wish I could write funny things but unfortunately I can’t. I just don’t have the knack so I’m very impressed by your efforts.

  • Fae Rowen

    I’m not funny. It is quite frustrating to be dead serious with my students and have them start laughing and say that I’m sooooo funny. I don’t tell jokes. And yet at parties, people laugh when I tell them about what I’ve been doing. Seriously, how funny is a story about hiking and trying to video a mother duck with her sixteen ducklings? Thanks for your post, Susan. It opened up my eyes to a possibility. Because I do love to read humor…

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Great advice here, Susan. I’ve shared it online. I think parts of my writing in progress are hilarious. Still. Each time I read them. Then I’ll get a beta reader who will actually say:
    Now Vic, you wouldn’t really cut off the secretary’s smiling lips with the ten-page French test, would you?

    Of course not. She was smiling at me when I told her she gave me the wrong test. I was having a mental meltdown. I wanted to throw up on her desk.

    It’s supposed to be an exaggeration. Funny. You know…ha-ha? She told me it was out of place.

    Nuts! You are right, Susan. Not every reader will appreciate your humor. Thanks for sharing these tips with us.

  • I try to explain to the kids there’s a fine line between humor and meanness. Have to practice it in real life. Read what you write out loud to see if it still sounds funny.

    denise

  • You are absolutely sexy, Susan. And funny. Promise! I was shocked when I realized that I could write funny. I’d always thought I was such a serious writer and…well, I’m not. My non-serious adolescent boy humor leaks through every time. And you’re right – if you can make yourself and your besties laugh, that’s probably about as far as you can work it.

    p.s. I was on vacation when you wrote this, hanging around a campground in Northern Cal with no flushing toilets, internet connection or running water. I’d say you got the better end of the deal, hanging out here at WITS.

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