By Ellen Buikema
Using humor in writing is vital, especially in our current times. We all need more laughter in our lives.
Not everyone has the same sense of humor. One person’s mirth may be another's eye-roll. The reader’s age is important to take into consideration. Something funny to a teen or adult will not necessarily work for a young child—although bathroom humor—which starts very early in life, never seems to get old.
It’s helpful to have a feel for your readers’ expectations.
Jim Butcher’s fantasy/mystery series, The Dresden Files, is full of humor—sarcastic as well as oddly motivational. The following quote in which detective and wizard Harry Dresden interacts with medical examiner Waldo Butters is from Dead Beat, number 7 in the series.
“‘We are not going to die.’
Butters stared up at me, pale, his eyes terrified. ‘Were not?’
‘No. And do you know why?’ He shook his head. ‘Because Thomas is too pretty to die. And because I am too stubborn to die.’ I hauled on the shirt even harder. ‘And most of all because tomorrow is Octoberfest, Butters, and polka will never die.’”
Like the knock-knock joke, repetition with a surprise ending formula can work for prose. Here is an example by essayist David Sedaris from his collection Naked showing comedy through surprise.
“The first two times I read the book, I found myself aching with pleasure. Yes, these people were naughty, but at the age of thirteen, I couldn’t help but admire their infectious energy and spirited enjoyment of life. The third time I came away shocked, not by the characters’ behavior but by the innumerable typos.”
Terry Pratchett, a king of subtle humor, wrote wryly humanistic prose. Such as this from his book, Interesting Times.
"And therefore education at the University mostly worked by the age-old method of putting a lot of young people in the vicinity of a lot of books and hoping that something would pass from one to the other, while the actual young people put themselves in the vicinity of inns and taverns for exactly the same reason."
Not all types of humor work well in all genres. Adding slapstick in the middle of a thriller or horror novel can be jarring and pull the reader right out of the story. That said, humor can add an interesting dimension to characters such as in Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer Necromancer.
“I began to wonder what he meant by politics. Zombies in the Senate and as heads of state actually cleared a lot of things up for me. In fact, if you told most people that the White House was being run by legions of the undead, they'd probably just say, ‘Figures.’”
Reveal the personalities of your characters through humor, or have a witty narrator. A humorous narrator works well for first person point of view. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a good example, using humor as a coping mechanism.
“Two thousand Indians laughed at the same time. … It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard. And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh. When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.”
Humor, from Burlesque to Deadpan, is all around us. Allow some of the joy of laughter into your heart. Be happy.
What is your favorite type of humor? Do you feel it’s possible to use humor in all stories? Tell us a joke in the comments if you'd like - it can be from your life or works, or someone else's (just give them credit).
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.
Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.
Top Image by Galina Bogdanovskaya from Pixabay
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
I wish I could write humor, but alas I am too serious. But I, too, enjoy it when I see it, and you're so right. We all need more in our lives.
Thank you, Pamela. I wish we all weren't going through such trying times.
I am fortunate to have worked with young children for so long that the sense of and need for humor that went along with it remained with me. Laughter really is good medicine.
Great post. I only know humor when I read/hear/see it. It's so hard to describe. I'm not a "humorous" person, but when i start writing in a character's voice, all of a sudden funny stuff comes forth (if the character has a sense of humor). Very cool.
Isn't it so fun when that happens?
Isn't it wonderful when our characters lead us into hilarity?! I just love that.
I have the humor meter of an adolescent boy. I think it comes from growing up with brothers, but almost everything bawdy or biological gets me going.
I laughed till my sides ached just last week when we looked up the meaning of runcible spoon. (It's a spork, by the way.) That was when I realized I'd never actually read Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat" as an adult.
(Believe me, I use that term "adult" lightly.)
I read this to my husband and daughter and was a crying puddle of laughter by the time I got through the first stanza. The cadence is beautiful and I KNOW he's talking about a cat, but the adolescent boy who lives inside me would not be denied.
(Could. Not. Stop. Laughing.)
How are parents able to get through this when they read to their children? Read this thing out loud:
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!"
LOL. Practice, practice, practice. Just like getting to Carnegie Hall.
Humor can be used to help boost self-esteem, too!
One of our children had trouble reading out loud when she was in elementary school. To help her along, I gave her a funny book to read to us that was at least two years below her reading level, Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad are Friends. She read it to all of us while we were out on a family drive. We all laughed so hard! After that she had little trouble reading in front of other people.
Humor is magical.
I love humor in all its forms. I write with a touch (or a smash) of humor and whimsy, but you're right, not everyone laughs at the same thing. I see that in my crit group. I've tried writing "serious" stories and never got past the first few pages without angling for the funny bone. Agree with ecellenb--humor is truly magical!
I hear you, Barb. I am a bit compulsive with humor. Even the darkest of my writing has humor lurking somewhere.
The word whimsy makes me smile. It was used with mixed meanings in the Marxs Brothers film, Horse Feathers. "Oh Professor, You're Full of Whimsy." Double entendre abounds in their films.
I'm right there with you, Barb. It is hard to write serious!
Funny - and writing about humor is tricky. Nice job.
I do like to tuck little things in that tickle my writer's fancy. My ideal readers get them.
Your last entry about laughter, and the one about zombies, together, explain a lot.
I try to remain politically unbiased, in blog posts, but that line was just to good!
One tries. Being accurate and being civil sometimes conflict.
But we writers tackle the imponderables - with glee. Thanks for noticing AND responding.
I use humor quite a bit in my writing. It's a great way differentiate characters. In my series everyone has a little different approach. James' humor tends to come from a place of innocence and naivete, whereas Missy is a master of sarcasm. Will's sense of humor can be a little dark while his brother Donny tends more toward the lighter side of things, emphasizing the the contrasting personalities. Will is a pessimist, while Donny is ever the optimist. Nestor's more subtle, dry sense of humor reflects his years of experience and deeper understanding of life in general.
Of course, sometimes I sometimes resort to lowbrow humor just because my own personality seeps into the mix.
LOL, Bob! You do a great job of bringing out differing senses of humor. I am particularly fond of your use of humor in The Smell of Fear. So good.
That story was a lot of fun to write and had ample opportunities to inject humor.
I find humor the sexiest thing in a person. I love all kinds. The smarter, the better. My favorite kind of humor in literature is watching protagonists flail about earnestly and emphatically when everyone knows they are wrong.
I agree, Jennifer. I hadn't thought of it as sexy, but for me, a good sense of humor is more important than many other traits.
I love witty banter.
I think, if carefully done, humor can be used in most writing.
Denise, I was thinking about the humor in the thriller/splash of horror in Dean Koontz's Watchers. There's human as well as doggy hilarity in its various shades. I think carefully done is the key.
This is a great reminder that we need those moments in our writing to lift our readers. I've read tons of books where I laugh out loud in a crowded room. At least nobody can see me in the stall.
With the turmoil we are experiencing, in my opinion, all of us need a good laugh or ten.
You've reminded me of times my husband would walk past me while I laughed aloud as I wrote. Living with a writer can be weird, but is never dull.
Another great post! Thanks so much for this. I've shared it online. Have a beautiful weekend!
Thank you for sharing, Victoria. Happy weekend!