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.
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