Thursday, May 13, 2010

Humor in Fiction (if not Blog Post Titles)

Sometimes, and those times are random and relatively few, I'm funny. My sister once told me I can drop funny one-liners at unexpected moments. I like to see the humor in ordinary events and remark on it, think surprise is the heart of humor, and get a kick out of both good and bad puns. But I'm far from receiving the highest accolade bestowed on one of the most popular members of my high school class: "She's so funny!"

I'm not a funny writer. And that's fine if by that I mean I don't write humor as a genre, which I don't. No, my temperament type is one that tends to "deep meaning," oversensitivity, endless introspection, excessive daydreaming, "insight," even earnestness, which some writers consider ooky but the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 8:7) does not. In other words, I write the type of books that the Newbery Award committee loves are strongest in characterization, setting of scene, and emotional nuance. Plot's a little trickier. (What, you mean something's gotta happen?) And humor? Um...

Right now I'm first-drafting a new WIP. I've got premise, characters, setting, and emotional nuance. Hey, I've even got a plot skeleton, and I usually have to finish the draft to get that. But this book, though it's not humor and doesn't need to be, needs some levity. Which will be one of my primary goals for Draft Two. Because it hasn't got it now.

How will I find the comic relief? Well, a partial answer, I think, is to find it in a character I'm creating pretty much for that purpose. Good examples of comic relief characters are C3-PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars, and Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter books. Another key to humor in fiction is readers realizing the events are funny when all the way along the characters are panicking and blowing things out of proportion. In the Harry Potter stories, Ron Weasley often brings humor to scenes in this way.

People also tend to laugh when a character does something they, in their secret heart of hearts, would do in the same situation but never admit to, or that they think of a split second before the character or actor actually does it. Such as in the I Love Lucy scene where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory and can't handle the speed of chocolates coming down the conveyor belt, so they eat them. It's so funny precisely because we would all be so sorely tempted.

Yet another important key is making surprising connections, especially when at least one of the things being connected was foreshadowed earlier. Have you ever heard the song "Cielito Lindo"? If not, and you want to, it's here. Anyway, when I was in fifth grade, our Spanish teacher taught us the song. I shall never, ever forget the chorus, which begins with a hearty, "Ay, ay, ay, ay." Weeks later, in a classroom exercise, the teacher had us all come up to the mike and say something, anything, in Spanish. This proceeded in orderly, unexciting fashion with a lot of "Me llamo Diego" stuff, until we were into the second round of turns and my best friend stepped up to that mike, belted "Ay, ay, ay ay!" and brought down the house. It was surprising, foreshadowed, and perfect juxtaposition. Not to mention brilliantly timed.

So what do you think? How do you work humor into a story, that is not itself humorous, to give it balance? What kinds of things, in a basically not-humorous story, make you laugh while still feeling they fit that story?


Andrea Vlahakis said...

Ah, that funny thing called plot *clears throat*—you mean there are writers that actually begin with plot and not characters?

I don't make a conscious effort to inject humor, as in, I've got to make this scene funny. If there is humor in my writing, it comes from the character(s). I think you're right about characters that can't see the humor, but the readers can. I think anytime you let the reader in on something the characters don't know, it empowers the reader.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

my editor asked me at one point to "make this scene funnier" of my mg novel. I fumed about that for days. "how the heck can I make it funnier. It's not something you can force." But it eventually did come to me. And it was much better for it.
Humour, especially writing for children, helps the story flow.
I listened to a writer at the conference talk about injecting humour into a story. It doesn't have to be laugh out loud. Even little things like Pickle is funny. Twinkie is funny. Asparagus and roast beef is not. (It's the hard K sound that's funny somehow)

Lisa Gail Green said...

You know, I find it just kind of slips in where it's needed. I know that sounds like a copout, but the truth is, if it's in the character's personality then they do it. Does that even make sense? I need coffee..

Vijaya said...

Great post, since *ahem* I've been told to "fun it up." I'm not naturally funny, or people laugh at things that I didn't intend to be funny. And so it's the latter that I capitalize on. This is built into the character, their unique way of viewing the world, which can be funny.

Like you, I tend to write books with *deep meaning* but the humor comes from the characters themselves. I like to have a friend or sibling that provides comic relief. Animals do this too. All my books have animals and they DO NOT die.

And like TerryLynn says: some words are just funny. Raccoon does it for me every time.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- I think some do start with plot, but none of them are me. :) But I did some work on my plot today, and will probably get back to it yet today. I agree with your point about empowering the reader.

Terry Lynn -- Though I've not actually gotten that from an editor yet, I could see it happening. Yes, I've heard that too about a hard c or k being funny. And it's nice to know humor can be "injected," because I think that's how it'll work for me.

Lisa -- Humor does surprise me just coming out of a character sometimes. And it needs to be true to the character. But it's not something that flows naturally for me, so it's a spot where I need to call on craft.

Vijaya -- Yeah, I can definitely foresee being told that same thing, esp. for MG. I'm adding a comic relief character, and maybe I can make better use of an animal that's already been introduced. LOL at your line about the animals not dying. And you know -- raccoons COULD fit pretty logically into this story. Thanks!

Rena Jones said...

Humor is hard, especially if the story is intended to be serious. What I've done in those cases is make light of something bad that might happen to any of us. You can find humor in a lot of things, even some things that might surprise you.

Marcia said...

Rena -- Yes, there's often a humorous side to a serious or even sad/bad event, and some people try to ferret that humor out as a way to cope. Inventing a character who does just that is a good idea.

Anna Staniszewski said...

I think you're right that the unexpected can often inject a bit of humor into a scene. If a character does or says something that completely takes us by surprise, especially if it's something silly or dopey, it can be a nice, unexpected moment.

Marcia said...

Anna, I know that no matter what I laugh at, some level of surprise--usually delighted surprise at the cleverness involved--is almost always what sets it off.

Anne Spollen said...

I freely swipe lots of true statements teenagers make, not only mine, but the ones I work with, too.

Since I write YA, it works out nicely. Humor is funniest when it's unexpected.

Example: (true dialogue)

Me: (in an exasperated tone) "Christopher! Why is that wet towel on the floor?"

Christopher: (keeps texting without looking up) "Why?" Shrugs. "Gravity."

Hard to stay mad.

Marcia said...

Christopher sounds something like my son, Keith. I've often tried to deliver "mom stuff" with humor and I think it mostly worked pretty well with all the kids. ("Hey, Keith, there's some sort of wet lump on the bathroom floor. Anything you can do about that?") He laughs and does it, but he loves to laugh.

Tahereh said...

oooh, these are excellent questions, but so tough to answer! i've never thought consciously about humor in my stories. the dialogue, the bits of humor -- those all just came naturally to me and my characters.

not sure why or how. :/

sometimes, i think, if we can get into our characters' heads well enough, the rest of it just falls into place on its own, no?

hehe i'm not even sure.

great post, though! best of luck with all you do!!

Marcia said...

Hi, Tahereh! Some writers have a gift for humor, just as others have their strengths in other areas. I agree that if we know our characters well, a lot falls into place. Their brand of humor will just come out of them, and/or we'll have a sense of what they find funny.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

Marcia, although not a joke, I hope the Sunshine Award I've left for you at my blog will bring a smile to your face!

Marcia said...

Thanks, Andrea!

Laura Pauling said...

Okay, so even thought it's a serious post - all your cross outs made me laugh!

In a serious novel humor sometimes is situational and not necessarily lol humor. Suprising dialogue. Unexpected actions. Embarrassing moments. Opposites juxtaposing. that's all I can think of right now.

And thanks, I received the book today! Can't wait to read it.

Marcia said...

Glad the crossouts made you laugh, Laura. :)And that the book got there safe and sound. That's a great point about situational humor.

Mary Witzl said...

I have so missed visiting your blog on a regular basis, but once I'm finished with the spring semester's examinations, I'll be a much more frequent visitor!

I'm reading Chimamanda Adichie's 'Half of a Yellow Sun' right now and finding her humor a welcome distraction given the depressing subject (Nigeria's civil war). There's a scene in it where the new houseboy, a smart but ignorant lad, irons his new boss' socks in an effort to secure his respect and admiration. It's very funny because you can see both the love and ignorance behind the act.

Like AnneS, I frequently poach from my kids' conversations. I just try not to let them see me reaching for my pen.

Murr Brewster said...

I have no idea how NOT to do humor. It's my default stance. My blog is a humor column. So now I'm writing my first novel and struggling with the fact that I need to pitch conflict into it or it won't (in St. Molly Ivins' wordage) get any forwarder. I have a rape scene to write and consequently I've been stuck for a month. The novel does have funny bits and a light tone that I'd be incapable of deconstructing--but how the hell am I going to get this girl raped?

Just illustrating that there are all kinds of pitfalls for writers out there, I guess.

Marcia said...

Mary -- I bet you'll be so glad when those exams are done!I love the humor example from the book you're reading.

Murr -- Pitfalls galore, aren't there? I guess humor is something we have to balance in fiction like in life. We have to have it, but we have to know when to be serious.