Thursday, June 5, 2014

5 Tips for Writing Humor: The Art of the Unexpected

Laughing is healthy for you. In fact, studies have shown that watching comedies can lower your blood pressure, among other things. If writing humor is your forte, then perhaps you should consider yourself a “word doctor” of sorts.

But regardless of the genre you write—satire or drama, mystery or sci-fi—humor is an important part of the story’s pacing. A well-placed moment of humor can help dispel an overbearingly dark moment and snag your reader’s attention back to the scene at hand.

So today let’s talk about a few unique ways that you can incorporate a bit of humor into your writing.

1. Humor is usually unexpected
Some regard this as the golden rule of humor; however, notice the word usually here. While most humor works well because the audience doesn’t see it coming, other humor comes about based on what the audience anticipates (or expects) will happen. But we’ll discuss that in a moment.

In some way, shape, or form, every tip I’m going to detail here follows this basic rule: humor is unexpected. Readers don’t predict the humor coming (or at least in the manner it actually comes); this takes them by surprise and amuses them. Laughter ensues.

So whether you’re misleading the audience with a cliché, using comparisons, getting specific thoughts out of a character’s head, or refuting realism, remember this primary rule. Don’t let ‘em see it coming!

2. Agree to Agree (a.k.a.—avoid being realistic!)
This particular type of humor works especially well with slapstick, comedy, parody, and satire. Depending on the character, perspective, and scene, it may also work well in other genres.

Art by Joegpcom.
“Agree to Agree” humor works when characters take things that other characters say literally. In other words, the receiving character does not ground the humor in reality. When the receiving character grounds another’s humor with reality, the chain effect of the hilarity is lost. Instead, both characters should silently agree with each other to keep absurdity intact.

Let’s look at an example from the nonfiction novel, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. In this first example, the doctor character grounds the first line of humor in reality, which breaks the would-be humor chain:

Patient: I’m having trouble with my leg.
Doctor: I’m afraid I’ll have to amputate.
Patient: You can’t do that, Doctor.
Doctor: Why not?
Patient: Because I’m rather attached to it.
Doctor: (Losing heart) Come on, man…
Patient: I’ve got this growth on my arm too, Doctor.

Notice the punch-line here: “Because I’m rather attached to it.” This in itself is rather comedic, but the doctor dispels any chance of returning the humor because he responds realistically to the situation (“Come on, man…”).

Now, take a look at this revised example. See what happens when the doctor “goes along” with the absurdity of the situation:

Patient: Augh!
Doctor: Whatever is it, man?
Patient: It’s my leg, Doctor.
Doctor: This looks nasty. I shall have to amputate.
Patient: It’s the one you amputated last time, Doctor.
Doctor: You mean you’ve got a pain in your wooden leg?
Patient: Yes, Doctor.
Doctor: You know what this means?
Patient: Not woodworm, Doctor!
Doctor: Yes. We’ll have to remove it before it spreads to the rest of you.
(Patient’s chair collapses)
Doctor: My word! It’s spreading to the furniture!

In this example, the doctor goes along with the patient’s humorous lead. He takes the pain in the wooden leg as seriously as he would a flesh-and-bone leg. Furthermore, he goes on to detail and comment on the effects of the so-called woodworm. This is humor generated by the “agree to agree” approach.

Of course, much has to do with the character’s personality. Not all characters are likely to humor others (or take others seriously) in this way. Know how your character operates and use “agree to agree” accordingly.

3. Twist Predictability (a.k.a.—mislead with a cliché!)
Remember when we discussed the fact that humor is based on the unexpected? Sometimes gags and jokes have been done and re-done so many times that they lose their comedic value. Using a cliché bit of humor in your writing can be just as bad as using a hackneyed plot. In fact, this kind of humor can turn your audience away.

That’s what makes this particular trick so wonderful. You lead the audience into thinking that you’re about to make a cliché (or predictable) joke, but then turn the cliché on its head by making it something surprisingly original. This satisfies the “unexpected” requirement.

A great example of this occurs in the film Frozen. The scriptwriters knew that when the comedy-relief/sidekick snowman, Olaf, first appeared on the screen it was vital to endear him to the audience right away. The audience would likely be quick to generalize that Olaf is going to be a typical, cheesy sidekick with hit-and-miss humor. In order to quickly endear him to the audience, the scriptwriters lead Olaf’s introduction with a bit of clever humor that, at first, seems pretty predictable.

After meeting Anna, Olaf approaches mountain man, Kristoff, and his friendly reindeer, Sven, to get introduced. It goes something like this:

Anna: I’m Anna.

Olaf: And who's the funky looking donkey over there?

Anna: That's Sven.

Olaf: Uh-huh, and who's the reindeer?

Anna: …Sven.

Olaf: Ah, ok! Makes things easier for me.

This bit of humor works because the audience is misled by Olaf’s initial statement. They think he’s taking a wise-crack at the reindeer, Sven, by calling him a “funny-looking donkey.” When he asks who the reindeer is, and the audience realizes that Olaf was actually calling Kristoff the “funny-looking donkey,” the humor ensues.

4. Humor of Expectation (a.k.a.—suspense is funny!)
Most humor involves some aspect (no matter how small) of the unexpected. However, especially when dealing with characters’ personalities, humor can often come from the audience’s knowledge of a character’s track record.

Say you’re reading a book where the main character (we’ll call him Steve) is horrifically allergic to cats. In fact, just mentioning the word cat can send him into a sneezing typhoon. This becomes more and more apparent as you read the story. Now imagine that, as you continue reading the story, Steve falls in love with a cute girl at his college named Beth and (after months of working up courage) finally gets the guts to ask her out. They go on a date or two and decide that they’re perfect for each other. 

Beth invites Steve to her house so that he can meet her family. With his hopes high, Steve dresses his best and heads over to Beth’s house. After stepping into the living room, Steve discovers (to his horror) that Beth’s house is full of cats. In fact, Beth considers these cats to be part of her literal family. She’s the equivalent of the crazy cat lady stereotype—only at the young age of 22.

As a reader, you find this entire situation painfully humorous… but only because you know about poor Steve’s predicament. Watching him struggle to fight his allergies in order to impress Beth (forcing himself to pet, and personally meet, each and every cat; struggling not to sneeze; etc.) is comedic gold. It’s funny, in part, because the reader personally knows Steve’s weaknesses (Beth doesn’t… yet).

A similar approach would be to reveal to the reader that Steve is allergic to cats, and that Beth has a house full of them, before Steve makes the trip to her house. In this way, the comedic expectation builds even more because the reader anticipates what will happen once Steve rings the doorbell.

5. Be Specific (a.k.a.—get in your character’s head!)
This type of humor works best when you’re detailing something from the POV of a specific character. Use the character’s personality and channel it into their perceptions of the world around them. The key is, when you describe something from a certain character’s perspective, to pick out very specific details in order to bring some humor to their voice. When combined with comparisons—similes, metaphors, and the like—this is even more effective.

Here is an example from a novel by Terry Pratchett:

A crude hut of driftwood had been built on the long curve of the beach, although describing it as 'built' was a slander on skilled crude hut builders throughout the ages; if the sea had simply been left to pile the wood up it might have done a better job.

Notice how the author uses very specific comparisons and details in order to bring out the humor surrounding the hut. Instead of just saying: “An old, decaying hut sat on the curve of the beach,” the author uses POV-specific details in order to create a dry sense of humor.

Look at the following two examples. This first one is before any specific details or comparisons are made:

Hack rolled his head back, staring at the ceiling for patience he didn’t have. It was obvious that he was actually trying to get rid of the crick in his neck—likely brought on by the myriad of ridiculous chains that dangled from his face. 

You could always hear Hack coming before you saw him. It was his fault. He called it art and he decided to put it there—on his face. The chains jangled loudly and always announced his presence.

Perhaps that version is somewhat amusing, but it lacks a lot of the POV character’s personal thoughts. There are no real specific details given, and no comparisons are made. Now, take a look at the revised scene which adds comparisons and specific details:

Hack rolled his head back, likely begging the illusive ceiling god to strike him dead so he could quit inspection duty permanently. Either that or he was trying to relieve his neck of the weight of all those chains dangling from his face.

You always knew when Hack was coming. His jangling, self-imposed “artwork” could be heard within a quarter mile radius. On a blustery day, it sounded like a wind-chime war was raging on his face.

Using specific comparisons, filtered through the POV character’s personality, this second version has more life and more comedy. It’s a double benefit for the writer: the dry humor amuses the reader, but also gives them insight into the POV character’s thoughts and personality. In other words, it’s a win-win.

Here’s one final example that makes use of a comparison in order to achieve humor (credit to Alex Shvartsman’s blog Darkcargo):

Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.

In this case, your readers must be familiar with both Twitter and Game of Thrones, but if they are you’ve just sold them comedy gold.

Humor is situational. It’s absurd. It’s ironic and dry. It’s in your character’s head. It’s in the phonetics of the words you choose. It’s also more integral than not. Few stories are told without it.

That being said, these are just a few of many, many tips on writing humor that you can find out there. Use them wisely. Here are a few helpful tips when deciding what sort of humor to use:

  • How will humor affect the scene or mood? Does it have a specific role, such as lighting dark emotions or giving the action a breather?
  • Who/what is the source of the humor? If it’s a character, does the humor coincide with the character in a believable way?
  • How does your character’s personality influence the type of humor on the page? If your character is dry-witted, a goofball, or downright corny, these attributes will cause the humor to differ. Don’t contradict your humor and your character’s personality.
  • What voice are you writing in? Humor often comes through narration as well as dialogue. If your writing has a serious tone, satirical or dry wit may be a safe approach. If your style is more openly comedic, perhaps slapstick and standup humor would be appropriate.
  • What can you specifically focus on in order to add humor to the moment? The more specific your details—the more tangible and relatable they are—the better shot you have at detail-specific comedy gold. Using similes and metaphors can paint a comedic picture in the reader’s mind.

Remember that people like different kinds of humor. It’s nigh impossible to write a joke that every person on the planet will find funny. Look for a style of humor that matches your genre and characters. Chances are that if your reader likes your novel, genre, and style to begin with, they’ll appreciate the angle of humor you’ve implemented as well.

You may also like:

7 Ways to Disguise a “Didn't-See-It-Coming” Plot Twist

The Art of Writing: 5 Ways to Grow and Involve Your Fanbase
5 Tips for Writing Chair-Gripping Suspense
5 Tips for Writing Action-Packed Fight Scenes
First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character

1 comment:

  1. Good tips. ^ ^ Humor is essential for a good story in my opinion. I've had known a few that have lacked humor and honestly ... there were boring. :P

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