Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to Write Humor - or Not

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by C. Patrick Schulze 
Listen to a four-minute PODCAST of this article. 
At my writers' group not too long ago, I brought a chapter from my current manuscript for everyone to critique. I wrote that specific chapter to introduce levity into a serious situation, comic relief and all that. 
The women at the table read with furrowed brows and penned their critiques in their continual and honest attempts to help. However, the one other guy at the table began to read, put his pen down and howled out loud. He guffawed until after he finished reading.

Now I wished for the humor of the scene to come through, but I wanted the women to enjoy it too. To say they did not, is quite the understatement. The guy thought it "great," whereas not a single woman so much as snickered. Why?

I had come face-to-face with the realities of writing humor. It's tough.

One difficulty we as writers face lies in the fact most of the tools of humor are lost to us. We don't have the advantage of props, facial expressions, tone of voice, foul or unusual noises, and of course, body language.

Another issue with writing humor is it's subjective. What's humorous to one is insipid to another. Further, one's sense of humor is steeped in their upbringing, their experiences and so many other personal aspects of their life.

Also, when writing novels you have a different storyline in play. This storyline, or plot, is often what distracts from the humor and vice-versa.

So, as authors, what can we do to improve our humorous writing?

First of all, believe truth is much funnier than fiction, so look at life. I have a life-long friend who is writing a novel about being a left-handed, only child.

The secret to overcome the subjective aspect to humor is to write about those universal truths in which all humans find levity.

Don't try to write a humorous novel, write a novel with humorous events.

Understand that humor is imprecise. You should, therefore, choose your words with care and take advantage of your thesaurus. Though humor can be defined by both "absurdity" or "wit," the difference between those two words can evoke a wide range of readers' emotions.

Try to surprise your reader. Few things create more humor than a fun shock. The fact the unexpected causes people to laugh is so common a phenomena it has a name. It's called the Incongruity Theory.

Humor, if effective, can improve the flow or pace of your novel and can even make it more memorable.

Become a thief. Yes, the best humor may just lie in the hands of others. Steal it and use it. Oh, yeah, and paraphrase.

Now here's a clue from the famous comedian Dave Barry. He says he uses the funniest sentence at the end of his paragraph and his funniest word at the end of the sentence.

The final secret relative to writing humor I'd like to pass along to everyone is this: Humor is not found in the writing of it. It's found in the editing of it. (I know you didn't want to hear that, did you?)

Now, here are some pitfalls to keep in mind.

Refrain from those jokes the demean others. With every one you write, you lose an entire segment of your audience.

Be certain your humor doesn't detract from the story.

It's far better to leave the humor out than to have a poorly received novel.

Shy away from physical humor. Why? Because your reader can't see it. This also applies to jokes related to the size of things, especially if your audience is male.

Your characters should not break into fits of laughter. It may appear the author finds his own jokes funny.

Does anyone care to share any humorous events they've experienced with writing humor?

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"

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