Using humor to earn a seat at your reader’s table – Part 1

Name the most memorable book you’ve read. Ready? Go!

The first book that came to my mind is One for the Money by Janet Evanovich. Why? Because not too many books can make me laugh out loud, and it did—on more than one ocassion. And not just little chuckles. Real, honest laughter. The Stephanie Plum novels are hilarious. Crude? Controversial? Down and dirty? Dare I say inappropriate? Yes. But real and genuine. And really, geuninely funny.

But they are also moving. You roll your eyes alongside her at the crazy antics of her grandmother. You shiver in terror with her when she’s afraid.You grieve for her in the sad moments. Why?

Well, I consider novel characters to be very much like real people. And personally I find funny people easy to identify with and get along with. And that’s why I enjoy reading about Stephanie Plum – because she’s funny and because the situations she gets into are funny (which is something that I will cover in part 2 of this little bit about writing comedy). And that’s why Janet Evanovich can tackle such wild, coarse, inappropriate subjects in her writing. Because humor breaks down the defenses we all put up against topics that we don’t want to talk about.

This isn’t just true in fiction. It’s true in everything, whether you’re writing a nonfiction book or speaking in front of crowds of people. If you can make your audience laugh, you can get a seat at their table.

Think about the movie and television show MASH. Talk about using humor to deal with a difficult and controversial topic! War is always hard to talk about and it’s even harder to watch movies or television about. But what MASH did was to use humor to communicate difficult topics and subjects. Humor is like Mary Poppin’s proverbial “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.”

“Humor is a powerful tool to teach, to persuade, to breech untouchable issues and break down defenses.”
Bill Myers, author and screenwriter

Comedy is essential in fiction. That’s my philosophy. Even if you’re writing the darkest of dark novels, you need to put some kind of humor in it so that your poor reader can have a break. Even the gloomiest, murkiest individual needs to smile every now and then.

So here’s the tricky part: how do you write comedy?

Comedy can be very difficult to write, even if you are a generally funny person. Funny people don’t always know how to communicate in written words. I’ve met people who can knock out funny story after funny story while they’re talking, and then when they try to write it down, it just goes on and on and on and it’s not funny at all.

At the same writing workshop I attended in June 2011, I got to attend a number of sessions with author Bill Myers. He’s a really talented writer and has done a lot of different types of books and screenplays, and I enjoy his style. He likes to push the boundaries when it comes to “Christian” writing, and that’s my cup of tea.

And Bill told us at this workshop that comedy can be learned. It just takes time and practice.

What I have learned about writing comedy is that the key element is surprise. You have to phrase your sentences and your paragraphs in a way that communicates the necessary information (only the necessary information) while leading up to the punch line. The key is giving your audience enough information that they can follow along but withholding the funny part until the last moment. Your audience has to participate and follow you, or it won’t be funny.

The first type of comedy is the one-liner. One-liner comedy is a cheap laugh, but it’s possible to use it effectively.

One-liner comedy includes vulgarity and profanity, shock-value comedy. And I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that necessarily, but I prefer to steer away from shock and focus more on surprising people. I like to throw in statements that they don’t expect, not statements that will make them chuckle in embarrassment.

Compare these two statements:

“When she wears a white dress, we show movies on her.”

versus

“When she wears a white dress, we use her as a movie screen.”

Which one is funnier?

The second one.

Why? Both sentences start the same way, but the phrasing of the second half of the sentence is different. The construction of “we show movies on her” is awkward. It’s a little vague and somewhat confusing. But “we use her as a movie screen” is far more clear and more concise. It communicates the point better. So your audience will get it.

Another example?

“I traveled 50,000 miles last year which isn’t a lot compared to what my luggage traveled.”

versus

“I traveled 50,000 miles last year – not always with my luggage.”

Which one is funnier?

The second one.

Why? Again, the statements both start off the same way, but the second half of the first sentence is too long. And it’s got some nonessential clauses going on in there that jumble up the point. You get so lost in the words that you can’t find the punch line. And if you want to make someone laugh, you can’t lose the punch line.

Comedy has to be short and concise. If you drag it down with a lot of words, it won’t be funny anymore.

Next time? Part 2: Situational and Character Comedy

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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