Writing Humor

Good comedians have split-second timing in their routines. They know exactly when to hit that punch line and pause for the inevitable laugh.

It’s not so easy for writers. We may think we’re writing hilarious banter or a scene that should end with the reader laughing out loud, but we will often miss the mark. My short story, Numbers, is meant to be light and frothy, and I think it succeeds on that level. Readers overall have told me it made them smile, and they re-read it when they want to feel happy. Will it make you laugh out loud? Depends on your mood when you read it, but I snicker when I read it. YMMV, and that’s the problem. No matter how well you write “funny,” some readers will never see it that way. You take your shot and hope for the best.

I consider that release a successful attempt at manipulating a reader’s emotions, because that’s what you do when you write humor; you’re trying to make the reader feel something specific. Unfortunately, writers fail more often than they succeed, and not always because the reader isn’t in the right mood.

They often try too hard, and when that becomes apparent, there is no laughter. In fact, it often causes frowns and eye rolls. The author will beat that joke to death to make sure the reader “gets it” and destroy any humor in the process.

Years ago, I was reading the Stephanie Plum series, which started out really strong and is now simply tired. The author created a fun and interesting set of characters and played them off against each other nicely. I never did understand why two gorgeous men, Joe Morelli and Ranger, were so taken with Steph, but I went with it. If only the author had stopped at around the tenth book, wrapped that series, and switched to another. Instead, she kept going, and when I found myself gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes over antics that had once made me smile, I knew it was time to quit. The author was working too hard at being amusing, and I’d had enough.

But she knew one thing: the best humor arises out of character and situation. If you literally try to tell the reader “Hey, pay attention! This is gonna be funny!”, you will lose them. You may even annoy them. I’ve seen this tactic used plenty of times, and it hurts. Yes, I realize the author thought this scene or that conversation was hilarious, and telling me, the reader, again and again how funny it is only makes me want to smack them on the head.

In The Martian, two characters unexpectedly interact: a top guy at NASA and a lowly office worker assigned to watch Mars on a monitor. When the latter discovers the astronaut left behind is still alive, she is abruptly elevated to a new status. The relationship between these two minor characters is slowly built through the story until one exchange between them made me burst into laughter so loud and so long, I had tears in my eyes.

Maybe the author didn’t plan that. Maybe he didn’t realize it would make me react that strongly. But it worked on me because of the gradual revelation of the characters and the author not trying to make me laugh. He let the characters talk, and they brought the house down.

I tried to read Cut and Run by Roux and her then partner, and quit one-third of the way in. Why? The authors tried too hard. The banter between the MCs was meant to be funny and witty with an edge of sarcasm, but it came across as whiny and childish, and it went on and fucking on until I wanted to tear my hair out. I was screaming at the Kindle, “Shut the fuck up! Move on with the story! Grow up, you fucking morons.” I’ve been told the series got better as it went along, but I’m afraid to give it another shot because that first book was so annoying. A classic case of trying too hard.

Writing humor is difficult. It requires a light touch and a good ear, and even then, you may not always succeed. But when you do? It’s wonderful. So definitely work humor into your stories, but remember subtle is better than blatant, and if you know your characters well, they will do the hard work for you. Introduce them to the reader, give them some depth, then let them talk. You’ll be amazed at what comes out of their mouths.




About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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8 Responses to Writing Humor

  1. Allison says:

    This just goes to show how incredibly personal humor is because I found the Plum books to be so exceedingly annoying with their stupid humor that I could barely read one of them (it was one of the earlier books and I only finished it because I was told how good it was and kept hoping that somewhere along the way that would become true). Yet that is another series that is ridiculously popular to the point that the author is a millionaire.

    Humor no matter how it is presented is difficult but I think that is partially true because of what I said above. Humor is personal. What causes one person to laugh so hard their stomach hurts will cause another person to roll their eyes at the stupidity of it. When humor is done well there is nothing quite like it but then what I think is “done well” may be something that causes you to roll your eyes. 🙂

    I agree the first C&R book needed a much stronger editor but the series did get much better however it is time for it to end. It becomes obvious when an author is done with a series or their characters and that time has come for that series in my estimation.

    • I’ve heard the author has begun a new series, and predictably, the fans were outraged. Heh. Sometimes you cannot win.

      AJ told me the plot of that first book, and it sounded outstanding! I was sorry I couldn’t finish it.

  2. Helena Stone says:

    I completely agree with you in the Stephanie Plum series. I love the first books and then it just got repetitive, unbelievable and (ever more) predictable. I lasted longer than you did because I hoped it would get better, but it’s been a few years now since I last read one of those books.

    I don’t agree with Cut & Run, or at least, not completely. The first book is far from my favourite in the series but I did enjoy it enough to not only finish reading it but also continue with the series. Just goes to show that taste is a personal (and, for me at least, mood related thing). And I guess that’s just as well, if all readers liked the same books by the same authors most writers would be out of an audience 🙂

    As for humour in books in general. It’s not something I ever actively look for in my books but I can’t deny I love it when humour sneaks up on me and makes me laugh when I least expect it (the same can be said for crying by the way).

  3. I just finished The Mating Of Michael and the dialogue had wonderful humor the entire way through. I loved it for that very reason. And it’s pop-culture/geek humor which made it even better. Someone else might not have thought it was funny, though. I don’t remember that much humor in C&R other than snark between the characters. The first book wasn’t one of my favorites, but each one got better and better. I’ve read them all twice and it’s still one of the series I’ll take to the island with me. Everyone gets better the more they write – you said so yourself – I have your quote on my wall, remember? ;o)

    • I remember, and it’s usually true. I’ve heard from many people the series is lots of fun. I keep thinking I’ll give it another go sometime. I’ll just skip that first one. 😉

  4. I found the Stephanie Plum series hysterically funny for years. I’d sit in the library or the bookstore and devour them immediately, smearing my mascara and generally terrifying people with my laughter. But you’re right, they feel forced and flat now, like it’s just the same story being told over and over.

    I do enjoy the humor in C&R, although I agree with Jaycee that it’s more snark than outright humor. I also agree that the books (particularly the first 2 or 3) could stand to have tighter editing. But from what I understand that’s in the works. I’m not sure if she’s waiting for the series to end or the rights to revert or something, but once that happens they’ll be edited, rewritten and re-released. Might be worth checking the books out then, because despite the flaws early on, it really is a fantastic series.

    • Good to hear! I’ll keep it on my TBR list and check it out in a while.

      Honestly? We all start as less than stellar writers. It takes experience and time to improve. I wish I could go back and edit some of my early works. Heh.

      Hey! I did! LOL When I got my rights back to the first three releases, I went over them again before posting them for free on the blog. Tweaking is sometimes good.

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