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.