“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
It’s an old acting cliché, but it could just as easily describe the difficulty in writing humor into fiction. It’s easy enough to make people cry. We’re all saddened by the same things: heartache, illness, death. But humor is strikingly individualistic. What’s funny to one person may not be to another (flipping through the channels one day, I happened upon a Three Stooges short that soon had me laughing out loud. This earned a pained expression from my wife, one that could best be described as, pity).
And unlike the visual comic who has other tools available: facial expressions, pregnant pauses, and most importantly, other audience members to help push the comedy along (ever notice how much more easily you laugh when everyone around you is laughing? Hence the invention of the laugh track), for or better or worse, we have only the written word to get our readers to smile.
But as difficult as humor is to get right, it is a tool every writer needs in his box. Even the bleakest novel can benefit from a bit of levity, if for no other reason than to give the reader a break from the intensity. Like everything else in writing, an ear for humor is developed from experience and practice, but you may find the task easier, if you follow a few simple rules.
1.) If your character cries/laughs, your reader doesn’t have to.
Dialogue should be funny to the reader, not the characters. The characters play it straight. Only we, the readers, should catch the joke.
“That’s him, that’s the one. He hit me, Capt’n.” Quig touched the growing lump on his head. “And hard, too.”
The Captain held up his hand. “How many fingers do you see?”
Quig looked down, kicking at the grass. “Aw Captain, you know I’m no good at me numbers.”
“Aye. Just checking. Many a time I’ve seen a blow like that shake loose a few extra smarts in a fellow. Don’t appear it did in your case. Pity.”
Having a character laugh at something obvious is a classic case of, “hanging a lantern”—an annoyingly unsubtle way to point out to the reader that this was meant to be funny.
2.) Like perfume, humor should be discovered, not announced.
Tom: I can’t believe we avoided stepping in puddles for six blocks, just to have a truck splash water all over us!
Mike: I know. It’s totally ridiculous!
Talk about hanging a lantern. Never point out the irony or incongruity of a situation. Readers should be able to figure it out themselves. If not, you’ve missed something.
3.) Don’t give us a stand-up routine. Humor flows from the character’s interactions within the novel.
Too often, writers try to insert jokes into their prose. This seldom works. Humor should be a natural outflow of the character’s personality. Is he sardonic, cheerful, introverted, stoic? The type of humorous thoughts, actions and dialogue you attribute to him should be consistent with his personality. That doesn’t mean he can’t step out of his comfort zone from time to time, but be true to the nature you’ve given him.
4.) Don’t forget your narrator.
Unconventional similes and metaphors; irony and exaggeration; they can all be used by the narrator to add humor to a piece, either subtle or broad. Hitchhikers Guide; Catcher in the Rye; Even Cowgirls get the Blues, are only a few of the works that use the narrator masterfully to convey humor and wit.
Which brings us to the final piece of advice: Read.
Find those books that make you laugh and study them.