Posted On September 14, 2012 by Print This Post

It’s Only Funny Until Someone Loses an Eye – Darynda Jones

Today’s definitely a fan-girl moment for me here – Darynda Jones is at Romance University! If you haven’t read Darynda, run – don’t walk! – RUN to your nearest book store! She writes funny, fast and charming with a bit of tongue-in-cheek – you’ll love it!

I was recently on a panel where we talked about how to rock your reader’s world through dialogue. I foolishly chose to talk about humor in dialogue, because how hard can that be, right?


Well, the first thing I will tell you is that humor is subjective to the extreme. Many people find my heroine in the Charley Davidson series hilarious. Many . . . do not. (Seriously, I’ve gotten hate mail.)

Second, humor does not always cross cultural boundaries. Think about mainstream American humor compared to British humor or Japanese humor. Should we worry about that when we are writing our masterpieces? No. There are way too many other things to worry about than if your humor will translate well into Bulgarian. You simply write the best book you can. It’s all any of us can do.

Third, comedy, any kind of comedy, is all about the unexpected, having your characters say or do something your audience did not see coming. It’s like when you’re watching a horror movie a creepy little girl crawls out of the TV set. It’s like that, only, you know, not as creepy.

Humor in dialogue is the same thing. Your characters should say something the audience didn’t see coming. *Note: There is a difference between a character behaving unexpectedly and one behaving ‘out of character’. Never forsake your character for a joke.

But how do you know if your dialogue is funny? I found this great quote that will help you with that TRAH-mendously:

‘You’re either funny or you’re not. If you get laughs, you are. If you don’t, then you’re not.’

I know, right? Okay, that didn’t really help, but maybe this will:

Real comedy doesn’t actually come from the dialogue. It comes from the character.

Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.

Here is a short snippet. Imagine a woman walking up to our heroine as she reading the labels on green beans in a supermarket. Here is their conversation.

WOMAN: Excuse me, do you have the time?

HEROINE: (Smiles enthusiastically) Do I have the time? Does the Earth spin on its axis at one thousand thirty-seven miles per hour?

WOMAN: (Taken aback) Um, yes?

HEROINE: Good answer. Would you like the time in digital or analog?

WOMAN: (Becoming wary) Digital, I guess?

HEROINE: (Looks at her watch then, in a computer voice, says) At the tone, the time will be twelve fifteen. Beeeep.

Okay, besides the fact that our heroine has no social skills whatsoever, this was not so much a funny interaction as an awkward one. Why? Because we don’t know the heroine yet. Clearly she’s a science geek, so we kind of like her for that reason alone, but for this to be funny, we need to know more about her. About her character.

Instant replay:

But imagine if instead of some random woman walking up to our heroine, it’s an old classmate of hers. Possibly one that used to pick on her in school. And perhaps she is with a friend who is just as venomous, and before walking up to our heroine, she tells her friend, “Oh, my god. It’s her. You will not believe what a geek this chick is. Here, watch this.”

Now replay that scene with the woman talking to our heroine while turning back to her friend and snickering when she answers. Now it has gone from being awkward to cruel and we have just created a bond with our heroine. We have empathy for her. As a writer, there is nothing more powerful. However, that does not make this scene any funnier.

Once more with feeling:

Okay, let’s take that same scene and go one step further. What if, instead of some random woman or a conniving ex-classmate, our hero walks up to her and asks for the time. The conversation might go something like this:

HERO: Excuse me, ma’am, do you have the time?

HEROINE: (Looks up from a can of green beans and smiles enthusiastically) Do I have the time? Does the Earth spin on its axis at one thousand thirty-seven miles per hour?

HERO: (Pauses, takes a second look) Um, yes?

HEROINE: Good answer. Would you like the time in digital or analog?

HERO: (Grins at her, completely charmed) How about digital?

HEROINE: (Looks at her watch then, in a computer voice, says) At the tone, the time will be twelve fifteen. Beeeep.

Annnnnd, he’s in love!

So, while this scene is nowhere near hilarious, it is humorous and gives us tremendous insight into both the hero, who is utterly charmed by our heroine despite her lack of social skills, and our heroine, who is possibly too smart for her own good.

In summary, dialogue is how the comedy reaches the audience in the end of course, but if you just try to write funny lines the odds are you will only produce something that is shallow, and unsustaining.


  • Start with the characters. Look at what they want, and try to introduce a gap between their perception of themselves and the reality of what they are really like. The boss in The Office or Will Ferrell in the SNL Cowbell skit with Christopher Walken. Each time there is a massive gap between the sort of guy they see themselves to be, and the sort of guy we see them to be.
  • Do the unexpected. Comedy is about the unexpected, so have your characters say the unexpected. Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer among other genius works of art, is a master at this. Here are some examples:

Giles: This conversation is pointless.
Buffy: It’s entirely pointy.

Cordelia: So does looking at guns make you wanna have sex?
Xander: I’m 17. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.

Xander: (To Buffy) We’re right behind you, only farther back.

  • Funny isn’t enough. Comedy must be backed by a very solid story or it’s just funny for funny’s sake. Your story will be paper thin. You’ll get a few laughs, but your reader will close the book feeling unsatisfied and she will not remember your book. The stronger the story, the funnier the comedy.

“Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

—Joss Wheddon


RU Crew – How do you like to lighten a tense moment in a book?

Join us next Monday for Ozone and Squelching Shoes: What Unexpected Thunderstorms Can Teach About Protecting the Work  with Jan O’Hara! Zzzzt!


Bio: NY Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Darynda Jones has won numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious RITA, a Golden Heart, and a Daphne du Maurier. As a born storyteller, Darynda grew up spinning tales of dashing damsels and heroes in distress for any unfortunate soul who happened by, annoying man and beast alike, and she is ever so grateful for the opportunity to carry on that tradition. She currently has two series with St. Martin’s Press: The Charley Davidson Series and the Darklight Trilogy. She lives in the Land of Enchantment, also known as New Mexico, with her husband of almost 30 years and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys. She can be found at

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28 Responses to “It’s Only Funny Until Someone Loses an Eye – Darynda Jones”

  1. Hi Darynda,

    Mary Janice Davidson does a good job with her Queen Betsy series. Vampires, the half sister devil, and her love of shoes lighten the mood.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 14, 2012, 5:59 am
  2. Hi Darynda, this is an awesome post! I love how you gave the examples of the geeky heroine in different contexts. Examples are the best way for me to learn! I try to put funny moments in my books but I’m often scared the only one who really gets my humor is my husband…I guess we’ll see soon)

    PS How can you have been married for 30 years when you can’t be more than 40??

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | September 14, 2012, 8:10 am
  3. Morning Darynda!

    I have to say I LOOOOOOVE your books and your sense of humor is spot on. I’m looking forward to book #4!

    I have to ask about using dated references in writing – like once I had a funny line, but it mentioned Thurston Howell the Third. I was warned against using that, because the average 25 year old wouldn’t know who Thurston Howell was – but I’ve found references like that in your books – and loved every single one of them. Were you ever warned about that kind of writing?

    Thanks SO much for being with us today – it’s a huge thrill for me! =)


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 14, 2012, 8:13 am
    • Thank you so much, Carrie!!! I am thrilled to be here!

      And, yes, I have done the same thing! I think I had a Brady Bunch joke once and my editor suggested I ditch it. She also nixed all my Buffy jokes as they are now dated as well. But, as you noticed, I do get away with a few. I think it depends on how widespread and how recognizable the jokes are. So a lot of times I will just write them and hope for the best. LOL. In the end, I almost always follow my editor’s advice, but it never hurts to try!

      Thanks again!

      Posted by Darynda | September 14, 2012, 9:17 am
  4. Hi Darynda! What a great set of examples. I might even be able to figure out this writing humor thing after your post.

    My humor tends to be accidental. I don’t think I’m funny, but occasionally other people do. I suspect there are a lot of us out there.

    I’m just glad you (and Joss Whedon) have got it handled.

    Posted by Willa Blair | September 14, 2012, 8:14 am
  5. Hi Darynda,

    Humor is sooo subjective and wrapped in pop culture. You have to know your audience.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 14, 2012, 9:23 am
  6. Hi, Darynda. Fantastic post! I love how you showed the dialogue in three different conversations. The dialogue was the same in all three, yet the differences were huge.

    I love humor that’s not particularly supposed to be humor. I’m a big Harlan Coben fan and he always has gems in his books.

    Thanks for being here today!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 14, 2012, 9:50 am
  7. Hi Miz D!

    Very nice post! I totally agree that writing funny is scary, incredibly fun, should come from a deeper place but should never be mean.

    You as a person and as a writer are a fantastic example of this, and therefore, my hero.(I’m sucking up because I really want that pen we saw on facebook this morning! ;0)

    Posted by Tamra Baumann | September 14, 2012, 11:04 am
    • Hahaha! That pen was amazing! And you can suck up anytime. LOL. But you make such a good point. It shouldn’t be mean. I push it with Charley sometimes, but I also always show her heart of gold. If we don’t bond with our protagonist, we have lost the race, and nothing will lose readers as fast as deliberate cruelty.

      Thank you for stopping by!!! Love you!

      Posted by Darynda | September 14, 2012, 1:48 pm
  8. Yay! I’m so excited Darynda is here! I’m a big fan, and I totally agree that humor is HARD.

    Joss Whedon and Dorothy Parker can always make me laugh, but beyond those two I’m very wary of humor. I’m especially cautious when an author SAYS they are funny or worse, hilarious. Because they rarely are.

    Humor is especially tricky in romance because if it doesn’t work, I often end up irritated with the characters rather than rooting for them. Jenny Crusie is one of the few romance authors who can make me laugh out loud. I totally agree that in books where there is a lot of tension, a bit of humor can really lighten things up.

    I love books that give me a thrill, but some are so nervewracking that without an occasional laugh readers would be dropping like flies, their heart rates over the moon. (Not a problem for a reaper, of course!)

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 14, 2012, 11:24 am
    • Hey Becke!!!

      You make a great point. I always have a hard time saying I write humorous books, but again, I don’t want to mislead them by saying I write urban fantasy. And “light” seems wrong too. I never know what to say! Haha.

      And you are right. I can only handle so much tension before I need that laugh. They don’t call it comic “relief” for nothing!

      Thanks so much for coming!

      Posted by Darynda | September 14, 2012, 2:06 pm
  9. This is sort of a post-script to my previous comment. I think there are a lot of authors – Darynda for one, SEP for another – who write with a humorous voice that makes me want to read more. I don’t think this type of voice necessarily needs “jokes” to convey the humor, it comes through in the style of writing. Many of my favorite authors write with this sort of snappy voice – I love it!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 14, 2012, 12:00 pm
    • Okay, I have been mentioned in the same sentence with SEP. I can die happy! Haha

      But you are so right again. There is a difference between natural and forced humor. It took a while for my humor to mesh with its environment. Now it comes so naturally, I hardly have to think about it. Which is nice. I think I channel Charley now. LOL

      Posted by Darynda | September 14, 2012, 2:09 pm
      • I really like your style of writing, which is funny without being jokey. That doesn’t always work for me – it can feel forced. I keep thinking of more authors I like who pull off a humorous tone without being contrived – that’s a real talent!

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 14, 2012, 6:48 pm
  10. Hi Darynda!

    Writing humor is tough. Either it’s funny or it’s tragically oh-so-not-funny. Like Carrie, I’ll use an old tv show or favorite movie snip, or even a historical reference (Waterloo? Maginot Line?) when I’m trying to infuse some humor. But I’m aware that not every reader will get it.

    The flipside of this, however, is the humor may sound too cliche if we use a phrase that’s familiar to everyone. It’s definitely a fine balance.

    Thanks for joining us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 14, 2012, 4:07 pm
  11. Hi Darynda, I was wondering about the balance between humour and tension, as sometimes jokes can take the tension out of a situation. How do you so effectively balance it? Do you have any tips? (And thank you for Charley’s books – love ’em!)

    Posted by Jo Fereday | September 15, 2012, 4:22 pm
    • You know, it really depends on the scene itself and how dark you want to go with it. I do have a few scenes in which there are very few reliefs. Then again, I have a pretty bad torture scene where Charley is still a smartass, but it’s more like a coping mechanism for her. That’s a pretty dark scene.

      I guess what I do is let the scenes rest and then go back and reread them. If I’ve sucked all the tension out (which rarely happens) I might cut back a bit. It’s so weird because the comedy can actually up the tension in some circumstances.

      Posted by Darynda | September 16, 2012, 10:34 am
  12. Great article! I like to read books from authors that always make me laugh.

    Posted by Laurie Evans | September 20, 2012, 8:24 pm

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