I’m excited to welcome back HARRISON DEMCHICK. The title of his post is self-explanatory–and, yes, you read it correctly.
As the saying goes, dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
The same applies to explaining it.
Humor, like dialogue, is one of those qualities for which some writers have an innate, intangible gift. Most people who write comedy have never tried to explain how or why it works. They didn’t sit down at their computers one day and say, “Today is the day I’m going to start writing funny.” They probably didn’t take a course on the subject at the local community college. They’re just funny.
A significant part of book editing is explaining how writing works, but even I am at a loss sometimes when it comes to explaining the mechanics of humor. Much of it emerges from a level of creative invention that can’t be taught. But what can be taught, at the very least, is what not to do.
So here are some tendencies you’ll very much want to avoid if you’re aiming for funny in your fiction.
1.) Don’t explain why it’s funny.
Have you ever known a joke in real life to become suddenly hilarious once explained? No? Well, it doesn’t work in prose either.
This is a form of overwriting, and one of the most frequent issues with humor in fiction. Like a lot of overwriting, the problem emerges often from an author’s lack of confidence in her own writing. She isn’t sure the reader will get the joke, so she explains it and elaborates upon the concept. Sometimes this comes in the form of one character explaining the joke to another. Sometimes it’s just narration.
As difficult as comedy is to explain, it can certainly be said that one of the core elements of a strong punch line is that it’s unexpected. Sure, a great joke will make you laugh consistently, but think about it: Do you ever again laugh quite as hard as you did the first time you heard it? Explaining a joke in prose is, in effect, repeating it—each time to diminishing returns. So don’t explain it. Make the comment and move on.
I noted above that one of the reasons this occurs is confidence. But it’s entirely possible that your instinct to clarify genuinely emerges from the fact that the joke doesn’t work. If that’s so, though, elaboration isn’t going to resolve the problem. You can’t make something that isn’t funny funny by insisting upon it. You need to write a new joke.
2.) Don’t start with the punch line.
Pretty obvious, right? But this doesn’t just refer to the joke as a whole. It also refers to the individual sentences that comprise it—specifically, the last sentence.
Let’s look at a classic:
A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”
It’s not brilliant, but it’s familiar. (In fact, it’s not brilliant because it’s familiar.) But it’s easy to miss how important sentence structure is even to a joke this simple. Suppose it were written, instead, like this:
A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar. “What is this, some kind of joke?” the bartender says.
This is exactly the same joke. But in this instance, the punch line has been moved from the very end of the last sentence to the start of the last sentence. The joke is still clear. We get it. But it lacks the impact simply because the sentence continues after the punch line has been delivered. It feels less concise. The punch is really more of a nudge.
Of course, in your novel, you’re not likely to be telling jokes in quite this form. But you still don’t want to construct your sentences in such a way that the joke is buried mid-sentence. Every word that follows will blunt the impact. If your lines aren’t reading quite as witty as you intend, tinkering with structure may be the solution.
3.) Don’t sacrifice character for comedy.
Not long ago, I was the book editor of a delightful manuscript that included amongst its merits some genuinely funny dialogue. But the problem was that it was basically the same dialogue, no matter what characters were speaking. The vaudevillian banter, while fun, never felt entirely consistent with the characters or the tone of other parts of the story. Even in characters’ saddest moments, wordplay and repartee were in full effect.
If you want to be funny, you should be. But you can’t let it get in the way of the other elements of your novel. Your individual characters still need to make the individual decisions they would logically make, even if the alternative would be funnier. Their humor needs to emerge from who they are. Humor that undercuts emotional moments and consistent characterization may well provide laughs. But it doesn’t serve an effective story, and that’s more important.
In other words, humor, like anything else, needs to be organic to the narrative.
Another thing that’s not so funny is going back and revising every moment of intended humor you forced inorganically, structured awkwardly, or overexplained. So if you take care as you write, and avoid these mistakes, the result may not be hilarious, but it will be at least a good start.
What do you find most challenging about humor in fiction? What other authors handle it best?
Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than sixty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as women’s fiction, literary fiction, mystery, young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally (http://thewritersally.com).
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