Humor in Writing


Yesterday my body switched to “off” and left me feeling as though I couldn’t think straight, much less write. Sanford Begley offered to step up and write something for the Mad Genius Clubbers, which was very noble of him, considering he is somewhere at the headwaters of the River Nile when it comes to admitting that he can write. But I will let you judge for yourselves. Here, my friends, is a man who cultivates snark like fine orchids, an inverterate flirt, and a master of the lowest of humor. 

Hi! Cedar is not up to par so I’m teeing off for her today.  A few things about me, so you know how much weight to give what I’m going to say. I am not a writer, pay no attention to what most of the Mad Geniuses say. They share a group mind and one of them loves me so they all approve. I have however spent a lot of time with writers going back more than 30 years. I’ve been intimately involved with one for years. Lately I have been showing some signs of a knack for editing. All those things are not the place where I find the info for this post though. I am a voracious reader of everything and have been for years. Now you know how much weight to lay on my words so I’ll start.

Should you use humor in your writing? Absolutely! Or maybe not. The first thing you have to find out is, can you? Everyone has a sense of humor, unfortunately not everyone has a good sense of humor. There are people who find murder hilarious, most of us don’t. Well, there have been funny books about murder, but the act itself isn’t funny to most of us. Some people love slapstick, others prefer a more cerebral approach. What I am saying is, use humor but only if your target readers will enjoy it.

The above doesn’t mean you can’t use humor in a serious story. John Ringo kills off millions and leaves you laughing at times as he does. Sarah Hoyt writes mysteries with a gentle loving humor infusing all her characters, sometimes even the villains. Louis L’Amour did asides in his books talking about the language they used, mostly to inject humor. Every one knows that Terry Pratchett uses farce and absurd humor as the basis of his work. Erma Bombeck was the mistress of everyday life humor. The funny ones often talked about serious issues through their humor, the serious ones use it to break tension.

Some of you may have noted that I used a small, very small, joke to start this post.  It is traditional to start speeches with a joke. And while this isn’t a speech it doesn’t hurt to put levity in where you can. At least if you can do it well, and place it appropriately. A task much more easily said than done.

So, how do you know if you have placed it appropriately and done it well? The short answer is, you don’t. What you say in your writing is informed by your own unique experiences. Seeing someone get poked in the eye ala The Three Stooges may be hilarious to you, it will not be at all funny to others. Timing is part of it, jokes are funniest if they have an unexpected twist. People make good money to tell jokes. Others, like me, can sit and tell jokes for hours, some of them funny, some not. I have friends who cannot tell some of the jokes I tell and get even a half smile. Then they tell one of the ones I bomb with and the same people who didn’t laugh when I told it roll on the floor.

Now that I have made the prospect of humor as daunting as possible, I will let in a small ray of sunshine. There are things you can do to include humor in your writing and make it work. The first thing is to realize not everyone will get it. When I read John Ringo and David Weber’s We Few one of the major characters in the Empire was Admiral Helmut, Dark Lord of the Sixth Fleet. I didn’t get that joke for two years, never even realized it existed.

Another trick is to inflict the work on friends who read that sort of thing, but aren’t so close to you that they share the same in jokes. This is also called using beta readers. One of the things you need to do when you have beta readers is ask them. Did this joke work? Was that scene funny? Do you buy the one liners the hero is biting off as he is swarmed by Zombies?

And finally, trust yourself. If you hate your work, others will too. If you think a joke stinks there leave it out. If you want to add a silly monkey there just to break the tension go ahead. You will find your audience eventually and they will like it as well as you hope.

For a final statement on the topic I’ll quote a man who can tell jokes for hours. “I tell jokes, some are good, some are bad, some are corny enough to solve the bio-fuel crises by themselves. As long as people laugh more often than they boo I’ll keep pitching them.”

26 thoughts on “Humor in Writing

  1. I caught “Dark Lord of the Sixth Fleet” and chuckled at it. [Smile]

    Still in general, as a reader, I prefer the humor that the *characters* see in a situation and/or use to deal with the situation.

    Of course, there is also the “tension breaking” aspect of humor. As a reader, I’ve noticed that if a story line is very intense, I have to take a break from reading the story. Some writers realize this and have a “lighter” scene often involving humor after very intense scenes.

      1. I generally prefer a gallows humor, and 99% despise slapstick or stupid humor. I like Ringo’s humor, or Kratman’s and really enjoyed the humor Kate injected into Impaler. It takes a special kind of author to get me hooked on books that are based on humor though, the two authors that come to mind as always being successful at that are Gordon Korman and Patrick McManus, most books that try it get flying lessons from me. With the exception of the two authors mentioned I think at best the others can write a book I enjoy but not that I could take a steady diet of. To use an example most here will be familiar with Kate’s Con series is what I would call based on humor, I enjoyed the books and have all of them, but I read them quite awhile apart from each other, I can’t handle that big a dose of humor to read them back to back. This is probably why I like humorous short stories, but not many humorous books.

  2. One difficulty writing humor that you left out, for whatever reason: Text communication lacks many of the cues that people use to indicate that what they are saying is meant to be funny, so you need to avoid humor that relies on voice inflection or body language to imply the humor aspect, unless it is something that a character says, and you can reasonably describe the cue so that it makes sense.

    1. Good point. I probably left out a lot though. This is something I threw together when Cedar wound up sick. Took a while but, it isn’t like I researched the subject for weeks. Your point is one that I should have made specifically, I didn’t. Thank you for catching it

      1. Heh. I caught it because it happens to me All. The. Time. Usually in blog comments or Facebook. Then someone’s angry that I said something that I didn’t mean.

  3. This is one of the things I’m trying to develop in my writing. I’m looking at how various storytellers use levity in the midst of the serious. Be it movies, tv shows, novels. I’m particularly interested in timing and pace within the narrative.

    One of the things I’m enamored of in the visual media is the use of a sort of self-deprecating foil to the straight characters. Since this frequently relies on visual cues, as Wayne Blackburn mentioned upthread, figuring out ways to use the technique in written word is fun. 😐

    Nathan Fillion and his various co-stars play this sort of interaction to superb effect. I’d really like to hone a technique to tap that same vein in writing.

  4. As somebody who has written humor in comics for some time (but not professionally, mind), I have to say that it’s a lot tougher to navigate in prose. Some readers will find the sudden injection of humor jarring if it’s not handled properly. I’m still trying to figure out how Pratchett gets away with some of the stuff he does–he wil write great literary descriptions of things going on, then a bit later say directly to the reader, “now, if this was a movie, the camera would be panning THAT way”. Maybe he simply gets away with it because he’s Pratchett! He’s comfortable in his humorist/writer’s skin.

    It also might be useful to note that there’s a difference between humor and jokes. A cinematic example: the early Bond films were full of humor. You know what I mean. Sean Connery’s Bond would kill somebody then quip about it. The situations and predicaments could be darkly humorous. But in Diamonds Are Forever, an alleged comedian trots out in front of a Vegas audience and tells what are supposedly *jokes*–and despite the laughter, there’s obviously nothing funny about them. They are in fact the *least* humorous lines in the movie.

    It could be that they wanted to make his jokes lame on purpose, but I always get ancy and mad at that part. Any real comedian would bomb with material that lousy! Not that those Bond films were particularly realistic, but that moment jars me out of the story, because it seems even less credible than anything else in the movie, and in an old Bond film that’s saying a lot.

    Humor is a lot harder than it looks–you can find many more comic actors crossing over and doing drama than dramatic actors taking to the stand-up comedy circuit. Comedy isn’t just if you have it or you don’t; it’s something you work at, and learn. And you have to edit viciously. You have to throw away most of the jokes you write, because most of them stink, and the ones you keep will need to be worked on.

    There are actually some decent books on learning humor and comedy writing. It’s a skill, just like any other.

  5. Nice viewpoint. In my defense I have a bad habit of using the word joke when humor is actually more accurate. Yeah jokes tend to interrupt the flow, though they can be used if done correctly. David Drake , i believe, has actually inserted bad jokes as bad jokes. And called them bad jokes in the narrative, saying something on the order of telling the same old bad jokes is a way some people relieve tension

  6. When I set out to write “funny” I try to avoid the laugh track feel. The characters should commit to the joke and play it straight — the reader will do all the laughing needed. No humorous glances to the audience after the punchline, or holding up the LAUGH card. But that’s just me, and trying to create the same feeling as an in-joke with friends or a silly family tradition. Humor is a delicate art…

      1. Unless you hit them over the head with the joke wrapped around a baseball bat, and it’s part of a Larry Curly & Moe skit…

        But that, of course assumes there’s folks that laugh at physical humor. Considering the pile of fail that was Warner Bros, how generations of children molded their stiff upper lips upon the pratfalls of Tom & Jerry, Wiley E. Coyote, et. al., it remains highly unlikely that this would be funny.

        Oh well. We could always explore the irony of bad anvil puns- drat, there it goes again, more bad attempts at cartoon humor. Apologies, won’t happen again.

  7. It takes a special sense of the absurd, either innate or developed over time, to do humor well in the written word. And trying to find a balance between things that are screamingly funny to insiders (Con goers and fen, for example, or paramedic humor) and things that the novice reader will realize are supposed to be amusing.

    My sense of humor tends to be very dry, so I’ve given up using much of it in writing. Without the voice tones and body language, *thud* the joke just lies on the floor like an exceedingly dead carp. But I do write inside jokes for my characters that the readers may not get, as a way to show the characters’ relationships and background.I’ve tried writing three bits of satire, and the only way I can do it is to write with a perfectly straight face, as it were. Did it work? I don’t know yet.

    1. I fear that as well, my sense of humor has been described as parched 😀 I haven’t tried humor in fiction yet. I hope my humor in my nonfiction comes through. I have no way to know

  8. Personally, I love inserting pun names, but then breaking them up so it’s not obvious. In one short I had a fighter pilot, Lt. Nem. Her call sign was “Candy” and her first name was Emma. I spread the parts out even further than that in the text. I don’t know how many people will catch that, but I’m sure the ones who do will get a laugh for their reward.

    1. Maybe they will laugh maybe not. The pun is the lowest form of humor. As Cedar noted above I revel in low humor. It will certainly either get a grin oir a snarl though. I like it\

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