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.”