Some novelists can write books with amazing drama, but when it comes to humor they get stuck. A few of them have told me that watching how easily major comedy performers like Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock fill a room with laughter, makes them feel doubly frustrated.
Personally, I don’t believe anyone is humor challenged. Very few people come out of the womb with a great sense of humor. Humor is mostly learned through trial and error.
As well, the truth is that the humor you use in novels and short stories is a different animal than the humor performer’s use.
Standup comedy is a one-dimensional profession. What I mean by that is, as a comedian, you’re only job is to tell many jokes during a show, one right after the other. The jokes are what keep the audience hooked.
On the other hand, writing novels and short stories is two dimensional. We have the humor but we also have the story. It is the story that keeps the reader glued to our books. We’re adding in humor to give our tales a little extra sparkle.
While comics must create jokes that elicit gales of laughter, our humorous material is generally more subtle, and based on character and situation.
Here are some simple tips that anyone, even if you feel you are humor-challenged, (believe me you’re not,) can use to add that sparkle to their books and short stories.
1) Write it down
Most of us, at gatherings or out with our friends, say or do things that sometimes get laughs. Make a note of them. Later, when you’re writing your novel/short story, see if some of this material might fit into it.
The great thing is that these bits have already been tested. You know they’re funny because they already received laughs. This material may even suggest new stories. As well, the act of simply writing down amusing material will improve your humor IQ.
If you hear other people having a fun conversation or see them do something that sparks laughter, write it down as well.
2) Use Humorous Words
In Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys, the main character, a vaudeville comedian, teaches his nephew about comedy. He explains that words with k sounds are amusing. “Alka Seltzer is funny. You say ‘Alka Seltzer’ you get a laugh … Words with ‘k’ in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny.”
While the above is certainly true, there are also other words that don’t have k’s which are fun, such as bumfuzzle, collywobbles, or taradidle. (You can find more of these online.)
So if you have a character who’s supposed to be humorous, you might give him a lot of k words in his dialogue. You can also have him repeat a word such as “bumfuzzle,” every time he gets frustrated. Creating a character that has a habit of using odd words can also create some fun in your story.
3) Create Humorous Situations
Humorous situations are generally based on putting a character in an awkward position.
In an episode of a TV show, a man wore a flowery shirt and his friends teased him about it being a woman’s top. The man kept on saying that was ridiculous. Then a woman sat beside him wearing the identical shirt. You can see the awkward situation this puts the man in, and how that makes it funny.
I’ll give you an example of a humorous situation that actually happened to a friend of mine. He went to a Game of Thrones costume party at a hotel and got drunk. The next day he slept in and rushed to his office because the boss was having a meeting with the top clients. He walked into the meeting still wearing a dragon costume from the night before. When he told me about it, I thought it was hilarious. (He didn’t feel the same way at the time.)
Often what adds to the fun in these situations is the reaction from other people when they see the character in the awkward situation.
One of the key elements of humor is surprise. When a mother plays peek-a-boo with her baby, the baby is shocked when she sees the mom again. This makes her laugh.
So how can we use this in our writing? Simple. Just throw in something unexpected. Suppose you have one character saying, “I’m heading to the store for milk, cheese and eggs.” Pretty normal. To add a surprise, you simply change the last word to something surprising. Perhaps something like–
“I’m going to the store for milk, cheese and a cow.”
“What are you talking about, a cow?”
“You’re right if I get the cow I don’t need the milk and cheese.”
By adding in the cow we’ve given the reader something unexpected. That makes us smile or laugh.
Another example of surprise is found in a book for young readers, entitled, Dustin Grubbs: One Man Show by John J. Bock. In this story, Dustin is celebrating his grandmother’s birthday when suddenly her dentures fly out of her mouth. This is totally out of the blue so it is very funny.
Exaggeration is one of the simplest forms of humor. All you have to do is make things a lot bigger than they are. For example, instead of saying the lady at the kennel was tall, you might say that she was taller than ten Great Danes stacked on top of one another.
You can see here how we took the biggest dog and stacked ten of them together. Then we’re exaggerating by saying the lady is even taller.
You can also use exaggeration in terms of character traits. Instead of just describing someone as vain, you might have them look in the mirror many times a day, adjusting their hair. Maybe they’re always trying to catch their reflection in a store window or even someone’s drinking glass. You can see how this exaggerates their vanity and creates humor.
6) Give your dialogue attitude and specifics
The voice of your character often makes them humorous. We get that by adding in attitude and making specific references.
To indicate a character is starving, you might say, “I’m telling you, if I don’t pig out on some Cheesy Puffs in the next two minutes, I’ll go into shock!” You can see how the attitude and the specifics give it humor.
Instead of your protagonist saying, “I exercised every day and didn’t see any results,” she might say, “I spent weeks sweating like an elephant in heat, and didn’t lose a freaking ounce.” You can see how this creates some fun here too.
This is related to most of the previous examples in that when anything humorous is repeated a few times in a novel or short story, it becomes funnier. In standup comedy circles this is known as a ‘callback,’ because we’re ‘calling back’ to that word, phrase or situation.
In the sitcom, Friends, Joey was portrayed as a ladies’ man, Every time he tried to ‘pick up’ a woman, he would say, “how you doin'” This became funnier the more he repeated it.
This can also apply to a funny situation that is repeated as well. Suppose after the incident with the man wearing the women’s top, the character wants to prove that he’s a rough and tumble kind of guy. So he gets what he thinks is a very manly shirt. But when he wears this one, he, again, sees a woman with the same top, and his friends laugh even more.
The above are just a few of the simple ways you can incorporate humor into your novel or short story. If you’d like to learn more about how to work with humor, check out my workshop, “Funny Business—how to add humor to short stories and novels. starts Monday!