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Humor-izing Your Novel or Short Story by Steve Shrott

Most stories have a couple of ‘colors,’ so to speak.

By that I mean, elements such as suspense, tension, and emotional content. The more of these different colors you use, the more interesting your story becomes.


Humor is another color we can add.

If you feel that your story is becoming dull, a little humor can liven it up. Once you’ve added the humor, here are nine questions that you might want to ask yourself.


1) Is my Humor Meaningful?

The humor you add must have a purpose. Does it move the plot along, introduce a character, or give us new information about the protagonist? Is it there to release tension from a previous scene where someone was murdered, or a big argument erupted?

If the humor has a purpose, then it’s worth having in your book or story.

One novel I read had the main character not getting along with the neighbor’s dog. Those were funny scenes which also showed the character’s inability to make friends, even of the canine variety. So if you find that your humor is there just to be funny, then you might think twice about including it.


2) Does the Humor in my Dialogue seem real?

By this I mean, does the humor come naturally out of conversation or does it seem as if it’s just stuffed into the dialogue? I’ve read stories where the leading characters spoke in one-liners that seemed like they came from a bad joke book. That isn’t the way people talk, and it takes away from the reality of your story.

People usually joke in very simple ways, and generally, not all the time. If the humor in your dialogue doesn’t seem natural, most people will stop reading your story. It can be very helpful to listen to conversations and see how people use humor.


3) Is there a Story, without the Humor?

I’ve read some short stories and novels that had very funny sections. However, because there was no actual story with highs and lows or forward movement, they didn’t work.

There needs to be more than just the fun aspect to make everything come together. I have to admit that some of my stories have lots of jokes in them. But there’s definitely a plot and character motivation. So no matter how funny your humor is, it won’t save a book that doesn’t have a real story behind it.


4) Is There Enough Conflict to make the Humor Work?

Even stories that are meant to be totally humorous must have serious sections. There needs to be conflict which makes the reader worry about the main character. That’s a key element that keeps the reader reading.

For example, I wrote a story about a dentist going to one of his patient’s houses for Thanksgiving—only the patient is a mobster. It’s a fun story, but at one point, the dentist is going to be murdered if he doesn’t figure out who shot one of the guests. So make sure there is conflict in addition to the humor.


5) Does my Humor Surprise the Reader?

One theory of humor is that people laugh due to surprise. When you tell a joke and hit them with the punch line, it surprises them and causes them to laugh. So you want your humor to be unexpected. You want to look at what you’ve written and ask yourself,

“will this be surprising to the reader?”

If it’s not, you might want to figure out what would be the most unlikely thing to happen at this moment in your story? A great way to surprise the reader is to throw the humor into a scene that’s dramatic.

Just as an example, perhaps a woman and her boyfriend are having a fight about their relationship. During the fight a bird flies into the open window and lands on the guy’s shoulder. Who can keep fighting when a small bird is sitting on your significant other’s shoulder? This would be funny because it’s a surprise out of left field. It also would be meaningful as it could bring the couple closer together.


6) Am I using Different Types of Humor?

Some forms of humor are a lot of fun to write, even addictive. One such type is ‘repetition,’ where you repeat some phrase, or action for humorous effect.

One novel I read had the hero looking after someone’s pet monkey. However, the monkey kept giving her the finger. There were several instances of the monkey doing this throughout the novel and it became funnier each time. However, if repetition is the only humor you keep serving up, your novel is going to become dull after a while. So, the trick is to use a variety of humorous techniques.

This author, in fact, used wordplay, slapstick, farce etc. to keep the humor going. By doing this, she appealed to a wide variety of readers knowing that not everyone laughs at the same things.


7) Will the Reader be amused by my Characters?

There are many rules in a comedian’s bag, but there is one that stands out more than others–if people don’t like you to some degree, they won’t laugh at what you say.

In order for us to laugh at your characters, they have to be likeable or at least intriguing.

The simple way to have our readers like our protagonist is to have them do something nice. For example, your lead character could save someone from drowning, or buy groceries for a homeless man who can’t afford them. Once we like them the humor will follow.


8) Am I Writing ‘Humor? or ‘Being Funny?’

Throughout this article, I’ve used the words, ‘humor’ and ‘funny’ to indicate the same thing. However, in actual fact, to me, (someone who has written comedy material for many performers,) those two words are not the same.

I consider, ‘funny’ to be what standup comedians, sitcoms, and funny movies like The Hangover do. In novel form, I consider Janet Evanovich and Dave Barry, funny writers.

However, in my mind, humor, is a lighter form of funny. Many romance novels are humorous. But there are also science fiction, mystery novels that fit this category as well. These are generally meant to make you smile or give you a warm feeling inside.
There’s nothing wrong with writing either type of material. In fact you can use them both in the same book. However, it is helpful to know that these two varieties of humor exist.

If you add something funny at the wrong moment, it can take attention off your story. However, humor, at that same moment might enhance your story.


9) Did I Smile or Laugh when I Wrote my Book?

Make sure when you add the humor that it works for you. If you think it’s fun, there’s a good chance that others will see it the same way.

I would suggest that after you’ve added in the humor, you ask others what they think. If you don’t get any reaction, then you probably need to look at the material again.

But I would definitely get more than one opinion. That’s why comedians try out jokes in front of many audiences before they incorporate them into their act.

If you want to learn more about making your story fun, then join me for my workshop starting next week, How to Add Humor to Novels and Short Stories.


Steve Shrott’s mystery short stories have been published in numerous print magazines and e-zines. His work has appeared in ten anthologies—two fro...