Is Humor Necessary? by Steve Shrott

Writers sometimes ask whether we should use humor in our genre novels. After all, thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi books etc. are meant to be exciting, and mysterious, but not funny.

My answer is that if you examine most novels today, you’ll find that they have some fun scenes. Authors have realized that they need this type of material to help capture and hold a reader’s attention.  Even Stephen King who writes horror, a genre where you wouldn’t think there would much to laugh at, uses humor.

Let’s examine some of the reasons why we should add the ‘fun stuff’ to our novels.

1) Humor helps our characters be more relatable

In our day to day lives, we have many exchanges with others that involve humor. It is often how we relate to each other as human beings. Victor Borge, the famous Danish comedian said that humor is the shortest distance between two people. So it’s only natural that we should include it in our books. After all, we’re trying to make the reader believe that our characters and the world they live in are real.

2) Humor heightens tension

It’s well known that humor can release tension, but humor can heighten it as well. Hitchcock was well known for doing this in his movies. You might have a scene where there is a group of friends having dinner together at someone’s house. They’re joking and laughing and everyone is having a great time. Then we see a window where there’s a man with a gun aimed at someone at the party. You can see how showing all the fun stuff first, and then suddenly shifting to the danger, surprises the reader and ratchets up the tension. The tension is also increased because the fun-loving party people don’t know about the man with the gun.

3) Humor makes our characters likeable

Most people who have a good sense of humor are well liked. In addition, according to recent research, this indicates that a person has many other qualities such as intelligence, creativity, flexibility of thought and being good natured. Just by adding that one trait we are giving our characters many more good qualities.

So what if your character is less than likeable? What do you do with him then? Well you can make him deadly serious. That may be appropriate in some situations. However, if he’s your main character, I’d suggest you give him some fun banter or put him in an amusing situation. Although the reader will not be thrilled about the character’s bad qualities, they will still be hooked on following him due to the humor. This is done all the time in romantic-comedy movies where (usually) the male protagonist is funny, but has some issues. By the end of the movie, of course, we see that he has arc-ed and become a better person.

4) Humor helps us eliminate any boring sections

Let’s face it, many novels have dull parts. It’s definitely hard to avoid having them. There have times when I’ve reached the middle of a book I was reading, and the author launches into some completely boring material. At that point, I just toss the book aside. We don’t want that to happen to our novels. Humor once again could come to the rescue. If we add some fun material to these sections, we can make them more exciting for the reader.

As well, sometimes back story can be a bit tedious. Humor allows us to inform the reader about past events in a fun way. I’m sure we would rather have her read our material with a grin rather than her saying “Oh no, not more stuff that happened twenty years ago.”

5) Humor makes our character’s relationships clear

When people in real life have an amusing conversation with one another, it shows how close they are. You generally don’t joke around with someone who you don’t know well or don’t like. The same holds true when we read fun dialogue between two characters. Take this example from the novel, The Woods, written by bestselling thriller writer, Harlan Coben. In this passage, investigator Loren Muse has just entered the county prosecutor’s office.

Lawyer Flair Hickory looks over at her.

“Dear God what are you wearing?”

Muse sat up. “What?”

“Your wardrobe. It’s like a frightening new Fox reality show:  When policewomen dress themselves. Dear God. And those shoes…”

“They’re practical.” Muse said.

“Sweetheart, fashion rule one: The words, shoes and practical  should never be in the same sentence.”

You can see how close these two people are because of the teasing. When I used to write wedding speeches, I would always try to indicate some ‘cute’ conflicts that the couple had with one another. This showed the loving relationship between them.

6) Humor helps your work be remembered

If you want people to remember your book, toss in some witty lines. Think about it, when people talk about a book or movie they’ve seen, what they recall a lot of times is the amusing dialogue exchange. I don’t remember much about the movie, “Forest Gump,” but I do recall the line, “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

7) Humor improves our writing

Up until now, I’ve been talking about the effect humor has on the reader. However, it also has an effect on us as writers. I have noticed that when I’m working on a humorous project rather than a serious one, it seems as if my thinking improves. I find it easier to come up with creative solutions to problems. It could be that when you’re creating humor, your brain has to coral all the neurons and synopsis into working together in a very specific way.

8) Humor prevents our sad story from being a total downer

Often times we have a story to tell that has some sadness to it. For example, our character may have a progressive disease or is dying. However, if we can give the narrator a unique fun voice, we can make the story easier to take. Look at this opening about a young boy named Tony (Remembering Tomorrow by Ronald Marsh.)

“When I heard about my science teacher being in the hospital I felt bad. At first I thought it might have been that he had written so many detention slips for me that he had wrecked his arm. But then I learned it was much more serious than that. He had cancer.”

If the author had started off with the more serious element, the reader might not have continued with the story. But by beginning with some humor, he automatically hooked the reader.

9) Humor is fun to write and read

There’s no doubt about it, writing and reading humor makes us feel good.

And if we are in a good mood while writing that first draft of the story, I would venture to say that it would make our novels better. Writing while in a happy frame of mind enables our creativity to soar.

As well, if we can make our readers feel good at certain points in our book with our humor, they’ll enjoy our novel that much more.

If you’d like to learn more about adding humor to your novel or short story, please join me for my course, Adding Humor to Novels and Short Stories with Steve Shrott – August 10th – August 23rd.

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...