Friday, March 28, 2008

Novel Writing: Humor Me

I'm spending a few weeks sharing tips and observations about novel writing. This week I'm going to focus on one of my favorite topics: humor. I've read many novels and believe over and over that light touches of humor would have improved the stories.

What is humor? I think in the simplest terms it is the ability of people, objects, situations or words to make us experience amusement or happiness. I do think that humor is really about touching the the universal incongruities that are connections between us all. Think about this quote from Jane Austen. "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?" Just so, Jane. Just so. Humor is something decidedly human. It's the slant in our worldview that brings much needed levity into our lives. We need that light in our stories.

Consider. It is hard to make someone laugh, especially without the support of any visual enhancement, like rolled eyes, yuk-yuks or guffaws. Still, this kind of writing is generally considered base and inconsequential. Humorous books usually don't win awards, but they do win the hearts of readers. I still have a dog-eared copy of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in my favorite books box under my bed. Destroying the Earth to make room for an interstellar highway touches the universal inside me. We all connect with the idea of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. I'm still laughing.

How do we incorporate humor into our books? Think of a book as a hand of cards, one played after another. The best writers are aware that jokers are lurking in the deck. Think about this first line of a book that is serious as a heart attack, Feed. "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck." This line haunts me and makes me laugh at the same time. In Feed by M. T. Anderson nails the mix of humor and tragedy that is a spot on reflection of life. His observation certainly touches the universal feeling within us all that the great adventure of our life has often turned out to suck. As a collective we can connect with that idea. This is the heart of humor.

Humor relieves intense pain. Humor binds people together. Humor brings us together to laugh and play. It is an emotional response that is derived from the power of words. Our response to humor is instinctive. It is a response to the social nature of the human condition. Our minds search for patterns within stories. Think about this familiar pattern: Boy gets girl; boy loses girl. Boy gets girl again. Now let's disrupt the pattern: Boy gets girl; boy loses girl. Girl kicks boy's ass. The disruption of the pattern creates an opportunity for humor. Look for places to surprise your reader. When a familiar connection is disrupted and an alternative unexpected new link is created, the result can be a big laugh.

Look for opportunities to twist the familiar patterns. Step into satire. Try to get more out of humor by adding a barb of the writer's firm belief to that one liner. You can generate humor by approving of things you really wish to attack. Don't underestimate the power of humor.

Wow, I've got a lot to say about this topic! I'll write more about the nuts and bolts of generating a laugh later. I hope that you have found something here that will bring power to your storytelling. Think about it. Write it. Make them laugh.

When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.
William Shakespeare

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