I’m not talking about writing comedy per se. I’m talking about giving a too-serious book some oomph. (Oomph is funny. Ooh-la-la is erotica, and that’s a different post.) It’s not for every author or every book, but if you’re looking for ways to add a lighter touch to your work in progress, consider this:
1. Say what everyone else is thinking but would never say. Explore why you, too, love disco. You have always loved disco and yes, you, like everyone, have had angry sex in the back of a taxi. It made you feel disappointed in yourself and oddly Germanic. But that was this afternoon, so let’s not live in the past and…
2. Punch up, not down. This is why Jon Stewart is funny and Rush Limbaugh isn’t. Rush mocks the poor while Stewart goes after power. Mocking our betters is what betters are for, apparently. Not many of them seem to be good for much else.
3. Have a sense of humor about yourself and let your protagonist be less monolithic, too. Self-deprecating humor works because, well…few of us are really that great but anybody who thinks they’re great sounds like a donkey. Watch Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity and fall in love with John Cusack (again) because of that funny vulnerability. John Cusack is a funny puppy in those movies (even when he’s killing people for profit.)
4. Juxtaposition can be funny. For instance, I wrote on Twitter that I had an awkward encounter with someone I’d accidentally insulted. I added, “Hiding in my office. Like a man!”
5. Twist it. “I love kids. Not mine, but…” Attack jokes are hard to pull off without supreme confidence. They’re more suited to villains or more minor characters who have a terrible vengeance coming to them. When the boss is caustic and sarcastic, the reader will achieve greater satisfaction when the twit is hoisted screaming by his own penis. Or someone else’s. Hey, I’m not here to judge your book.
6. Find the funny in the character. In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon would add Xander to a scene to deliver a particular line because, though everyone on the show could be funny, a Xander joke coming from Willow’s mouth would break Willow’s character. Jokes and characters have a point of view, so make sure the joke sounds right coming from your character.
The jokes that spring from my autistic hero in This Plague of Days originate in his innocence. He doesn’t see the world as others do so he often says the unexpected, but from his unique, laconic perspective. There is nothing angry or world-weary in his observations, only wide-eyed, what the heck are they doing now and why? This is normal?
7. Don’t be afraid to deliver a line in a low-key way. In Bigger Than Jesus, Jesus Diaz gets beaten terribly. His girlfriend, the lovely Lily, finds him lying on his kitchen floor icing his blackened eyes. When she tells him that his situation does not look good, the hit man deadpans, “I don’t know why you’d say that.”
8. Outrageous works. Rants can be awesome. Give it a context to sell it and an entertaining rant can go a long way. For instance, in this little Season 3 spoiler from This Plague of Days, Shiva gets some good lines:
“Please don’t hurt anybody.”
“Darling, I’m the Queen of Hearts.”
“So, you’ll rule with love?”
“No, stupid. I mean I can say, ‘Off with their heads,’ at any time. Love takes time, Rahab. Fear takes root in the second it takes to slap a child.”
9. Writing jokes is difficult. There are many more comedians than there are comedians who are really killing. To improve your chances of hitting the right notes to a killer joke, don’t sweat it so hard on your first draft. Jokes are easier to find and unearth when you’ve already laid the foundation of character, action and dialogue. Jokes are for the second and third pass where you’ve already got something to riff from. Lots of people aren’t quip machines on their own, but when they hang out with friends and loosen up, they can bounce lots of funny ideas off what’s already in the ether over the cocktail bar.
10. A joke is set up, punch. The punch should be fast and short. Don’t reach for it. Eschew dumb, easy jokes and never make a joke you have to explain. Use the fewest words possible to get to the POW!
BONUS: Why is funny important?
I write suspense. I deliver on a lot of grim scenaria. Horror presents many opportunities to be funny because both scares and laughs are about playing with the audience’s brains and delivering the unexpected. When the reader expects you to zig, zag. These devices are necessary because few readers want to read a long horror story if it’s not an emotional roller coaster. The horror on the next page will have a heavier punch if I can get you to chuckle on this page.
One of the things I don’t like about some books is that they are relentlessly monotone. The reader begins to feel like there’s little emotional payoff and the book becomes a grim march to the finish. Grim can be fun, but a book with only one tone and no cookies and candy along the way isn’t rewarding the reader with enough wit. One tone for a whole book is so hard to pull off, I don’t recommend trying it in most genre fiction. Life’s tough enough. We all need comic relief. (Yes, I can think of exceptions, but I’d rather read the exceptions less often.)
Funny helps your characters. In Die Hard (the original), the hero gets a lot of funny lines. Bruce Willis was a lot easier to like when he was more of a hapless, shoeless badass instead of being the go-to smart ass tough guy out of the gate. Heroes in real danger are compelling. Heroes who face that danger with at least some appreciation for the absurd? We love a wry hero more than the strong, silent type.
Hold back on the easy joke if it saps another emotion’s power moment. In the final battle for the survival of the human race, don’t let your hero suddenly turn into Andy Dick. (If your villain in that scenario suddenly turns into Andy Dick, however, that could work.)
It’s not that hard to give your reader a story with emotional range. Send in the clowns. When you’re done terrifying them with clowns, give them something to laugh at and light some tax accountants on fire.
~ I’m Robert Chazz Chute and some people think I’m funny. I wasn’t always funny. I learned that when you hide your rage behind jokes, you get fired less. I’m not very funny on Twitter, but it would be cool if you followed me there @rchazzchute.
If you like to laugh, and breathe, and eat things, then continue laughing, I recommend Bigger Than Jesus. Bestselling author of Vigilante, Claude Bouchard called it “Wickedly real and violently funny!” and Claude would not lie. Seriously, he wouldn’t. I tried to get him to write me a better blurb, but that’s it.