Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An ice skater walks into a bar...

I started listening to classical music at a very young age. Like, 10. Not because I liked classical music, but because I liked the idea that I was the type of person who liked classical music. I was serious. A serious artist. Deep and dramatic and full of meaning.

Enter Tonya Harding. Remember her? Just before the 1994 Olympics, she conspired to injure her fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan so that she could win the gold. Suddenly, the nation actually cared about figure skating, and I found myself sitting with my family in front of the television as people performed these ultra-smooth routines on the ice.

Me, being the serious artist, focused on the serious skaters, the ones who had their heartbreaks choreographed. I was baffled when the rest of my family preferred the likes of Scott Hamilton. Scott Hamilton? The funny one? Really?

It would take me years to finally realize that the reason Scott Hamilton (aka, the other Scott) was so special was because he actually brought joy to people's lives. I was so focused on being serious that I didn't realize how wonderful it felt to actually laugh once in awhile. I learned my lesson, though. I now appreciate the value of humor and joy. But, after ignoring it for the majority of my life, I still feel pretty scared to actually write anything funny.

So, I ask you. Do you write funny moments in your stories? And, if so, how do you do it?


  1. Yes, but I didn't know it was funny. Maybe lightly amusing but not funny. My best friend/cheerleader commented to me yesterday that my work she just read was so funny she read it out loud to her husband. Keep in mind I said "BF/Cheerleader" but hey, I'll take what I can get.

  2. My sense of humor trends toward more dry sarcasm than anything, so the banter between my characters reflects that.

    It helps that my female MC has an abundance of sass, so she can get away with saying a few things that other characters might not be able to.

    Example: Two men call her whore and ask how much she charged. MC proceeds to wipe the floor with them, and then informs them that the beating was free.

  3. Like you, Davin, I have longed to be a Very Serious Artist for a while, and thus not only didn't write anything except for Very Serious Stories, I also didn't read. Then last week I picked up Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man, a very funny fantasy novel about Death being given his pink slip. I'm suddenly thinking I've had the wrong idea all along.

  4. I never set out to be funny, I just write things that tickle my funny bone- which usually results in me falling out of my chair with tears in my eyes.

    And the looks I get at coffee shops. I swear, its like sitting alone in a coffee shop with a computer for hours on end while laughing my ass off is weird or something=)

  5. I think funny is one of the hardest things to write. My husband says I'm funny, but that's mostly his reaction to my snarky one-liners in response to stuff he says. I can be funny when playing off someone else. It's harder to be funny in my writing.

    I like to have one or two "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" characters to break the tension. I pull them into the scenes when I need comic relief.

  6. In my WIP, I am having all the most profound and serious questions and observations being spoken by a crass old woman who trips on mushrooms.

    That's how I'm resolving the issue of putting deep philosophical content into my fantasy book without letting it get too serious or heavy-handed.

    I actually find it easier to digest profound truths when they are presented in humorous form--I'm thinking of Douglas Adams, South Park, Colbert, Paul Mooney, etc. Life is absurd, and humanity is messy. That's some serious truth right there.

  7. You crack me up, Davin! A little ten year old deciding to be a Serious Artist. Did you wear a lot of black too? I do hope you like classical music.

    I do write funny, not always intentionally though. Because I write for children who love to laugh, I feel a certain comfort doing it. Plus, it gives me, a Fellow Serious Artist, (hey you, you there, yes, you may stop laughing now) freedom to be lighthearted.

  8. "Death is easy. Comedy is hard." So very true. I do write humor into my work, even the dark stuff. You have to. Life without humor would be unbearable. I write humor by drawing on 63+ years of living and a diverse life it has been. A Catholic Seminary, 20 years in the military, college and 19 years in a factory. Funny things happen all around you. Observe, take notes, steal shamelessly from others--all great comics do. Then rework it, shape it in your own image and put it out there. Someone will laugh.

  9. Yes, I write funny. At least, I try. I didn't start off attempting humor. In my head, my first book was scary. Real scary. It just didn't turn out that way on paper.

    Do you think kudos, awards, good reviews, etc, tend to be lavished more heavily on serious books than funny? I've heard that complaint about movie awards--that Oscars seldom go to humorous flicks. I wonder if the same bias exists in literature.

  10. Girl with One Eye, the first time I wrote something funny was a complete accident. I had thought my story, "Dolores" was serious, but when I read it out loud, everyone kept laughing.

    Matthew, Thanks for the great example! On occasion, I have written funny characters before, and it seemed slightly easier because it wasn't ME who was being funny, but my character.

    Loren, I was the same way. I avoided funny works because I wasn't giving them enough credit. Now I see how hard that really is to do.

    Zuccini, I LOVE it when writers laugh or cry as a result of their own work!

    Michelle, that's a really great point! When I was writing Rooster, I found myself needing a light character and pulled one in. He does serve as the comic relief.

  11. Davin, this reminds me of the time you told me, as you were reading Monarch, that you kept laughing in spots. I never meant anything in Monarch to be funny, but I think read in a certain light, there's all sorts of humor in there I didn't intend.

    I think humor scares me to death, honestly. It's the most difficult thing to pull off because it either comes naturally to people, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, you have to really understand what funny means. And how do you get that? I'll go do a post about it on my blog, or tomorrow. We'll see.

  12. I have no idea how I'd write a comic novel. No idea at all. But I try to put comedy into my serious novels, because a) real life isn't entirely bleak (real people make jokes; even real life villains have senses of humor), and b) the contrast of humor with seriousness heightens the affect of both. Especially if (now I give away a Trade Secret) you put a funny moment right before the worst thing that happens to your characters.

    How to write funny passages? The same way I make jokes with people in real life, mostly. And I keep an eye out for the absurdities of life and I steal those events for my fiction. Most importantly, do not change the style of the prose or announce in any way that a comic moment is at hand. Just write the comic moment as if it's a serious moment. Resist having your characters laugh at each other; that weakens the impulse of the reader to laugh. Same goes with crying, by the way.

  13. My humor is more situational and quippy. It's funny that you don't see yourself as humorous. You crack me up all the time. I love the dry wit.

  14. This is an interesting question. If you are writing a dramatic work with funny moments, it's very different from writing a straight-out comedy. The difference is that if one fails at the funny, it can go largely unnoticed, while if the other fails, it fails in its entirety.

    There are four primary opportunities to insert humor into a work:

    - A line of dialogue
    - A line of narrative
    - An action
    - A situation / scene

    Here are some examples from my various works that I hope illustrate the point:

    Line of Dialogue
    “Mr. Harver, that won’t be necessary. It’s not made with actual fruit. That’s…Fruit is our marketing concept, not part of the production plan.”

    “Well I like it. Fruit’s healthy. People will buy it if it’s got fruit in it. Look what lemons did for dish soap.”

    Line of Narrative

    He loved to recap things during billable hours. There was a lot of money to be made needlessly discussing the past.

    An Action

    Frustrated to the point of despair, Rudy did the only thing he could think of. He walked to the microphone, opened his mouth wide against the inside of his elbow, and blew as hard as he could. It was a trick he had witnessed many times on the playground, and for other kids it produced loud nasty fart sounds without fail. But the other kids must have practiced alone in the bathroom to perfect their tone. Rudy never did that. When you’re constantly getting in trouble because you can’t stop farting for real, the last thing you need to do is to learn how to fake-fart.

    Rudy’s attempt at a fake-fart resulted in a choppy squeak that sounded like a mouse with the hiccups.

    A Situation / Scene

    Rudy stood at the front of the room facing the class and began to read his report. “My book was The Little Engine That Could...”

    Pfffft! Rudy farted. Not a Big One, but it was loud enough to echo down the hallway. The whole class started giggling, and Rudy heard the kids in the class across the hall giggle, too.

    “Kids, calm down. Rudy, please continue,” Mrs. Miller said, sitting at her desk.

    “It’s about a train that tries to…”

    Pfffffffffft! Rudy farted again, longer this time and just as loud.

    More giggles. Rudy continued, “I mean, the train has trouble going…”
    PFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFT! This one lasted for almost a minute, and it was loud enough to rattle the chalkboard and turn the chalk in the tray into dust.

    Open laughter shook the room. Aaron Rogers laughed so hard he fell out of his chair. Mrs. Miller stood up and walked to the front of the room.

    “Rudy, you need to stop expelling gas. It’s getting very disruptive,” she said. “Class, flatulence is a natural bodily function. It is not funny.”

    That may have been true for most adults, but not for most kids. For most kids, farts were funny. Very funny. In fact, the only kid Rudy knew who didn’t think farts were funny was his sister Judy. But she didn’t think anything was funny, so she didn’t count.

    “The train keeps saying I think I…”

    “I think I...”

    “I think I…”

    Rudy was belting them out on purpose now, trying his hardest to make his friends laugh. Rudy relished every last chuckle. Unfortunately for him, Mrs. Miller did not.

  15. Ha! Er... no. I don't write funny in my stories. Wry humor, perhaps, but almost never funny. My brain doesn't go there in my fiction, for some reason.

    Perhaps that's why I don't mind being a complete dork on my blog and in comment sections, and such--maybe I'm overcompensating for my dark, angst-ridden fiction. Huh. Any psychologists out there have an answer for me? Anyone?

    Ah, never mind...

  16. Genie, Watch the shrooms! Actually, I think it's really cool that you're balancing out your insight like that. It's something I always thought was really cool in Shakespeare plays.

    Yat-Yee, Only because you mentioned it, I didn't wear black. But, I had a blacklight in my bedroom and stenciled lines of poetry and song lyrics all over my walls. I was that kind of kid. Now, thankfully, I'm 100% normal. No, make that 101% normal. And, I love classical music now.

    Chuck, these days, on the rare occasions that I do try to be funny, I tend to rely on honesty. I think that tends to work pretty well. :)

    Amy, I'm not sure of this by any means, but I do think that serious books tend to be taken more seriously and get more awards and prizes. That's not right at all, but I'd guess that was how the system works. Hopefully I'm wrong! I'd assume it depended on who was deciding on the award winners.

    Michelle, Yeah, writing humor is totally scary for me too. I think that it feels more self-conscious than the other emotions. It feels like a declaration, "Hey, I'm trying to be funny" which would make it harder to take if it flopped.

    Scott, those are really good tips. I think I wrote in a joke once and had a character laugh. It felt so strange, like laugh tracks in a sitcom. I eventually deleted it. The absurdities of life are indeed often funny.

    Lois, I think I'm funnier now than I was as a kid just because I've lightened up a lot. I'm less scared of making a fool of myself and more willing to be honest. That's my approach to being funny in real life, but I don't do it as much in my fiction, unfortunately. I would like to do it more.

  17. Lady Glamis led me over here because I accidentally snatched her blog topic today (can you learn to be funny?). Guess everyone is writing about humor today. :)

    I write a lot of humor and sarcasm in my stories because that is my natural voice. It's not something I do consciously or plan. I have more trouble writing the serious parts.

    I think anything can be learned, but some people are just going to be naturally stronger in some areas.

  18. Never intentionally funny, but my first story that ever got published had my critique group in stiches. It was a serious story! Or so I thought.

  19. I can't help making fun at my own characters.
    Listen, if you can't make fun of your characters, then maybe you're drawing them too perfectly. They should have ugly flaws just like everyone else.
    I don't think I go out and try to be funny, like "there should be a funny scene here," it just comes out that way, because my other characters see the flaws, and then poke at them.
    I've been writing up a scene where main characters from my different books meet and essentially do this...because out of the context of their own worlds, they are pretty strange people.

  20. Now I have an image (thanks, Yat-Yee) of the ten-year-old Davin in a black turtleneck, scribbling poetry in a journal. I think I was an intense kid, too, but I'm glad to say sometimes I'm funny and I've had crit partners laugh at something I wrote. It always surprises me. My favorite books lace humor in with the drama.

  21. As a personal opinion the funniest moments in my stories come as ones I never planned. They're the ones that flowed organically out of my fingers, dictated by the characters, and which lend vivacity and lightness to otherwise serious moments.

  22. Oh, Davin! We're so the opposite--I'm the funny girl who had to learn that I could be serious :)

  23. My stories always have some funny moments in them! I am drawn to love and laughter...rom coms are my favorite genre of is funny and nothing makes me feel better than laughing!

  24. I love reading a book that makes me laugh. I wish I had that talent, but it's hard for me. I think a lot of it is just fear of trying to be funny and falling flat. But I'm getting more adventurous about it, I think.

  25. Rick, thanks for your examples! They're wonderful. I don't really ever read those books, but I must say I am excited about yours!

    Simon, I think that's a really good point. I'm the same way, although I do try harder now to include funny moments in my stories. Whether you think this blog is funny or not, it's far funnier than my fiction.

    Roni, I agree. More and more I try to stick to my natural personality profile. Or, maybe it's better to say that I try to stay proportional to my personality profile. Most of my work has been serious, with-hopefully-little bits of humor in it.

    Judith, I had that same experience, not with my first publication, but with another story I wrote. It was fascinating, because the story was included in this stage show, where an actor did a dramatic reading of it, and afterwards I got to talk to him about whether or not it was funny or serious, and he said he had contemplated reading it both ways before deciding on funny.

    Andrew, that mix and match sounds awesome. I used to fantasize about having all my novels be linked so that different characters spill over into different stories. That may still happen.

    Tricia, Ugh, yes, I was a serious kid. :P I've outgrown that.

    Stephanie, for me now, I find that funny moments happen when I'm the most honest. I think there's something funny and sympathetic about a person openings themselves up to the crazy little contradictions in their personalities.

    Beth, That's definitely what I would have guessed for you. Now, in my daily life, people are always a little stunned when I crack a joke. They say they can't tell if I'm serious or not. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it's just strange.

    Stephanie, I think laughter and joy is definitely healing. That was the realization I made when I noticed how much my family appreciated funny things--I was the youngest in the family and probably hadn't built up enough real drama to want to avoid it in my art.

    Susan, I'd say keep at it! I was lucky because I didn't know that the first funny thing I wrote was supposed to be funny. It was sort of like being thrown into a cold vat of slime. Just take the plunge.


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