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Bringing the Funny: Weaving Humor Into Your World

Of all the subjective subjects to tackle, I think humor is the toughest, perhaps even tougher than religion. It’s with a great deal of trepidation that I wade into this topic, because I know that what’s hilarious to me won’t necessarily work for anyone else. To prove my point, I went to Amazon and read some of the negative reviews of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, I think Douglas Adams’ series is one of the funniest series on this “mostly harmless” planet, but if you skim the 1- and 2-star reviews, there are many comments about how unfunny these books are. See? Humor is subjective.

However, I do think there are a few principles you can use to weave a bit of humor into your work—even (or especially) if your work is dark and grim. And in fact, I think your work should have at least a few attempts at humor. Humor is a big part of life, and if you want to accurately represent life in your work, you should try to bring some humor into it, even if it’s black, dark, or disturbing humor.

Rather than get into very specific ways to “bring the funny,”
I think it’s perhaps more effective to look at principles of humor in general and talk about how to weave them into your work.

  • The principle of pacing. If you’ve ever been to a funeral or memorial service where the heavy mood was broken when someone shared a funny story about the deceased, you understand the need for pacing. We humans can’t just wade through dark, grim, and heavy forever—we need something to break it up. If you’ve just written an intense, heavy, or grim scene, give your audience a break with a little comic relief. Shakespeare was a master of comic relief. Study a few of the plays—even tragedies and histories had scenes with “rude mechanicals” who would break up the grim, dark, intense scenes with slapstick antics and double entendres. Granted, Shakespeare wrote plays, so many of his comic scenes are meant to be seen and not read, but the principle is the same—intersperse heavy and dark with light and funny.
  • The principle of timing. Where pacing considers interspersing dark and grim scenes with funny scenes, timing considers where to put the punchline in specific scenes. Timing recognizes the value of a well-placed line. Some of the best one-liners I’ve ever read come from serious, heavy scenes, and they come off as funny because they’re unexpected. I think a great example of this principle is pretty much every one-liner TyrionLannister has ever had in A Song of Ice and Fire. The Imp has a way of highlighting absurdities with brilliant one-liners even when his life is in danger. Timing is everything.
  • The principle of juxtaposition. To juxtapose is to put two dissimilar things next to each other for the purpose of comparison and contrast. Think of the White Hat Hero next to the Noble Thief or the Deadpan Snarker—the White Hat Hero’s innocence and nobility can make the Noble Thief or Deadpan Snarker’s lines that much funnier. But juxtaposition doesn’t have to be limited to character—you can use something as simple as an unexpected symbol or a bawdy twist to an otherwise mundane line of dialogue. The important thing to realize is that the contrast highlights the humor.

Once you think about the principles of humor, you can think about the tools for introducing it into your work.

  • Descriptive passages. If you’re trying to write a parody, this is a perfect place to include the odd, inane, sarcastic, or ridiculous. Juxtaposition can work very well here—an out-of-place object or descriptive word can catch a reader off-guard and spur a good laugh.
  • Dialogue. The obvious place for humor, dialogue is the place for you to really unleash your inner comedian. But be careful—don’t give your straight-laced, prim characters a lot of snarky lines or your grim, fierce, reticent warriors a lot of comedic monologues. The lines you give your characters should arise naturally from who they are. What you can do is juxtapose your prim princess with a group of noble thieves and make her the straight man. She’ll sound funny and remain in character. Or, give your reticent warrior a few single-word punchlines, delivered at opportune moments (the principle of timing)—in the heat of battle or the midst of a strategy session. Then let others play off his monosyllabic grunts in a humorous way.
  • Subplot. Even if you want your main plot to be serious, dark, or hopeless, you can give your subplot a good dose of humor. A great example would be the various subplots of Silk, aka Prince Kheldar, the Noble Thief of David Eddings’ Belgariad. The Drasnian prince was one of the “good guys,” but some of his off-screen shenanigans were very underhanded and not precisely legal. Even though we didn’t see everything Silk did (since the main POV character was someone else), we did get enough information that when Silk either pulled one over on the bad guys or was himself duped, we could laugh along with the rest of Silk’s noble companions. The main plot could still be about all of the serious business of getting Garion on the Rivan throne and defeating Torak as long as Silk was making us laugh on the side.

And with this article, I’m once again out of ideas! This was the last piece based on suggestions from Fantasy Faction folks back in January (or so). Any more ideas/suggestions for me? Leave them in the comments or send them to me on Twitter (@amyjrosedavis). I look forward to hearing them!

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5 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Phil Norris @pnorris14
    Avoiding fantasy stereotypes.

    Fran @FranTerminiello
    @FantasyFaction @ChuckWendig did a good one on saggy middles recently – more of this please 🙂

    Amy Keeley @amykeeleywriter
    @FantasyFaction How to write strong female characters without making them warriors.

    Nathan FitzPatrick @tea_dragon
    @FantasyFaction I’d be interested to read her take on economic systems in fantasy.

    Roxi Powell @roxipowell
    @FantasyFaction do you find creating character profiles helpful when writing? how do you fix “Mary Sue problems?”

    Alex Shepherd @shep5377
    @FantasyFaction How to start a short story engagingly and effectively.

    Terri Bruce @_TerriBruce
    @FantasyFaction Am wondering when a story should be one epic-fantasy length book and when it should be broken up into multiple books.

  2. Overlord says:

    Thanks for this, Amy! I’m working on three novels at the moment – but the one I’m putting most of my time into does rely very heavily on humour and this article really helps 🙂

    I find that a lot of the comedy in my work comes from conflicts in characters. I have a pretty straight army officer clashing with an Angel who doesn’t really get right and wrong or mortality. I’ve got the son of a God who doesn’t really fancy taking a throne much to the disgust of those from his ‘church’. Being 18 and having God-like looks and a body to match – he is pretty happy going through all the women in surrounding villages – something he’d not have time for should he take the ‘churches’ throne 😉

  3. I second that about Shakespeare. I remember once seeing a production of Hamlet (with Alan Bates) that got almost as many laughs as the average comedy, but it didn’t in any way lessen the impact of the tragedy.

    I’ve actually got a guest blog due out soon about writing comedy, but this concentrates on comparing comic and serious stories. I was surprised to find, thinking about it, that there’s very little difference in the tools you need for the two.

  4. Elfy says:

    It’s very true that humour is necessary. I think some of the books I’ve struggled with most have been due to a lack of humour. It is also true that not everyone finds the same things funny. It’s not an easy thing to inject into a book, but there are ways of doing it that don’t impact on the story too much. Joe Abercrombie’s work is as dark and gritty as it gets, but I crack up nearly every time the Northmen take front and centre, because they are funny.

  5. Maggie says:

    How unexpected to see someone mention The Belgariad! Love, love, love those books and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who read them. That’s what made Silk one of my favorite characters, that he wasn’t completely White Hat — and watching him try to run away from his aunt.

    Good insight on humor. I’ve convinced myself I’m no good at funny, but every now and then something will come together just right.

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