Adding humor to a story    

Do you enjoy reading a humorous story?  I do.  I also enjoy writing them. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I could write a totally serious story if my life depended on it.  Often, I have people who ask me how I come up with the zany things that occur in my stories.  It’s not totally accidental, though sometimes my characters do surprise me.  Adding humor to a manuscript must be planned just as thoroughly as any other aspect of the story.  All authors have their own methods, but if you want your manuscript to be humorous, the following tips might help.

Types of Humor

Let’s start by identifying the main types of humor.

Lower level:
This is the type of humor that requires the least amount of understanding from the audience.  Puns and physical humor fall into this category.  Even a baby will laugh at a funny face or slapstick style pranks. Jokes about socially taboo subjects are also in this level.  There are many comedians who have entire routines about bodily functions and non-politically correct jokes, and their audiences laugh like crazy.

This is not saying that lower level humor is not appreciated--quite the contrary.  In my book TEXAS HOLD HIM my hero names a horse a very inappropriate thing, mostly just to embarrass the heroine.  It’s a social taboo, for sure, but what’s the first thing my readers tell me they loved about the book? You guessed it, the poor horse’s name and my heroine’s reaction to it.

Middle level: This humor category involves an understanding of the reader, but not on a deep intellectual level.  A standard knock-knock joke would be an example of middle level humor. Most people will understand it and see why it’s funny. Other examples of this would be one liners, quips and things quickly understood by all.

Higher level: Parodies, satire and sarcasm all fall into this level. It’s the riskiest type of humor to put into a book because not all readers will “get it”.  It usually involves references to things that require some exposure or education to the topic in order for it to be funny.  It’s also risky to use sarcasm in a novel because it can come across as nasty or caustic.  If you have a character who uses sarcasm in a bantering sort of way, you want to be careful that your reader doesn’t perceive him as mean.  One way to temper that is to use tags that show he/she is teasing.  (IE: the corner of his mouth lifted in a subtle grin or her eyes twinkled playfully) Avoid tagging it as she said sarcastically unless you want it to come across caustic. Just the word “sarcastic” has a negative connotation for most readers.

Perhaps the highest level of humor would be esoteric.  It requires intelligence and a keen wit to understand and without the nuances facial expression and tone gives, it can often be overlooked by a quick reader. It fits well, however, with niche fiction.

Implementing Humor

Now that we’ve identified the major types of humor, how do we work that into a manuscript?

Characters: I heard Jenny Cruise say that when she travels she collects squirrels.  Not the fuzzy kind that eats nuts, but the human kind that really is nuts. She watches for unusual people and makes mental notes on what they do that makes them funny then she uses those traits for secondary characters in her books. It’s a great technique largely because we’ve all seen those squirrels, so when they are introduced in a book, we immediately have a mental picture to associate with the character which makes them funny.

The personalities of the hero and heroine can also make for wonderful humor fodder in a novel. Selecting two very different personalities can open loads of opportunity for funny scenes.  I am particularly fond of exasperation on either my hero or heroine’s part. I also enjoy having the characters think one thing while saying another or even better, one character thinks they’re pulling something over on the other, but when we switch POV’s the reader learns that the other character knows exactly what’s going on.

If you want a humorous novel, consider creating secondary characters that are there mostly for the purpose of making scenes funny. Give them some kind of personality trait that lends itself to fun. For example: a butler who is hard of hearing, a grandmother who collects firearms, or an uncle who thinks he’s the reincarnation of Napoleon.  Or better yet, put all of those in one novel and stand back.  I guarantee something will happen.

Situational humor: This is where physical humor can be used pretty easily. The hero suddenly finds himself locked out of his apartment wearing nothing but boxer shorts and one tennis shoe, and a group of nuns are walking down the street toward him.  Some of you are grinning at that already even though there is no hint of the actual scene or dialogue.  Something about picturing the absurd is funny. 

Maybe your heroine mistakenly thinks the hero is a gay interior designer she called to redecorate her offices instead of the very straight architect who designed the building.  You can take it from there.

In both examples, it’s the situation that makes it funny.  If the hero was fully clothed or no one was walking toward him, it wouldn’t hold nearly the potential.

Conversational humor:

Dialogue: the backbone of most novels and the showcase for your character’s wit and intelligence. Sometimes referred to as banter, it’s the prime opportunity for you to show how your characters interact with each other. As with movies or stage productions, the key to pulling this off is timing.  Use tags and movements to space the comments appropriately so the rhythm of the banter is not lost. If one character says something and the other quips back a reply, don’t put narrative in between or the reader will miss what the quip was in reference to.

Thoughts: Probably my favorite way to add humor.  I love to have my characters think analogies as a scene is unfolding. In my book TEXAS HOLD HIM, my heroine asks a rather annoying female acquaintance a question then “braces” for the answer.  She thinks to herself that asking Eloise a question was like priming a pump. We all know people like that and even though the other character is unaware of the heroine’s thoughts, the reader knows and is probably grinning as she thinks of someone she knows who is just like Eloise.

Words of caution

  • Do not make your hero or heroine into a buffoon.  If you want a goofy character in your book, make it a secondary character. A romance reader wants to fall in love with the hero and be the heroine.  Not too many people want to fall in love with a buffoon.

  • If you are not a funny person, do not attempt to add humor to your books.  Do people often laugh at things you say?  Do people tell you you’re clever?  If not, the chances of you simply coming up with wit in your novel are slim.

  • If the scene does not make you laugh when you’re writing it, it will not make the reader laugh when she’s reading it either.

  • Remember your audience. If you are writing romance, your reader is most likely an adult female. She will appreciate humor directed toward or about men, children, housework, fashion…you get the picture.  It’s usually an easy task for a woman writer.  Think about what you and your friends laugh about when you get together.  Your reader will think those things are funny too

In A MIDWIFE CRISIS the five year old daughter of my hero is singing in the church Christmas pageant when she notices the little boy beside her is plucking feathers from her wings. She reacts as any five year old angel would by clobbering him in front of God and everybody--situational, physical humor that almost any mom would identify with.

  • Don’t add humor in inappropriate places. If a scene is tense and wrought with emotion, don’t throw in humor. It will jar the reader out of the scene and out of the story.  Decide the tone you want for the scene before you start and stay consistent. If you want to add humor to a love scene, remember you are going to sacrifice sexual tension by doing so.
  • Don’t underestimate your reader. When I first started writing, I tempered almost everything I wrote because I was afraid no one would think it was funny except me.  When I finally turned off my internal censor, I sold. 

While it’s true that not all readers will enjoy your sense of humor or your style, there are sure to be many who will. The key is to be true to yourself, keep giggling, and keep writing.



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