I have this friend named Mike who happens to be a great guy with one major pitfall.
Without fail, every time Mike says something which he intends to be funny he has to follow it up by explaining to his quiet, confused audience that it was actually a joke.
Note: If you have to tell your audience when to laugh, you’re not doing it right.
Humor is a delicate thing, whether it’s at the office water cooler or in the pages of your novel. When executed to perfection, it can achieve the perfect note but when executed poorly it can be corny, confusing or in some cases even offensive.
To toe the line with precision and hit the perfect humorous notes, ask yourself these four questions.
1. Who is your audience?
Even a seasoned comedian could struggle to elicit a chuckle if he was performing stand-up in front of the wrong crowd. Not everyone understands or enjoys the same brand of humor and not every situation calls for an injection of laughter.
If you’re unsure about your audience’s comedic preferences, just ask them! Take a mini survey on your blog to find out what brand of comedy appeals to them. Once you’ve figured out what kind of comedy your audience appreciates, there are three main areas of comedy you can include in your writing: characters, scenes and dialogue.
2. What makes a character inherently funny?
In the south we have his expression – “He’s a character!” It’s the semi-polite-sweet-tea way of saying someone is a little bit crazy in a very amusing and entertaining way.
My preferred method for developing comedic characters is to take mannerisms, characteristics and life experiences from some of these real life “characters” and mix them up to create a unique, humorous persona.
You can also take a stock character and add a twist to bring humor (and added dimension) to an otherwise flat part. Carl Hiaasen, a favorite author of mine, frequently uses this technique with some of his twisted, hilarious characters. For example, one of his recurring stars is a former career politician and Florida governor who became a homeless, Everglades-dwelling, one-eyed, passionate environmentalist after he left office.
From anachronisms to oxymorons, there are many types of comedic characters to choose from, just find the ones that will appeal to your audience!
3. How would you describe a humorous incident you were involved in?
Comedic scenes can be tricky to script. Just like action sequences, it requires equal parts perfect description and illustrative verbs.
Compare these two descriptions of the same event:
Suzanne’s heel snagged in the street grate causing her to pitch forward and strike the ground with force. Blood seeped from small cuts on her palms and knees as she struggled to get back on her feet. A crowd gathered around her to gawk at the scene.
Suzanne’s heel caught in the grid of the street grate. Her arms flailed in the air, desperately seeking a safety net, but came up empty. As her body took the quick descent to the pavement she muttered a desperate prayer begging to disappear from the wide eyes of on-lookers.
See how using words like “flailed” and “muttered” create a more colorful, funnier scene than their bleaker counterparts like “strike” and “seeped”?
You’ve undoubtedly been in a few humorous situations yourself (even if you didn’t find them funny until the scabs came off!). Just imagine recapping the scene to your friends and you’ll find the comedic details are more entertaining than a black-and-white analysis.
4. How do your characters express humor in conversation?
A character’s true personality always seems to come out in exchanges with others. Whether it’s sarcasm or witty comebacks, great dialogue can always elicit a few chuckles from your audience. Authors like Elmore Leonard have mastered the subtlety of comedic dialogue, but you should also look to comedy television for inspiration in this category.
Just make sure your characters stay true to themselves—not every character has a natural sense of humor (like my friend Mike) and that’s okay!
Take your pick from the three comedic writing methods above (characters, situations and dialogue) or create your own combination of elements to write with your funny bone for fifteen minutes.
Share your results in the comments below and be sure to provide your feedback for others as well!