There is an interesting trend in writing today. I’ve noticed it in the contests we host here, in the practices, in many of the books I read, and even, if I’m honest, in my own writing.
Our stories are all very serious and dark.
If you take a look at the last four stories that won our writing contest, you’ll notice all but one of them deal with painful, even horrific subjects: dissatisfaction in marriage, aging and illness in parents, abusive spouses, and a murder / suicide.
Do we think that dark, serious stories are better, more “literary,” than funny, romantic stories? Do we think sadness is a sign of mature writing, whereas comedy is for teenagers and the undereducated?
If so, then we have a problem. While I often write sad, dark, complicated stories myself, when I want to watch a movie, I reach for the romantic comedy instead of the dark, complicated film that won Sundance. Those dark stories may win awards, but they certainly don’t sell.
Do You Have to Choose Between Literary and Humor?
It seems that many have this idea that literary writing is dark and complicated and only crass, pop fiction can be funny, and I actually agree to some extent. However, some of the best writers throughout history have found that they can be both funny and serious.
For example, here are three writers in the literary cannon who were really really funny:
1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Chaucer lived in the 14th century and was the first writer to put the English language on the literary map. We take it for granted that English is the lingua franca of the day, but in Chaucer’s era, it was the pond scum of the languages, and nobody important was writing in it.
I read Canterbury Tales in high school, and while I didn’t understand half of it, I’ll never forget “The Miller’s Tale,” a bawdy story about a woman who gets three men to fall in love with her (one of them is her husband). The highlight is when she gets one of them to kiss her… well, it’s funny.
2. Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote
In 2002, 100 authors from fifty-four countries convened to call Cervantes’ epic novel the best book of all time. And yet, Cervantes’ book is really just a parody, like one of those films with Leslie Nielsen (Naked Gun) or Mike Meyers (Austin Powers) or Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) that satirize all the other movies that take themselves more seriously. Cervantes was basically the Weird Al Yankovic of his time, and yet, he’s gone down in history as one of the greatest authors who ever lived.
While Emily Drevets rightly pointed out the other day that Shakespeare is boring and hard to understand, in his day, he was hilarious. We mostly think of him as stodgy and serious, but he employed every type of humor you can imagine including sexual innuendo, slapstick, puns, sarcasm, practical jokes, and clever banter.
I didn’t name a particular play because Shakespeare finds a way to be funny in almost all of his plays, whether they’re tragedies or comedies.
Write Really Good, Really Funny Stories
I’ve named three authors who are among the most well-respected authors of all time, and all of them made their audiences laugh with some of the lowest humor available. If that’s not enough to convince you to try your hand at humor writing, consider the following
To go back to my point above, not many are doing this kind of writing. There is an opportunity to seize, and I’m going to make a somewhat ambitious claim:
The author who can write books that are both funny and “literary” will, in this market, be a bestseller.
I could be wrong, but history argues that smart, funny writing will always be in fashion.
Back to Humor Writing 101.
In honor of Don Quixote, let’s try our hand at parody today. Write a short story involving one of Western literature’s most enduring symbol, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s white whale.
To parody it, turn it upside down from how it appears in Moby Dick: formidable, uncatchable, and a killer. make it look ridiculous or cute. Give it a cold. Do something to turn the table on the classic.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section.
And if you post, make sure to help a few other Practitioners out by giving them feedback.