Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Injecting Humor in Your Writing

This month I’m writing about humor and how I incorporate it into my stories. Fact is, injecting humor doesn’t come as easily as one might think because what is funny to one person isn’t to another.

During a recent visit with friends, the husband showed me a joke he’d received over the Internet. He and I laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks as we pictured all kinds of scenarios. Yet when it was shown to the rest of the gang, we got the scrunched up faces without so much as a chuckle. So why is that?

Are you born with a funny bone easily tickled? No, it’s not an inherited trait, but the moods of those around you can make a huge difference. Can you teach yourself to write humorous? I believe you can. It’s like anything else, practice makes perfect—or not so perfect. A lot of it also depends on your frame of mind, and how you look at life in general. Here are some of the things you might consider:

Try to see situations through a child’s eyes. Let’s face it; they bring a lot of humor to our lives. In an email I received recently asking ‘what is love’, first graders responded with what they thought it meant. One child said, “it’s my grandpa polishing my grandma’s toenails.” I agree, it is love, but if you really think about this, is it really saying grandma is too old to bend over? Regardless of what we think, the child saw it as love and not the flaws of age or weight. This is what you want your readers to see.

Keep a smile on your face. Remember it only takes seventeen muscles to smile, and thirty-seven to frown. When people see you smiling, they’re more likely to share funny things that happened to them, which you can use in your stories.

In one of my scenes in Shut Up and Kiss Me, my heroine is in the kitchen with her well-meaning interfering mother. She’s temporarily moved back home to New York from New Jersey until she can find a job to pay for an apartment. She’s already wondering if the independence she’s gained by living apart, will be destroyed by her moving home. Moving home typically means your parents treat you like you’re twelve. Here’s the scene:

“Here,” mom said placing my dish onto the table, “You eat first, then call Nicky.”
I squared my shoulders and decided this was the perfect opportunity to let Mom know my independence would not waver because I’d returned home to New York.
“Mother, I will call Nicky when I’m ready to call him.”
“Whoa, somebody’s cranky.” She smiled sweetly. “Okay, no pushing.”
No, this woman doesn’t push, she just freakin’ wrestles me to the floor until she gets what she wants.

Now, I could have taken another approach with this scene and made them angry at one another, but that’s not funny. And quite frankly, I’m not interested in reading about anger. By injecting humor, I turned an unpleasant situation into a humorous one for the reader. Can’t you just picture that mother wrestling with her? Also, the humor has already helped you forget just how annoying that mother is.

Think of situations you’ve been in, or you’ve witnessed, and try the ‘what might have happened if?” approach. You can surely come up with something humorous. Understand that forcing humor doesn’t work either and the reader quickly becomes well aware of it.

Adding humor is like adding color to the canvas. Just remember to exaggerate the traits of your humorous character. For example, in Magnetic Attraction, I have a character named Mags. She’s into the punk look, black nails, lips, dramatic eye makeup, and multi colored hair. Mags’ character does this to upset her socialite mother. She’s a fight-the-establishment kind of woman who’s aggressive and always speaks her mind. By making the things she does a bit humorous, you’ve forgotten how annoying her attitude is too. In the first chapter, my heroine, Jordan, is upset because someone sent her photos of her boyfriend of three years in a compromising position with another woman. She’s called her two friends, Emily and Mags, and they’re at her apartment trying to console her. The heroine has tossed the photos on the floor. Here’s the scene:

Emily sat down next to me. “Where are the photos?”
“On the floor,” I said weakly, nodding toward the kitchen. Mags released her arm from around me and bolted up, racing to the kitchen to see the photos before Emily could get there. Em, who mostly ignores Mags’ control issues, gave her one of those looks that could kill, as she breezed past her, stooping down to scoop up a few of her own.
“Hey,” Mags quipped, “I wanted to see if I knew the bimbo.”
Emily held up her hand, ordering Mags to stop, then studied the photos she’d retrieved. When Emily released a loud “whoa,” Mags bolted next to her like she was sliding into home plate.
“Oh my God,” she giggled leaning over Em’s shoulder. “I had no idea
Vinny was so—”

Now in this scene, I’ve lightened the tenseness of the scene with a bit of humor just in case someone in my reading audience has experienced anything like this. Hopefully it has stopped them from reliving their own catastrophe.

Other things to remember are: don’t worry about making your first draft funny, and by all means, don’t try it when you’re NOT in a good mood. You may feel better after writing it, but you’ll have your characters exhausted from fighting with each other.

So is interjecting humor into your stories easy? No, not by a long shot, but I promise you, you’ll enjoy the process and help your readers escape from the trials and tribulations in their own lives. And who knows, they may even begin to look at their own unfortunate situations in a different light. That’s a win-win for everyone.


Mona Risk said...

Carolyn, I agree with you a shot of humor livens a story. I use down-to-earth mothers and mothers-in-law to add laughter as they speak their own mind. I remember how my mother made us laugh by telling each relative or friend exactly what was on her mind. Because she was an old sweet lady no one was upset but everybody laughed.

Sheila Tenold said...

What a great blog, Carolyn. Thanks for sharing, by example, a skill I hope to develop.

I hadn't considered the reader's own life experiences and their reaction as a reason for injecting humor in a tension-filled scene.

Jan Romes said...

Carolyn, you & your hubby sounds like me and mine! We laugh at things that others don't find amusing! :-)

I navigate toward stories laced with humor. I try to write them as well. Not an easy task. When my story gets bogged down with too much seriousness, I regroup and find a way to insert something funny. :-)

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I really enjoy reading a story that is sprinkled with humor. You're right, it is all at how you approach life and humor can make any situation easier to get through.

A lot of the time the humor in my stories just sneaks in. Guess I must have a warped sense of it, but it is fun writing it.

Lee Lopez said...

I don't find injecting humor into my writing easy. You never know, if it's going to be funny to you may not be funny to anyone else. It's not easy, and it doesn't always work.

Janet/Cricket said...

Most of my favorite books are the ones with a lot of humor in them. I hadn't thought of how using humor in a serious situation could make it less threatening to the reader but it is a good point.

Really good suggestion about exaggerating traits to make people funny, particularly the minor characters.