My Funny Valentine:
Just like in the movies, comedy is harder than anything else to succeed at. Maybe it’s because humor is so subjective, or maybe it’s because humor requires a certain amount of intelligence and reliability that cannot possibly be universal. Hell, maybe it’s something else entirely, but one thing is for certain, (and to quote Steve Martin), comedy is not pretty.
In fiction, there are three ways to write humor, (four, if you count being funny unintentionally as a bad writer). The first is the easiest but comes with the greatest risk. I call it: “The SNARKY narrator.”
Using the voice of a the narrator to make wry and witty observations while telling the story is the most commonly used way to interject humor into a story. It’s easy because the humor usually comes extemporaneously and depending on the mood of the storyteller can be included as an organic part of the story.
Unfortunately, easy for writers, often means more work for readers. While snarky and even silly commentary can help lighten a dark tone or break the tension, it can take the reader out of the story far more easily and that is never advisable. It’s like hearing someone give a 555 telephone number in a movie, you know the number is a fake and so it becomes a distraction.
Using a smart and snappy narration makes for a fun read and I’m always ready for a fun read, but keep in mind the mind of your readers, they are invested in the story and all things must serve the story. Just make sure that your narrator doesn’t out-moxy any of your main characters and you should be fine.
Sylvain Reynard, an author frequently celebrated on this website, is a perfect example of someone who has mastered this style of writing (you had me at Angelfucker). His books have a deeply serious tone but every chapter has something to grin at if not bust a gut over.
He takes his snarkiness to the very edge, but he gets away with it because his narrator shares so many qualities with his title character. I am friendly with SR and have come to the conclusion that his narrator is close to his actual stream of consciousness; highly educated but with a dirty mind; a super dry sense of humor but with a healthy appreciation for the farcical. And as romantic as Peppy Le’ Pew. (I hope my pal will take that as a compliment).
The second way to add humor to your project is to develop a character who shares a funny take on the other characters and universe you’ve created. These characters are also great for getting exposition out of the way. Instead of spelling everything out in narration, the “Funny Boy” can make light of things while informing the readers of pertinent story details.
Having a character like this is a great tension reliever, and if need be, they make great characters to kill off. If you’re lucky, you’ll come up with a zinger of a last line as he sputters out his last breath.
The final way to be funny in fiction is to write a story that’s infused with situational comedy that the characters react and respond to. I call it “The Whole Big Boat” and it’s by far the hardest because it takes the most thought. It’s also very high profile because to write a funny story is to say so.
It’s easy to be funny from time to time compared to coming up with a whole plot that touts tomfoolery. Christopher Moore is a writer that manages to use all three styles at once in his books and I can think of no one better. He writes about angels, vampires, an interesting take on Shakespeare, and anything else that he fancies. He’s based in San Francisco and his books sell worldwide. I bring him up as a great example to study if you want to perfect any part of the art.
Most people confuse comedy with clutter, but the best chuckles come from the simplest things – a shot to the balls, toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a Louboutin, any redneck hurting themselves with a homemade stunt. Life is just a fifteen second video that shows us landing on our butts and although writing it requires more of a set up, it’s the smallest punchlines that usually get the biggest laughs.
In funny fiction, there is also an opportunity to set up long elaborate traps and funny situations (just like writing mystery) spins a web of doubt and suspicion. It will take some time and tremendous effort but the stories that work the best are always the ones that nearly kill the writer in the process.
Bottom line, if it’s funny to you, use it. Then test it out and see if others react the same way. If you are unsure, cut it. There’s nothing worse than a joke that falls flat especially if removing it costs the story nothing.
Pick your moments, don’t try too hard, and don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work at first. Writing humor is like waterskiing for the first time; you won’t stay up for long, but that’s not the most important first lesson to learn. The most important thing to learn in waterskiing is that when you do fall, LET GO OF THE ROPE!
It’s okay to borrow from your real life by the way. Everyone does it, in fact, “Write what you know” is a well known writer’s adage. (I try not to make to many blind jokes in my stories).
I suggest trying some funny dialogue first and see how it feels. Then try a whole character whose primary focus is levity. You might be surprised to find that you put a lot of yourself into your funny characters, or that you can’t relate to them at all. Either way, as long as it’s funny, it’s working.