I love comedy and try to inject as much humour as I can into my books. Since I began writing seriously, I have discovered all sorts of tricks of the comedy trade and thought they might prove as useful to other people as they have done to me. This post is intended as part one of two, and looks at how you can inject individual jokes or humorous moments in your work. In part two I will be suggesting how to structure a comedic storyline and how best to develop humorous yet realistic characters. Even though I write novels and assume that most people reading this will do too, I’m going to be pulling in examples from books, sit com and films. And finally, if some of these ideas seem painfully obvious then I apologise – often I find it’s the simplest, most ‘no-brainer’ rules which are the hardest to follow!
Structure, Structure and More Structure.
However anarchic it seems, comedy is anything but haphazard. There are several set forms of joke (see below) but one thing they all have in common is that the writer eeds to spend time honing and polishing to make them as good as they possibly can be. In particular, make sure you pay as much attention to the set-up as you would on the punchline: if your audience don’t understand where you are coming from, they won’t understand the joke. The funniest jokes are also often the simplest, so make sure your ideas are clear and the language you use is straightforward – that way your audience can focus on what you do say rather than wondering what on earth you are trying to say.
Simile and Metaphor.
This is an easy way to inject humour into your writing. Rather than just saying ‘her face went white’, be adventurous and try something like: ‘she went as white as a polar bear in a bucket of bleach’. It doesn’t matter that the literal truth of this would involve a. catching a polar bear; b. finding an improbably-sized bucket; and c. manhandling the said bear into the said improbably sized bucket and administering some Domestos – what is important is that you have taken the basic (slightly boring) idea of a pale face and turned it into something more inventive and even slightly surreal.
Some words are funnier than others. Some words can be funny in one context but not another. Some will always be dull – and it is our job as writers to sift through the possibilities and find the mot juste. In a recent interview, Victoria Wood talked about how difficult it can be to find that elusive ‘right’ word but said that when you do, it will make all the difference to your writing (she confessed to once anguishing for hours over the names of various types of biscuit, before settling on ‘gypsy creams’). As a basic rule of thumb, any word with a hard ‘c’ or ‘k’ sound will be funny. Thus, (according to my friend Sarah Jane), ‘cans are funnier than tins, concrete is funnier than cement, and kumquats are positively hilarious’.
Where in the Sentence?
Once you have your amusing line (probably a metaphor involving kumquats if you’re following this post to the letter), you need to decide where you are going to put in. Standard advice from the world of screenwriting says that for maximum impact, you should try and place your funny right at the end of a piece of dialogue. For novelists, this translates to putting your jokes (where possible) at the end of a sentence and preferably at the end of a paragraph. If you really want your funny to stand out, give it its own mini-paragraph. Kathy Lette and Marian Keyes both use this technique of allowing the punch-line to stand alone for maximum impact – although do use it sparingly: if you do this for every joke in the book, it will disrupt the otherwise smooth flow of your writing and annoy your reader!
The Rule of Three.
For some reason, the human brain is especially receptive to lists of three, whether it is items on a shopping list, cross-examination questions in court or joke writing. The thing to remember when you are structuring your group of three, is that whilst all of them need to be linked together in some way (otherwise they wouldn’t be a list) they cannot be identical. A man running into a door twice might be mildly amusing, but you need to vary the theme for the third and final time to make a comic impact – for example, have someone open the door so that he falls through (a classic, slapstick gag). It all also helps if you look on the first two items in your list as feedlines for the third (the punchline). One of the easiest ways of achieving this is to use the first two items to set up an expectation in your reader’s mind and then subvert this with the third. A (very) simple example of this would be to describe a male character as being ‘tall, dark and horrible’: you have a list of three, the final element of which surprises the reader who is expecting the word ‘handsome’.
Subverting the Reader’s Expectations.
This leads on nicely from the Rule of Three and, whilst it is often used in conjunction with the Rule, it functions very well by itself. It is a very simple format and, as you would expect, relies the writer establishing a premise and then undermining it. Thus, in Blackadder the Third the eponymous hero is reading the Situations Vacant column in the newspaper: ‘Ruthless, unprincipled cad wanted to be King of Sardinia. Must be non-smoker.’ Or (to Baldrick) ‘I would like to say how much I am going to miss you – but as we both know that would be a complete an utter lie.’ The level of comic effect lies in the originality of the juxtapositions/subversions you can come up with.
At its simplest, this can mean a good pun; a more complex example would involve whole sentences. My all-time favourite example comes from an episode of Frasier where Frasier and Niles are hoping to be elected to a swanky private members’ club:
Frasier: This is my brother Niles, the eminent psychiatrist.
Niles: My brother is too kind: he was eminent when my eminence was merely imminent.
Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
I reckon this is a tough one to carry off unless you are Sid James or Julian Clary and my personal recommendation is to use DEs sparingly. That said, however, they can effectively to illustrate a character’s true state of mind – is someone desperately trying to disguise how they really feel and the DE is really a Freudian slip?
How Many Jokes are Enough?
This is really a matter of the writer’s personal taste; however, a book which contains gag after relentless gag runs the risk of exhausting the reader and turning him/her off. It can also limit the opportunities for creating believable characters (human beings are not continuously funny in real life) and developing the storyline. There is a rule of thumb in the American sit com scriptwriting business which says that there should be two ‘smile’ and one ‘laugh out loud’ gags for every page of script (roughly one minute of screen time), but even this may be too intense in a novel, where readers expect the tone and pace of a book to vary. As a writer, you need to understand the rhythm of your writing and learn to ‘feel’ when the narrative needs a bit of a lift. Trust your instincts and – very importantly – if you need to, don’t be afraid to kill off some of your jokes to allow those left behind on the page to flourish.
What isn’t Funny?
Humour is a personal thing, and what gets someone laughing like a drain will have the person next to them asking ‘what’s so funny?’ However, I do think there are a few issues of taste and good sense that are fairly much universal. As a basic law of comedy anything that involves cruelty or exploitation is unacceptable, as are outmoded stereotypes. As an intelligent woman writing for an audience of intelligent women, I believe it is important that my heroines are not imbecilic butterfly-brains – a trait which seems to be increasingly popular in Hollywood rom coms at the moment. Yes, a heroine must have flaws and she will probably get herself into scrapes (otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a storyline) but she shouldn’t be stupid: ultimately she needs the brains and chutzpah to get herself out of whatever mess she lands in, without a man doing it for her. On a different issue, I would beware of packing any particularly moving or serious scenes with jokes. This can undermine the gravitas you are trying to create and make you come across as flippant or uncaring. Having said that, however, tragedy and comedy are opposite sides of the same coin and black humour has long been part of the writer’s armoury, so don’t rule it out completely if you feel it is appropriate. Marian Keyes is particularly adept at negotiating this tricky tightrope and Is There Anybody Out There? is an amazing book where the black humour does not detract one iota from her subject. My personal rule is that you can laugh in a serious situation, but not at it – but please use sparingly!
I hope this has been helpful. In my next post I want to look at how you can work comic themes into the structure of your novel and develop your characters so that their comic potential shines through. I’d also like to talk about the idea of farce, and how that can be taken out of the theatre and included in your novel to great effect. Happy writing!