Writing humour is a very difficult process largely because what one person finds hilarious will leave another stone-faced. If you attempt to appeal to a very broad audience, you will need to write in a manner so bland and innocuous, you will probably not even draw a smile—a twitch of the lips possibly—but definitely not laugher. Nevertheless I think any author who won’t even try a few scenes or situations involving levity is short changing the reader.
What is humour? Merriam-Webster defines it as ‘that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous’. That’s a pretty good definition although a milder form of ‘ludicrous’ might be ‘whimsy’, and the latter can often put a smile on someone’s face. Likewise satire and irony generally fall under the category of humour although they may not always draw laughter.
Incongruity is an excellent technique. Consider the Christmas pageant scene in ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ by John Irving. It is technically a religious setting with an audience of proud parents watching their children perform. However, the girl playing Mary has no devotion on her mind. Instead she wants to take advantage of her position as ‘mother’ and express some salacious feelings towards Owen who is playing Baby Jesus. The result is chaotic and hilarious primarily because of the disconnect between the setting, the proud parents who are essentially on their best behavior and ‘Mary’s agenda.
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I used this technique in one of my own works. In ‘Betwixt and Between’, Lynn, who is deceased attends her own funeral accompanied by some fairies, a gnome and a troll. None can be seen or heard by the attendees; however, one of the fairies has worked a bit of magic to help Lynn relax. The spell doesn’t work properly and Lynn acts as if she is thoroughly inebriated, standing on the pew, expounding on the eulogy and exaggerating all her good points at top volume all while shedding copious tears. The incongruity between the somber nature of a funeral and Lynn’s bizarre behavior works quite well.
Slapstick, while normally found in film or stage productions can occasionally be used in stories. Adding a little to chase scenes can lighten the tension for a brief moment enabling the author to intensify it later. However it comes with a risk. Used too heavily, it can make the work seem uninspired and trivial. Characters acting like clowns becomes tiresome after a few pages. With slapstick, a little goes a long way.
Exaggeration is a common technique which is quite effective. For example, in a fantasy story having an inexperienced novice use magic with calamitous results can be effective. In one of my stories Janet, a high school girl and beginning witch, needs a part-time job. She obtains one in a warehouse but is required to move heavy boxes. Her would-be employer takes her to a loading dock to test her strength by asking her to pick up and hand a package to another employer who is loading a truck. In order to lift, she combines her own strength with a levitation spell. As a result it appears she hurls the box, barely missing the other employee and having it land in its proper place on the truck. She hired with the injunction to merely hand the boxes over rather than toss them.
Satire is another form of humour and one which I particularly enjoy. It involves poking fun at individuals or institutions in such a manner as to highlight their limitations. When President Trump was in office, satirists had a field day with his policies and mannerisms. Editorial cartoonists in particular liked to depict him as an infant or a buffoon. Organizations such as The Onion or The Babylon Bee use satirical news stories to attract readers and, by extension, obtain advertising revenue; however, caution may be necessary. Readers do not like their particular sacred cow held up to ridicule; so for authors focussing on revenue, a certain amount of market research is required to know what may, and may not be satirized.
There are a number of other literary devices used to create humor such as farce, metaphors, reframing, timing and puns but I’ll leave them for some future post.
This guest post was contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on Smashwords.com.