Good morning! It’s hard to believe how quickly the summer’s flying by, isn’t it? Today is quick-write day, and your guest author is Heidi Schulz, who likes to tell people that she lies to children for fun and profit. Heidi is the author of the New York Times Bestselling Hook’s Revenge, and a sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, published by Disney-Hyperion. Bloomsbury Kids will publish her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August.
Today’s challenge from Heidi? Be funny!
Want to have a humorless conversation? Start trying to analyze why something is funny. Humor likes to shrivel up and die from close examination. But that’s okay! We can still learn a lot from its corpse. What makes something funny, anyway?
Think about the last time you laughed—not one of those courtesy chuckles, but a true, deep, belly laugh. Odds are the thing you were responding to came as a surprise. Truly funny things are often unexpected. As you are writing humor, think about what might surprise and delight your reader.
Why is humor important?
Humor engenders sympathy. It breaks down barriers. It opens the gateway to other emotions. When I teach humor workshops I often ask if participants have seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, and if so, which characters got the most laughs. Everyone agrees Rocket and Groot, right? Then I ask, which characters made you tear up, get a lump in your throat, or elicited some such emotional response? Once again, Rocket and Groot are the big winners here.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Laughing with a character is a bonding experience, which is why I feel it’s important, even in serious books.
Still not sure? Take a look at Melinda Sordino in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Try to imagine how those stories would be different if not for the delightfully clever and humorous voices of those narrators.
We are able to connect more deeply with those characters, even in the midst of their pain, because humor makes it feel safer to do so. As a result, we feel everything more deeply.
But, I’m not a naturally funny person!
That’s okay! You don’t have to be able to tell jokes or make people pee their pants laughing over cocktail conversation order to write humor. Maybe your humor doesn’t blossom on command, but writing is a slow, meditative process. You can take your time with it. If you have ever laughed at something, you understand humor. Don’t shy away from trying just because you have never been the class clown. Perhaps all you need are a few new tools and some practice.
Astound Your Friends, Confound Your Enemies: Five Humor Writing Tricks
1. The Rule of Three
Groupings of three feel more complete, more pleasing to readers. They are also more humorous. Just be sure not to bury your punch line. If I change the order of the example below so that the funny part is in the middle it becomes far less effective.
Original: “I imagined skipping over there and asking if anyone would like to trade places. I’d offer to play goalie. They could be hunted down by a maniac in a blue Crown Victoria.”—The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
Altered: I imagined skipping over there and asking if anyone would like to trade places. They could be hunted down by a maniac in a blue Crown Victoria. I’d offer to play goalie.
Not as good, is it?
Make sure you end with the joke, and then build in a beat, perhaps by ending the paragraph, or even adding in a scene or chapter break. That rest will help give emphasis to the last line—the funny part.
Specificities are funnier than generalities. In the example below, the size, breed, and name of the animal is far more humorous than if it just read “dog.” Read the sentence aloud both ways and see what I mean.
Original: “I saw her out on the front stoop one afternoon with her arms full. She held a jewelry box and a stack of photo albums and her teacup Chihuahua, Billy Dee Williams.”—The True Story of Smeckday by Adam Rex
Altered: “I saw her out on the front stoop one afternoon with her arms full. She held a jewelry box and a stack of photo albums and her dog.”
Try being specific. Is your character eating “cereal” or “Sugar-Frosted Honey Nuggets?” Look for areas where details such as this will add to the humor and voice of your work.
Hyperbole is specificity exaggerated, and it can be used to great comedic effect. Read through your work, looking for areas you might be able to exaggerate. I’ll bet there are a billion of them.
“I homed in on Adam and his precious violin, which was probably handcrafted under a mountain by dwarves, it was so expensive.”—Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung
4. Incongruity/Funny Juxtapositions
Incongruity is unexpected. It’s surprising. And it’s really funny.
Ask yourself, “What is the polar opposite of what is currently happening in this scene?”—for example, Heavy Metal Mondays at your local Teavana shop, or vicious attack chickens—then see if you can incorporate it.
“George ducked as they zoomed past his head—pecking and flapping and flailing and floundering and squawking. Tabitha ran to help him. ‘STRONGARM’S CHICKENS!’ George yelped as twenty or more of them surrounded him and Tabitha. They had wicked gleams in their eyes and looked rather hungry.”—Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner
5. Reversal of Expectations
This is similar to incongruity, but can be subtler. As a writer, you plant clues, leading your reader to believe something is about to happen, and then, surprise! it’s something totally different. (Remember how I said truly funny things are often unexpected?)
“Anger and fear are close kin; even closer than my brother Danforth and me. As children, we were nearly inseparable. At least that’s what the surgeon said—though with skill and effort he eventually prevailed.”—Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code by Heidi Schulz (Hi!)
Practice Makes Funny
Like every other bit of writing, revision is where your humorous bits are going to start to shine. You may rewrite a joke or funny scene ten times, or more, before you get it right. That’s okay! Keep at it.
Ask your critique partners to highlight anything they found funny. If they didn’t get the joke you were going for, try reframing or replacing it with something else. Unlike a stand-up comedian who has one shot for a joke to land or bomb, unless you are writing in front of a live audience, you have the chance to refine as much as you need.
In the meantime, start paying attention to what makes you laugh. Can you emulate what the creator did to elicit that response from you?
Today’s assignment: Think of an everyday activity, such as: making breakfast, getting the mail, brushing your teeth, walking the dog, etc. and turn that activity into an extreme sport. Write a paragraph or two from the point of view of a sports commentator, using the rule of three, specificity, hyperbole, incongruity, and/or reversal of expectations to add humor.
(If you want a fun example of sports commentating, watch this exciting race:
On your mark. Get set. GO BE HILARIOUS!
And then come back and share some laughs in the comments!