Tuesday, May 20, 2008

CRAFT: Finding the Funny

An article by Apprentice Writer recently published in "RomANTICS" (the newsletter of her writer's group) and containing some favorite quotes:


Do humorous scenes, characters and dialogue simply flow from your keyboarding fingers whenever your manuscript needs them?

Me neither.

Those lightning bolts from the comedy muse are rare and unpredictable. In between, the funny often needs to be coaxed along. Sometimes, breaking the writing down can help locate hidden spots with potential for comic zing.

Micro Level: Words
The smallest writerly building blocks often offer an easy way to inject humor.

Names have unlimited possibilities:

Hallelujah Clegg (Janet Mullany, ‘The Rules of Gentility’)
Grimauld Place (J.K. Rowling, ‘Harry Potter’ series; refers to a grim old place)
Village of Toot (Laura Kinsale, ‘My Sweet Folly’)

Nouns can be systematically examined for switch from a regular-type one to a more amusing one. Rubber boots are funnier than shoes, camels are funnier than horses, a cactus is funnier than grass, and so on. The same logic applies to verbs, adjectives and adverbs:

“Freya’s voice, prematurely leathered from smoking, scratched its way through the line.” (Lani Diane Rich, ‘Crazy in Love’)

“The other man gave Vimes a smile of manic friendliness. (His) pullover had a queasy zigzag pattern in many strange, unhappy colors.”
(Terry Pratchett, ‘Thud!’)

Sometimes, it’s possible to poke gentle fun at specific time periods and the obscure vocabulary unique to each:

“Where is your friend?” “He is exploded.” “Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?” “No, I meant to say he was found out.”
(Oscar Wilde, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’)

”The hero, a handsome, well-bred man, pursued the heroine, crushing his lips to hers in a hansom cab and rumpling her pelisse. The villain, equally well-bred, did just about the same thing, except that in addition he thrust his hand inside her fichu.” (Margaret Atwood, ‘Lady Oracle’)

At the most creative extreme, inventing a word can up the humor quotient:

“Gabe ran hell-bent-for-leather holding a panful of lasagna, intent upon a pastafarian act of self-sacrifice. Theo caught him, but eight pounds of steaming cheesy goodness sailed through the window, scorching the (attacking zombies) and pollocking the wall with red sauce. ‘That’s it, throw snacks at them!’ shouted Tuck. ‘Fire a salvo of garlic bread next!’ ”
(Christopher Moore, ‘The Stupidest Angel’)

Mid Level: Sentences and Paragraphs
Many frequently occurring sentence/paragraph types are good candidates for amusement.

Physical descriptions of people, places and things offer loads of opportunity:

“What he looked mostly like was the part of the rocket that gets jettisoned over the Indian Ocean, plus a black homburg.”
(Donald E. Westlake, ‘What’s So Funny?’)

“…after much panicked scanning of the Scottish mainland, (he) discovered the location of the wedding somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. ‘I thought it was in Edinburgh!’ Seb roared. ‘It’s practically in Iceland,’ his stabbing finger a good quarter inch off the far northwest coast of Scotland. Anna stared at the island whose shape bore a startling resemblance to a hand making an uncomplimentary gesture with its middle finger.” (Wendy Holden, ‘Bad Heir Day’)

Units of measurement and timelines are great:

“(He’s) not a cop, Tiny. Not for seventeen months.” “I think the transition takes a little longer,” Tiny suggested. “Maybe three generations.”
(Donald E. Westlake, ‘What’s So Funny?’)

“7:15a.m. Hurrah! (Am) in functional relationship with adult male thereby proving not love pariah…Maybe Mark Darcy will wake up and talk to me about my opinions.
7:30a.m. Has not woken up. I know, will get up and make him fantastic breakfast with eggs Benedict or Florentine.
7:31a.m. Depending what eggs Benedict or Florentine actually are.”
(Helen Fielding, ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’)

Variations of well-known quotes can be effective:

“If you keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.” (Erma Bombeck; refers to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ending with “…then you’ll be a man, my son!”)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer.” (Janet Mullany, ‘The Rules of Gentility’; refers to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride &Prejudice’ opening lines)

Lists are wonderful because they can either start out reasonably and become increasingly silly, or can include one item that sticks out like a sore thumb:

“There were trolls in the Watch, plenty of dwarfs, one werewolf, three golems, an Igor and, not least, Corporal Nobbs (that was a bit of a slur on Nobby, [who] was human,[but] he was the only one who had to carry a certificate to prove it) so why not a vampire?”(Terry Pratchett, ‘Thud!’)

“No reprieve. In a world full of wars, famine and Bratz dolls, the angels or gods or whoever had bigger things than her to deal with.”
(Lani Diane Rich,‘Crazy in Love’)

Writers are often warned against inclusion of clichés. But clichés can work well in comedy, especially if given a twist:

“(The welcome party was) packed with people dressed in various interpretations of luau wear. Hawaiian shirts dominated, but there was also a healthy contingent of sarongs and one grass skirt. The guy in the grass skirt didn’t have the legs for it.” (Jennifer Crusie, ‘Manhunting’)


Part II will look at the macro-level of writing.
(Some quotes modified to fit article format)"

Any humor location techniques Gentle Readers may care to share?


Amy Ruttan said...

I find writing humour hard. It's difficult. I think for the most part I am funny spontaneously if the situation presents itself, but trying to be funny that's hard.

BTW great article! I throughly enjoyed it.

Thomma Lyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomma Lyn said...

Excellent post!

I'm the same as Amy -- I can be funny if the character / circumstance is right, but forcing humor just doesn't work. Spontaneity seems to be part of the magic of humor. :)

(p.s. -- sorry for the deleted comment above; that was me, and I made an awful typo.)

M. said...

hi amy and thomma lynn -
i find writing humor extremely difficult also! i spend way too much time at my keyboard feeling sorry for myself. *g*
i sometimes ask myself, 'why do it, then?' the best answer i've managed to come up with so far is 'but when it works, it's so great'

Julia Smith said...

I laughed at pretty much all of your examples, so there you are. I'm not really known for humor - I'm more of a brooding tragedian. But sometimes the odd tension-lifting bit will work its way in.