Why do we laugh, giggle or grin? Or even give a little smile?
Perhaps it’s nervous relief we’re not in the other person’s dilemma and feeling their pain or maybe an instinctive reaction to being in an awkward situation ourselves. Sociologists, linguists and biologists say that our ability to laugh and desire to do so isn’t all fun and games, but actually serves two essential life functions: to bond with members of our “tribe,” and to lessen tension and anxiety. And let’s not discount wishing to look clever or impress somebody or to look like part of the cool crowd.
So how can writers do this?
Juxtaposition – Dragons getting smashed out of their minds and flying with a hangover the next morning, the tarty-looking girl speaking with an upper crust accent, a trucker quoting Hamlet.
Timing – As important on the written page as in stand-up. Don’t let the joke, witty remark fall into the scene until the end; string it out as long as you dare, but don’t let it lose its snappiness. Remember how effective punch lines are. And try to arrange the sentence so that the funny word or phrase falls at the end. If it’s the last thing readers see, a funny sounding word strengthens the memory of the joke in their mind.
Characterisation – Remember your characters are real people and why people use comedy in real life. This will round out your characters, make them far more human and let the reader connect with them more easily. Nobody likes poker-faced, hundred per cent driven and serious people – they’re rather boring…
Appropriateness and tone – Is your story the place for dry humour, wittiness, exaggeration, euphemism, understatement, knockabout, sarcasm or misdirected dialogue? Decide on the comic tone appropriate to your characters and, importantly, to your reading audience.
Integration – Weave the humour into the dialogue, speech tags, description and thoughts. Make it reveal something about the characters or push the story forward. These four lines immediately build an impression of the characters and their relationship, then lead to the next scene with anticipation of danger.
Crafty bastard. I gave him a dirty look. Lurio would never let me forget it if I gave in now. I also wanted to have the edge over Conrad.
‘You know full well I’ll do it,’ I grumped. ‘Just don’t get me killed.’
Lurio laughed. I smiled back in a sour way.
(Extract from INCEPTIO)
Avoiding author interference – Let the characters and situations be funny, don’t try and inject ‘funny’ e.g. ‘he laughed uproariously’. Use reaction in others as one of the main reflectors of the humour, e.g. how a wittier person reacts to the words of somebody suffering from a humour bypass, such as Lizzie’s reaction to Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
Hard sounds are funny – It’s an old cliché, but comedy writers as a rule don’t search their brains for ‘K’, ‘G’ or ‘C’ sound words to end their jokes, but their minds instinctively choose words with those consonants. What’s not funny about ‘pumperknickel’ or ‘chicken’?
When to use humour and comedy?
If you are writing a rom-com, comedy is integral. If your story is a saga or a relationship-based contemporary novel, then wry humour or a laugh to relieve an embarrassing situation will engage readers even more. Sci-fi and historical work can vary as much as any genre from the witty male buddy-to-buddy, master/mistress to servant/robot, girl-to-girl banter to full-on insanity at every level (Thinking of Hitchhiker’s Guide and Discworld here).
Crime, thrillers and mystery are different as the grim events, whether written in a gritty or cosy style, need some relief as do the characters in them.
In my own Roma Nova series, kidnapping, attempted murder, psychotic villains, rebellion and heartache are balanced by my heroine’s tone; historic novelist Simon Scarrow, called it ‘a winning dry sense of humour’ when he endorsed the second in series, PERFIDITAS. Raised in the States, but forced to flee to Europe in the earlier novel, INCEPTIO, Karen has used her humour to keep herself secure and stable after a difficult childhood and adolescence. In both these books, her character voice is distinct by the use of her down to earth attitude and humorous remarks.
Of course, wonderful jokes and exciting, original humour or comedy can’t carry a book on their own; the underlying story must be solid and strong. Above all, it must be tightly-edited. As the Prince of Denmark said, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’.
A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…
A wordsmith much of her life – playwright (aged 7), article writer, local magazine editor and translator – she came to novel writing in reaction to a particularly dire film.
‘I could do better that that,’ she whispered in the darkened cinema.
‘So why don’t you?’ came her spouse’s reply.
Three months later, she had completed the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first in her series of Roma Nova thrillers.