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Writing Funny

I’m here to talk about a very serious subject — comedy writing. In writing, getting the comedic balance right is tricky. Years ago, a contest judge said my entry read like a series of jokes. Unfortunately, this was not intended as a compliment. What s/he meant was a novel shouldn’t come across like a stand-up routine. My challenge? Concentrate on the plot and narrative, and let the funny flow naturally. (Contest Judge, I hope I’ve done you proud!)

As you might have guessed from my debut YA’s punny title, This Is Your Afterlife is on the lighter end of the grayscale. That’s not to say there aren’t dark moments — the story revolves around murdered high school football star Jimmy Hawkins. It’s just his death is treated with a touch of humor and hope. Here’s an excerpt:

“Aren’t you psychic?” he taunts.

“Being psychic would mean I could see into the future.”

 “Then what do you call this…this thing we have?” He gestures at the space between us.

 I frown at that space. “You have what is called the afterlife. I have what appears to be clairvoyance.” Grandie was pretty clear on the distinction. “Psychics see the future. Clairvoyants and mediums see dead people. And argue with them, too, it seems.”

How did this even happen to me? Last time I checked, I didn’t have the Gift. I haven’t been struck by lightning, haven’t taken any hallucinogenic pills or eaten magic mushrooms. My sixteenth birthday would have been a prime time for spirits to make an all-singing, all-dancing debut in my world, but that day passed quietly three months ago.

Unless there were signs I missed. But what counts as a sign? Randomly sensing Grandie’s lavender perfume in the Bugle office? Could it be that she was trying to communicate then?

What bugs me is that I’ve been invisible to Jimmy for years. Now that he’s dead, he finally sees me. There is no justice in the world.

One of my favourite movie quotes is from Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Alan Alda’s character says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I’m not known for my love of mathematics, but this is one equation that makes a lot of sense to me.

Here are a few key ways to inject a dose of fun into your work:

  • Clever turns of phrase; flip an expression, observation or cliché on its head.
  • In terms of characterization, think of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. We expect lions to be courageous and majestic. But this lion, when we first meet him, is far from brave.
  • Use the rule of three. Create an element of surprise by starting off with an ordinary list and topping with something unexpected. For example: Harriet wanted nothing more in life than a comfortable pair of slippers, three-ply yarn, and a hot young Scottish laird. (Okay, that wasn’t my best example. It’s hard to write funny! Perhaps Harriet has plans involving the laird and the yarn?)
  • Take a real-life situation, even a serious one, and give it a humorous twist.
  • Puns are so punny! But they can get unfunny pretty fast. Don’t overuse them.
  • Physical comedy. Be careful of turning it into slapstick.
  • Absolutely. Again, like puns, alliteration can become absurd if overused. Some people look at alliteration as an abomination that should be axed altogether.

Keep in mind there are contraindications for each of these. Use sparingly. Always stay true to character. You can’t have a supreme court judge cracking wise at the bench. Unless she’s Judge Judy. But it’s okay for her because caustic wit forms part of who she is.

How do you know if you’re writing funny? It’s a promising sign if people constantly tell you, “Say, you’re really funny!” Or if they laugh with you, not at you. Like anything, humor is subjective. What’s hilarious to one reader might be tedious or even offensive to another. Test it on CPs and friends. Grab someone off the street and feed them a line. If you get hit with rotten tomatoes, or worse, don’t raise a chuckle, you may have missed the mark. Do your comedic situations make you, the writer, laugh? They say if you cry when writing a sad scene, it’s likely your readers will pick up on all that emotion you poured into it and cry, too. So I think the same goes for humor. Go ahead, LOL at your own jokes.

Tell me, when was the last time you laughed out loud? Got a favorite funny author or movie?

You’ve been a great audience. Thank you and goodnight!

 


Out now – This Is Your Afterlife (Bloomsbury Spark), a paranormal YA that brings new meaning to “teen spirit.”

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44 responses to “Writing Funny”

  1. Vanessa, firstly, I read THIS IS YOUR AFTERLIFE this week and it’s absolutely brilliant. Congratulations to you for a job well done. I loved how you mixed the funny bits and the sad bits into a wonderful rich cocktail. I laugh out loud at books quite often. I’m currently on a re-read of all the Georgette Heyers and it’s very rarely that I don’t have a good giggle somewhere in one of her stories. She writes the most brilliant dialogue.

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    • Ohhh, Anna, thanks so much for reading AFTERLIFE and saying such lovely things!

      You know, I would just love to go on a month’s holiday and read nothing but Georgette Heyer! I know you’ve been enjoying the wonders of your new e-reader — are you filling it up with GH books? Pretty sure they’re all available in Kindle editions!

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      • Actually, V, I think I’ll probably get print copies of those because I’ll re-read them. But the idea of a couple of weeks’ holiday where all I did was smile my way through the GH universe? That sounds marvellous!

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  2. jbrayweber says:

    Wonderful post, Vanessa.
    Since I write about pirates, who historically were not a very nice lot, I try to use humor to offset the darker reality of that world. I’m snarky by nature. (I know, hard to believe.) So often, I don’t have too much trouble adding in a giggle. Or at the very least, I’m giggling.

    I love, love comedy—movies, TV, books, you name it. Any author who can make me chuckle automatically earns themselves a fan out of me.

    Jenn!

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  3. Annie West says:

    Hi Vanessa,

    I thought you did the mix of humour and serious themes in ‘This is Your Afterlife’ so well! You’re so clever. I seem to be better at the angst than the laughter, but yes, I do laugh out loud, quite often at myself these days. There’s nothing quite like listening someone really funny tell a great story, is there? The cumulative effect of one funny thing building on another then another is fantastic.

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    • Annie, thanks so much for your kind words and for stopping by. You are indeed terrific with angst and creating tension in your stories. I wish I was one of those people who can tell a funny story in person. It’s not just what they’re saying but how they’re saying that makes it humorous and enthralling, don’t you think?

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  4. Hi Vanessa, the humour in THIS IS YOUR AFTERLIFE is subtle and clever with a touch of snark – no wonder it makes your readers smile!
    Humour is so subjective isn’t it, and can vary from the lightly ironic to the laugh out loud. I must admit for the LOL kind I love The Big Bang Theory, never fails to make me laugh, so does Modern Family.
    As a writer, I try to do serious and angsty but it never turns out totally like that. Readers often say they both laugh and cry reading my stories. I suspect your readers are saying the same thing! Congratulations again on your wonderful debut!

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    • Thanks so much, Kandy! I’m all for the LOL factor, and that’s why I love Big Bang and Modern Family, too. That’s so cool to know your readers get that emotional impact out of your stories. I do love the way you handle humour in your books. Actually, I wish Harlequin would relaunch the old Love and Laughter line — your voice and stories would be perfect for it! Should I start a petition? 😉

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  5. June Love says:

    Vanessa, I love snark. I also love “lightening the mood” humor that most sane people call “inappropriate” humor. A multi-pubbed author, who read a contest entry of mine, described my writing as light with a bite. It confused me because I took her comment literally and wondered if perhaps I’d unknowing given one of my characters vampire tendencies. She explained that although my voice was light, I delivered an emotional punch. It was a compliment, but not everyone gets it. I had an editor tell me that my heroine making a joke to cover a deep-seeded family pain was too jarring. It’s a delicate balance, but it sounds like you’ve learned to walk the wire with no problems.

    Thanks for a fun post and I wish you much success on This is Your Afterlife. I do love the premise of your story.

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    • “Light with bite” — June, I love it! What a great compliment from your contest judge. You could definitely use that for your author branding. I do understand why your heroine would make a joke to lighten a serious moment. It could be a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the heavy things in her life. But I guess you really have to get the timing right, which is something I neglected to mention in my original post!

      Thanks for the good wishes!

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  6. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I heard something similar to the Alda quote at a workshop at Nationals a couple of years ago, except the presenter used the word “pain.” She said something like “comedy is pain explored once you can tolerate it.”

    If a book has painful parts (like the murder of a high school student), I find that a small touch of humor lets you take a breath. Great post, Vanessa!

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    • Hi, Elizabeth! Congratulations on the release of I WISH this week! The book is winging its way to me as we speak.

      I love the spin your presenter put on the concept of squeezing humour out of a painful event. And I agree that using humour in the beats of your story gives the characters (and readers) a break from their pain. I find that works in real life, too!

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  7. Vivi Andrews says:

    GREAT tips on writing comedy, Vanessa! I always think that the ingredients to earning a laugh are THE UNEXPECTED + TRUTH + TIMING.

    Timing is tricky in writing where a clever phrase can get swallowed in a dense block of text. I’ve noticed that the funniest writers tend to use the white space on the page to control the reader’s rhythm. So clever!

    And I’m SURE you have done that judge proud. I *love* your voice! And the way you stay true to your characters. 🙂

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    • Oh, Vivi, that’s another fabulous equation! So true. The use of white space is so effective — it can really drive a joke home. I sometimes use that to emphasize the more serious moments, too.

      Thanks for swinging by and saying such lovely things! I do owe quite a bit to that contest judge for such good advice. Although, at the time, I was not amused, as the Queen would say. 😉

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  8. Kate Parker says:

    I find I laugh at the unexpected. Like Viola Davis’s now infamous line at the end of an episode of How to Get Away with Murder. After you see her take off her makeup and wig and become vulnerable, she asks her husband “What is your penis doing on a dead girl’s phone?” It was the last thing I expected and I laughed out loud. Under the circumstances, it was perfect.

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  9. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Vanessa. It’s easy to make a reader cry. Making her laugh is much, much harder. One of my favorite comedians is Bill Cosby, who makes the world laugh simply by sharing life as seen through his eyes.

    I’m one of those people who laughs at funerals, so the comedy in my dramatic family relationship stories is simply showing my characters handling their problems with a snarky sense of humor.

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    • Hi, Laurie! Snark, or humour of any variety, is a great way to cope with problems. I’ve been to some quite lovely funerals where funny stories about the dearly departed were shared. Of course there’s an undercurrent of sadness, but it was nice to remember the joyful moments of their lives.

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  10. Vanessa,

    Humor is all about timing. I like to give my readers the one-two punch–make them laugh, then cry, and then laugh through their tears. Comedy comes easily to me, it’s the emotional stuff that is hard.

    Also, I think comedy is something you’re born with. I’ve always been funny, most of the time I don’t mean to be, but it just happens. I see the world in a different way than most people and my world is seriously weird.

    You have some great tips on humor. I’m with you on the turn of phrase. I love me a good one liner. in fact, my first drafts are little more than a string of one-liners. I always go back and cut several out.

    Good luck with the new book. I’m going to check it out.

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    • Hi, Katie. I love a zinger of a one-liner, too! Can’t get enough of those old screwball comedies of the ’40s and ’50s — lots of one-two jabs in Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant movies.

      You’re right about being born with a funny bone. It’s much easier to right funny if it comes naturally to you. On the opposite scale, I can’t write a completely straight story to save my life.

      Thanks for the good wishes on AFTERLIFE. I hope you enjoy it!

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  11. Vanessa, great post. I write dark romantic suspense, but I love sarcasm and wit and try to throw a few moments in to lighten things up. For me, it’s a fine dance to get the pacing just right, but humor is necessary to get through those dark moments. And life.

    Congratulations on the release!!

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    • Thanks, Anne Marie! So true about injecting a touch of wit into even the darkest stories. And I can’t tell you how often I’ve turned to a good rom-com in order to take my mind off heavy stuff. It’s good for the soul!

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  12. Hi Vanessa. Thanks for tackling this tricky subject. I find it so tricky I guess because few people have the exact same sense of humor. I prefer amusing or witty to laugh out loud humor, and then of course, we eat sarcasm for breakfast at my house, and that’s one type of humor that doesn’t translate well on the page. The writer’s tone can color all of that too. Good things to think about.

    Best if luck with This is Your Afterlife! Looks fabulous!

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    • Jacqueline, you’re right about why comedy is so tricky. Very subjective! It’s magic when you find someone who gets your brand of humour. Sarcasm is absolutely something that can go pear-shaped on the page and in life. For me, it’s about the delivery, tone and timing. Some people can really pull it off well.

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  13. Tamara Hogan says:

    Vanessa, thanks for tackling a tough subject. As others have said, humor can be SO subjective. One thing I find fun about writing is that I can use dialogue and POV to put my kinda-subversive sense of humor in someone else’s mouth. 😉

    The last time I laughed out loud was last night, attending a vendor event for work. After a short tech presentation, during which I lost track of the number of times I heard the word “cloud”, the main event: a pre-release screening of “Mockingjay Part 1.” *squee*

    As always, Effie Trinket’s droll commentary cracked me up. My laugh came after hearing her say that District 13’s drab, dull jumpsuits could be made appealing, “just like democracy.”

    –> …a paranormal YA that brings new meaning to “teen spirit.”

    LOVE THIS. And thanks for the Nirvana earworm. 😉

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    • Ha ha, Tammy — that’s the way. Blame it all on your characters!

      I am SO envious of you getting to see Mockingjay Part 1. I’ve been dying to see it since the last frame of Catching Fire! LOL to Effie’s democracy line. She’s a great character. In her own way, she brings comedy relief to the rather grim (but riveting) concept of the Hunger Games.

      Enjoy the Nirvana earworm. Those guitar riffs are running through my brain right now!

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  14. Kim Law says:

    I love the way you’ve broken this down and explained it, Vanessa. I’ve always wondered “how” to write funny. I do write funny on occasion. But it’s not something I’ve ever been about to figure out *how* to do. Basically, for me, if it happens it happens 🙂 Or…if my smarta**ness comes out on the page, then it comes out on the page 🙂

    Thanks for this. It’s a perfect way to lay it out!

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    • Hi, Kim! It’s weird — talking the elements of comedy and ways to put it on the page is easy. But when it comes down to writing comedy, I think it has to come out naturally. Those unexpected moments, when the funny and smarta**ness just happens, are the best. When you try *too* hard, it sounds clunky and forced. Then again, I hear about comedians who work on jokes for YEARS, yet make them sound fresh and funny. It’s a real skill.

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  15. Julie Mulhern says:

    Vanessa,

    What a great post!

    It was pointed out to me this week that writing snarky and writing funny aren’t necessarily the same thing. This is bad news for me.

    When it comes to funny, I’d rather laugh with someone than at them.

    When I want to laugh, I read Wodehouse.

    I loved This is Your Afterlife!!!!

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    • Thank you much for reading AFTERLIFE, Julie! I’m thrilled to hear you loved it.

      Yikes, writing snark and writing funny aren’t the same thing? But…but snark brings makes me laugh! I love humour that bites.

      I’ve never read Wodehouse, but now that you’ve mentioned him, I’ll turn to his work next time I need some cheering up. Thanks for stopping by!

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  16. Amanda Brice says:

    Great post! I thought you got the balance of serious and funny spot-on in your book.

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  17. What a fun excerpt!!! I love it! What a great post. Congrats again on the book. It’s getting amazing reviews! (Not that I’m surprised.)

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  18. Great post! Very true that novel humor doesn’t work as a series of jokes. Darynda Jones has amazing humor in her Charley Davidson series (Hi!). I swear I’m not just saying that. I even bought a book on writing humor that she referenced online.

    One of the points in the book I read was to have a ridiculous situation where the characters play it straight. Kind of like the scene in Pulp Fiction where the hitmen are talking about fast food hamburgers. It so brilliantly uses the characters to draw out the humor. My ultimate goal is to write a funny book. I have such respect for authors who get that right.

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    • Hi, Stephanie. How funny — I’ve just returned from a lunch of hot chips and mayo and it reminded me of that scene in Pulp Fiction! I thought that scene was great, too, for exactly the reason you mentioned. It could’ve been so mundane, but the delivery was brilliant. That’s what I love about Seinfeld, also.

      What was the name of the reference book Darynda mentioned? I really like ‘Writing the Romantic Comedy’ by Billy Mernit.

      Thanks very much for visiting!

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  19. I love romantic comedy, especially when it is actually funny. So many rom-coms fall into the amusing category, but when a story can make you laugh out loud…that’s the bomb. My first rom-com is releasing next month with Entangled and I’d be over the moon to hear from a reader who laughed aloud, simply enjoying the fun. I know I’ve laughed many times reading Darynda and Diane and Addison. And I love the last line of your posted scene, Vanessa. Guess I’m adding another one to the TBR! I cannot keep up. You guys are killing me! 😉

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  20. Hi Vanessa, I’m late to visit but wanted to say what a fab post about using humour in writing! There must be a cosmic wrinkle because your post is oddly timely for me. I’m in a spot where I’m thinking about why someone finds something funny but another person doesn’t. Humour is fabulous and complex but it’s also personal and sometimes… painful.

    I guess the tricky part for a writer is to get the balance right, to find the sweet spot. That little excerpt from This Is Your Afterlife is just gorgeous! Your book is on my eTBR so I’m going to give myself a treat today and sit down to read!

    Oh and thanks for the snippet for Crimes and Misdemeanours – this movie hadn’t made it on to my radar for some reason and it looks terrific… if a little uncomfortable at times!

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    • Hi, Sharon! That IS the great challenge of writing comedy — it’s so subjective and you never know what’s going to strike a chord with readers. Years ago, when I worked at a cinema, we had a sneak screenings of Four Weddings and a Funeral. People were practically rolling in aisles with laughter, but just one person walked out after 20 minutes and said it was absolute rubbish. (I LOVE that movie, by the way.)

      Crimes and Misdemeanours is excellent, but as you say, uncomfortable at times! The characters get themselves into some truly twisted situations. Another great example of uncomfortable humour that I adore is the UK version of The Office. So hard to watch sometimes, but so funny.

      I really hope you enjoy my AFTERLIFE! Thanks so much for visiting. 🙂

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  21. Elisa Beatty says:

    Sorry to get here so late! But I just adore that excerpt–the perfect blend of serious and funny!

    Can’t wait for NaNo to be over so I can make some more headway into my TBR pile! THIS IS YOUR AFTERLIFE is right up there at the top of the list!

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