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This Will Only Hurt a Bit
“Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.”
— Noel Coward, English actor, playwright and composer
Bringing humor into your writing is more than inserting a series of jokes. Here are some of the what, who, where, when, how, and whys of using this particular writing tool.
What: Do an online search for a list of the different types of humor in writing and you’ll find scads to choose from. There’s satire and drollness and slapstick and irony. There’s situational or dry humor or dark humor—or if you’re so inclined, blue humor too. And they all can add to a piece of writing.
How do you know which ones to choose? This where you step back—look at your project. The choices you make might depend on what’s needed for your story and your characters—at a particular time. And at a particular place.
“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”
– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Who: Dialogue is there to further the plot. How could humor, through that character’s choices of phrases, or words do that? Every single word needs to be there for a reason—to further the plot or the main character’s internal journey. The same goes for humor. Think about what type of humor can describe the character or how the character expresses themselves. An unexpected choice can increase your story’s tension (or relieve it) by surprising your characters—and your reader.
But humor in dialogue can be a powerful “spice.” Having a character who is always on (is always funny) can wear down a reader. That’s because there’s nowhere “up” to go with that character and you run the risk of a character turning into that person at the party who tends to suck the air out of the room. Make sure there’s room for your other players.
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
-Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Where: When you’re world-building, consider the role humor can play. Is the place itself funny? That sort of situational humor can be a good tool in furthering plot in addition to rounding out the story’s setting. How does humor in the setting add to your character development? How does the humor add in how the conflict is working in your story? Are there absurd circumstances which cause mayhem for your main character? Could those circumstances also help your character in their quest through your story?
Think about a funny story from your own life. How did the setting (where that story occurred) add to it? What sort of tension did it add—and how did that make the story even funnier? Tension is the leadup. The laugh is the release from that tension.
I try to tell a story the way someone would tell you a story in a bar, with the same kind of timing and pacing.
When: So, how does a writer know when to bring in humor? It all boils down to pacing—the speed of the unfolding of your story’s events. Short scenes, short sentences, action and active verbs—these writing elements can all increase pacing. Quips in dialogue or situational humor: you know, the old saws like stepping in a cow flop, walking into a closed door, slipping on the proverbial banana peel can add to the sped-up feeling in these faster parts of the story.
Dry or dark humor can play a part in the building up or releasing of tension in a section of the story where you want the reader to linger. Imagine a solemn occasion. The setting is formal, the mood subdued—a perfect spot of dry or dark humor. A wedding scene where the officiant asks if anyone objects to “Speak now or forever hold their piece?” A muttered response under a character’s breath, a whispered comment to a seatmate—and maybe a chuckle from your reader.
What other people call dark and despairing, I call funny.
Why: Why use humor in your writing? A better question might be: why use humor in this particular piece of writing. Injecting humor for a cheap laugh when it doesn’t serve a scene or the larger story will get spotted a mile away. By digging deeper, looking at the true emotions of a scene: curiosity, anxiety, yearning, despair, you can see how humor could be the other side of the coin for powerful emotions.
Engage your reader in the emotions, and you’re more likely to engage them in your story—funny or not.
Nancy Coffelt is an ICL instructor who began her career as a fine artist. When she found that the titles of her whimsical works were getting longer and longer AND longer, she dove into picture books. Her first book, Goodnight Sigmund was published by Harcourt in1992. Since then Nancy has produced a steady stream of published works including the picture books Dogs in Space, Big, Bigger, Biggest, Fred Stays with Me!, Catch That Baby! and Aunt Ant Leaves through the Leaves. Awards for Nancy’s books include a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award 2008, School Library Journal’s (SLJ) Best of 2007, Kirkus Best of 2007, Miami Herald’s Best Children’s Books of 2007, ALA Notable Books, Bank Street College of Education’s Children’s Book Committee Books of Particular Distinction/Best Children’s Books list, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2008 Best Books list. Her books have also earned starred reviews in Kirkus, Horn Book, and SLJ.