You know it’s happened to you… you’ve been in a group of people and someone says a line that begs for a funny comeback. Maybe you even come up with something mildly wry, slightly amusing, and the conversation ebbs and flows on to other subjects, and then about ten minutes later, the perfect line pops in your head. Worse, about two days later, the exact right bit blooms in your mind and you can see now how it would have gone over (they would have laughed) and then it would have segued better into the next bit of conversation.
Welcome to humor writing 101.
I think one of the things that surprises a lot of people when they ask me about the humor of the Bobbie Faye books is that I always say, “I layer it in.” No, the original first draft is usually not funny. Maybe it has a few chuckles in there, possibly even one laugh-out-loud moment, but I’m one of those writers who needs to know, organically, where I’m going and where I’ve been in order to create the right humor. Even my editor was a bit stunned by this process. (Seriously. She’d read the first draft and get a slight bit nervous. I’d assure her that the funny was coming, I just needed to make sure the logic of the story worked. Then she’d read the next draft and she’d inevitably write to me, “The funny! Is back!”) So just because you don’t “write funny” through a draft doesn’t mean you can’t.
First off, a lot of you are going to say, “I can’t write comedy.” And you’d be right. Also? You shouldn’t be trying to write “comedy” — unless you’re a stand-up comedian. Generally, writing balls-out comedy isn’t the goal and I’ve seen many writers avoid using humor as a tool because of a misconception of what they’re supposed to do with it. So let’s start there:
What do you think the goal of humor is?
If you said to make the person laugh, you’d be wrong.
Yeah, I know. Crazy.
- The goal of using humor in your story is to illuminate character.
- The secondary goal is to show the irony of the situation, whether that irony is dry, wry, bleak, black, twisted, or incredulous.
- The third goal of humor is to set up expectations for the next part of the story.
The end result can be laughter. (Or chuckles or amusement.) But don’t make laughter the goal. You’ll be holding the wrong end of the bat if you do.
The hard part? Try to accomplish two or all three goals each time you use humor.
Now, you don’t have to have a character who is trying to be funny in the moment to utilize humor. (For examples, I chose moments of “amusing” humor–most of the laugh-out-loud moments take context to work. I’m going to give a few examples from book 1 and then dissect them to show what I think that scene/humor is accomplishing. Next blog, we’ll tackle other aspects of writing humor and I’ll use examples from movies that we all have in common.)
We use forms of humor to cope with everyday stress as well as big, scary moments. In CHARMED AND DANGEROUS, the first Bobbie Faye book, Bobbie Faye and Trevor (her hi-jacked sort-of “hostage” who, for his own purposes, has decided to help her) are on the run through the swamps. They are trying avoid police and bad guys as Bobbie Faye has sort of inadvertently robbed a bank (total accident) and the item she’d gone to the trouble of trying to get in the first place–the item kidnappers want or they’ll kill her brother–is running ahead of her in those swamps. She’s not going to stop:
They swam a half a mile around the bend in the bayou when Trevor motioned for Bobbie Faye to stop. Standing in the middle of the water, they could see a hundred yards upstream where two alligators sunned themselves on fallen logs. Trevor glanced over Bobbie Faye’s shoulder. “Going back is asking to get caught. We need to get a little farther upstream before we move out of the water.”
“Maybe we can walk past them. I’ve been told gators are pretty shy.
“You’re sure this was someone who actually liked you who told you this?”
“Um, not entirely.”
He caught her unsure expression and shook his head, amused.
[Dissecting humor almost guarantees it's no longer funny... however...]
This scene is the beginning of the phase of the book where Bobbie Faye is really getting to know Trevor, her hostage. [She isn't entirely sure that he isn't a criminal and she'd hijacked him earlier to help her follow the thieves who stole what she needed.] So far, in spite of what she’s dragged him into, he’s been even-keeled, smart, and not the least bit afraid of teasing her. She sees his sense of humor with the “liked you?” comment, but at the same time, she gets something in the show-don’t-tell way: he thinks she’s rational and even-keeled enough in the face of disaster to be receptive to teasing. He also respects her thoughts on the matter–he’s not just telling her what to do. Simultaneously, he’s diffusing a very scary situation (alligators) (which shows his character) and she responds with self-deprecation, not defensiveness, which shows a bit her her character. While illuminating character, the humor (are you sure?… not entirely) echoes the irony of the situation: Bobbie Faye is a popular local Contraband Days Queen who is famous for sometimes being unpopular.
This scene also sets up something innate for the forward motion of the plot: Bobbie Faye will not stop. She will think about crises in self-deprecating terms, she will recognize the danger, but she’s not going to panic and she’s not going to stop. Her brother’s life is in jeopardy. That’s all that matters to her, and if she has to plow over half the state to save him, she will. Alligators should have been the scary part for her… particularly nesting alligators who are very protective of their young. Ironically, the alligators turn out–almost immediately–to have been the very least scary thing in her day.
A little while earlier, Trevor has nicknamed her “Sundance.” Trevor has a knife out and has instructed her to walk over to him. She says:
“Great–you’ve nicknamed me after a guy who dies in that movie. I’m not feeling all swooney happy over that knife.”
He seemed genuinely puzzled. “If I didn’t do anything to you when you shot my truck, why would I start now?”
That’s the comic beat… the “better cover” — which sets up his response:
He laughed. “We have really got to work on these delayed survival instincts, Sundance. Now c’mon, we don’t have much time.”
Which sets up her first inkling that maybe she could trust him. (This will be a major issue throughout the book and the series.)
And dammit if she didn’t find herself smiling and stepping forward. The man could probably charm the snakes clean off Medusa’s head and make her think it was her own idea.
Which sets up what Trevor’s doing for the rest of the book (and series).
If I had just told you (whether through introspection or with them verbally sparring) about the beginning of trust there, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. Because you, the reader, know that if a woman sees a big ass knife and isn’t backing away screaming, or tensing in fear, or having a hundred different negative thoughts, if she’s collected enough to exchange quips with the guy, then she doesn’t sense that she is in real danger. Sure, she’s cautious, but that innate trust is at work, and the humor tells us that. (Character, also, ironic observation of her situation: her best hope is her own hostage.)
I rewrote this scene a half a dozen times before finding the right phrasing that led to the right question from Trevor that allowed for the “Better cover?” line. [That line has a triple meaning, which she doesn't even realize 'til later.] I knew I needed a moment where that beginning of trust was crystallized in her mind through her own choice and action. Up until this point, she’s trusted his help more as a survival instinct / reaction. Now, she’s making a conscious choice to step closer to him, knowing he’s faster than her and he could hurt her here. I also knew I wanted to give her a funny line in that moment (which shows him a lot of her character-under-pressure). I refer to these as my “Scooby-Do” reactions… you remember the cartoon… the moment where Scooby has seen something suspicious or scary and makes that, “uuuhhhh?” noise.
Now, humor isn’t right for the tone of every book. In fact, in straight romantic suspense, it should be used sparingly and in thrillers/romantic thrillers, probably even less, because inserting a humorous moment in some otherwise scary event ratchets down the fear factor. It’s called “comic relief” for a reason, so you must consider the overall tone of your story. However, there are times when humor can be darker, more negative and instead of ratcheting down the fear, it can underscore it in a way that straight narrative wouldn’t. For example, Cam, Bobbie Faye’s ex (the detective tracking her) is talking to his partner, Benoit, who observes:
“Yeah, well, if you really wanted her to ask you for help, maybe you shouldn’t have arrested her sister.”
“Fuck off. I was doing my job.”
Benoit laughed. “Right. And she took it so well, too. You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen armed cops dive for cover and hide from an unarmed person?”
The irony (the cops afraid of her, in spite of them being armed) sets up a whole series of smart assed remarks and suppositions from everyone around Bobbie Faye, and that notion is reinforced because an “eye-witness” is telling us about it. The other irony is that Cam clearly wants to be the one helping Bobbie Faye and he’s done pretty much everything that would guarantee that he’s the last person she’d ask. And, on top of this, he’s the one chasing her down now, putting her in more danger–which he wants to avoid, no matter how pissed off he claims to be on the surface.
Cam is extremely angry with Bobbie Faye for not having called him for help with whatever crisis this is, and a moment later, Cam thinks:
He hadn’t expected the head-spinning, Defcon one, stupendous meltdown that had been Bobbie Faye when she found out he’d been the arresting officer. It was not quite a year later and he still could feel the blisters from her fury.
Hadn’t she known what it meant that she was dating a cop? What the hell did she expect? he’d done the right thing. He stood by that. But accusations were hurled and words were said that neither could take back.
“You still writin’ checks for that ring every month?”
Cam hated the way Benoit knew him so damned well. The night Bobbie Faye had ended it, Cam had thrown the ring in the lake. She’d never seen it, had never known, and he was never going to tell her.
“Every month. And I’m gonna keep writing them for the next two years just to keep remembering what a stupid idea that was.”
“Maybe if it takes writing out a check to remind yourself you don’t want to feel the way you do, then–”
“Don’t even finish that thought.”
Benoit turned and leaned his back flat against the wall, one ankle crossed over the other, arms folded and his brown eyes closed. “You can’t shoot her, you know.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
Cam is obviously in denial. I’m using humor here in a darker, jabbing sort of way. In the context of what happens just before and just after, this exchange takes on another undercurrent: fear. Cam is afraid for her and pissed off that she’s put herself in a position again where he has to be afraid for her. He absolutely does not want to care for her, and he more than cares: he’s frightened.
Benoit is Cam’s closest friend (now that Bobbie Faye is no longer his best friend), and Benoit isn’t going to stand idly by and let Cam hang around in denial, especially with so much on the line. There is also a juxtaposition of the two kinds of humor that is telling in a subtle way: Bobbie Faye and Trevor’s humor is teasing/self-deprecating, open, whereas Cam and Benoit’s exchange is more closed, painful. The kind of humor Cam and Benoit use here is pointed, sharp, and it reflects where Cam is in his life: in pain, angry, denying it. I don’t have to tell you he’s still in love with her, or how bitter he is about their break up. (She is just as angry as he is, and her side of the story is wholly different, which we see and explore throughout the trilogy.)
So, first up in our discussion is that the goal of humor should be threefold, and we need to try to accomplish all three at once, if possible. Secondary to that is laughter–or amusement. Out of context here on a blog, I hope these examples were at least amusing. In context, I hope they are funnier. Heh.
Next time I blog, we’re going to talk about the different kinds of humor you can use and how you choose which kind for which moment. We’ll also talk about actual ways of structuring the humor and I’ll go find some “before” and “after” moments in the copy edits so you can see how that layering process works. Finally, we’ll talk about structuring the moment (rhythm, pacing, flow, sound) and then how to structure the moments overall in the story.
For now, though, please tell me some of the funny movies you’ve seen or funny books you’ve read and we’ll use the ones that are most common for dissection next time! What were your favorite parts? Why?