11 Ways to Add Funny to Fiction
Regular listeners to the SPS podcast will know that for your novel to stand a chance of succeeding it requires a gripping story, compelling characters, snappy dialogue, a world for the reader to escape to. Plus a great title, professional cover, creative marketing – oh and ideally you’ll have at least three of them in a series to take advantage of online advertising.
On top of all of that I’m asking you to make it funny too?
Many authors shy away from humour. They don’t think it’s something they can do. Or they see others doing it badly. It’s like sex scenes – easy to do wrong, and the consequence of writing them badly is humiliation and ridicule.
Why would you want to add humour to your fiction?
For me the answer to that question is: why wouldn’t you?
You don’t need your lead character to trip on a banana skin, or a wisecracking Chandler Bing type standing in the corner undermining every new beat of your plot.
Think of comedy as an additional skill that can be learned to improve your writing. Like evoking a sense of atmosphere, scenery description, or exploring a character’s emotion. A skill to be used sparingly but available to add depth to the reader’s interest in your story.
The book itself doesn’t need to be a work of comic fiction. Mark Billingham’s dark murder mysteries and Jo Jo Moyes’s tender romances weave moments of humour into their tales without removing the reader from the sober worlds they’ve created. On the contrary, they remind us that even during our darkest moments there is humour to be found.
Whatever you’re writing – thriller, sci-fi, zombie romance, dystopian-religious-erotica – here are 11 ways you can bring a little light relief to your spellbinding tales.
1: LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Have you ever been in denial about something? Difficult question to answer because you’re probably too much in denial to be aware of it.
We all have stories we tell about ourselves that we know, deep down, are untrue. I still occasionally look back at my reflection and imagine “Maybe I’m not as bald as it looks.”
Doesn’t have to be your protagonist: give a secondary character some trait that they refuse to accept is true.
2: THE ODD COUPLE
One plays by the rules, the other is a maverick. The odd coupling of detectives is as old as the novels of Conan Doyle himself. Even in the originals there was a sense of the eccentric Sherlock Holmes gently mocking the more strait-laced Dr Watson. No one reads those books for the laughs but there’s no doubting their existence.
The latest TV update casts Holmes as garrulous, over-sharing, busybody to Watson’s deeply private, traumatised, wounded soldier. Dark yes, but often funny.
3: THE ODDER COUPLE
Never mind character contrasts, how about something nice and simple for your odd couple? She’s tall and he’s short. He’s spontaneous and impulsive, she has the demeanour of a Zen master. So much of comedy is about juxtaposition.
4: BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE
Stephen King says that readers love descriptions of the workplace. This can be anywhere: Police Station, hospital, school staff room, the Italian restaurant in Goodfellas. Wherever your characters assemble to do their daily business, whatever job they do, there’s always someone who shouldn’t be there. Below their pay grade or more likely these days, massively over-qualified.
Remember that dreary bastard in HR who made your life miserable all those years ago? Writer, it’s payback time.
5: FIT A PACE CHANGER
Your Detective chased the criminal but failed to catch him. The lead heroine hopped into bed with the Wrong Guy. Our hero’s spaceship has just crashed to a halt on Tralfamadore.
It’s one of the big plot moments in your book. What better way to signify the end of that section than a short scene designed to change the pace?
The wheezing, out-of-breath Detective trawls the office for someone with an asthma inhaler; heroine receives a call from mum seconds after The Act; a Space Mechanic with a monkey wrench shakes his head and wonders which cowboy fitted those impulse warp drivers…
6: IMMANUEL KANT SO YOU CAN
The 18th century German philosopher is best known for his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he argues that thought is the source of morality. Not many laughs there, but he was quite the humour analyst in his day. Kant described a joke as “the sudden transformation of heightened expectation into nothing.”
This phrase conjures the image of a bubble bursting. Someone blowing a raspberry at a figure of authority. While we’re on definitions the great comedy writer Denis Norden described every joke as “a momentary removal of sympathy.” There’s nothing we enjoy more than seeing a pompous figure of authority brought down by ridicule. Every novel should have one.
7: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
If you’ve never read Lionel Shriver’s astonishing, gruesome, horrific all-too-believable story about an American teenage mass killer you might be wondering what it’s doing in a blog about adding humour to your fiction.
The answer is in the book’s title. It’s the phrase every parent uses when they have to discuss with the other parent how their kid is behaving. Kevin’s a teenager, having problems at school. So far this could be Grease, or even Harry Potter. With hindsight we know that Kevin’s problems are several notches above the usual, but if you’ve ever tried reasoning with a 15-year-old who happens to be your kid you’ll know how hard it is to come out sounding reasonable.
There are some very funny moments in this book because despite the subject matter, despite the horribly plausible chain of events and their terrible consequences, this is a book that explores the parent-teenage relationship, spots and all.
8: LIGHT AND SHADE
Talking of Harry P, one rarely commented-on feature of the entire series is the extraordinary assemblage of background characters. Nearly Headless Nick, Dobby the Elf, Tom the landlord of the Leaky Cauldron, rarely seen but instantly memorable.
Most chapters you write have incidental characters. When I read new sitcom scripts I’m always disappointed if Policeman Number One or Shopkeeper are not named.
Don’t just have them mechanically performing a role in the scene. Give them something to do that’s tangential to the main story. Ideally, something funny. Don’t worry, the whole edifice of your CIA thriller won’t come crashing down as a result.
9: ROGET’S THEY SAW US
Open your Thesaurus on a random page and pick a word. You don’t own a Thesaurus? Nothing beats leafing through those pages. Okay then, look up a bunch of adjectives online and choose one.
My random word was “generous.” Imagine a generous character in your story – Roget describes them as “liberal, open-handed, hospitable, benevolent.” I like this person. Sounds like me.
As the list continues we start to see words like “lavish, profuse, charitable, Good Samaritan, spare no expense.” Actually this person’s a bit smug aren’t they? Self-satisfied, swollen-headed, vainglorious, complacent. I’ll put my Thesaurus away now.
Let your character declare their generosity, let their actions show us who they really are.
10: TINY REVOLUTIONS
Every joke, George Orwell told us, is a tiny revolution. He was talking about using humour as a weapon against authoritarian states, which is possibly a little niche for your paranormal YA romance.
Also, I wrote topical jokes for TV shows for 30 years but not one of my well-aimed truth barbs helped to bring down a single politician.
I like the phrase because it comes close to one of the simplest definitions of a joBOO!
A joke is a surprise. You don’t see it coming.
Surprises happen in places where you least expect them. “A guy once explained it to me beautifully,” Billy Connolly said, “there’s more fun at a Glasgow funeral than there is at an Edinburgh wedding.”
11: NO CHOICE
Whatever the genre, we’re all writing mystery novels aren’t we? A question is asked at the start – will I find true love? Who killed that person? Can the world be saved? – and answered at the end. We put our characters through tricky situations, make them struggle against the deepest forces, push them to the limits of human endurance.
What if, for one scene, we send them back to the family home? In that moment, your smart and stylish problem solver is once again the insignificant little brother or sister. Bullied, teased, and unable to come up with a witty response.
You can choose your friends, Oscar Wilde famously said, but you can’t choose your family. Your heroine may be on the brink of discovering a cure for cancer but she’s still at least one grandchild away from impressing her mum.
Anything your lead character can achieve, give them an annoying family member to undermine it.
I could have added more tips but stopped at eleven. Why? Because eleven is a funny word. Why’s that? I don’t know, something to do with the rhythm I guess.
Whatever it is you’re writing, there’s always room for light relief.