How to Add Humor to Your Novel, Even If Your Novel Isn't Funny
In January, I was on a follow-up call with an author, discussing the revisions she planned to make in her latest manuscript. I’ve worked with this author for several years now, and she’s become a powerhouse of a novelist in that time. Her questions are calculated, thoughtful, and always tend towards what needs to be fixed in the piece.
The book in question features a protagonist who experiences dramatic emotional highs and lows, a zany Robin Williams type.
“Do you have any more questions before you launch into revision?” I asked.
“Well, I do have one — any advice on how to write funny scenes?” she said.
This threw me for a loop! I stammered and stuttered my way through the best answer I could give in the moment, but now that I’ve had some time to sit with the question, I’d like to offer additional resources and guidance, to her and to you.
Please note: though I have gotten a few laughs in my day, I wouldn’t call myself a comedienne. So, you know, take the following advice with a margarita rim of salt.
The Role of Humor in Fiction
Humor plays many roles in fiction, not just in books that are meant to be funny. In fact, in a recent conversation with my fellow EFA editors, someone mentioned that horror and drama can benefit from humor.
“Stephen King is funny!” one editor insisted.
This is true. Moreover, in the early pages of Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book (Tyrant Books, 2017), the narrator, a lovelorn alcoholic, is describing how he is the “best drunk driver” in the world. You find yourself laughing along with his hijinks, until he “remembers" that his children are in the backseat of the car.
So, writers of dark and dreary fiction, take note. You can use humor to make the intensity of your story more bearable, or to lull the reader into a false sense of security before the rug is pulled out from under them.
Familiarize Yourself with the Genre.
If you don’t read or watch a lot of comedy, well, then, the logical first place to start is by familiarizing yourself with what tropes are working for other writers. Book Riot has a fantastically thorough list of funny books, broken down by type of humor.
Moreover, realize that there are subgenres of comedy. What sort of comedy will your piece involve? Slapstick? Wordplay? Screwball? Situational? Watch and read the types of comedy you want to imbue your piece with.
For example, if you’re writing humorous women’s fiction, try Erma Bombeck or Helen Fielding. (A commenter below also recommends Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series.) if you’re writing a screwball comedy or an office rom-com, screen His Girl Friday and work your way up. As you watch or read, think about what makes you laugh. What is the setup and what is the punchline? Why is it funny?
For true comedy novices, try Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a show that got its start on YouTube and has now been picked up by Netflix. Due to the format of the show (which you can determine from the apt title), the comedians are prone to telling one another jokes and therefore discussing the mechanics of comedy a lot.
Three Considerations Regarding the Syntactic Building Blocks of a Joke
The basic building blocks of a joke are the setup and the punchline. You know this, deep in your soul, from all of the knock-knock jokes and Good Humor Q&A popsicles you consumed as a child. (Mm, artificial coloring.)
Whether on page, stage, or screen, comedic writing can manipulate these building blocks to create new forms of humor, but unless they’re very experimental, they always come back to this basic construction.
- Consider the sentence construction stand-up comics use when they’re presenting the setup of a joke versus when they’re giving the punchline. In general, they speak in longer, more descriptive sentences at first, as they paint the picture for you. Then, as they near and deliver the punchline, their sentences get shorter and punchier along with it.
You may also consider watching different types of stand-up: a classic like Richard Pryor vs. Demetri Martin’s illustration-based sets vs. Mike Birbiglia’s tendency to weave a long, über-joke narrative throughout a set of smaller, punchier bits.
- Consider also the literary devices used in comedic situations. Hyperbole and exaggeration are major parts of comedy (“I had this old dog…” “HOW OLD WAS HE?”), but so is understatement.
When the two can be combined — think of King Arthur’s battle against the Black Knight, as well as the Black Knight’s reaction to his own “flesh wounds," in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — that’s comedy at its best.
- Finally, it can be easier to determine what you find funny when it’s said out loud instead of when it’s written down. If it helps your process, consider marking/blocking the scene, or even telling it as a joke at a party in order to see how people respond to it.
Two Sample Funny Scenes.
Still need comedic inspiration?
Here are two sample scenes, one from my very funny client A.E. Radley’s novel, Huntress, and one, submitted humbly from my own work of upmarket women’s fiction, Everything Might Be Different. You may notice, as you read them, that much of Western humor comes from a defiance of at least one party's expectations.
Huntress, A.E. Radley
Here, the funniness comes from a defiance of the spy fiction enthusiast’s expectations. We’re in a send-up of the genre, and in this scene, the bounty hunter has nearly caught up with her prey, a girl who has been mistaken for a homegrown terrorist. With the help of charming, retired English couples, they both hop on narrowboats, with the hunter doing the whole “Follow that taxi!” song and dance.
But then, the characters — and the reader — learns that these boats are restricted to a 4 mph speed limit, and the scene gets funnier from there.
Everything Might Be Different, Jessica Hatch
Here, the funniness is a defiance of the characters’ expectations. The employees of a health and fitness startup have all dressed up for a semiformal holiday party, especially after their out-of-touch but very powerful boss hyped up how big the party would be this year. Then, they learn that they’re instead being taken to a laser tag arena, where everyone dutifully complies, even though they’re in heels, suits, etc.
Here, it’s also funny that there’s usually a power dynamic between this incredibly pompous boss and his social media temp, but at their holiday party, she ignores all office politics and kicks his ass at laser tag.