It’s when times are tough that we are in the greatest need of a smile. That’s why I am so pleased to welcome as our guest blogger, writer, teacher, and all-around joyous woman, Janice Thompson.
Writing Humor: Tickling the Funny Bone
Humor writing comes naturally to some. Others have to work hard to be funny. (Sounds funny, doesn’t it. . .working hard to be funny?) I’m one of those who came into the world with an overactive funny bone. Oh, it occasionally gives me trouble. Life’s woes kick in and my funny bone gets arthritic. It locks up. Whenever that happens, I trip myself on purpose, just to loosen it back up again. (Hey, a girl can only go so long without laughter!)
Yep, from the time I was a little girl, I was the happy-go-lucky sort. Giggly. Goofy. My mom always called me a ham because of my overly-dramatic style. Not that I minded. Oh no. Drama was my thing. And performing comedy on the stage was the thing that made me happiest.
Then I grew up. . .and life happened. Unfortunately, some of the events of my grown-up life weren’t funny. In fact, they were pretty tragic. Still, through my faith and my innate desire to keep on keepin’ on, I managed to keep my smile intact much of the time.
So, what does this have to do with writing? Everything!
I wrote as a child—poems, stories, even a novel (in the 6th grade). And my drama sketches in high school were a hoot. I went on to write musical comedies for the stage at a local school of the arts. Time after time I was rewarded with that “instant” gratification. And it felt good. In fact, it did my heart proud to know I was bringing joy to others, and there was some sense of satisfaction in knowing they “got” me. So, when I began to think about writing books for a living, I decided to take the humorous approach. What a ride it has been! During this crazy, awesome, rollicking season as a published author, I’ve written quirky romantic comedies for women of all ages. What joy! Not only do these humorous stories transport readers, they lift my spirits, as well. And frankly, I’ve needed my spirits lifted.
TIPS TO TICKLE THE FUNNY BONE:
So, what makes a story funny? Here are a few tips to creating a tale that will tickle the funny bone:
- TIP ONE: Create unique characters that readers can genuinely relate to: Think of your favorite sitcom. For me, Everybody Loves Raymond is near the top of the list. Why did I love that show so much? The characters were (individually) hysterical. Each one had his/her own quirks. And those quirks got them into (and out of) jams. Funny characters also mess up. . .a lot. They get in trouble and need help getting out. We relate because we’re the same way. When you set out to write a comedy, create a cast of characters that you absolutely love. Don’t just focus on one or two. Choose at least three characters in your story who really have that extra “zing.” Characters that readers will remember for years to come. In my “Weddings by Bella” series, I created several funny characters (and boy, have I heard from readers about them). These characters include Aunt Rosa, Uncle Laz, Bella and the trio of “sisters” from Splendora, Texas. These wacky people will stay with me for the rest of my life! I think some of my readers have adopted them, as well.
- TIP TWO: Diversify your cast. Make sure you have distinctly different characters in your story. They need to have different opinions, different lifestyles, different personalities, different ways of dealing with their troubles. Throw these very different characters into an unusual situation and watch them each scramble. . .in their own unique ways. The contrast of styles is half the fun. Think of I Love Lucy. Were there ever four more different people than Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel? Because of their differences, we knew there would be conflict. And because of the conflict, we knew it would be chaotic and funny. I would also suggest that you diversify the ages of your characters. Put elderly people and kids together in the same scene. And why not diversify by mixing up the cultures and races of your cast? The more different your characters are, the greater the opportunity for humor.
- TIP THREE: Exaggeration: If your character is tall, make him really tall. Chubby? Make her exceptionally chubby. Nervous? Make him overly anxious. Claustrophobic? Carry it a bit further than the norm. Does she like to wear lipstick? Make it Pollyanna Pink or Ruby Red. Give that character an exaggerated “sticking point” that readers will remember. And, exaggerate plotline highs and lows, as well. Is she in a valley? Make it a deep one. Is he on the mountaintop? Give him the experience of a lifetime. Think, again, of Everybody Loves Raymond. Raymond’s brother Robert was an exaggerated character. His moodiness was definitely over-the-top. But it worked, especially in contrast to the silliness of some of the other characters.
- TIP FOUR: Situational comedy: Spend time watching for humorous moments in your own life. What “situations” get you giggly? Think about placing your characters in a “situation” that will play out in a humorous way. By way of example, let’s look again at I Love Lucy. Did we really find it believable that a housewife would take a job in a chocolate factory and end up shoving candies down her blouse? Um, probably not. Did we laugh like hyenas when the episode aired? You betcha! Did we really think that a housewife would start her own company making mayonnaise and eventually bankrupt her husband’s finances? Nope. But we bought it for thirty minutes. I Love Lucy was the perfect example of a situational comedy. Week after week we waited to see what “situation” our gal would end up in. We empathized with her (this is very important) and we thought she was a little kooky. In short, we saw a little of ourselves in her.
- TIP FIVE: Slapstick: Think of Larry, Mo and Curly. Sure, their antics got a little old after awhile, but you get the idea. “Physical” comedy (tripping over things, physical gags, etc.) has always had its place in humor writing. This tactic has been used a lot in comedic movies. Think about the old Barbara Streisand movie, “What’s Up Doc?” The film was loaded with slapstick elements, especially during the San Francisco chase scene. I would caution you to use slapstick sparingly, but don’t rule it out.
- TIP SIX: Speaking of Larry, Mo and Curly: Work in threes. Three funny characters as a trio. Three funny situations in a row. Threes have always worked in comedy. “Three nuns walked into a bar…” “A pilot, a priest and a rabbi boarded a plane…” (etc.) See what I mean? Funny people love the number three.
- TIP SEVEN: Pacing: There’s much to be said about the placement of words, phrases and inflections. Pacing it truly everything in comedy. And don’t be afraid to try different things. In many respects, it is learned by trial and error. If you aren’t sure something is working, run it by your critique partners. See if they’re tickled by your words. For a good example of comedic pacing, watch a few Golden Girls episodes. Timing was everything in that show.
- TIP EIGHT: The Punch Line. If you’re writing comedy, make sure you leave the reader anticipating a “Wowza!” punch line. Don’t give away too much too soon. Adequately build the story, then…bam! Punch line!
- TIP NINE: Do the opposite thing. Place your character in a scene and then have him or her do the very opposite thing the reader expects.
- TIP TEN: Live the Life: Let humor lead the way! In my own life, I find that being funny on the page is easier when I’m truly walking through life with a joyous attitude. It’s not always easy (and life often intervenes, threatening to remove any hint of humor), but for those who live a life of faith, it is possible. The Bible is loaded with all sorts of great scriptures about joy. Check out this verse: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22) When we transfer our “merry heart” to the page, then we’re sharing the joy with our readers. Is there any greater honor?
There you have it! Ten tips for tickling the funny bone. Enjoy yourself as you pen stories that will make others chuckle. Have a great day, writers. Go forth…and giggle!
Contact info for Janice:
“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”