Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lexicon of Laughter

Humor is one mode of characterization I rarely use. To my detriment, I've been thinking. The world is so serious. I don't laugh as much as I should. But it feels good when I do.

A character who trips over her own feet would jump off the page like a one-armed juggler. I wouldn't have too many tag lines for a character soothes tense situations by cracking bad jokes.

Jan Hornung, in Seven Steps to Better Humor Writing, says a writer must create an image in the reader's mind in order to make him chuckle, giggle, or smile. A writer cannot shove a pie in the reader's face, trip over his own feet and go sprawling, or make goofy gestures. A writer must use only words to conjure up situations and dialogue that bring rib-splitting, bone-tickling, knee-slapping guffaws, or at least a snicker, from the reader.

Jan says, "Whether or not a writer is personally funny is not important. What is important is that the writer can make the reader think that the characters and situations are funny. One of the greatest humor writers of all time was William Shakespeare, 1564-1616. Those who have read and studied "The Bard" appreciate him for the great comedy writer that he was. He developed characters that played off one another, and he created situations in which his characters could manipulate and interact with each other, resulting in a humorous effect.

Here are Jan's guidelines to writing humor:

1. Don't tell the reader that something is funny. Let the reader discover this for himself. Do this by painting a picture with words that the reader can relate to with all five of his senses. Describe the smells, textures, tastes, sights, and sounds.

As the writer, ask yourself how, why, who, when, and where, as you describe a character or situation. Tell the reader how something smells, tastes, feels, looks, and sounds. Describe why something smells, tastes, feels, looks, and sounds the way it does. And so on. Certainly you, the writer, don't have to address all of these questions, but by doing so, you will cover all the potential bases toward painting the best picture possible.

In Hamlet, Hamlet tells Horatio of his dead friend, Yorick. As he describes his friend to Horatio, Hamlet holds the skull of Yorick in his hand. "Here hung those lips that I have kiss'd I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?" In this example, Shakespeare uses Hamlet to bring Yorick alive for the reader. The reader can almost see Hamlet holding the skull in his hand; additionally, the reader can hear the "roar" of laughter from the guests at the table as Hamlet describes Yorick singing or telling a funny story. Shakespeare creates images using words that stir the reader's senses, evoking emotions in the reader as well.

We aren't any of us Shakespeare, nor do many of us want to be. If your character gets hit in the face with a pie, it may or may not be funny. If your character gets hit in the face with a lemon pie, with yellow, gooey blobs of meringue dripping from his chin and snowy drifts of whipped cream sticking from his ears, this paints a picture for the reader that is more likely to be perceived as whimsical. If the pie "splats" across his face, sending wafts of tangy-sweet lemon scent, along with a bit of graham cracker crust, up his nose as he sticks out his eager tongue to bring home the cheek-puckering flavor -- this is a hoot. Now the reader can smell, feel, taste, see, and hear that pie.

2. Use metaphors and similes that bring familiar images into your reader's mind. Used effectively, metaphors and similes say volumes with a few words. A metaphor is a figure of speech using a word or phrase that usually means one thing to refer to something else. Such as Shakespeare's metaphor, "All the world's a stage," said by Jacques in As You Like It. Using this metaphor, this character reflects on how people behave. Shakespeare uses the metaphor to paint an image of a stage in the reader's mind.

Metaphors, such as "his driveway doesn't go all the way to the street," can paint a funny image in the reader's mind of a not-all-there person. Everyone has met someone like this, so the reader can relate to such a metaphor.

A simile is a figure of speech in which the writer compares two unlike items, usually using the word "like" or "as". Shakespeare's simile, "I am constant as the northern star," spoken by Caesar in Julius Caesar, compares Caesar's strong will to the brightest star in the sky.

The simile, "we were wrestling around like two pigs in the mud, only he was enjoying it and I was just getting dirty," shows, not just tells the reader about, a funny situation.

3. Blending description, metaphors, and similes with dialogue is another way for the writer to expand his medium. Metaphors in a dialogue can add a humorous flavor of their own to the story or character. Such as one character might comment using a metaphor, "The squeaky wheel gets oiled." The other character responds with another metaphor, "And the quacking ducks gets shot!"

Similes can be funny in their own right, and added to a humorous situation can make it even funnier, such as, "I'm happy as a mosquito in a nudist colony," creates a humorous image in the reader's mind.

4. Words that portray movement are yet another way the writer can paint a funny picture for the reader. A character that is moving, like an actor on a stage, has more potential for hilarity than one that is not moving. Using action verbs, the writer can create a jovial image and elicit amusement from his reader such as in this example from a helicopter student learning to hover. "I madly made exaggerated corrections with the cyclic. We zigged crazily in mid zag, then zagged wildly in mid zig."

5. Colorful adjectives help the writer paint the exact image he wants the reader to experience. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy to look up adjectives that will spice up your writing. If the writer describes "a cow," the reader is left to color in the cow on his own. Use adjectives to describe all five senses as you paint a picture with words. "She was not just a cow but a sauntering bovine beauty with chocolate-bar swirls of milky browns and milk-shake white on a suede background -- the most delicious contented cud-chewer I'd ever seen."

6. Find new ways to say the same old thing. Was the woman large? Or does she look like she's built for comfort rather than speed? Was the man skinny? Or did he have to run around in the shower just to get wet?

7. Satire and irony add humor to the written story also. Irony is the use of words to express the opposite of their literal meaning. Satire is the use of irony or wit to attack something. Be careful with satire and irony; a writer can easily miss his mark, leaving the reader confused.

Jan Hornung's Summary: "Remember to paint that picture using all five senses. Add a metaphor or two, a few similes, action verbs, and colorful adjectives."

Maybe writing a funny line or two wouldn't be that hard, after all.


  1. Fascinating post, Ana.

    Must admit I'm not into slapstick humor at all. Visual humor (like custard pies in the face or someone slipping on a banana skin or silly walks etc) does absolutely nothing for me. I much prefer the humor of words and, for me, Oscar Wilde did it perfectly. I don't have to see his plays, I just have to read them and I'm giggling. At the same time, I appreciate the timing of actors (and comedians too) who can deliver one-liners so perfectly. Maggie Smith, in the current Downton Abbey series, is one such person. She made me laugh so many times.

    In my current WIP, the heroine likes the fact that the hero can make her laugh - "Not with witty or clever quips, but simply with genuinely humorous comments." I'm hoping he will continue to make her laugh, not with any 'silly' actions but with his sense of humor.

    For me, metaphors and similies should be used very sparingly. So many of them are cliches, and often attempts to find a non-cliched phrase can stick out like a sore thumb, unless the writer is very skilled. I've read some dreadful metaphors at times!!

  2. Ana, I love the work you put into this post. I try to put humor into my characters and my stories, but it's not physical humor. When it works, I get on a roll and the characters banter with each other, usually to lighten up tense situations. And sometimes they're kind of smart alecks (I am so claiming smart ass and snarky for the S post!). I hadn't given a lot of thought previously to the mechanics of it--I tend to go with what works or flows well; if it doesn't, I delete it. And I also depend on my critique partner to tell me if something flops. I'm a little leery of plotting out the humor because that's just not my style, and I don't want my writing to come across as "insert laughter here" but some of Jan's advice might be interesting to try.

  3. Great post Ana.

    I've found that I don't intentionally make my stories funny, but a lot of readers and reviewers have said they liked the humorous moments.

    Although I do have to say, my WIP involves a hero who used to be in prison, so I am trying to be conscious of not having the story be too 'heavy'. I am looking for ways to add humor to lighten the mood a bit so it's not all dark.