MBM: So You Want to Write Funny? How to Add Humor to Your Writing, by JoLynne Lyon

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Welcome to the LAST day of March BOOK Madness. This has been another great year of writing advice from authors I respect and admire. If you’ve missed any days, make sure to catch up! A complete schedule and explanation is at the bottom of this post.

  • Update on the real March Madness Belliston brackets. My husband is creaming me this year. Yes, I’m eating my words and he’s loving it. :) Go Michigan State!

Finishing off the month is my online friend, JoLynne Lyon. I think JoLynne is the only one to have contributed an article every year for March Book Madness, so how awesome that she’s here on the last day.

Her first novel was published last year called Truth Is Relative. A great book with funny characters and situations (my review here). She’s a sweet lady, talented author, and I’m excited about the topic she’s discussing today since I REALLY struggle with this one.

So here she is.

Using Humor in Writing by JoLynne Lyon

So you want to write funny? by JoLynne Lyon

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Bless you. The writing world is full of humorless stories, cranky editors and writers who believe you have to be clinically depressed before you’re worth anything as an author.

You know better. And by now, you probably know something else about writing humor: It’s hard. It’s a pain to analyze. One you start dissecting your sentences, they’re just not funny anymore.

But you’re brave, you’re willing, and I respect you for it. Here are some suggestions to add a smile to your prose. You will need:

A willingness to create flawed characters

If your lead character is nothing but heroic, it will be more challenging to make him funny. It’s still possible to write comedy around a competent character–you can give the hero clever lines, or surround her with eccentric characters. Or you can do both.

Doc Martin, the title character in a British comedy, is a great example of a flawed, smart man in a delightfully quirky village. Which is why my favorite Mother’s Day gift was a complete, multi-season set of Doc Martin DVDs.

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An appreciation for the absurd

If you look around you, you’ll find a pile of inspiration. Like the road trip that will forever be remembered as “Vomiting Across America.” Or the team leader who (figuratively) believes the floggings should continue until morale improves. Or the day you get out of the shower, put on your bath towel and move straight into cleaning a child’s body fluids off the floor—and then the in-laws walk in. Stuff like that (which may or may not have happened to people I know).

You could always make it up, too. The Emperer’s New Groove is a favorite example of layering one ridiculous thing over another, then delivering it all in a one-two punch:

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An unusual point of view

So many comedic moments revolve around an outsider who points out the silliness of everyday life. (Over the decades, many a sitcom character has been an alien from outer space, trying to understand human quirks.) Other funny characters feel like outsiders in different ways—even Elizabeth Bennet, whose family seems alien when compared to their well-mannered Victorian neighbors.

My main character has a “gift” that compels people to spontaneously confess to him. This gives him an unusual view into the World of Things Better Left Unsaid.

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Slapstick humor

I am a fan of pure clumsiness, especially if the main character is a llama. Or in love. But be warned: it can get old, and a constant diet of physical injury is going to turn your character into an unbelievable, messed up cartoon. So use it, but not all the time.

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Now, here is a list of un-funny habits:

Don’t explain your jokes

Maybe your audience will figure out that your character’s name is a very clever literary allusion. Maybe they won’t. Don’t point it out or explain the history behind it. Maybe only half your readers will get it, but they’ll smile four times wider.

And please, don’t use the words “he joked” to signal when your character is being funny. It’s kind of a rookie thing to do, but I’ve seen it in edited and published works, so it bears repeating. I think this stuff happens when we’ve read our manuscripts a few times. Nothing reads funny anymore. We lose faith that anybody’s going to get it—but if we set it up right, they will. It just takes faith. Well, that and a good writing group.

 

Don’t overuse shock humor

One of my favorite authors has a character who makes wisecracks when she looks at dead bodies, and she drops the F bomb constantly. (I don’t want to name the author because I like his books. I like them so much that I feel weird saying anything critical.) But here’s the thing: I know the author wants me to like this woman. I don’t. I’m happiest when she has a minor presence.

I realize this is subjective—some audiences have a lot higher tolerance than others—but be warned: When an author relies on shock for laughs, some audience members will walk out.

As for humor that makes fun of women, men, minorities, religious groups, three-legged dogs… do I really even need to tell you what a bad idea it is? Probably not, if you’re reading Rebecca Belliston’s blog. You’re here, so you’re probably not into cheap laughs.

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Don’t arrest your character’s development

I believe all characters should grow. The trouble is, it’s easier to make them laughable when they don’t know what they’re doing. Some sequels “solve” this problem by never letting their character finish his arc. Kung Fu Panda went back to bumbling in the second movie, and in Iron Man II, Tony Stark forgot all the growing up he did in Iron Man. Please, don’t do this to your characters. Don’t do it to your audience. There are other ways to make people laugh—they’re just harder to execute.

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Don’t unintentionally turn your “good guys” mean

This technique may be falling out of vogue—I hope it is—but the M*A*S*H reruns that play in the background as I make dinner are starting to bug me. The device goes like this: you create a hateful character (Frank). Then you have the “good guys” humiliate him now and again, because, you know, he deserves it.

I think J.K. Rowling got it right in The Order of the Phoenix: bullying behavior is bad behavior, no matter who does it. Sure, some people will laugh. Shame on them.

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In conclusion…

I don’t want to end on a cranky note. I never want to discourage an author who aspires to be funny. My last single-author reading binge ended a couple of weeks ago, and I just sat there wondering what I’d do now that I’d finished all full-length Longmire novels. (Fortunately a new one comes out in May.)

The problem wasn’t that I’d never find another good writer. But I don’t know where I’ll ever find another author who makes me laugh like he does.

So go forth, people. Make ‘em smile. The world needs more of that.

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REBECCA: Love this so much! For the last month, I’ve been pondering how serious I am in my writing. The crazy thing is I’m not a serious person. I’m quite sarcastic, love comedies, and rarely take my own life seriously, let alone others. Not sure what my problem is, but now I feel like I have lots of ideas of where to add some humor into my writing.

Thank you, JoLynne for your thoughts. Thanks for writing a humorous mystery. I really enjoyed the ironies and laughs in your story.

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What about you? How do you add humor into your writing? How have you seen it done well in other works? Comment here.

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JoLynne Lyon is the author of Truth is Relative: A Truth Inducer Mystery. She’s also a public relations professional who has learned though sad experience to never omit the “l” in public relations.

Links: Website | Twitter | Facebook 

Book:

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Previous March Book Madness Posts:

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Well that finishes off March Book Madness. Thank you to ALL of the presenters this year. I’m always amazed at the wealth of knowledge in the writing community and the generosity to share that knowledge as well. 
If you missed any days, make sure to catch up!

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MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

Welcome to the fourth year of March BOOK Madness. Every Tuesday and Thursday in March, I’ve invited fellow authors to share their thoughts on the writing world, giving them an open mic to talk about anything book-ish. If you’ve missed any posts, make sure to catch up.

2015 MARCH BOOK MADNESS SCHEDULE 

Previous Years:

2014 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

2013 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

2012 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

Don’t miss any posts. 
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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

1 thought on “MBM: So You Want to Write Funny? How to Add Humor to Your Writing, by JoLynne Lyon”

  1. I’m like you, Rebecca…where I love to laugh and am not very serious in real life (except in alone time when I’m pondering things), but in my writing I tend to be more serious. I’ll have to use Jolynne’s tips in my next book and lighten up a little.

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