Humor is POWER
Comedy in writing is an interesting thing, Gentle Reader. I talk about it a lot in person, but I don’t really write about it that much here on the interwebs. Whatcha know, this is special.
Writing about comedy is a little like watching one of those cooking shows, a frustrating tease. It destroys the magic, knowing how it gets made and you still don’t get to enjoy it when it’s finished.
So instead of writing about what humor is in literature, I’d going to talk about what it can do.
The Semantics of Funny Business
Can I get something out of the way first?
By humor I mean a great deal more than a sassy angst-driven pixie dream girl vomiting forth her quirky first-person perspective on life’s current tragedy. Humor is not just wit and treading the dark line between horror and slapstick.
Comedy can be anything from puns, to twisted sentences, interjected narration, complex word building, ludicrous situations, absurd exaggeration, contrast, oddball perspective, and so much more.
What humor really is, and what many more serious writers (and readers and critics) forget is that it is also a tool.
A very powerful tool.
Inbox Cat Licks Her Lips At You
Humor & Narrative Structure
From a purely mechanical perspective comedic moments in prose are instruments of pace. A reader will forgive many things if you make them laugh. For example, a long drawn out description is easy to digest when there are a two points of connected titillation in the beginning and middle that yields up a laugh at the end.
Comedy is part of the heartbeat of a book, as much as any action sequence. It can be used to relax a reader right before delivering a strong narrative punch, thus making that punch more powerful. It can also be used to intentionally break tension, giving the reader some breathing room.
Many authors develop a sing-song voice to their narration (sentence and paragraph structure, even length of words and the order they follow each other). This can lull readers into listlessness, wake them up with a shake of laughter, and suddenly they are once more paying very close attention to the text.
Comedy Long Form
My favorite moments of comedy are the long interwoven ones that come with plot, world-building and character.
I imagine my reader laughing out loud and a friend asking, “What’s so funny?” The reader would have to describe the whole book, or the entire world, or a character’s background for the hilarity to be understood.
I call these “you had to be there” jokes.
This kind of humor is interwoven with fabric of the story and is, usually, instrumental in defining a book as comedic.
Most authors use some form of humor at some point, even if only a bit of witty dialogue. Funny things can happen in suspense, mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy. But these are usually high notes, unexpected bright points, that give the reader a point of uplift, a chance to catch their breath.
Comedy authors tend to run the opposite pattern, the story runs brighter and lighter so that the readers pause for breath is in the moments of sadness, and poignancy. But much as the humor is more stark in a generally darker book, that moment of sadness can be more striking and impactful in a funny book.
Did you read that? I’ll say it again. If you write mostly comedy when you have something important, emotionally wrenching, or vital to say it will stick out and stick in reader’s minds by contrast.
Characters & Silences
Comedy has an interesting effect of characterization. I’ve found over the years that it is often my most humorless characters that readers gravitate towards. The grouchy ones, and the glum ones, and the ones who have very little to say draw attention by contrast. With all these crazy hilarious dramatic stars twinkling about, it is the quiet darkness the reader ends up focusing on.
Dancers have a saying that the moment you are still on a stage is as important (if not more so) than the movements before and after.
Whether the funny parts of a book are its movement, or whether they make up the silence in between, it is the difference that readers are picking upon, and it is the contrast that will leave the most lasting memories and have the most profound effect.
My Cat Thinks You’re Hilarious
Which leads me to my point.
Oh yes, I have one.
If you take nothing else from this, please realize that comedy is a tool, and a powerful one that can have a profound impact on readers.
As a culture we are tempted to dismiss funny things, after all, it is hard to take funny seriously. Because comedy is so easily dismissed, it becomes all the more powerful. One has only to look at sitcoms on US TV and the way they have, over the years, altered the perception of what it means to be an American family, from the Brady Bunch to the aptly titled Modern Family. Yes, in some ways these shows played catch-up to the real world, but in other ways they normalized those differences to generations who lived without alternate models.
Hidden behind laughter is possibility.
You see the secret is, what’s funny can become what’s normal.
Laughter and relaxation can become belief and hope and understanding in a way that slides around harshness, and anger, and resistance. As an author I want my books, first a foremost to leave readers smiling. But if the comedy has really done its job, it also leaves them more accepting of the differences in themselves and others.
This article originally written for the May/June 2017 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Humor.
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