Tuesday, January 16, 2018

5 Lessons on Writing Humor

By Chris von Halle, @ChrisvonHalle

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: There's an old joke about dying is easy, but comedy is hard, and Jack Lemmon knew what he was talking about. If you're struggling with the funny, Chris von Halle visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on writing humor.

Chris von Halle is pretty sure he has superhuman powers, if only he could discover and untap them. Until he does, he’ll just have to be satisfied with living in Ridgewood, New Jersey, engaging in such extraordinary activities as watching tennis and basketball, playing video games, and trying to improve his already sublimely muscular rear, if he says so himself.

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Take it away Chris...

After writing [way too many] regular science fiction and fantasy books, I finally wrote a book that’s totally different than any other one I’d written to date—a humorous fantasy book. (OK, well, I guess the fantasy part is still more or less the same as the other books I wrote.) More specifically, a superhero comedy. The book just spilled right out of me—it truly was a work of passion, and notably even more so than my past books. But it turned out to be just as difficult, if not more difficult, to write because of the fact it’s humorous, so I’d like to share with y’all today some of the things I’ve learned about writing humor, both rejuvenating and (admittedly) painful.

Lesson #1: It’s easy to go overboard

I personally like more over-the-top/zany-style humor, and even though I enjoy comedy of that extreme, I still found it all too easy to go just a liiiiittle too far. Heck, sometimes a joke even really spiraled out of control and I had to go back and whittle it down to size or discover where I truly should’ve stopped and end it there. This can be very tough to gauge, since sometimes letting a joke evolve/grow over time is a good thing, while sometimes the joke got carried away, which leads me to my next lesson…

Lesson #2: After you finish the book, let it sit for a [very long] time, then return to it

OK, OK, we all know this is sage advice for any book or work of fiction in general, but it certainly applies to humor, too. After getting my humorous book as close to as I wanted it to be as possible (including revising based on beta reader and critique partner feedback), I set it aside for a whole year without taking a single peep at it. When I returned to it, I was absolutely shocked at how much of a critical eye the long break gave me for the book’s humor (along with other elements, of course). After I reread the whole darn thing yet again, I wound up chopping out quite a few jokes that clearly didn’t hold their water, and I was able to tell exactly where I’d gone a bit too overboard with certain jokes (see previous lesson) so that I could trim them to “perfection.” Heck, I even added a couple that I felt enriched certain scenes and helped them live to their fullest comedic potential. Setting the book aside for a whole year was a life saver, for sure!

Lesson #3: Usually what comes to mind first is the most accurate

As writers we tend to revise and go over our work a ton (okay, who am I kidding? Obsessively to the brink of madness and beyond), which is part of the writing/revision process, of course, but whenever I did so, oftentimes I found it very tempting to alter a joke or "extend it” too much (again, see lesson #1). As time went on, I started to realize that most of the time the way a joke fell into my head in the first place is the way it should appear on the page, so I had to force myself to cut back on over-embellishing whenever I could. Of course, as I’ve alluded to before, there are exceptions, such as the rare joke that does better when it cultivates and grows over the course of rewriting and edits. This is why, at the end of the day, lesson #2 must still always be applied.

Lesson #4: Humor is another layer

At the end of the day a good comedy still needs all the regular aspects of the craft of fiction—fleshed-out characters, character arcs, well-developed themes, etc.—with the additional layer of humor. This means that oftentimes writing humor requires even more work than regular fiction. Not only that, but it can sometimes be quite a challenge to maintain a consistent level of humor throughout the entire story. There were times while I was writing my comedic book when the humor felt like it was lacking a little too much, and that led to the temptation to “cram” some into that chapter or spot to keep the consistency level up. However, unfortunately that usually led to the feeling of forced/unnatural humor, which ultimately hurt the chapter or story. Thankfully, I found that by withholding the urge to cram in humor when it felt lacking that when I returned to revise those scenes later, natural places to insert more humor instinctively popped into my head. That resulted in much stronger humor and therefore a much stronger story.

Oh—a notable side note to the whole lesson plan here: Considering how difficult it is to write a comedy, the fact that comedy is in general typically not considered as “high” or “great” an art form as other types of fiction is particularly annoying to us comedy writers. (That’s right—I’m calling myself a bona-fide comedy writer after writing just one humorous book.) There’s something about the nature of humor, whether it be of the “silly/zany” variety or not, that lends itself to this unfortunate outlook among both consumers and critics alike. And considering a great comedy must contain all the elements of fiction as well as possess an extra layer of humor seamlessly and consistently woven into the story, you could make the argument that not only is comedy just as good as regular fiction, but it’s even more difficult to write. Which leads me somewhat to my last point/lesson (which is, unfortunately, another sad one for us poor comedy writers) …

Lesson #5: Humor is super subjective

I read something online recently that more or less said the following of humor: “One person’s laugh riot is another’s stone-faced torture.” This is so, so true (not just so-so true). If you thought books (or fiction in general) were subjective, then I’ve got news for you—humor is even more subjective. This is yet another reason why writing humor is so tough. I’ve had people think my superhero comedy is absolutely hilarious, people who don’t get the humor at all, people somewhere in the middle, and people who seem outright insulted by the silliness/zaniness of the book (not sure how someone could ever feel that way about something that’s intended to pleasantly tickle the funny bone, but what I can I say? It’s happened). This can make it quite difficult to receive feedback from critique partners, beta readers, agents and editors, and of course even consumers in the marketplace when they review your book. (As if all those things weren’t difficult enough with a “regular/serious” book…)

So I wish I could end this post with something a little more positive, but I think what I’ve ultimately learned about writing humor is that it’s quite, well, HARD. But I’ve also learned that if it’s something you truly love, it’s more than worth doing it. Like I said, my superhero comedy is my personal favorite book of mine to date and I wouldn’t trade writing it for the world.

Speaking of which, for those willing to brave the zany/over-the-top insanity of my own personal brand of humor, my latest book (the aforementioned superhero comedy) is currently available for purchase. If you happen to read it, I hope you’ll be more of the “it’s hilarious” opinion versus the “personally insulted.”

About The Amazing Adventures of Heroic Man's Brother

It’s a bird…It’s a plane…It’s a truly sublime, incredibly heroic, inconceivably sexy, out-of-this-world superhumanly muscular ass!

Norm “Run-of-the-Mill” Stevens has always lived in the shadow of his older brother, Tom, publicly known as Heroic Man, The Intrepid Heroic Man, The Gallant Heroic Man, among other names. The crime-fighting superhero possesses the full spectrum of superhuman powers—super strength, speed, flight, and, of course, that truly sublime, superhumanly muscular ass of his, which has become an icon of an adoring city.

Meanwhile, Norm’s genius goes entirely unnoticed, so he decides to become his own crime-fighting superhero to gain acclaim. Trouble is, he’s about as physically frail as a crumpled cardboard box manufactured with especially feeble paper. Will he make a total fool of himself? Will he get horribly hurt or even die at the hands of the city’s petty criminals? And most importantly, just how truly sublime is that superhumanly muscular rear of Heroic Man’s?

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  1. Chris, You ain't joking about joking. You are spot on when you say that humor is subjective. I can count the times I have been told by people when they find out that I enjoy writing, that I should write something funny. This comes from emails I have sent of stories I have told that got some chuckles. However, when I have sat down to intentionally write something funny, it always feels forced and flat to me. Thanks for the post. It was helpful.

  2. Ha.
    I gotta lotta humor.
    My entire life.

  3. Writing by Stephen King - this is part memoir and part writing advice. He gets into the dos and don'ts of writing. He also mentions that if you want to be a good writer you have to master the craft (vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style).