Monday, 20 September 2010

Make 'em laugh!

I confess I find humour difficult to write. For one thing, it is so subjective. I'm afraid of sounding artificial or strained if I deliberately try to be funny. When I think about what makes me laugh, the humour tends to arise out of a combination of characters, rather than just being a witty one-liner. Take Basil Fawlty, for instance. Always in trouble and frustrated by those around him. However many times I watch Fawlty Towers, it always has me in stitches.

In fiction, there is a moment in one of Anne Tyler's novels where a character accidentally shoots his mother with an arrow. (Non-fatal, I must add!) I read Anne Tyler's books over and over, but every time I come to that particular section, I cry with laughter. It's not only the incident itself, but the way all the characters interact.

I've concluded that the challenge of writing humour is setting up that whole situation by going back to the basics of character building. What do these characters have in common, and how are they different? There you begin to see that potential for humour in how they will bounce off each other.

The reason I'm thinking about humour today is that I've been reading judges' reports on some of the bigger writing competitions in recent years. Several times I've seen judges comment on a general lack of humour in the entries. For example, Tracy Chevalier, after judging the Bridport Prize in 2007, said she wished the entrants had been "jollier about it"!

So why the focus on gloom, doom and death? Ok, we are in a recession and the news is pretty depressing. Maybe we think a funny story will be too lightweight for the judges and won't impress as much as a serious one. But every story needs some light and shade, and just because a story is humorous doesn't mean it cannot also have a serious theme.

If you are blessed with the gift of humour, making judges and editors smile could be a point in your favour. We all need a laugh sometimes, don't we?


Joanna said...

Thank you Joanne. I love this clip! Fawlty Towers always makes me laugh.

I love including black humour in stories. It is daunting, however, since humour is so subjective. If I don't laugh out loud when I re-read my humorous parts, I tend to delete them. As you say, they must arise naturally from the characters and not feel 'tacked on' for the sake of getting a laugh.

I have just sent off a story where two minor characters provide a sort of amusing chorus in the background to the main action, which is fairly bleak. I found that quite comfortable to work with, except that these two ladies were in danger of taking over and shifting the emphasis of the story. In the end, I wasn't entirely certain I'd pulled it off, but it was still making me laugh. So I took courage from that and sent it! It remains to be seen whether it will make the judge of the competition equally amused. I think it's best not to try too hard and just slip in the odd moment. Odd is the right word, I think, because often it's the surprising, off-kilter happenings or words that make us laugh most. It's that juxtaposition of zany with sane, of daft with sombre. That tragicomic effect is so hard to get right, however.

I've also just realised that I've never met anyone who dislikes Fawlty Towers. It's a good example of how to get humour to appeal to a lot of people.

joanne fox said...

Good luck with that story Joanna, it sounds wonderful. If in doubt, you're best going with your own gut feeling.

Once I wrote a story about a funny incident that happened to us when we were out in the car. The editor rejected it for being too far-fetched! "But it was true," I wanted to shout. Clearly the funny things that occur in everyday life don't always translate well to the page!

I love YouTube. It's so great to be able to call up these favourite bits of comedy, especially if you're having a bit of a down day.

Ellie Garratt said...

Thank you for the great clip - I needed a good laugh.

You are so right about too much doom and gloom in stories. Why?! Even though a lot of what I write is speculative fiction, I always try to inject an element of humour, and in the way you suggest - through character interaction and situation. That's why TV shows are called sitcoms - situation comedies.

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joanne fox said...

Glad you enjoyed the clip Ellie.

Old Kitty said...

Yay!! Fawlty Towers - I can't wait to get home to watch this!

I think that's why I love Terry Pratchett's books so much - the humour is gentle and poignant - it's the kind of humour writing I wish could do. I have to admit the last time I laughed out loud when reading was with The Diary of a Nobody.

Take care

joanne fox said...

'The Diary of a Nobody' is a really funny book, Kitty. Thanks for reminding me of it. x

larainydays said...

Roald Dahl is a particular hero because of his gift for writing the midst of horror. I love to laugh!

Margo Berendsen said...

Oh, you nailed it! I really agree. The best humor is not one-liners (though those are awesome), but the natural outcome of two characters' personalities rubbing off on each other! I love how you put it -"I've concluded that the challenge of writing humour is setting up that whole situation by going back to the basics of character building. What do these characters have in common, and how are they different? There you begin to see that potential for humour in how they will bounce off each other."

Adding this to my notes!

bazza said...

I think we need humour even more in tough times like these. Fawlty Towers was so packed full of absolute gems. It seems unbeleivable that only 13 episodes were ever made.
The best comedy, to my mind, is always character-driven rather than plot-driven.

Unknown said...

I like to add little bits of humor to many of my stories, even the gloomy ones. Yes, it's subjective, but if you have the same sense of humor that I do then you'll get it. :)

joanne fox said...

I did have a hard time deciding which Fawlty Towers clip to use. There were so many funny moments to choose from.

Thank you all for visiting! x

HelenMWalters said...

Yes, humour can be hard to get right. I've just subbed a story that's meant to be light-heartd and hopefully amusing but time will tell if it's successful. I tend to do better with tear jerkers! said...

Hi Joanne, I write amusing anecdotes in my letters but when it comes to stories I go for the dramatic and solemn like you mentioned. I wrote a blog about it:

and thought I'd cracked it, but when I got others to review the story I had written 2/3 were *very* harsh and hated what I'd written, I was crestfallen, so it's back to the drawing board for me, too. :O)

Suzanne Ross Jones said...

Oooh, I loved Fawlty Towers - thanks for reminding me. Will dig out my dvd over the weekend and watch it again.