Susan Schreyer, author of the Thea Campbell mystery series, has a way of writing that will make you laugh out loud. While editing her current manuscript, soon to be released, I found myself wondering if she plotted the humor, and if so, how one would plan to be funny. So I asked her.
1. Is humor in a story something that happens naturally or is it plotted?
Both! Life is funny. And some situations, and people’s reactions to them, are humorous any way you cut it. And, of course, some people are just naturally funny … although exactly why that happens isn’t really in the scope of what I want to talk about. Humor is a broad subject and I want to address a small corner of it – the corner that says that humor can, actually and in fact, be plotted. Don’t believe me? It happens all the time. If it was impossible to do, you wouldn’t see all those comedians, sitcoms, authors and so on that have reputations for being reliably funny. Have no illusions; they work at it.
2. How do you plot humor?
The first step to being able to use anything with any degree of consistency is to understand it. Therefore, you have to get beyond the smoke and mirrors to structure. You need to know two things; what the structure of your plot is and what makes something funny. Not every place in your plot will be appropriate for humor. As the author, you have to ask yourself where you want to make your reader smile, giggle or laugh out loud. Most of the time the humor is worked in after the first draft is hammered out and the editing process is under way. At that point I hope you know what kinds of emotions you’re trying to pull from your reader. You absolutely don’t want to make your readers laugh when you’re trying to break their hearts.
3. How do you know what you are writing will be seen as funny? Humor is so subjective and personal.
You don’t know that everyone who reads your work will think it’s funny. And the truth is, not everyone will because you’re right; humor is personal and, to a degree subjective. What is hilarious to one person – say, sexually explicit humor (any number of stand up comics will use this) – will be offensive to someone else – me, for example.
However, if you could plot “humorous things” as points on a graph, what you’d notice is that those points form a familiar pattern – a bell curve. To appeal to the most people, you use what’s within the bell curve. So, what’s funny?
The unexpected. For example, a comment that should have remained as a thought, but is spoken aloud. Or, how about that guy who dresses up as the Statue of Liberty and waves a sign by the side of the road urging you to get your taxes done at the local tax accountant? Yeah, me too. Laughed the first time, not so much the second and never saw him after that…. However, the guy dressed as the mattress …. See what I mean?
Embarrassment: When what would mortify you happens to someone else. Like when your sick preschooler pukes on the kitchen floor. Poor kid. He’s crying and upset. You grab a roll of paper towels to clean it up and, reassuring him the end of the world isn’t nigh, you bend over to clean up the mess and he barfs on your head. That’s funny. To someone else.
Shared experiences: particularly if they were uncomfortable for you. When someone else admits to the same discomfort, it can make you smile – you’re not alone!
The “Rule Of Three”: We’re talking patterns and pattern-breaking here. For us humans, three is the least number of occurrences it takes to establish a pattern. When something happens once, it’s an incident; twice it’s a coincidence, the third time … there’s your pattern. Want it to be funny? Take the pattern in a direction one wouldn’t expect. Want something to be funnier? Establish a previous pattern and break it. Here’s an example; my horse-trainer character is getting ready to do some training on a new horse. We find out it’s not a horse, but a mule. That’s unexpected and makes us chuckle if it breaks a pattern where there’s been at least two previous horses readied for training. If we carry that pattern further we can create more humor. Say he proceeds to get out his equipment; saddle, bridle and, sighing, a 2 x 4. Oh, come on, some of you laughed – those of you with the shared experience of being frustrated by an uncooperative mule.
4. How do you keep the humor and avoid slapstick?
Slapstick is physical, so that’s pretty easy; avoid physical humor (see the mule example above and don’t use it). However, visual humor can be pretty hilarious. It doesn’t have to get extremely physical (have the horse trainer look longingly at the 2×4 instead of picking it up)
5. Do you choose specific characters for the humor, or try to incorporate it in each character?
Everyone is funny in the right circumstances, but almost no one is constantly humorous. That would get wearing and un-funny. You need to decide how the humor is going to show your character’s personality. Humor needs to have a purpose. Why are you using it? It may be funny to see Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character in a pink tutu, but trust me – it’s not going to happen.
6. How does humor enhance or support your plot and characters?
For my writing, I prefer to use humor to enhance. There’s a very dark side to each of my stories and I use humor to give the reader a break and to flesh out the characters, make them seem more like people they want to cheer for when the chips are down. I think we feel closer to characters who can make us smile.
7. How much is too much?
Ah, that’s where feedback is important. And your gut. Ask yourself, “If this scene made my reader laugh, would it enhance the emotions I’m trying to pull from my reader? Would it flesh out my character? Would it move my story forward?”
The bottom line is; everyone can do humor because everyone does – to varying degrees. Observe it in action, just as you’d observe anything you want to write about. Play with it, write it and rewrite it. And use the kind of humor that resonates with you.