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laughing in the dark

Real, for-true life has been getting in the way of my writing, twittering and blogging.  It’s been just awful.  Ask my dog.


Freckles and I did get to attend a nifty writing workshop thrown by Dan Schwabauer–author, speaker, writing coach extraordinaire.  We spent an afternoon looking at elements of story, as illustrated through the silver screen.

Cool, huh?

One of the movies Dan used for his examples was Life is Beautiful. The one about the father who convinces his little boy that the Nazi concentration camp they’re in is really an elaborate contest.  And the winner gets a tank.

Dan showed us clips that made the other workshop participants laugh.

I. Could. Not. Stand. It.

Because here is what I know about humor:

The funniest people on the planet are intimately acquainted with pain.

Humor is an endorphin-delivery system.

And also a weapon.

If you only know me from the hilarity *cough* which I spew in my articles, blogs and twitter, you’ll be surprised to learn that I write rather dark YA.  Oh, there’s  funny.  Because the best funny grows out of the dark.

I’ve been kind of startled by some of the stuff I’ve been able to scrounge out of myself for my WIP.   Maybe even been a little afraid of it.

How ridiculous!

Where did I think all my knee-slappers came from?


what’s so dang funny? the characters

I think about 15% of my time with my friends is spent in deep, serious discussion.  The other 85% is spent laughing.  Giggling, guffawing, snorting, chortling, snickering, tittering, sneering…


Pretty sure you see the point bearing down on you like a freight train: we like people who make us laugh.

And we like our book-people to make us laugh, just like our flesh-people.  The right mixture of pathos and humor will connect readers with your characters.  Our audience is familiar with feeling embarrassed, exasperated, frustrated.  The quickest way to a reader’s heart is through his gut.

In The Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet Hagrid when he bursts into the shack with a bedraggled cake.  He ties the Dursleys’ gun in a knot, spouts cheeky vernacular, and hedges on the real reason he didn’t finish his education.   Comedy comes in the form of a surprise.  Memorable?  Yes siree Bob.  We are in love.  And not with the book, with Hagrid, in particular.

guffawfestThen there’s humor from the character’s wry observations and clever turns of phrase.  See:  Louise Rennison or John Green:

He opened the drain in the tub, stood up, toweled off, and got  dressed. When he exited the bathroom, his parents were sitting together on his bed. It was never a good sign when both his parents were in his room at the same time. Over the years it had meant:

1. Your grandmother/grandfather/Aunt-Suzie-whom-you-never-met-but-trust- me-she-was-nice-and-it’s-a-shame is dead.

2. You’re letting a girl named Katherine distract you from your studies.

3. Babies are made through an act that you will eventually find intriguing but for right now will just sort of horrify you, and also sometimes people do stuff that involves baby-making parts that does not actually involve making babies, like for instance kiss each other in places that are not on the face.

An Abundance of Katherines

Colin’s funny comes from being so dead-on true.  Saying what we’re all thinking right-out-loud (metaphorically speaking) in a slightly askew fashion.

It’s one thing to show the funny through your characters’ actions, or let funny happen to your characters, or even let funny spew from their pieholes.  The trickiest funny is Voice.

It ‘s too easy to come off as a smart-ass.  If you read through your draft and hear the rim-shots, you’ve got too many one-liners. (Ba-dum-bum-bing!) And oh, Lawsy, it’s hard to strangle our little darlings, isn’t it?  But if it’s too heart-wrenching to let go, cut and deposit in another document.  Take a look in six months, and I bet you’ll wonder what you ever saw in them.

Here is THE MASTER at comedic voice, Christopher Moore.  He started as a YA writer, but has gradually moved into adult novels:

Nate did not watch her rub the SPF50 on her legs, over her ankles and feet.  He did not watch her strip to her bikini top and apply the sunscreen over her chest and shoulders.  (Tropical sun can fry you even through a shirt.)  Nate especially did not notice when she grabbed his hand, squirted lotion into it, then turned, indicating that he should apply it to her back, which he did–not noticing anything about her in the process.  Professional courtesy.  He was working.  He was a scientist.


Moore gets the mechanics of the scene across, as well as the facts about the tropical sun, the obliviousness of the bikini babe, the very interested disinterest of  Nate. (*Caution: This is a raunchy, adult book.  And it is a scream.)


When you use humor just right, the reader surrenders a piece of himself to your story.    A sure way to keep him turning the pages.

Stop by tomorrow to find out when not to use humor in your writing.

**Edit  Here is the perma-link to  what’s so dang funny?  when the answer should be: nothin’

what’s so dang funny? the plot

You might be Robin Williams in everyday life, but that won’t do you much good in your WIP.  When a writer uses humor, it has to serve the story.  Otherwise, you get a bunch of random one-liners that jump out at the reader like an Attack of the Living Dead.

Buff up your plot with situational humor.

juniorhighhilarity Everything that’s achingly funny starts with real life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t exaggerate. Like in Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney–the stuff about “the cheese touch”.   Didn’t everybody have some stupid superstition like that in school? Jeff Kinney starts with a perfectly mundane, childish scenario and blows it up until it’s a side-splitting recurring  joke.

Or look at  An Abundance of Katherines by John Green.  It’s about Colin 19?really?Singleton, a boy who’s dated and been dumped by 19 girls, all named Katherine.  Sure it’s possible, though not probable.  But a reader might have dated all blonds, or all baton-twirlers, and would identify with Colin’s inability to branch out.

Take a look at something interesting and swerve in a different direction.  Ask yourself, and then what?

Say, for instance, Main Character throws a water balloon at Nemesis.  And then what?  Nemesis retaliates with a water balloon barrage launched by sling shot.  Then what?  Main Character gets his buds together, puts together a plan of attack and rains water balloon hell upon Nemesis’ territory.  Then what?  Nemesis calls upon the entire fifth grade.  Then what?  They buy out the entire supply of water balloons at Nugent’s Drugstore. Then what?   Main Character’s Army frets and worries, shores up the battlements.  Patrols the perimeter.  Then what?  Finally, Nemesis’  Minions attack—with shaving cream!  Ah, the unexpected twist. Gotta love it.

Even serious stories need humor.  A tense plot must allow the reader an occasional breather.  Novels are not verbatim transcripts of life, but they are reflections.  And no matter how dire the straits, there is always room for humor.

“I would never have made it if I could not have laughed. Laughing lifted me momentarily . . . out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it livable . . . survivable.” (Victor Frankl)

A little humor gives your reader the confidence to believe he, too, could survive the ordeal your Main Character endures.  Another way to draw your audience in.

Lucky for the rest of us, you don’t have to be Bill Cosby, (the early years),  Douglas Adams, (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), or Tim Conway (with Carol Burnett).  Be observant.  Life is funny enough if you squint just right.


what’s so dang funny?

People love you when you’re funny.

You can get all scientificky and say the reason is laughter releases dopamine–the pleasure hormone.    And endorphins, your natural opiates.

C’mon. It’s more than that.

When someone diddles your (READ THIS WORD CAREFULLY)  titterer, you feel immediately closer to them.  That’s why icebreakers always have some facet of humor to them.  Though I concede it’s usually pretty lame.

Notice that the best speeches open with a joke.

(Though that one really pushes the envelope.)

And even sermons.  In fact, in my opinion the very best sermons last the amount of time it takes to tell a joke, but no one listens to me. Yet another reason they won’t ordain me.  Right behind the fact that I’m not male.

So, writers and writerettes, humor is your power tool.  Use it to build a relationship with your reader, just like you use it to build relationships in real life.  When people talk about a book like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, they might say it’s “powerful” or “thought-provoking”.  But mention Lamb or Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore, or Skipping Christmas by John Grisham,  people will show their pearly whites and enthuse, “Oh, I LOVED that book!”

Don’t we all want to be loved?

Since I’m semi-famous in my circle for being a smart ass peculiar kind of scary funny, I’ll have some more things to say about humor in the next several posts.

book report #5: what’s so dang funny?

I can only afford so many conferences a year, so when I saw The Portable Writers’ Conference, edited by Stephen Blake Mettee,  I drooled a little.

There’s a lot of jewels in here:

Unforgettable…Creating memorable characters…by Sara Ann Freed                                           

Can These Bones Live?…Writing good period dialogue…by Leonard Tourney

Slice Yourself a Piece of Mud Pie…Writing for the children’s book market…by Andrea Brown

Meet  a Jerk, Get to Work…Find your fiction characters and settings in everyday life….by Jaqueline Girdner

But the article that really gave me pause was not written by an editor or author, but by a stand-up comedian.  The article is: Humor Impaired?…the hows and “wise” of humor for Roger Bates.

First of all, my favorite quote is “People enjoy laughing.”           



But after a few paragraphs convincing us that not only is laughing good, but people actually like it, Roger gets to explaining how to write a set up and a punchline.   He also discusses the reverse, the indirect resolution, hyperbole, the callback, and other terms that will get you through humor 101.

That’s where the guy leaves me in the  book jacket dust.

If I try to dissect what is funny, my sense of humor goes deaf.  It’s like thinking about how to skip or how to steer a canoe or how to balance on a horse.  I fall on my fanny pack, every time.

I can see how Roger’s information can be very helpful, but I’m too intuitive to work that way.

“Intuitive”, in this application, means “dumb”.

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