I love to laugh. Lots of us do, but I especially like comedic novels. When I have a choice between a story that will make me cackle or cry, I’ll choose laughter every time. There are many great, emotional books but sometimes I’d rather leave the heaviness of real life behind.
Two of my favorite comedic writers are Carl Hiassen and Christopher Moore. They don’t write joke books; they write comedic novels. The difference is that their books aren’t one-liners after another, but the characters, plot, and telling of the story are humorous. Sometimes I laugh out loud and other times I merely smile, but there’s always a certain absurdist through line to their books that make them funny.
Light-hearted stories or occasional whimsy—move aside. Let’s look at the key ingredients for humor in writing.
A Humorous Telling
If you want to write humor, your writing voice should be humorous. By humorous, I mean: amusing. Your voice can be deadpan, or it can be silly, but it can’t be dry.
Take this example from Carl Hiassen’s Middle Grade novel, Skink No Surrender:
“That’s when I noticed the gun propped behind the console. A .22 rifle, the stock glistening with fish slime. Nickel hadn’t gigged all those gars—he’d shot them.”
These few lines aren’t making me slap my knee in hilarity, but they’re amusing. A gun covered in fish slime because its owner shoots—not catches—fish? Ridiculous! What kind of person shoots fish? And even if they do, would the guts really be on the gun? Probably not actually, but it’s a funny thought.
Keep in mind, these are the words of the narrator. What does that person observe? How are those observations just a little more entertaining than real life? This is what you should aim for with a humor novel.
Characters are Zany
The characters in humor novels tend to be “extra.” These are larger-than-life people. Often the main character or narrator is the straight man, but the people around him/her are outside the norm.
Take Christopher Moore’s imagining of Henri Matisse in his novel, Sacre Bleu. Here a working girl from the Moulin Rouge is asked about Henri’s whereabouts. She says the last time she saw Henri, he was painting her toenails.
“Yes, they were as pretty as a Chinese box, but he used oil paint. He told me I had to keep my feet in the air for three days while it dried. He offered to help. A rascal, that one is.”
Trust me, if you read this book, Henri will definitely come across as a rascal. (Not the least reason because he spends lots of time visiting with the Moulin Rouge dancers.) The quote is revealing though. Who would use oil paints on toenails? That’s silly. But maybe it’s because he creates art in the most mundane of circumstances. Or maybe he just wanted an excuse to “keep her feet in the air” (elbow-elbow).
Much is revealed in these few sentences, and the character of Henri (and those around him) continue to be amusing in every encounter throughout the book—this isn’t a one-off witty remark. It’s a way to reveal character.
Find Humor in the Plot
A humor book is also funny due to the storyline itself. There are many ways an author achieves this, including by being surprising. Let the reader think the story is going one way, only to jerk it back. That, or have a wild storyline. Christopher Moore and Carl Hiassen are the kings of doing both.
For instance, Skink No Surrender is about a boy named Richard who sets off to find his hairbrained cousin, Malley, who ran off with some boy from the internet—or was she actually kidnapped? On his way, he teams up with Skink—a stinky, perfect-toothed wild man who also happens to be the former governor of Florida.
As you can see from my brief description, there’s a plot twist. Wait, this young boy is working with some lunatic swamp man? Wait, the swamp man was governor??
In Sacre Bleu, famous artists like Matisse and Renoir are visited by Blue, a supernatural vision that inspires their work. Or is she a real person? She’s definitely a muse personified, but she comes at a cost.
Wait, the muse is a real thing? Er, supernatural thing? Hold it—how does that work? Interested, right?
Humor in fiction is like garage sale-ing—one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Or, more directly: not everyone has the same sense of humor. Sometimes what grates on one person tickles another. No reason to fret. That’s simply the nature of humor for you. Give it a try! Just realize it’s easier to make people cry than it is to make them laugh.