According to the laws of attraction, both men and women find humor to be an important trait in a mate. Everyone loves to laugh, or at least smile, at something unexpected or funny. If comedy is a human universal, it stands to reason that adding it to your manuscript will make your writing stronger. Here’s how to add humor to your novel…even if you don’t think you’re funny.
I love humorous books. They’re probably my favorite type of novel. However, I wouldn’t say that my favorite funny writers are necessarily comedy writers. Sure, I loved Tina Fey’s Bossypants as much as anyone, but the books I’m talking about are stories that have funny elements. Think Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Moore. At their heart, Hiassen’s books are capers and, frankly, Moore’s run the gamut, but they are fiction—not comedy writing (like Fey). What makes them funny is that these writers use a mix of sight gags, situational comedy, amusing turns of phrase, unexpected metaphors, and sometimes general silliness.
You don’t have to write a funny novel to include humor in your book. The key is to sprinkle a little in, either at unexpected times (for something truly comedic) or to relieve tension. There’s no need to be an actual comedian to lighten things up or to make your readers smile here or there.
It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Like mother always said…it’s how you say it that matters. This is a great way to add humor to your story. Take Caprice Crane’s modern romance, Stupid and Contagious (2006). It’s about how a girl named Heaven and a guy named Brady fall in love. It’s a great story and a big part of the reason is the way Crane told it. It’s not that she’s cracking jokes the whole way through, it’s that she’s got a wry voice that keeps you entertained. Take this example:
There’s very little I know for sure. I know that men who wear khakis are immediately suspect, that waitressing is what karma makes you do when you’ve been unforgivably bad. That pretty much covers it.
Just by reading this one excerpt from Heaven, we get such a great sense of who she is. Moreover, we get a taste for the writer’s voice. This story is going to come from an observant, sarcastic, yet good-humored point of view. And that’s exactly what elevates a classic boy-meets-girl into a memorable, highly enjoyable book.
Sometimes your characters get themselves into a hilarious or crazy situation. In Attack of the Theater People (2008) by Marc Acito, his main character Edward has been kicked out of Julliard and is now working as a “party motivator” for kids’ bar mitzvahs. At his first gig, he’s supposed to be an MTV veejay. It’s his first job, and feeling low, he tries to get into character.
What would I do—not me today [but]the puckish Pied Piper who led the Play People Parade?
I would slide down the banister.
Taking a deep breath, I hop up on the rail for a two-story ride.
I hit the ground running, slipping across the dance floor and finally landing on my ass…. The crowd laughs, but I can’t tell if it’s an oh-what-fun or an oh-what-an-asshole laugh. I hop up…and holler, “’Ello, America!”
Apparently Eddie Sanders is Cockney.
I love this scene for how much action is in it. He’s wearing a sharkskin suit and turquoise T-shirt—looking the part but knowing he’s an art school flunky. What’s he going to do in this humiliating situation where he’s supposed to entertain a bunch of awkward (but judge-y) Middle School kids? I imagine him flying across the floor, which is entertaining. But then when he randomly starts talking in an English accent because he’s nervous, it’s both funny and endearing.
Christopher Moore writes so many funny books, but I always walk away from his stories thinking about how clever they are. His penultimate clever story (in my humble opinion) is Lamb (2002), which is the early life of Jesus as told by Biff, his best childhood friend. The entire conceit of the story is not cynicism or mocking; it is truly clever. It imagines what Jesus was like as a little boy, and what he might have done before the part that ends up in the Bible. Take this example, from the beginning of the book.
The first time I saw the man who would save the world he was sitting near the central well in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth…. He was six, like me, and his beard had not come in fully, so he didn’t look much like the pictures you’ve seen of him….
The boy took the lizard from his mouth and handed it to his younger brother, who sat beside him in the sand. The younger boy played with the lizard for a while…then picked up a rock and mashed the creature’s head…. He picked it up and handed it back to his older brother.
Into his mouth went the lizard, and before I could accuse, out it came again, squirming and alive and ready to bite once again.
This isn’t knee-slapping by any means, but it’s interesting, amusing, and smart all at the same time. This is another type of humor you can incorporate, even if it’s just in spots. Think about the books you like best. Likely it’s the way the author guides you through a story or the viewpoint of a character that makes it worth your while. Humor doesn’t have to be hilarious to make your book more enjoyable.