An unexpectedly funny line, character, or situation is a wonderful surprise in a novel. Even dark stories sometimes have humorous elements—the comedy relief. I know I’m drawn to funny books, and it’s the primary requirement for my son’s chosen tales. You don’t have to be a comedian to add humor to your book, and you needn’t feel burdened to write a comedy novel. Instead, think of humor as an ingredient—not the whole dish. If you’re looking for a way to make ‘em laugh (in addition to making ’em cry, or fall in love, or feel fear–whatever), read on.
This Isn’t Stand-Up
Just because you want to make your reader smile at an unexpected twist or even laugh out loud at a funny moment doesn’t mean you need to be a stand-up comedian. There’s no need to create a crescendo of belly laughter to be successful. An unexpected phrase, interesting word choice, farcical situation (or, conversely, one a little too close to home), or a zany secondary character can bring the right humorous element to a book. Before you worry that you aren’t funny enough—relax. We’re aiming for smiles here, not a gig on Comedy Central.
Turns of Phrase
Word choice and turns of phrase go a long way toward making something funny. Take this example from Caprice Crane’s excellent 2006 romance, Stupid and Contagious. In this part, the main character wants to do something fun to take her mind off the fact that she’s jobless and getting a divorce. The situation has her down, and this is what she thinks of it:
When it comes to worrying, usually I don’t have my priorities straight. Maybe this what worrying should feel like. Normally, I’d just worry about the fact my hairdresser is going on maternity leave this week, so God knows how long it’ll be before I get a decent haircut.
See, this made me smile because it’s funny that the biggest problem of the protagonist’s life (by her own accounting) is when she’ll get her next haircut. It’s sort of a blithe response to a serious situation, which shows the character’s sense of humor. Also, I sometimes focus on the unimportant in the face of an overwhelming issue, so it’s familiar to do this (even if that’s embarrassing). Holding up a mirror to the audience can make them laugh at their own foibles.
*Side note: explaining jokes makes them less funny!*
Here’s another example of humorous word choice from the same book:
People who tell you that you stop having sex after you get married are right. You just don’t have it anymore. It’s not like you say your I-dos and immediately stop. It takes a little time. Of course there’s the honeymoon, and the first few months playing horny housewife and helpful handyman, or slave girl and surprisingly warmhearted barbarian….
The “surprisingly warmhearted barbarian” phrase caught me by surprise. It’s clever because it’s a little over-the-top, which makes it amusing. See what you can do with the unexpected.
One of my favorite writers, Christopher Moore, is the king of the absurd situation, and I’d say he’s going more for comedy than you might be. However, don’t fear getting zany, though you might not go quite as far as he does in his latest book, Shakespeare for Squirrels (2020). It’s a loose retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Trust me, it’s pretty out there, but suffice it to say there are elves, woodland nymphs, and lots of shenanigans. Here’s an excerpt:
“And she’s going to try to shag you, so be ready.”
“I am no stranger to deflecting the attention of lascivious queens. My aspect is fair, but I have a particular charm that keeps them at bay.”
“I know, you are a shit. But the queen has a particular taste and you’ll want to stow that cracking big codpiece or you’ll never be rid of her.”
Okay, fine. A lot of the humor rests on penis jokes, sick burns, and words that make grown women (along with ten-year-old boys) snivel…like codpiece. However, it’s sharp, and a libidinous queen going after a puck with magical powers is undoubtedly an absurd situation.
Don’t Announce It
Even if you’ve written a romantic comedy, I’d be sure to work hard in your query letter or blurb to show that it’s funny rather than announce it. There’s nothing worse than promising humor…and delivering only a weak grin. Your best bet is to let your word choice, characters, and situations delight your reader by being unexpectedly funny. Happy writing!