Six impossible things

Funny Once, Funny Twice, Funny Forever

Humor has a reputation as one of the hardest and most under-appreciated types of writing there is.

It’s a well-deserved reputation. Everyone over the age of five has at least watched someone else’s funny story fall flat, if not had it happen to themselves. And while you can find plenty of books on writing drama, there’s not much out there about writing comedy (and most of what is there seems to be geared toward writing screenplays for TV sitcoms, rather than dealing with the use of humor in novels and short stories). Every how-to-write book in existence seems to have chapters on plot, characters, dialog, and other basic elements of the writing craft, but in the eight shelves of how-to-write books I have collected in my office, I can easily lay hands on exactly one that has a chapter on writing humor (and a brilliant chapter it is, too – Connie Willis’s fabulous article “Learning to Write Comedy – Why It’s Impossible And How To Do it.”)

Having sent you all to Connie’s article (you did all go read it, right?), I am going to presume that I don’t need to talk much here about the basic techniques and tools of humor (surprise, language, exaggeration, understatement, divergent or lateral thinking, word play/puns). Maybe in a future post, though really, Connie said it all already. What I want to talk about is something Lois and I were discussing over dinner the other day: why some writing is only funny the first time through, while other pieces remain amusing and enjoyable through many re-reads.

We started off talking about things that aren’t the reason why some things only work once. Surprise, for instance. You’d think that surprise would be a key reason for something not working twice – after all, once you’ve been surprised into a laugh, you know it’s there, and you aren’t going to be surprised the next time you read it. But there are stories (many of them by Terry Pratchett) that I reread eagerly anticipating “surprise” scenes that I know are coming. They were a surprise the first time, but they’re just as much fun the second time around, though in a slightly different way.

And of course there are also the things that are a matter of taste. Humor can be very individual; the things that one person splits their sides over, another will loathe. I’ve never cared for stupidity humor, or humiliation humor (which is why I’ve never liked I Love Lucy, though people are always praising Lucille Ball’s comedy).

We never did come up with a definitive answer, but I did manage a few observations. For instance, most techniques of humor have a range of applications that run from funny-once to funny-forever. Wordplay, for instance – puns tend to be funny-once (if they are your cup of tea at all); witty banter tends to be good for a lot more read-throughs.

One thing stands out, though. Every example we could think of that we thought was funny-forever had substance underlying the humor. The characters weren’t exaggerated cardboard caricatures stumbling from frying pan into fire; they had depth and goals and principles (sometimes exceedingly quirky and unusual ones, but nevertheless things they clearly believed in). The plots didn’t zig-zag from pillar to post simply to provide another opportunity for a joke; they hung together – in fact, often part of the fun was watching the causality play out as characters made (relatively) reasonable-seeming decisions that dug them deeper and deeper. The settings don’t look as if they were put together at random based on the writer’s latest brainstorm for a new joke and never mind what was said two pages ago; they have a rock-solid internal consistency, even when from outside they look as loopy as Pratchett’s Discworld (a flat world carried through space on the back of four giant elephants who, in turn, are standing on top of an enormous turtle).

In short, the stuff that lasts starts with all the elements of effective storytelling, handles them all with relative success, and then adds the humor like the cherry on top of the ice cream sunday.

No wonder humor has a reputation for being hard to do.

  1. What I love about your humour is its subtlety. You have always made me laugh (over and over again) with the way some your characters live what they think of as perfectly normally but which others point out is actually rather odd.

    I especially like it when you do that with things most people take for granted (I’m thinking of the King/Queen distinction in the Dragon books).

    My current “exploratory draft” is a humorous novel and it’s a real balance to keep the humor subtle and not go overboard with it, gaffawing at my own feeble jokes. 😉

  2. Yes! I love your comment about the substance underlying humor.

    I think sometimes the funniest stories are also the ones that you can see yourself in. For example, my family watched a lot of Green Acres growing up, and my dad always cracked up when Oliver had to deal with the Country permit office because he’d had to deal with that particular hassle himself. 🙂

    • Alex – One of the things to watch out for is being TOO hard on yourself. There was a bit in Calling on Dragons that I was considering taking out because I thought it was too…twee. Fortunately, I had lunch with my editor, so I decided to run it by her. When I described it, she laughed so hard she fell off her chair in the middle of the restaurant. So I kept it. 🙂

      Chicory – Good point. A lot of things are funny in general, because things like dealing with a bureaucracy is universal…but if you can skewer particular elements that are specific to that one bureaucracy, it will not only come across as “more real” even to readers who aren’t familiar with it; it will also be enormously more funny to anyone who is familiar with that particular place/situation in real life.

  3. I’m really curious to know what part of `Calling on Dragons’ we almost didn’t get to read.

  4. I shall have to reread/rewatch Much Ado About Nothing with this in mind. There’s a great deal of word play humor in it (“I wish my horse were as fast as your tongue”), and the Branaugh version adds some more.

    • Chicory – “Mirror, mirror, on the wall; I would like to place a call.” 😀

      Harimad – Much Ado About Nothing has some of the best examples I can think of for all kinds of wordplay, from wit to puns to lateral thinking. I have to read a copy with notes to get all of it, because some of it just goes over my head unless somebody explains it, but even the stuff that’s left is more than enough for me to love watching a good performance.

  5. I’m glad you decided to leave it in. 🙂

  6. I just recommended your Enchanted Forest Chronicles to a friend as a Mockingjay antidote.

    I think we all need a little comedy in our reading lives. And yes, it’s very hard to get right.

  7. Patricia:
    Thanks for the link to Connie’s essay.
    I want to say that 3 of the funniest F&SF stories I’ve read are Connie’s Bellwether, Avram Davidson’s Peregrine Secundus (the last half, which I think was published in Asimov’s) and another part of a novel called An Improper Princess (now where was that published?)
    The Davidson bit is really hilarious if you’ve taken language classes and had to recite declensions and conjugations or lists of pronoun sequences.

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