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.