Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Humor in Writing

Last Wednesday I wrote about writing groups for two reasons: 1) I think writing groups can help you become a great writer. 2) I've asked some of the writers from the writing group that I participate in to share some of their advice and talent.

Nikki Trionfo (to the left and holding one of her beautiful daughters) is a talented writer. She has a very strong writing voice and makes injecting humor in her writing seem effortless. If you've tried to write humor, you know it's not easy. Sit back and enjoy yourself as you read a master at work.

On Humor:
It wasn’t until Kathi asked to feature me in her blog on the topic of injecting humor into writing that I realized I have little vocabulary for the subject. Few people do. It’s not like they offer Laughing 101 in college. I went online to read about writing humor and was giddy to discover that books on humor are absolutely mind-numbing. Here I was expecting to be dazzled with their wit, ashamed at my own paltry efforts, and instead found myself as entertained as if I’d been licking dirt. Now, before I go and dissuade you from learning all that you can about the profession of writing, let me state clearly that the books all had gems of good advice and I plan on reading more on the topic. But they weren’t funny. The reality to take home here isn’t that the market is wide open! Coming soon: Humor: How-To Book of Big Money by Nikki Trionfo. No, the reality is that generating consistently-funny comedy is a lot more work than enjoying it.

For me, humor is created by two things: set-up and punchline. A set-up is when you start your reader down a path, be it a mood, a thought-process, or a series of plot events. A punchline is when you suddenly change directions, surprising the reader. That’s it! Go be funny.

Not feeling like a master yet? Good thing I’m an aspiring author and can give you examples from my yet-to-be-titled young adult romance. In it, Trix Harris is a popular seventeen-year-old dating the school’s star athlete. Yeah, she’d rather publicly pee herself than take action on the problems that chronically worry her but overall, has got life figured out. Then test anxiety causes her to fail the California State Exit Exam. Good-bye, high school graduation. Hello, old sweaters dusted with cat hair or whatever it is she’ll be wearing as a public education failure. In the following illustration, she has taken what she thinks is the first step in solving her problem.

If the girl in front of me was Lotti Ashley, I found her acceptable enough for a math tutor, no question. Frequent showering? Yes. Gang paraphernalia? No. Not that you get a lot of gang members in the tutoring business, but you never knew. I’d seen gang symbols etched in Pastor Jeff’s collection plate.

Here the reader is set up to expect a description of a female math tutor. As a punchline, the narrator instead goes on a tangent about showering and gangs. This brings me to my next point, which is that there are things I look for in a punchline. The option used in the example above is to deliver something inherently ludicrous. Of course gang members aren’t in the tutoring business. They’re too busy lounging naked in a tattoo parlor, firing automatic weapons at each other while holding as still as possible so their inked gang symbols aren’t messed up. And, yes, that’s another inherently ludicrous example.

Exaggerations are a second type of punchline, as we see when Trix thinks about studying math with her father:

What’s better than daddy-daughter time? Let’s see, broken arms, skin rashes, being dumped.
Really there’s nothing funny about a broken arm. Except when Trix claims to prefer it to daddy-daughter time.

Note that the shorter the set-up, the more lenient the reader will be with strength of the punchline. If I’d spent a page listing all of Trix’s dislike of studying with her dad and then gave listed my exaggerations, it wouldn’t work as well.

For comic stories that are longer, timing is an important factor. Humor in that case isn’t just about what the punchline will be, but when it will come. Also, there can be a complexity to the humor so that there are several set-ups and punchlines going simultaneously, as in the following which takes place as Trix stalls inside the open doors of the library, talking to her friends instead of going inside to tackle math:

“Where am I going to get refrigerator boxes?” I shouted to Dex. I wasn’t sure what shut me up me faster, the jiggle of bells—bells?—behind me or the look on the boys’ faces as they shifted their gaze to stare past me. I turned to see the elderly librarian leaning over me ominously. She was going to yell because I was so loud, I could see it in her coiled expression. I gripped my fingers tight around the straps of my backpack. Math tests and tutoring and yelling. I couldn’t handle this. I should go right back out the door and—
“Pst!” she hissed. Oh, right, she was going to whisper-yell. “You’ve got—!” she said.
I couldn’t look at her. “I promise I’ll be quieter—”
“—to come to my house!”
“What?” My gaze flew up to stare at her eyes blinking behind candy-striped glasses. “What?”
They kept the lights so dim in the library I could barely see. It wasn’t until the door shut that I realized her pink-and-red knitted sweater was covered from neckline to hem in dozens of heart-shaped bells. She leaned toward me in an explosion of ringing. “A refrigerator!” she said in the loudest whisper imaginable. “I got a new fridge this morning! Come get the box from me!”

As I said before, the longer the set-up, the better the punchline needs to be. But there’s a good reason to drag out a funny story. An extended set-up brings bigger laughs because the reader is more invested. The above illustration starts with Trix thinking she will be yelled at. There is a midway punchline about the librarian whisper-yelling, which is inherently ludicrous. The end is when the elderly woman isn’t angry at all but excited and not about just anything, about refrigerator boxes. This book-ends the joke, with the boxes being needed in the beginning and supplied at the end. Finally, the sweater full of bells and candy-striped glasses are inherently ludicrous and are set-ups to further punchlines. (Don’t you love being an author?)

Before I go on to talk about what really sells the above joke, though, I want to list a few more punchline options. Remember, you’re looking for surprise. So if you end a funny story with the opposite of what the reader expects, the next time deliver exactly what they do expect—but with a twist. Let the punchline show up later than anticipated or have it achieve a different result than could have been guessed during the set-up. Another idea is to give the reader an ending that’s embarrassing or noteworthy for a specific character that the reader knows well. There are dozens of other alternatives but I’m running out of space here. And as for examples you’ll just have to pick up my book of friendship and romance and journey with Trix as she discovers that she does have to face her fears but she doesn’t have to do it alone. (Author not responsible for stunning malfunction on part of publishing houses resulting in said novel and accompanying alleged examples failing to arrive in bookstores near you.)

And now on to my final topic and the most important humor tool: mood! As a writer, you control the atmosphere around a joke. Because your audience is reading for reasons other than humor—given that you, the author, are fabulous and have a fresh, exciting premise, nail-biting tension, and remarkable characters—readers won’t know when you’ve begun a set-up, giving you an enormous advantage on genuinely surprising them. If you skillfully create an atmosphere of tragedy, or, as in the case above, anxiety about a math test, and then switch the mood suddenly to ridiculous, you can get a lot of laughs. Be careful! You know from experience that laughter breaks up tension. Don’t erase the key tensions you need for your plot. Instead, slip humor into the middle of tension while keeping the plot events heavy enough that readers have no choice but to fall into the greater overall mood your scene generates. Below, Trix keeps her sense of humor even in the midst of falling victim to the same sort of panic attack that caused her to fail her state exam in the first place, until an event happens which brings the reader right back to the severity of the situation.

Pain seared my chest. The scariest part was that I didn’t know why I was so terrified, just that if I had a soundtrack playing in the background of my life—which would be so cool—the ax-murderer-attack theme would be blasting. I clutched at my shirt. No heart could continue beating at this pace. It would explode and I’d die right here with Mr. Golding and Dad jabbering on about math tests.
Dad put his moving mouth in front of my face, his words making no sound. Look at him stare at me—what was going on? I staggered, legs mushy.

Fortunately, getting right back to a tense mood also helps with comedy. In fact, it’s imperative. To really keep your readers guessing, you can’t deliver a punchline all the time. So set up a joke just like usual, making it obvious if you’d like, and then send the reader a plot event that switches the mood to touching, disturbing, anything. Make it real. Make it a pivotal moment for a character. If you handle with talent other moods besides humor, those distractions, though they’re much more than mere distractions, give the reader authentic emotions that amplify whatever humor comes later to break up the tension.

And that’s it. Now go and be funny. I myself am more ready than ever after writing this essay. What a thrilling, informative, intellectual exercise. College didn’t stimulate me like this. News channels can’t compare. And don’t even get me started on blogs. It’s an outrage! I’ll have you know I’m calling my senator right this minute. Forget entitlements to healthcare, I want laughter. What’s the nation coming to when humor-studies aren’t offered even at America’s finest universities? We are the richest nation in the world. I say it’s time for a change. After all, comedy’s no laughing matter.

Bio for Nikki Trionfo
I was born in the suburban town of Manteca, California to a tight-knit, loving family—but the details of those early years hardly matter, given that I spent my entire childhood pretending to be blind or running around my swing set in wild excitement as it time-traveled me to the snow-swept plains of World War II. I had to get one of those special tests in third grade to make sure I was normal. But it turned out that I was, by some definitions anyway, and I went on to get my bachelor’s degree in Physics and Chemistry Education at Brigham Young University. After teaching eighth grade science for three years, I stopped when my husband and I were blessed with our first of three beautiful daughters. The comparative free time I then found led me right back to snuggling up with my imagination. Writing is like a security blanket, a way to bring a piece of my home to the supposedly “real” world. Besides, I need the blanket. Those snow-swept plains are freezing.


  1. Awesome, Nikki! I have never spent so much time considering the mechanics of what makes a piece of writing funny - thanks for opening my eyes!

  2. This is awesome, Nikki. And I miss being in a writing group with you.

  3. Janice, I'll let Nikki know. She is an awesome writer.

  4. I'll be in your writing group! :)



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