A writer might ask, “Why aren’t they smiling? My speaking audience, my critique partners, my agent, my editor, my best friend–and half the humor was about her! Why is no one smiling except me?”
Writing humor into a talk or a book proposal/manuscript is not the same task as making sure the theme is clear or the grammar compliant. Writing humor is like playing with gelatinous slime–either hours of fun or an annoying mess impossible to remove from soft fabric.
Many authors–especially those starting out or veterans switching genres–assume inserting a humorous (to them) anecdote or a funny line is as simple as keying it in. It’s the word inserting that raises a red flag. It will register as shoved into the text if it isn’t appropriate, needed, or a natural spot.
If you’re a writer who assumes you can or even should include humor, “stick” with me here. (See what I did? Slime? Stick?)
The above two sentences were groan-funny at best. And that’s part of the point.
What’s your reason for wanting to include humor in your book, proposal, or talk? You might answer with any of the following or mentally add your own.
Why I want to add humor
A. People say my work is too stuffy.
B. People say my stories are too dark.
C. To give the reader breathing space in a tough topic.
D. Because I’ve always wanted to try.
E. The line I just wrote struck ME funny.
F. The category is Romantic Comedy, so…
G. The world needs more laughter.
H. People say I’m naturally funny.
What my answers reflect
If you answered A, adding comedy will turn your work into stuffy-writing-with-clown-noses. Consider first unstuffying the tone rather than aiming for funny.
B. If the story is dark, will a lighter or humorous moment fit or feel awkward to the reader? Some darker stories lend themselves to humor, but those are usually novels that have a balance of dark and light rather than dark with an explosion of laughter a few times in the work.
C. Breathing space is a great reason for a lighter moment. Consider if that’s best served through a lighter touch, a humorous anecdote that then leads to an important point, or a truly comedic tone. Most of the time, the answer will be a lighter touch or a humorous anecdote leading deeper.
D. “Because I’ve always wanted to try” is arguably the least legit reason for incorporating humor into your nonfiction or fiction. The trying part of trying to be funny will be painfully evident…unless you educate yourself in the art of humor.
What else do my answers reveal?
E. “Why aren’t they smiling when the line was funny to me?” What’s funny to one person isn’t necessarily funny to all. It’s one of the reasons books are listed in categories. Readers want to know the kind of experience they’re in for when they purchase a book. Tastes vary widely. Even professional comedians vary in their delivery and style. Dry wit isn’t for everyone. See more cautions in the next main point.
G. The world DOES need more laughter. The follow-up thought is “Are you the one to deliver it? And is your project suited for it?”
H. If people tell you you’re naturally funny, that’s a great start, but your success at adding humor or creating a lighthearted book will depend on that all-important how it translates to the printed page and to the audience for this topic.
I. So true. Sometimes we do learn a deeper lesson when we’re relaxed, entertained, or amused. Now consider…
Why aren’t they smiling?
In fiction, if the humor isn’t “natural” to the characters, readers will squirm with discomfort.
In fiction or nonfiction, if the humor leans on stereotyping a people group, it will do damage rather than serve your purposes. In today’s culture, even stand-up comics–who have long been able to take humor further than writers can–realize the boundaries are tighter now, and in some instances, for good reason. This is one of them.
Humor techniques that translate poorly in both fiction and nonfiction: snide remarks, sarcasm, mocking (even good-natured). In print, the reader can’t see the author’s facial expression or hear their tone of voice. Even though some authors can pull off sarcasm, a contingent of their readers won’t get it.
Written humor that’s 0verworked, overdone, over-the-top is likely to be overlooked on the bookshelf.
Some comedy or humor isn’t funny anymore. That may be related to the funny line using references that are out-of-date or language that has changed meaning over time. Or it may now be a sensitive issue for a large portion of the population. Study the culture and audience for whom you’re writing.
What should I ask myself?
Is it suitable for the audience for this book?
Does it enhance and expand the book’s message? Or inadvertently point to me, the author?
Is the humorous tone of the sentence, scene, paragraph, or point suitable for my target publisher?
Done well, writing that makes a reader smile can be genius, and beautifully effective in communicating, entertaining, and refreshing the soul. But it isn’t danger-free. And it isn’t as simple as the paper equivalent of making a funny face or telling your favorite joke.
If you’re writing anything humorous into your project, make sure it can pass the above tests, that you have studied how to do it well, that you’ve identified its purpose and appropriateness, and that the author isn’t the only one smiling.
What books–fiction or nonfiction–have you found incorporated humor well? What did you learn from the author’s technique?