March PANorama: How to Write Funny When Your Sense of Humor Sucks

Dear Readers,

It’s the fourth Monday of the month, which means that it’s time for one of our chapter PAN members (PAN stands for Published Authors Network, a professional designation within RWA open to members who reach a certain level of sales) to visit the blog to share some of their wisdom and expertise.

This month, Cindy Procter-King is here to give us her take on writing humor.

Take it away Cindy!

How to Write Funny When Your Sense of Humor Sucks

~ By Cindy Procter-King

While I was on holiday last month, our PAN liaison asked me to write a post for the ChickLit blog. If I replied quickly, I could have my pick of topics. I didn’t even have to wrack my brain!

I jumped on the topic, “How to Write Humor.” I figured it would be a breeze. After all, I’ve published two romantic comedies that have climbed the New York Times list received great reviews amongst the three dozen or so people who’ve read them (five of them, at any rate). I contracted audio book versions of these same two novels that sent me into gales of laughter when I listened to the narrators’ renditions of my characters. I’m currently shopping a humorous contemporary romance to agents (it’s going horribly, thank you). I must know what I’m doing, right?

Sob.

As I sat down to impart my crumbs of wisdom, I realized I don’t know what I’m doing. I do what works for me, but who am I to tell other writers that what works for me will work for them? After all, throughout my life I’ve been called “weird,” “strange,” and, when people are struggling to be polite, they call me “different.” These labels affect one’s psyche!

However, I committed to the blog, and so I must follow through. Very well. In my pea-brain, the key to writing humor is to embrace the weirdness within yourself. Strike that. Let’s call the weirdness the “eccentricity within yourself” or “the unconventionality within yourself,” or even “the quirkiness.” Eccentric and unconventional and quirky don’t sound as weird as weird. In other words, don’t embrace your weirdness so much that no one other than you can connect with your writing. This is where critique partners come in handy. What might seem screamingly funny to the writer doesn’t necessarily come across as funny to readers. Humor is subjective and therefore very hard to pin down. Getting feedback on your work before sending it to agents and editors can help you determine the universality of your humor. Are critiquers laughing when you want them to? Are they asking you to “tone it down”? Do they comment that a character seems “too cartoonish?” Their responses don’t necessarily mean that you have to curb your style. Maybe your outlandish humor is exactly what the publishing world needs. Or maybe you agree with your critiquers’ points. If you do, then, by all means, tone it down. If you honestly don’t agree, go on your merry way, send out the manuscript and see what happens.

I’m not really providing a “how-to post,” am I? Where did I get the nerve to include those words in the title? I should offer a numbered list or something. That’ll seem clever!

In no discernable order.

(1) Dig deep into your characters. What makes that your heroine funny? Why is she the way she is? What molded her outlook on life? How does that outlook affect her responses to the events in her life? How can that outlook create humorous situations?

(2) Some say that a writer is either born funny or she’s not. I don’t know about that. I was born screeching and hollering. Groan.

(3) Many writers make the mistake of telling the reader when something is funny (see #2). The old adage to “show, not tell” is paramount in humorous novels, because readers want to feel what your characters are feeling. They want to identify with your heroine (or comic hero). If she’s too out-to-lunch, you can lose your reader.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with writing a ditzy heroine—that is, if she appears ditzy to other characters. But for your reader to identify with her, she needs heart. Usually that heart comes along with a fair dose of intelligence that, for some reason, she has learned to hide from others. Or she doesn’t believe she possesses. While writing comical heroines, I often discover that they have a lot to learn about themselves. She might suffer from a lack of self-confidence, or she might suffer from too much misplaced confidence. The hero or other people in her life might believe she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. And maybe she believes that herself (sound familiar?).

Always ask, Why? Who taught her to question her instincts, how did she learn low self-worth, why does she have the idea that she’s not capable and can’t possibly meet her goals? Why, then, does she strive forward regardless? Motivation, motivation, motivation.

(3) Comic characters are not cardboard characters. So watch the slapstick. Literally, watch it. In an Adam Sandler film or a Road Runner cartoon. But go easy when you’re writing novels. Slapstick doesn’t always translate well to fiction, especially romantic fiction, because the reader wants to identify with the heroine—and what reader wants to hear gales of laughter as she (living through the heroine) slips on a banana peel? (Well, I do, but we’ve already established that I’m weird).

Generally, the reader wants to laugh with the heroine, not at her. However, a heroine who can laugh at herself or doesn’t take herself too seriously is often open to the different directions her life can take. And guess what? The path to character change is what commercial novels are about.

(5) Comedy can grow from characters or it can grow from a situation (hence, “situation comedy”). When I’m brainstorming a romantic comedy, usually I think of the situation first and then determine what sort of heroine would find herself in that situation. Or the heroine might spring to mind and then I build the comic situation around her. How she reacts to the events of the plot or other characters, how her reactions drive those same events, springs from her character. For me, character and situation often go hand in hand. Sometimes I think of a first line or title and the heroine and situation both spring from that. (Who would think that? Why? Where is she? What is she doing? All right, why would she do something so crazy? Let’s dig into her background a bit more. So on and so forth). (Yes, when I say “let’s,” as in “let us,” I mean me, my muse, a bunch of invisible people in my head, and my dog. Don’t get me started on the dog!)

Nail all that down, then let me in on the secret and we’ll climb the bestseller lists together.

(Or not.)

Cindy Procter-King writes quirky romantic comedies and emotional contemporary romances set in Canada and the U.S. Cindy lives in beautiful British Columba with her husband, their two sons, a cat obsessed with dripping tap water, and Allie McBeagle. Cindy’s first novel, HEAD OVER HEELS, is now available in audio book from http://www.audiolark.com. WHERE SHE BELONGS, a contemporary drama, will release in library hardcover from Five Star Expressions in Dec. 2011.

Visit Cindy’s website at http://www.cindyprocter-king.com to learn more about her and books. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

25 thoughts on “March PANorama: How to Write Funny When Your Sense of Humor Sucks”

  1. Hey, Cindy, for not knowing what to write on the subject you nailed it. Humor is so subjective. What the writer thinks is the greatest line he/she ever wrote others are like, “What were you thinking?” I know. I wrote a few of those lines.

    I love humor and even though I write romantic suspense all of my heros have a sense of humor. Thier gift to make the heroine laugh is one of the reasons they fall for the guy.

    Great post!

  2. Maryann, that is a great tip from the fantastic Erma Bombeck.

    Hi Lizbeth,

    Thanks for dropping by. Your sense of humour comes through in your comment – so you definitely have one. I agree with your comment that to be truly funny, you also have to be smart. This explains my performance on IQ tests…if we don’t take the math questions into account.

    LOL on your story of the dentures. I think we can all (whether we write funny or not) share stories like that from our childhoods. The difference with humour writers is that we often STILL experience these oddball thoughts and viewpoints on the world. Just as many weird things happen to me as an adult that did when I was a kid (like getting my coat sleeve caught in a down esclataor at an airport while everyone else is moving along just fine!).

  3. Hi Cindy,
    Saw you were doing a column on humor and I had to dash over, since I’m always looking for ways to corral my own strangeness into something others might appreciate as clever. You give some great tips. I’d like to add that I believe to be truly funny you also have to be smart and well read (which explains a lot about why people don’t fall on the floor holding their stomach when they read my stuff). To me, some of the funniest lines are references to smart things that have been twisted around.

    As for needing crit partners? Oh yeah, true. I wrote a line once using Barney Phyffe as a reference that had me giggling for hours. My CPs, clearing their throats, simply said, “Ahhhh, I’d change that…”

    And I have roots in wackiness, too. My mother has had dentures since before I was born (due to some sort of weird teeth issues) but my father never has had them. When I was growing up I was certain that women got to take their teeth out to clean them but men had no such luck. I think I almost killed my mother when I asked her when mine would loosen up enough to take out and put back in. But, hey, that could work in some futuristic sci fi novel wouldn’t it?

    Anyhow–thanks for the column — so much fun to think about humor in the morning — way better than the newspaper.

  4. Great tips on humor in the blog and the comments. The best tip I ever got was from a course taught by Erma Bombeck. She said to set up the expected, then give the reader the unexpected. She was my inspiration for the humor column I wrote for a number of years for a newspaper.

  5. I forgot to add that every girl with blond hair and blue eyes born in that same year would be called Debbie (I marvelled at the efficiency with which the community named children).

  6. Hi, Jeff!

    You are so correct – a situation itself doesn’t have to be funny. It’s what the character does, or how she reacts, or how she perceives the situation that makes it humorous. And how the character does all those things usually springs from the writer. That’s part of the magical humorous “voice” or way of looking at the world that some writers are either born with or acquire as they grow up. My sense of humour definitely has its roots way back in my pre-school childhood, when I grew up in a community so small that only two kids shared the same name. They were the same age, same sex (female), blond hair and blue eyes. Both were named Debbie. It then made sense to ME (if no one else) that every girl born in that year was given the same name. I didn’t voice this philosophy, just wondered when I’d meet another Cindy – my age and basic size, green eyes, dark brown hair. I didn’t meet another Cindy until I was 6.5 and we’d moved to a larger town. I didn’t attend Kindergarten (none were available where I was living at that age) and entered grade one late, because I’m born in January. Lo and behold, there was another Cindy in the class. But she was blonde and had blue eyes! There went that theory. But the word play/skewed take on the world that led to my odd theory had been in place for years.

    Best of luck with your writing, Jeff!

  7. Cindy,
    I enjoyed this column very much. I’ve most recently written two screwball romantic comedies and one comedic romance. Some of the scenes which (I believe) are quite funny just ‘came to me’ and some I had to struggle with slightly. But to write both types, I do have to ’embrace my weirdness’.
    I think most of your comments are right on target. I would add that many situations, in themselves, are not necessarily humorous. Of ten people describing a particular scene, nine could make it dull and dry. It takes someone looking at them from a particular ‘angle’ for them to be funny.
    I blogged recently about Bill Bryson, who has written several books I find screamingly funny. Yet the things he writes about are, thenmselves, not necesarily humorous. But Bryson’s ‘take’ on them … and his ‘presentation’ TRANSFORM those ordinary things into extraordinary scenes which make me laugh until my belly aches.

  8. Hi, Maureen and Diana! :::waving to my writer buds:::

    Caroline, I think Lucille Ball can be hilarious, but because her comedy is visual, I think that’s why if you try to duplicate it on the page, it comes across as forced, for lack of a better word. True slapstick is best left for the screen. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a klutzy heroine. I’m a klutz myself, and even though I don’t mean it to, it has been a source of great amusement for others in my life. When I wrote HEAD OVER HEELS, I went with the old age to “write what you know.” So I wrote a klutzy heroine…with a heart of gold. She’s not tripping all over herself, but the same characteristics that usually lead to klutziness (not paying enough attention to the physical world) wind up driving her entire story. I call HEAD OVER HEELS a comedy of errors, because every time the heroine tries to fix something, she just makes it worse. And her klutizness is part of that.

  9. Hi Suzie, if you’re getting great feedback on your voice then you probably don’t have to tone it down. Wishing you the best of luck.

    Laura, thanks for dropping by. The heroine in BORROWING ALEX (my second romantic comedy, which is coming out in audio book sometime this year) is loosely modeled after a young version of Meg Ryan characters. And you nailed it. If she’s really an airhead, readers won’t want to spend time in her brain. Sooner or later, her depth shines through.

  10. Hey, a bunch of comments came through moderation. And here I thought no one liked my post! Frankly, I’m amazed it made sense to so many of you. Phew.

    Jacqueline, I haven’t read much regency romance, usually while judging contest entries, and, yes, they are humorous. I’d love to read more of them. It’s just finding the time.

    Jennifer, there’s nothing wrong with dark, twisted and wry. Sounds great!

    Tina, thanks for coming by. Yes, showing not telling can be applied to every sub-genre of romance and/or chicklit. I think it’s one of those things you need to keep hearing over and over…keep examing your work for…and then suddenly you get it.

    Cindy

  11. Caroline Clemmons

    Cindy, humor is so subjective that it must be very difficult to write. I love wry humor, so I’m not a fan of the Lucille Ball school of laughs. Yet, they say reruns of her show are shown somewhere in the world at any given time of day. So, not funny to me, but funny to others. I prefer your style humor, thank you.

  12. From one “quirky” person to another, I salute you. *G* I love your sense of humor, Cindy. Keep on keeping on, and someday and we’ll both make the Bestseller lists together (or not)! 🙂

  13. Pingback: Writing Funny

  14. Great post, Cindy! I think you’re on to something with the comment that heroines often have a fair dose of intelligence that they’ve learned to hide from others. Great potential for comedy there. It reminds me of some of the characters Meg Ryan has played in films.

  15. Hi ya Cindy

    From one ‘eccentric’ to another, when I started writing I often wondered if I should tone down my inner voice down, questioning whether my brand of humour might be too much for a reader (I can, at times, be quite dry and cynical). But once I started getting feedback suggesting my voice was likeable, lively and quirky, I learned to trust my instinct and not to question too much.

    Suzie x

  16. Hey, Cindy, I agree with you and Chris, that my funniest lines usually come when I am essentially exposing myself–and making fun of myself–through a character.

    I also wanted to high-five your comment about showing and not telling. I do a fair amount of contest judging of unpublished material, and one of the areas I always highlight for work is when a moderately amusing line is followed in the scene by gales of laughter and praise for its humor. What I do suggest in those situations is to make sure they leave the amusing line dangling, at the end of a paragraph or scene, for prominence and hopefully, a real laugh!

  17. Love the post, Cindy. I don’t usually write humor unless it’s the dark, twisted, wry sort of type I usually employ myself. Truly funny, upbeat stuff scares the pee out of me. But you’ve given really good advice on the topic and I definitely think I will find myself employing a tactic here and there.
    Thanks!

  18. Jacqueline Seewald

    Hi, Cindy,

    I love your post! Personally, I really enjoy novels that have humor in them in which the writer doesn’t take herself too seriously. When I wrote my sensual Regency romance, TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS, I made certain to include a certain amount of humor. It’s important in every novel but particularly in Regencies. I also agree that a lot of humor comes with voice. In STACY’S SONG, my YA romance novel, I write in first person and Stacy has a sense of humor which is important in the novel.

  19. Hi Chris!

    Humour is also about the writer’s natural voice. Many people who write comedy can find humour is darn near any situation. It might sound disrepectful, however, for example, while watching my grandfather get buried (right beside my grandmother, who had been gone for 15 years), I did a little dance on her grave. It was very cold and I don’t think anyone realized what I was doing. But my grandparents were avid squaredancers, and I knew THEY would appreciate the gesture.

    Honesty and sincerity are great keys to humour. You do have voice. It’s in your comment.

    Write on!

  20. Cindy,
    It IS hard to pin down humor. I find that I get the biggest laughs when I’m so honest and so sincere that I feel naked. I guess I look pretty funny that way. I had no hope of being a centerfold, anyway. But I do hope to sell a novel sometime.

    Appreciate the tips. They’re bookmarkable!
    Chris

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