The Craft of Writing: Injecting Humor in Your WritingSome hints and tips for inserting a bit of levity in oyur manuscript.
Humor! It can make almost any writing better. No, seriously, even grim postmodern dystopia can use levity as a seasoning. Thing is, as with everything else about the craft of writing, it can’t be random and it can’t be pointless. You, the author, need to decide what kind of humor makes sense in your narration, and why, and how.
So first: What kind of humor are you looking for? Situational humor? Absurdist humor? Comedy one-liners?
If you’re looking for comedy one-liner humor, watch Guardians of the Galaxy, then watch it again. That movie is a masterclass. Much of the humor is comes from tension between characters of radically different backgrounds; a fantastic example is right here:
The Marvel scriptwriters are nothing if not excellent at this particular craft.
Find unexpected little corners of those differences in experience and play on them. Emphasize the differences between the characters, find places where their experiences don’t overlap, and look to those for humor. Space aliens not knowing Internet memes? Comedy gold!
I personally prefer absurdist humor, especially absurdist humor in ordinary, common situations. The contemporary urban fantasy by Eunice and me is filled with this kind of humor:
May stumbled to the kitchen, where Amelia stood at the stove grilling a sandwich. The smell of ham and cheese made May’s mouth water. “Good morning, sleepyhead!” Amelia sang. “Look what the cat dragged in. You look like hell.”Most of the humor in this scene comes from context switching—characters talking about one thing on the surface but actually talking about another. (The fact that the character Claire is canonically asexual but has a huge appetite for Japanese pornographic comics is a running theme throughout the book.)
“Yeah? Well, you look…” May’s eyes swept her up and down. “Marvellous. Seriously, you look stunning. I don’t know how you do it. But you’re wrong about the cat. It didn’t drag me in, I dragged it in.”
“You what now?”
“It followed me home.” May lifted the curtain. “It’s still out—never mind, it’s gone. Make me a sandwich while you’re at it?”
“Sudo make me a sandwich?”
Amelia wrinkled her nose. “May is not in the sudoers file. This incident will be reported.”
“Story of my life,” May said. “I haven’t been in anyone’s sudoers file in far too long.”
“Are we still talking about computer security?”
“Are we ever not?”
“Are we ever not what?” Zoe, dark of hair and eye, wandered into the kitchen wrapped in a towel. “Goodness, May, you look a frightful mess. When did you get in last night?”
“I didn’t. I got in this morning.”
“Dragging a cat, apparently,” Amelia said.
“What, like, an actual cat? The four-legged kind? You can’t take care of a cat. It’s not still here, is it?” She opened the compact clothes dryer, poked suspiciously at the clothes inside, then shut it and pushed a button. It grumbled to life.
“I didn’t bring it inside with me,” May said. “It followed me home. Sat under the light outside all night.” She held open the curtain. “Right there—huh, that’s weird.”
“What’s weird?” Zoe said.
“I think that means it’s officially been with you longer than any of your lovers,” Amelia said.
May made a face at her. Zoe laughed. “You do go through them pretty fast.”
“Maybe I just like variety.”
“Maybe you haven’t met the right cat yet.” Zoe peered out the window. “How cute! I want to go say hi.”
“Put some clothes on first!” May said. “And if it bites you, don’t blame me. Are you going to eat that?” She poked a finger at the frying pan.
Amelia slapped her hand away. “Yes! Yes I am. Bad May, no biscuit.”
Zoe dropped her towel, rummaged in the dryer for the least damp thing she could find, and pulled a simple sundress over her head. “Right, I’m going to go make friends with a moggie, since May is clearly too stone-hearted to bring it in out of the cold.”
“It’s not cold out!” May protested. “It’s not cold out,” she said as Zoe disappeared out the door.
“Uh-huh.” Amelia slid her sandwich onto a plate. “Want some tea?”
“Good. Make me a cup while you’re at it.”
“Oh, you absolute—”
Laughter floated over Amelia’s shoulder.
May turned on the kettle and fixed herself breakfast, such as it was: a couple of eggs in the frying pan and a bit of buttered toast. Zoe wandered back in looking disappointed. “How’d it go?” May said.
“It ran away from me.”
“It’s a cat. Cats are fickle.”
“Good morning!” Claire, still in the same bathrobe but now with the added accoutrement of a fuzzy pair of bunny slippers, shuffled in slightly bleary of eye. “Ooh, make me a cup of tea?”
“Fine,” May said. “Anything else you’d like?”
“Some of that toast, if you’re offering.” She wandered over to the window. “Hey, your cat is still out there!”
“What?” Zoe said.
“It’s not my cat,” May said.
The three of them crowded in the cramped kitchen, staring out the window. “I’ll be damned,” Zoe said. “It looks like it’s staring at you.”
“I bet it’s one of May’s suitors,” Claire said. “Some poor boy who died of a broken heart and reincarnated as a cat, forever destined to pine over her.”
“May, you monster!” Zoe said. “How could you do such a thing to that poor boy?”
“What poor boy?” May said. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ooh! I wonder if it was that guy from last year who really took a shine to you. You know, the one you dumped over text…what was his name? James? John?” Claire said.
“Jay,” Zoe said.
“Jay! Right. Jay. I bet it’s him. His soul, trapped in the body of a cat, forever suspended between the worlds, caught between here and the hereafter by the tangled web of unrequited love…” She giggled. “Ooh, this is good. I’m going to use this in my next podcast. ‘The Tale of the Forsaken Moggie.’”
“Can’t be any weirder than that porn you read,” May said.
“It’s not porn! It’s ecchi. Don't be such a Philistine.”
“Is that tea ready yet?” Amelia called from the other room. “Who left a pornographic comic book on the sofa?”
Claire rolled her eyes. “It’s not porn and it’s not a comic book! Barbarians, the lot of you!”
This kind of humor isn’t to everyone’s taste, of course, but the key to it is to find the humor in everyday life. Just like the example in Guardians of the Galaxy, the humor comes from unexpected shifts in the characters’ perceptions, experiences, topic, or references—that is, they surprise the audience with unexpected shifts in context.