Tips for Humor Writing (plus a squid)
The Whys and Wherefores of Humor Writing (plus a squid)
Let’s take a step back from the obvious answer as to why you should include humor in your writing—because it’s funny—and even ignore for now that humor really adds to a book’s entertainment value. Even if you’re not the kind that sees a frying pan and instinctively knows it’s always wanted to grow up and be a hobbit’s weapon, humor can do great things for your book.
Humor can make painful subjects bearable. If your plot calls for a burglary and you’re concerned your young readers will be hiding under the covers, making the burglar a bit inept and comical can bring the tension down to an acceptable level. The same is true for really tough emotional scenes, or when you need a character to share something awful without looking like they’re advertising for a pity party. Give them a quirky line, let them find the funny side of their pain, and you’ve just lightened the mood while making your character more likable. Humor can also act as a segue from an emotionally intense scene to a lighter subject, leading your reader back from the uncomfortable place you’ve put them in to safer ground.
Humor Makes Dumb People Likable. It can be useful for authors to have characters that are, shall we say, a little on the dimwitted side. They can ask dumb questions, which in the process of explaining allows the writer to toss their reader a clue. They can state the obvious. And they can get their friends into scrapes, which the friend must heroically get them back out of. There’s only one catch—it’s easy for these people to suffer from TSTL, otherwise known as ‘too stupid to live’ syndrome. If they suffer from this, the reader will soon wish the dragon really would rip Mr. D. M. Whitted’s head off. And the last thing you need is for your reader to begin slipping the dragon notes of encouragement, plus maybe a whetstone to sharpen his claws on. Moreover, your hero or heroine soon looks a little stupid by association, as the reader wonders why they keep this dimwitted friend around. The cure is of course to make the dimwitted friend lovable, and an easy way to do that is make them funny. Like Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, the friend will remain someone we want rescued at all cost. Someone we smile adoringly over even when they jeopardize the well-being of the entire party, with nothing to say for themselves but a well-timed ‘oops.’
Humor brings people together. This is my trump card when promoting humor books to teachers, for use in the classroom. Now of course, I’m not talking about the kind of humor that’s mean, and actually verbal bullying. I’m talking about a group of kids (or people) all laughing together at the same thing. Research currently being done at the Humor Research Lab (http://humorresearchlab.org/) in Colorado seems to back up the commonly held view that humor brings people together. In a nutshell, when we laugh together, we acknowledge on a subconscious level that we share the same taboos and the same appreciation of how those taboos can be broken or bent. That we’re tribe, or in other words, we’re on the same team. Doesn’t that sound like something many classrooms would benefit from? That families, and other groups could be better for? And moreover, wouldn’t many characters benefit from having that bond with their reader? I tend to think they would…but then, I write humor. 😉
Writing humor the SQUID way. So how do you net this elusive humor fish, and add it to your pail of writing tricks? One way, which can be learned if you’re lucky enough to gain Scott Dikkers as an instructor, is to start with a subtext and run that subtext through one or more humor filters. That’s his system, which I’m sure assisted The Onion in becoming must-read material. It’s super cool but also super challenging, as Scott’s developed around a dozen humor filters, and any of them can be combined, so figuring out which to use can be a challenge and takes a great deal of practice. The faint of heart need not fear, though—I’ve brought you a squid.
These are a few quick and skinny rules of humor, for which I’ve come up with the acronym SQUID. Think of them as humor cheats that you can use over and over again.
S—Save the funny bit. This means that whenever possible, the funniest bit or funniest word should go last. Put it at the end of the sentence, and the end of the paragraph where possible.
Q—Queasy quacks are quickest. Alliteration gets a bad rap, but it’s a useful tool. It can be casually (but intentionally) used by characters, just to get a laugh, or used as part of the narrative voice. There are also certain words—like quack and queasy—that are inherently funnier than others. If you’re writing a joke or attempting a funny scene, go with the words that make you smile.
U—Underwear works, too. Humor that breaks a taboo will often get a quick, easy laugh. This includes something irreverent said at a funeral, the pop of an unexpected weasel-type comment that’s off topic, and yes, the mention of something not usually discussed in polite company.
I—Inject a little honesty. Sometimes humor comes from simply stating the truth that everyone else wishes they could say but doesn’t dare. At its core much of humor is telling uncomfortable truths…but telling them in a way that brings a laugh.
D—Dominos all fall down. By referencing something funny, you make your own comment funnier. This is why simply turning a sentence around so it comes out Yoda-like (‘warm socks, I have’) will be funnier to those who catch my Star Wars reference. By the same token, once you get your audience laughing, each joke afterward is funnier because they’re already primed to laugh.
Finally, I chose the acronym SQUID because, well, I’ve always wanted a pet squid. I hear they are quite clever and have been known to climb out of their tank at night to go scrounge bits of food off the kitchen floor. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to catch a burglar?
No, really I chose SQUID because the word itself brings out two other useful funny tips. The first is that some consonants—just like the word quack—are inherently funny. A quick google search will tell you that the funniest sounds are ‘p, b, t, d, k, and g’. You’ll notice that those are all (or almost all—no idea what to make of that g) hard consonants, and they also show up a lot in words that we’re not supposed to say. This association helps to give these sounds extra funny sparkles, but I think that most of their charm comes from the two-year-old inside us that wants to spit when we say them.
Secondly, a squid is such a random creature that its very presence adds a little hilarity. As witness my story above, a bit of the quirky or random can add spice to any narrative, just like a squid. Additionally, squids are memorable. And if you fall short of your humor goals, but manage to be memorable, you won’t be doing half bad.
SQUID is the creation of Suzanne Warr, but on its way way from an egg sac (where it rolled all over its siblings) through the planktonic larvae stage and on to adulthood, it ate a lot of humor advice from generous folks who shared their thought food. First amongst those is Scott Adams, whose blog and articles have enlightened the minds of little squid everywhere in their search to consume humor. Mo Willems was another important contributor (its rumored that his pigeon started the whole thing by pooping on a squid’s head), as was Lenore Look. And of course, there were the eight weeks it spent following Scott Dikkers around enjoying the onion flavored treats he was kind enough to hand feed it. Most recently the squid lurked in the shadows and ate the spoken and unspoken thoughts of Cynthea Liu and Dan Yaccarino, for which creepiness Suzanne apologizes. The squid would like to thank all of these wonderful humorists, plus many others who sloshed the humor water and stirred up tasty morsels, which later floated past the squid and were promptly sucked in. Suzanne thanks them, too.
PS The squid is named only SQUID, but it thinks the nic-name Scott would be auspicious. Don’t you?