Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.35: Elemental Humor Q&A with Victoria Schwab

For our third Elemental Humor episode Victoria Schwab joins us as we field questions taken from our audience at Phoenix Comic-Con. Here are the questions:

  • How do you add humor to a serious story without breaking the tension?
  • How do I move beyond the “Dad jokes” and into properly funny writing?
  • When is humor necessary in horror?
  • Where is the line between a comedic book, and a book that uses humor as a subgenre.
  • How do you make dialog sound natural, while still sounding funny?

Credits: this episode was recorded live at Phoenix Comic Con by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write  a joke, and have each of your characters tell that joke. Find a way for them to tell that joke “in character,” in their style.

Thing of the week: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: How do you add humor to a serious story without breaking the mood or how do you inject humor into a dramatic scene without breaking the building tension?
A: Humor can be a good pressure valve, to deflate just a bit. You can also have humor fall flat. If a joke relieves tension but makes the situation worse, you have relieved pressure and moved forward. Watch for gallows humor and similar emergency relief.
Q: My sense of humor consists only of dad jokes. How do I get real humor into my writing?
A: Really good puns are doing multiple things in a scene. Read better humor. Make sure the humor suits the context.
Q: How do you make sure your humor is really funny and not just funny to you?
A: Have other people read it.
Q: How does the culture of the world you write in influence the humor?
A: Pay attention to folktales, idioms, and humor. Watch for shared context jokes. Use jokes to tell the reader about the culture.
Q: When is humor necessary in horror? Can you write a horror book without humor?
A: Yes, you can. But you miss all the great jokes. And horror can be darker with a humor contrast.
Q: Where/what is the line between a book whose purpose is to be comedic and a book that could have funny parts in it?
A: Right through Terry Pratchett. What is your book driven by?
Q: How do you make dialogue sound natural but still funny?
A: You may not be able to. Funny and natural is usually character-based, while funny and wordplays are sometimes not very natural. See who can tell that joke naturally. Watch for natural cadence, and see where the joke fits. What function does this serve in the plot? Why would this character say this?

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Humor Q&A with Victoria Schwab.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Victoria Schwab. Thank you for coming. Tell us about yourself.
[Victoria] Thank you for having me. I write books for all ages, from children to teens to adults. I write fantasy about the lines between life-and-death and good and evil and hero and villain.
[Brandon] Excellent. We also have our Phoenix ComicCon audience here.

[Brandon] We’re going to be answering their questions. I got several asking a very similar question. How do you add humor to a serious story without breaking the mood or how do you inject humor into a dramatic scene without breaking the building tension? That one was from Trent.
[Dan] Humor can actually be really good… Excuse me… For deflating a little bit of tension on purpose. In a dramatic story, you can use it as a pressure valve to keep… Not to let all the pressure out altogether, but just to bleed a little bit of it off, so that the tension stays high without being unreadably tense. The other great thing you can do, though… One of the tricks I like to use is when someone is using humor in a very dramatic scene, you can have that humor fall flat on purpose. So the rest of the characters are like, “This is not the time. You should not have said that here.”
[Howard] Another trick, and the best example I can think of that doesn’t actually do it in this way, but that is probably memorable, is the moment where they’re emerging from the ground in Young Frankenstein and Marty Feldman says, “Well, it could be worse. It could be raining.” Then it begins to rain. If the joke that is being told is relieving tension, but is about something that makes the situation worse, then you have relieved pressure while still keeping us rolling forward.
[Mary] I think the other thing is that if you think about where the character is. Because in real life we… That’s what we use humor for frequently is to reduce tension. That’s where gallows humor comes from. Emergency room doctors have wicked senses of humor. Military people, even though I’ve never done this thing, but all of my friends who’ve served talk about the jokes that are cracked while people are shooting at them.
[Brandon] I’ve been there. Not people shooting at me, but with military people right after deployment. He would start cracking jokes and then stop. Because we were all just looking at him horrified, the types of jokes he’s telling. He’s like, “All right. Right. I have to go back to being among civvies now, and temper my humor.”
[Victoria] I think the darker… I write very dark stories. I think the darker the story, the more necessary those pieces of levity are for balance in it. So I tend to have a lot of gallows humor. What I call that borderline hysterical. Like where someone is either about to burst into laughter or tears, and then give them that option to have that exhale, that moment of humor instead. It doesn’t play off as funny all the time. It plays off as relief. I have to give my character some way to exhale in that scene.
[Dan] A writer who does this really well is Shane Black, who did the Lethal Weapon movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which is wonderful, and has those moments where people are cracking jokes because the alternative is to break down.
[Mary] We’ve talked about this a little bit on a previous podcast. That one of the things… The reason that humor is effective as that resting spot as opposed to letting them take a nice nap is because of a physiological thing. Which is that when you laugh, it actually keeps your diaphragm tense. That means that you never fully relax. So it gives you the sense of… It gives you more of a plateau than a dip in energy. Which allows you… It’s like when you’re going up steps, that single landing allows you to help going up more steps. So that tension, that laughter allows you to actually crank the tension up higher after that moment. But where you want to watch out is when that actually stops the forward action. Then that gets back to the question of how to use it. If it is coming out a moment when it will stop the forward action, that’s the wrong place. You want it right before that action or right after it is part of the recovery.

[Brandon] Excellent. Now this one’s a question close to my heart, because it’s something I have theories on and I think is a very fun topic. My sense of humor consists only of dad jokes…
[Brandon] Let’s say. How do I get real humor into my writing? Now for those who might not know, dad jokes are what… The new term for just really bad puns. Right? In Korea, they call them [so long? Sseolleonghan nongdam, according to Google Translate?] jokes. Which means cold. So if you say one, they will actually make gestures with their hands that they’re cold. Like, “Oh, that was such a cold joke.”
[Brandon] How do you keep this from happening? I’m going to take a stab at this one. And I want to hear what the audience says… Or the podcasters say, because I have kids now. I’ve noticed that to them, I have to make my jokes so obvious. Because they’re too young, they don’t have the shared context. I think this is where the term dad joke comes from. The jokes have to be very, very obvious simple word plays. So, for me, because if you go look at Shakespeare, most of Shakespeare is puns. Most of Shakespeare is wordplay. They are brilliant. There is a line between that and dad jokes somewhere. That line is the more obvious and groaner you make it. If you look at the really good puns, then they are doing multiple things in a scene. They are advancing character and plot, they are showing you something about somebody or they’re just really uninteresting turn on the phrase that is somehow offering commentary while at the same time being a double meaning. These sorts of puns are going to be really great, when ones that are just the whatever… Hi, tired, I’m Dad. Right? I’m tired. Oh, hi, tired, I’m Dad. Those are the quintessential dad jokes. Those don’t work because they are so telegraphed. In our humor episodes, we talked about telegraphing and how it can ruin a joke.
[Howard] At risk of putting a stake in very contested ground, I think that the birth of dad jokes was the prevalence of 20th century humor being delivered to us by the editorial board of newspapers in the funny papers. That’s what many of our dads grew up with. If you look at newspaper comics, the jokes never move beyond a certain level, or rarely move beyond a certain level. Because of that editorial board, which is trying to keep it at kid level or accessibility level.
[Brandon] I would say that the sitcoms are the same humor.
[Howard] Reading humor that is better than dad joke humor is your best way to expose yourself to something that is funnier than what you currently tell.
[Victoria] I would also say that the breed of humor has to suit the context. I mean, something like gallows humor works in very, very dark stories. Dad joke, pun style humor, works in a very different context. So suiting the breed of humor to the setting and to the environment is of the utmost important. A dad joke works in a certain atmosphere. Where is it’s definitely not going to work, like in the middle of a battlefield. Unless it’s so in character for one of them and out of context as to be funny.
[Brandon] I mean, Spiderman is known for this type of joke in the middle of those contexts and people love it. If it matches the character. I think that’s a very good point. Some characters you want to have humor like this because that’s how people really are.
[Mary] A lot of times, where the humor comes from is not the joke itself, but the way everyone responds to it. So having everybody respond to a joke that totally falls flat is often funnier. That’s why you’ll see comedians often when they tell a bad joke and it doesn’t fly, they’re like, “No, no. Let me tell you that again. This is funny because… No, really. I’m telling you, this joke is killer. No, it’s funny. Really, it’s funny.” Eventually that will make people laugh. Honest. It will.
[Mary] So this joke really is funny.
[Mary] See! Hah! Thank you, Brandon.
[Brandon] [… saving it]
[Mary] But the other thing is what Victoria was saying, that it depends on the context. Piers Anthony has made a career of puns.
[Brandon] Of really bad puns at times.
[Mary] Really bad puns. I mean, that is his entire series. Then Robert Asprin, with the Mything Ink. There’s nothing wrong with this humor. If it’s funny to you, there are probably other people, just maybe not your family.
[Dan] I think I’ve mentioned Arrested Development in all three humor episodes so far. But if you want to see puns done right and super intelligent, watch Arrested Development.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Victoria, you were going to pitch to us Shades of Magic.
[Victoria] Yeah. So, the Shades of Magic series is my ongoing fantasy series right now. It starts with A Darker Shade of Magic, continues with A Gathering of Shadows, and A Conjuring of Light will be out next spring. It is essentially about a magician with the ability to move between alternate versions of London. Officially as a courier and unofficially as a smuggler of rare artifacts. He comes into possession of something he very much shouldn’t have, and immediately has his pocket picked by a cross-dressing thief named Delilah Bard.
[Awesome! Sweet!]
[Howard] Victoria, when people are looking for that, is that under V. E. Schwab?
[Victoria] Yes. Sorry, I should say that. I have multiple personalities, as I think we’ll get into, but I write for children and teens as Victoria Schwab, and I write adult fantasy as V. E. Schwab.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] So, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab.
[Brandon] Dan cover quoted something. Have you cover quoted these, Dan?
[Dan] I did Vicious, which was a different series. All of her stuff is awesome.
[Victoria] Thank you.

[Brandon] All right. How do you make sure your humor is really funny and not just funny to you?
[Dan] Have other people read it.
[Howard] Beta readers.
[Brandon] Okay. That one’s done.

[Brandon] How does the culture of the world you write in influence the humor?
[Mary] Oh, that’s a great one.
[Victoria] I was actually going to mention that in terms of puns, is that I grew puns with idioms as a thing which is really culturally specific. So when I’m creating a world or an environment or a city, a society, I pay a lot of attention to their folktales, their idioms, and their humor. I think those are three of the easiest ways to really get in on the ground floor of whatever society you’re creating.
[Howard] It’s tricky. I have only pulled it off a couple of times where I will take something that has the form of a dad joke that we are familiar with and I will substitute alien words. Everybody understands, “Oh. This is the aliens telling a joke. None of us get the joke. Well, it’s obviously a bad joke, because this one alien is making a face.” What that does is it throws the doors wide open and tells us, “Oh. This is a real place that is so big I don’t get all the jokes.”
[Brandon] This is a really interesting one, because it also isn’t really funny. Robert Jordan did this in his series. What he did is, he has a group of people that are culturally very distinct from most of the main characters. This group of people has a humor that doesn’t work for the main characters. They would do things, and the main characters would all be like, “Is that a joke? I don’t get their humor.” But he did this so consistently that by the end of the series, I knew when they were joking and was actually chuckling. Even though I didn’t share their cultural context. Now, he had 10 epic fantasy books to do that…
[Brandon] It did not work until the later books.
[Victoria] So, a long time.
[Dan] That’s why he wrote so many of them. I have noticed…
[Howard] That’s the long game percentage.
[Dan] Living… Because I’ve lived a few years in Mexico, I’ve lived a few years in Germany. In both cases, once I learned the language, I started making jokes. Everyone assumed I just didn’t know how to speak properly. So that’s something that I found very interesting for cross-cultural jokes. Where people… People assume you just are not doing it right.
[Brandon] Yeah, this is a… I often look at contemporary comedians or people who are writing urban fantasy and I’m like, “Oh. Luxury!” Right? Luxury. Because in a secondary world fantasy, a lot of the jokes we tell are related to something in our world or are shared context. If you go watch John Oliver and the jokes he’s cracking, 90% of those jokes wouldn’t work in a fantasy book because he’s making fun of some celebrity or some shared context or something like this. If you substitute that for something silly in world, it actually usually falls flat. So I’ve had a lot of trouble with this one.
[Mary] But I think that that’s one thing that you can do actually to help the reader get context. What Howard was talking about was taking a familiar form like… Insults are often one of the ways. Like McCoy insulting the green eared… Err, green eared. Green blooded, pointy eared. That these things tell you specific things about… They can enlighten you about the culture. I think one of the things you can do is take… what we do all the time when we’re writing is we combine the familiar and the strange. So we all know what it is like to have someone who has bad table manners. You can make a joke, you can craft a joke around someone who’s got bad table manners that lets you know what the table manners are for that… You can…
[Brandon] Accomplishing multiple things with your jokes is very handy.

[Brandon] This one is very interesting. Will asks, “When is humor necessary in horror? Can you write a horror book without humor?”
[Mary] Dan?
[Dan] Just thinking about all the humor horror that I love. They work so well together. You absolutely can write them without humor. But you’re missing so many great jokes!
[Howard] If I don’t laugh, I can’t cry? If I… The… I have to have both poles in order to really experience the dark stuff. I will fall further into the abyss of your horror, if you’ve given me something to laugh at. I’m sure it can be done. All the horror that I’ve written, I’ve put humor in it for exactly that reason.
[Victoria] But also, kind of we were talking earlier about the sense of necessary deflation. It’s a really great mechanism as a writer if you’re writing horror to give that false sense of deflation, to be like, “Oh, we’re okay… No, we’re not okay.” I think having that moment where you dare to exhale because you think we are through it or it’s funny, it kind of knocks you off your guard for a second. Makes the fear so much better. Because you don’t acclimate to fear that [inaudible]
[Dan] Well, I will also say, having just now advocated humor as a part of horror, you have to balance it carefully. We can all name horror movies that have fallen way over the cliff into camp, and just aren’t working as horror anymore.
[Brandon] I would say that, as an example, Lovecraft, who’s problematic in some areas… But he did not put humor in those stories. They were true horror. So I would say it is possible. All you need is one example to prove it. So it is possible. Most movies I’ve seen do it. But The Sixth Sense doesn’t use a lot of humor.
[Dan] Sixth Sense doesn’t have a lot. The Others, which is a wonderful ghost story. The Changeling, which is my favorite haunted house story. There’s really no humor in any of those.

[Brandon] So. All right. What… Where… Or where/what is the line between a book whose purpose is to be comedic and a book that could have funny parts in it?
[Mary] That is actually going to depend, I think, on the reader as much as the writer. Because there are books… Like, you can sit down and say, “I’m going to write a book that’s [here for] funny.” That is, in fact, really moving to somebody. Terry Pratchett. We think of him as being a humor writer. But his book Small Gods is one of the, I think, best books at religion and relationship to religion that I’ve ever read.
[Howard] I think Pratchett is the border case that you want to look at. Because Color of Magic was very clearly written as a humor book that was a fantasy farce. His later stuff is fantasy that we laugh at. So if you want to know where that…
[Brandon] Particularly the Tiffany Aching books.
[Howard] If you want to know where that line is…
[Brandon] Watch his line. I would agree.
[Howard] It’s right through Terry Pratchett.
[Dan] It goes back to what Brandon was saying about the purpose of the elemental genres. If your book is being driven by humor, or if it’s just a book driven by something else that has humor in it, well, then you know.

[Brandon] We’re running low on time. I want to do one more because I’ve got something to say on it.
[Brandon] Glenn asks, “How do you make dialogue sound natural but still funny?” I like this question because it’s not something we cover, but I think is very vital to this. Is dialogue… Often the more funny it gets, the less natural it will be. I love Josh Whedon’s writing. His dialogue is not very natural. So you do have to decide where you want to be on this kind of spectrum. Do you want to have natural, and you can be funny with natural dialogue, but I feel you can’t be doing the wordplays as much, because even the smart people I know who are really quick with things, what they do are pop-culture references as their humor, not the wordplays and things. But you… I would say, my answer to this is if you want to be funny and natural, it’s got to be character-based. It’s characters kind of making fun of each other or being awkward in a situation and not knowing which fork to use or things like this and make it character-based. The more word based it gets, then the less natural it will be. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
[Howard] Simple, simple exercise. Take a bit of dialogue humor that is… That fits in your book, and put it in the mouth of every character in the book. Figure out whose mouths it absolutely cannot come out of and whose mouth it might work for. Once you’ve performed that exercise, you get this sense of, “Oh. This joke can be natural if it’s told by the right person.” Or this joke just doesn’t fit in my book anywhere.
[Victoria] I think conversations have a natural cadence to them. So I tend to write my dialogue from the inside out. I write my dialogue from the point of the conversation, whether it’s a joke or whatever it is. Then back it out from there. By doing that, I think you can find the hills and valleys of the conversation, and the more natural places to have moments of levity or moments of drama. So I think half of naturalistic writing is understanding 1) can it be spoken out loud and actually sound like dialogue? And 2) does it follow actual natural patterns that aren’t just hello, hello. How are you, how are you? Like getting to the point. It’s not a knock, knock lead up.
[Mary] I took a class from Jane Espenson, who is a fantastic writer, worked with Joss Whedon. She talked about dialogue… Or she talked about joke areas that… When she has a joke that’s not hitting, that what she does is she looks at it. There are two things she’s looking for. One is what function does it serve in the plot? The other is why is the character saying it? Those two things allow her to tune the joke so that it is carrying both loads. So like you can have somebody… She had examples from scripts. But the line, “What did you say?” That’s not a joke, but… “What did you say?” That can mean I can’t hear you, that can mean I don’t believe what you said, that can mean we’re going to take this outside now. That can mean a lot of different things. It’s ambiguous. Tweaking it to make it more specific to the character will also make it more naturalistic and usually funnier.

[Brandon] Right. Well, that is great. These questions were great. I’m sorry for those of you I didn’t get to your questions. But I want to thank our audience.
[Brandon] And I want to thank Victoria for being our special guest.
[Victoria] Thank you.

[Brandon] We are going to end with a writing prompt. Howard?
[Howard] I came up with this 3 1/2 minutes ago. Write a joke and have each of your characters tell that joke. Find a way for them to tell that joke in their style.
[Brandon] That is perfect. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.