Writing Excuses Episode 21: Humor

Enough of this highbrow literary crap–make with the funny! Or, if you’re Howard, do both. In this this episode we talk about why to write humor, how to write humor, how to recognize humor in others, how to steal from learn from what they do, and, in the end, what makes things funny in the first place.

This week, Writing Excuses is sponsored by The Well of Ascension: Book Two of Mistborn Mass Market Paperback by Brandon Sanderson, which is good but really not all that funny.


20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 21: Humor”

  1. Hey guys,

    How about a podcast on how to write good tragic/emotional scenes to balance out the podcast on humor. I personally would find that funny.

  2. Wow, you guys were spot on with this one. I think the remarks about unexpected and evocative really hit the nail on the head. That list was interesting, too, although I think Howard’s right in that it’s more useful as an analytical tool than something that will actually help one write something hilarious. (Then again, there’s something to be said for knowing why and how something works when you’re trying to actually do it.)

    With the occasional exception of a few lines of dialogue, (as I often end up with POV characters who are smart alecs) I don’t try to be funny when I write; it’s just something that happens. A critique partner once pointed to a particular scenario in my novel with the comment that the dark humor there was well done. My initial response: “Wha? That was funny?” (followed, of course, by the requisite “I actually meant to do that”). In looking at it, though, I can see what he meant, and it worked that way exactly because of what you guys have said here: It wasn’t the kind of response you’d expect to hear in that scenario, but it also made perfect sense.

    I think trying to be funny is a whole different ball game, and in my experience at least, is very hard to do well. I have no idea how folks like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett pull(ed) it off.

    Oh, and Brandon, regarding fantasy books, dragons, and why not: THANK YOU. That is an excellent summation of why fantasy and speculative fiction in general is not inherently inferior to stuff that sits on a shelf labelled “literature”. May I q

  3. (Umm… I don’t know why it decided to send my post when I hadn’t even finished typing it. Sorry about that. Anyway…)

    May I quote you? Seriously, I need to print that out on fancy letterhead and go waving it around in the faces of all the crazed Ivory Tower book thumpers out there. And laugh at them.


    Sorry about that. I attend a university where that species of reader who is convinced that only Literature (capital L and faux-English accent required) can actually be, you know, good, is particularly rampant. It is just a wee bit frustrating.

    Annnnnyway, enough of that. I’ll be back when (if?) I actually have something useful to contribute.

  4. Question about the writing prompt.

    Is there a place to share it or is it simply a prompt for writing?

    (A side note on beginings)

    I visited Mr. Sanderson’s site and read the first few chapters of Mistborn, and had to by it. Now I’m not one of the people who go directly to the end, I enjoy the journey as much as the destination. But I want to find out what happens next and how it will be done.

    Thanks for everthing that ya’ll do, it has been a tremendous help and inspiration.

  5. Oddly enough, just last week I was shown a video that almost addresses this writing prompt. A video – from Sesame Street. I have deep suspicions that the writer did it deliberately…

    Follow the link – I’ve put it as my “Website” for this post.

  6. I have to know more about this horror comedy Dan wrote. Vampire bunnies sounds like too much of an idea to pass up. Hopefully it will get published!

  7. One question…where is a good place to use humor? If a character is cracking jokes as he finds the Evil Tyrant’s Superweapon of Doom is going to Destroy the Whole World, is that okay? or will it just break the reader out of the story?

  8. @S.M.: Your question reminded me of Spiderman’s constant jibes against his foes. Humor can be a coping strategy. The Larry Niven quote from the podcast addresses this (I think Dan tossed out the quote — my google-fu is not up to the task this morning. Failed I did to find the quote online).

    I’d guess that the answer is that if it’s in character for the hero to crack jokes in stressful situations, that it would not throw the reader out of the story. It has to grow out of the character, and not just appear from nowhere. There’s also the question of balance. I’d guess that anything overdone to excess would throw the reader.

  9. One of my favorite movie jokes comes from a scene where the the hero finds the villain preparing to destroy Earth with a Superweapon of Doom; it’s in the hit-and-miss movie “Mom and Dad Save the World,” and it comes not from the main character cracking a joke but from the main character getting carried away and not really knowing how to be a hero: “That’s my wife you’re trying to marry, that’s my planet you’re trying to blow up, and that’s…well, that’s just some guy. But you tied him up, and that’s wrong!”

  10. hi, you skipped a function of humor that actually came to my mind first, which is “comic relief”
    …just wondering whether this aspect is not that important to you?

    cheers, kai

  11. @S.M.: I don’t think there’s a a scenario that’s always the right or wrong moment for humor. I can’t think of any specifically at the moment, but I’ve read things in which something funny happened in the middle of a scenario that wasn’t funny at all. The scene from my own novel that I mentioned in my above post was actually a funeral, and apparently there was a moment of humor that worked pretty well despite that. Then again, it was pretty unobstrusive. You probably wouldn’t want, say, slapstick humor in that situation (though I suppose it depends on what kind of book you’re writing).

    I think it comes back to that oh-so-useful catchphrase that Brandon, Howard and Dan keep mentioning: Surprising yet inevitable. If it’s not something we expect, it’s more likely to make us laugh, but it has to make sense somehow. I’m not really sure I can quantify that any further, but I agree that setup is important.

    As long as your joke works it doesn’t matter if the Evil Tyrant’s Superweapon of Doom is about to Destroy the World, I don’t think. :)

    Kai: Personally I’m not a huge fan of characters who are ONLY comic relief. As Brandon said in the podcast, I like to care about characters as well as laugh at them (if that’s the intent). Then again, I don’t write humour, as such… I’ll leave that one to people who actually know what they’re talking about. ;)

  12. @Terry M

    Vampire Bunnies

    James Howe
    (C) 1979
    Avon Books

    Hope it helps!

  13. I used the writing prompt to kick start a story idea for the 100 Word Stories Podcast I send in stories to. There is a weekly challenge with a topic. This weeks topic is “Popular Mechanics.” I wrote a story where something dreadful happens and person who should swear didn’t. If you want to hear the story, check it out this Saturday at podcasting.isfullofcrap.com either on the blog, or for more fun, put the podcast in your iTunes or whatever podcatcher and listen that way and get a 100 word story every day as a bonus. Or, better, send in a story yourself!

  14. One point no one has yet address: your hero may say something that, upon reflection may be funny, but he may not realize he’s being funny. I believe it can be well argued that dear, sweet Sergeant Schlock says many a side-splitter. But in his mind he is entirely sincere in what he says.

    In this sense I would reject the terminology of having your hero ‘tell a joke.’ Spiderman might get away with glib remarks, but even Dan’s example from “Mom and Dad Save the World” is not ‘telling a joke.’

    Also, juxtraposition is helpful. Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dongs dancing around to the song ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ just before torturing a bound and gagged cop is on the one hand hilarious and on the other entirely repugnant. These are the things that make the viewers’ brain slide sideways while watching.

  15. Ooops. Slight typographical error in the last post. Nothing meant by it, other than I’m a poor copy editor.

  16. Regarding the appropriateness of putting humor into certain scenes, Raethe hit the nail on the head when he said “as long as your joke works….” Simply put, if the scene works, then it works–it’s a tautology but it’s true. If you insert humor into a certain scene and it falls flat, or it breaks the tension, or it pulls the reader out of the story, then it doesn’t work; but if the reader laughs or gets creeped out or has any other reaction that actually helps the scene, then it works. In other words: there are no rules, there’s just good writing.

  17. Hooray, I got something right! And a gender change apparently, but those are no big deal these days. ;)

    (Sorry. I couldn’t resist. :))

  18. I”m new to Writing Excuses, but like it very much. :)

    I use intelligent/sarcastic/ironic humor a lot when I write. I’ve tried other types, but they just don’t flow as easily. But there’s not always a place for that type of humor in my stories, and I have terrible times trying to be funny in other ways when my stories require it. It always comes out forced. Could you guys do a podcast on how to write different types of humor, or how to use the type you’re used to in an out of place situation?

  19. Hey, folks. I’m hoping that this will find you through the “recent comments” feature, or through comment moderation. When I use the “search inside this book” option on Amazon.com to look at the mass market paperback editions of Final Empire or Hero of Ages, I get extensive previews that include the books’ endings.

    The Well of Ascension paperback behind the above link doesn’t have this problem, but its page leads to those of the other two.

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