To Be Or Not To Be Funny

First: CONGRATULATIONS to all you NaNoWriMo’s! Double kudos to those who met your goal. But whether you made it or not, the effort is a big deal. A lot of back patting is called for.

And I bet you’re relieved it’s over–and maybe feeling a little let-down, too . But, hey, there’s still all that revising to do. In recent posts I’ve gotten questions about revision, and I’ve referred people to my post on the topic from 11/18/09. If you have questions that I didn’t cover there, please ask.

Second: A reminder about my signings in Connecticut on Saturday, details on the website. If you’re in the area, I hope you come.

Third: With the glow of poetry school still hanging over me, I want to say something about how poetry affects my prose. Chiefly, it makes me more aware of the sound of my words as I write. For example, in the last sentence I happened to write the alliterative makes me more. (Alliteration: identical initial consonant sounds or double consonant sounds, like stay still. Write well isn’t alliterative, even though both words start with w’s, and cautious king is, even though one word starts with a c and the other with a k. It’s the sound that counts.) In the example, makes me more, I didn’t alliterate intentionally; it just came out that way, but I could have changed the wording to increased my awareness. Same meaning but not as appealing to me (in a very minor way).

Same thing with assonance, similar vowel sounds, like keep and sweet. Also words that happen to rhyme. I notice them more nowadays. Sometimes I add in alliteration or assonance, and sometimes I take it out. In prose, I often find it annoying when I accidentally rhyme, so I revise and remove.

Here’s a prompt: Pick a paragraph of your current story, any long paragraph, not dialogue. Underline the alliterations, the assonances, the rhymes. See if you can create more of each by changing words. Do you like the result better or less well? There’s no right or wrong answer. You decide. The advantage is just more consciousness as you write.

I also recommend reading poetry, because poetry is wonderful, and you can learn a lot about language from it. I get a daily poetry fix from Writers Almanac, As a subscriber, a poem arrives in my email every morning, along with a short narrative of major historical events of the day. I click listen and read the poem along with Garrison Keillor’s resonant voice.

Now for today’s topic. On July 25, 2010, Rose wrote… How does a writer decide whether to make a story mainly funny or mainly serious? I’ve been writing a story that I saw as humorous, but it’s been getting very serious already, and I’m not sure if this is a bad thing. If so, can someone help? My tastes naturally tend towards the dramatic, though, so it’s probably just that. . .

Often the decision is made for the writer, who is either a writer of humor or of serious fiction. One or the other usually comes naturally, no decision involved.

Not that it’s necessarily so cut and dried as that. Serious drama can have funny moments, hysterical ones, even, and funny stories can turn temporarily dark or be uniformly dark and funny. Serious writers can pull off comedy occasionally, and humorists can write tragedy once in a while. But I think most writers know which camp they find themselves in.

I generally prefer funny. I’d rather read funny and write funny, and I think humor isn’t taken, er, seriously enough as literature. It’s just as hard, maybe harder, to write good light as to write good heavy. I frequently look for a bit of levity to add to my stories. Doing so just makes me happy.

Some of my books are more serious than others. Ever is the most somber book I’ve written, but even it has funny moments. And after I finished it I had to escape to something lighter. A Tale of Two Castles is lighthearted. The sequel I’m working on now is more serious, so I may cycle back and forth.

Of course subject matter helps determine whether or not a story is serious. I challenge the funniest person on earth to write a comedy about the abuse of dogs. If this is your subject, you probably have to be serious.

But even dire topics can be spoofed. Think of disaster movies. And, while dog abuse may be off limits, pet abuse probably isn’t. For example, you might write about a character who keeps pet cockroaches and isn’t nice to them. The reader wouldn’t know which side to sympathize with.

There are also topics that most lend themselves to comedy. One of my students once wrote a story about toe jam. Tragedy and toe jam do not mix, or do not mix easily.

And there are many topics that can go either way. Romance, friendship, coming of age all leap to mind.

Whichever you’ve chosen, you can nudge it temporarily in one direction or the other. Imagine even a hospital scene. Your main character’s mother has something terminal. A clueless doctor comes in and says all the wrong things, maybe putting a weird spin on a conversation that was just taking place. The dying continues, but the characters have laughed and the reader has smiled. Or you can make the scene funny by going overboard with the sadness, intense lugubriousness, so over the top that the characters notice and the tragedy lifts for a moment.

Comedy can tip into drama too. Suppose Essie has given her best friend Riva a joke gift of hand puppets. They’re in Riva’s bedroom, acting out the behavior of a tyrannical teacher, having a fine time, being clever and funny until Riva has the teacher puppet say something hurtful to Essie that Riva has wanted to say. The remark goes back to an old incident that’s been festering. In a single line of dialogue the story’s mood shifts. It may shift back just as quickly in a page or two, but for the moment the reader has stopped laughing.

Even when stories stay funny they can have serious meaning. Think of Mark Twain, one of my favorites. His Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for instance, is wonderfully humorous and touching at the same time. Think of Jane Austen, one of the funniest writers ever, in my opinion, who was writing not only about finding love, but also about finding a life. Think of your own examples.

Here’s a prompt: Write about a camping trip. Can be a family trip, a scout troupe, a gathering of elves, whatever. In as many pages as you need, take it from humor to drama, back to humor, back to drama. End on whichever you like. Do the same for a bank robbery. Now do it – aaa! – for an airplane crash. Don’t worry about being ridiculous. Go for it!

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Thank you, Ms. Levine! Can I say it was a very pleasant surprise to see NaNoWriMo referenced there? Hehe.

    And this topic is surprisingly apt, since my NaNoWriMo novel was supposed to be super serious/tragic, but is more of a light-hearted tragedy. It seems weird when my MC turns serious…

    (Oh, and since I'm still hyper from yesterday, I might as well go out and say it…FIRST COMMENT! :D)

  2. One reason I love the Harry Potter books is because they are such an expert blend of humor, darkness, love,hate, etc. That takes a special author!
    You definitely have that too, Gail 🙂

  3. This is a really cool idea, the drama/comedy mix. It could add a really interesting element to a story. I love the prompts, too. Especially the one about the plane crash. The scenes that come to mind when I try to imagine what I could write about that would be funny are really entertaining.

    I agree, I like the Harry Potter books for that reason, and also Rick Riordan's writing. It's really funny and also serious. My favorite books are those that blend many qualities. A mix of love and hate, and the comedy and the drama, all mixed up together is the best because it balances itself out and makes it interesting. That's also why I really like Brian Jacques. He's an expert at it, too.

  4. Sometimes when I'm writing a scene that is serious or sad, but am floundering a little, I find myself inserting bits of humor, without having "planned" on it. Sometimes it lightens the mood of the scene, or sometimes I think it just adds a layer to what the characters are feeling. I don't know if it always works for the scene, but it often at least helps to get me more motivated, or find a direction for the scene.
    I think one reason I do that is because I've read your stories (particularly Ella Enchanted) so many times, Ms. Levine, and they've taught me how poignant humor can be in many different types of scenes, whether you're writing strictly comedy or not. It has now become a big part of how I think as a writer.
    Thanks again for a helpful, insightful post!

  5. And one more thing..haha.
    I have an off-topic question. I just read the 11/18/09 post concerning revision and found it to be very helpful. I can't wait till I'm at that point in my story! My question, however, deals more with the first draft. I am in the process of just trying to pound out the story and get it all down. I graduated with an English Lit. degree a few years ago, so I tend to obsess a bit about mechanics (grammar, syntax, etc.). Sometimes I'll be glancing over something I wrote a day or two previously and will see errors that I want to work out right away, but the trouble with that is that I feel like I am already constantly revising, and it cuts into my real writing/storytelling time. (I have a one year old son, so my writing time is limited 🙂 )
    (And finally, the actual question…)
    Do you just move through the story without any revisions for your first draft, or do you frequently re-read and edit what you've recently written?

  6. I loved this post! It goes much deeper than "comedy ends well, and tragedy ends badly," and I appreciate your attention to balancing the two aspects. I also liked the comments on poetry and have found the same thing to be true for me when switching from poetry to essays.

  7. Ooooh cool prompt, I will have to try that…

    As for NanoWriMo…I can't believe its over. It went by so fast and so slow at the same time! Well I have to say I will definately be doing it again next year because my first year and it was a blast (and I surprisingly won:) which doesn't hurt my liking of it either). So yay for NanoWriMo and its awesomeness. 🙂

    Now actually staying on topic… as for comedy. I like to write comedy,. A lot of the time my characters decide for me if the story is going to be funny. It just depends on which characters I blend together, if the dialogue comes naturally and sounds good I rarely deny my characters the right to say it, even if it is something funny in a serious scene or vice versa. My war stories have turned out to be quite humorous because my characters decided to have a conversation about getting their tongues stuck to metal poles (I have no idea where that came from, they just decided to start the conversation and so I just went with it XD).

    This year my Nano was probably the most serious and most adult thing I've ever written(though its still a young adult I normally write more middle grade stuff), it kind of has a horror aspect in it because one of my characters literally goes insane and loses her mind. And I had a lot of freaky things happen too. While writing it I kind of thought, "wow this is kind of dark," but I found that if I added a bit of humor I really liked the creepy and eerie mood it had. So what I am trying to say in this overly long paragraph is just go with it, and whatever you write will turn out great.

    Also: Harry Potter= good blend of humor<-agreed.

    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine, I think this will come in handy while editing…

  8. Congrats to all the WriMos here! I'd never done anything like it before, but I won. I had a blast, and I'd love to do it again next year as long as circumstances allow.

    Thank you for the post, Mrs. Levine! First of all, very interesting thoughts about poetry and alliteration – I'd never really thought about it that way before.

    I'd have to say that my work-in-progress is definitely more on the serious side. I didn't mean for it to happen that way – it just did. And I feel I am not very skilled at adding humor to my writing, and it does't show up very often. So when one of my characters DOES say something funny, I'm afraid it sounds out of character! Eep!

    Ditto what has been said before about Harry Potter being a good blend of seriousness and humor. I laughed my way through those books – but a lot of them are very dark also, so I was surprised how well the humor seemed to work. I like books that have a good sampling of each, which is why I wish I could get my humor to work.

  9. Just a random comment- I feel like there can be different types of humor as well. For example, one of my characters is dark and broody, so whenever she says something funny, it's sarcastic. Another one of my characters is very friendly and nice, and always tries to diffuse the tension that sometimes develops, and he usually does it by making some stupid and irrelevant joke. And I know that Mrs. Levine has pointed out many other types of humor- for example, in her princess tale The Fairy Returns, there are a lot of simple jokes, whereas the humor in her longer novels is more sophisticated.

    i hope that makes sense and/or helps someone!

    congrats to the WriMos- but could someone explain to me what it means to "win"? (sorry, I'm ignorant here, I hadn't heard of it until I found this blog.)

  10. Thanks for this post! I love humor writing. You were talking about blending humor and drama. One person I think does that really well is Lloyd Alexander. Another is Terry Pratchett. I think often the contrast of sadness or fear and humor can make both much stronger emotions -rather like sweet and sour sauce.

  11. Maddie-
    In NanoWriMo to "win" is to reach 50,000 words or over before November 30th and have the people on the website verfify that you did in fact write that much by submitting your novel to have the words counted. Your novels are never judged against each other since there are like thousands of people doing Nano world wide. Winning just means you were able to writer 50,000 words in 30 days or less. (Which is a pretty cool achievement in my oppinion).
    But don't feel ignorant, I've only known about Nano for a few months now myself. If you want to know more about it you should check out.

  12. Thanks so much for answering my question, Ms. Levine!
    I have written a lot of stories that I thought would be funny but turned out not to be, and then recently I wrote one that was quite depressing but was in first-person narration by a girl who would slip jokes in at the tense moments. I like playing around with drama/humor, and I think your post was very amazing (like always)!

    @ Chicory – I totally agree about Lloyd Alexander. Good grief! Nothing can make me want to laugh and cry so quickly in succession as the Prydain Chronicles.

  13. Grace- thanks for answering! 😀 NaNoWriMo sounds very fun- maybe next year I'll have to try it.

    Angie- I know what you mean. I often go back in my story and change things before I'm done with it, only I usually just change simple things, like making the wording flow better or adding in a simple character. I never get too hung up on grammar or spelling, though- I'd save that for the final revision.
    I don't know if that's bad or not, but that's how I do it. 😀
    Hope that helps

  14. @Ms. Levine – if I may be so bold as to say so, you should join in on NaNoWriMo next year. Unofficially if you like, it's loads of fun.
    (And added motivation for us to stay ahead of the author in wordcount. XD)

  15. You know, I just figured out, Ms. Levine, that I've already written that writing prompt. 🙂 I made a story last year that was almost exactly like it! It was a bunch of teenage cousins getting together for their regular reunion. Something tragic had happened about two years before, and none of them really wanted to talk about it. Needless to say, because it was a story I wrote, exciting stuff began to occur. I think the story turned out a lot more drama and sadness than humor, but looking over it I find a lot of "small humor" as in funny lines and small laughs even in the midst of dire circumstances.

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