The trouble with writing humour is that it’s so subjective; lines that will have one person giggling up their sleeve will leave another completely unmoved. Consequently, many writers don’t even attempt it. Some say they don’t have sense of humour themselves, or that it’s just too difficult. I don’t write much humour myself, though I do like to inject sarcasm and understatement into my characters’ thoughts and dialogue. But conjuring up funny scenes is just beyond me.
Recently at the writing group we were required to choose a famous passage from one of the classics and re-write it in a humorous fashion. I chose Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the scene when the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw frightens the life out of Mr Lockwood, the new tenant, by trying to get into his bedroom in the dead of night via the window. A poor choice of passage for this exercise, perhaps…
I don’t think William Shakespeare suffered from this affliction. Several of his ‘humorous’ plays hinge on a case of mistaken identity, an amusing device the Bard seemed to love but which leaves me cold, particularly when the mix up is revealed to the audience early on. Doesn’t do it for me at all. And another very British type of humour which I also find annoying rather than amusing is the farce, made famous on the stage by Brian Rix. These plays involved much opening and closing of doors, characters rushing in and out of rooms and an obligatory young lady running around in a state of undress.
But if you think this type of humour has gone out of fashion, think again. Remember that favourite Frazier episode at the ski lodge where confusion abounds and the cast rush in and out of each others’ rooms with alarming regularity? It was a typical farce situation – misunderstanding compounded by the number of characters, none of whom were privy to the truth; there was even a scantily dressed young woman.
Some writers find it difficult to hit the right tone; an exclamation mark will not automatically cause a statement to be funny, despite its carefully written connotations. And trying to coax a joke or quip out of a character without making them sound ridiculous is not easy. Creating characters that the reader can identify with and making the humour fit those characters will make things slightly easier without rendering them unbelievable. Quirky turns of phrase, subtle juxtapositions and surprising observational insights will all help mould credible characters. Satire and irony also have their place; but please try and avoid tortuous puns.
Unrelenting humour can be as difficult to read as it is to write, so using it just to inject some light relief here and there might be the way to go, rather then attempting a full-blown ‘funniest novel I’ve ever read’, though that would be nice, too.
One thing is certain – the more you do it the better you’ll become. Like with most things.