Sunday, May 12, 2013

Applying Practicality to Practical Tips on Writing Humor

Well, perhaps not practicality, but at least a deeper look at Alex Shvartsman's Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor--which is really four tips and one statement. Humor is subjective? No shit! That goes for any form of media, really. For example, some people love Katy Perry, other people think she's rubbish (which she is).

I'm not just going to pick fun at a couple of the points, because some of them are good and useful... while some not-so-much. What qualifies me to take on SFWA writer's tips, when my own publication creds are sub-par? Nothing really. But, I do have this thing called 'reason', which is a powerful thing that even a n00b writer like me can use to deconstruct tips--and perhaps even offer a few of my own. Also, I've been watching way too many critique shows on the YooTubes... Err, let's just jump right in.

So although tip five is a statement, there is an actually point: "Make sure that your story works regardless of whether the reader finds it funny or not."

Yes and no.

There are stories where humor is integral to the story, as in, if you were to remove the humor the whole story would fall flat. At first, we would say that story fails because it uses humor as a crutch... Yet, the beloved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does exactly that. If you've never noticed before, HGttG doesn't have much of a plot except this vague search for the planet Magrathea, which doesn't come into effect until the latter part of the book. Even the main character Arthur Dent isn't exactly engaging, as he's an Average Joe who provides a foil for the weirder characters like Zaphod Beeblebrox, while whining about tea. So how does the book keep itself afloat and justify its novel-length? By humor of course! Dear Odin, look how much mockery is in the book; from bureaucracy to poetry to religion and philosophy, and much, much more.

Compare this to the Disney movie of Hitchhiker (which say whatever you want, was actually kind of good), where the plot was far more driving, but also, it contained the story of Arthur trying to win Trinity's heart. We can take the silly moments and jokes away from the movie, and although it might not be as charming, it would still hold up. If you did that with the book... well, Douglas Adams would've had a lot less to write about.    
Just think: A humorless Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... Scary thought, huh?

Same thing with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first chunk of the movie is just King Arthur (what is with the name Arthur?) romping around, and showing how horrible and miserable the middle ages were. We don't even care about the cast of characters, as a good many of them die--but oh, do they die in the most hilarious of ways.

Both the novel HGttG and Monty Python and the Holy Grail manage to work without having much of a plot or engaging characters, as testament to their popularity. Which says something about how powerful humor can be.

But of course, you'll find people who don't care for either of the two, simply because the humor doesn't work for them, and the story (or lack thereof) isn't compelling on its own. I know, I know. It's unfathomable to think that someone would consider HGttG boring, but it's true. Yet, if your humor manages to strike a funny cord in enough people, who cares what the others think?

Speaking of subjectivity, I'm going share one of my all-time favorite rejections from FFO; not only because it's extensive, but it shows quite a few different opinions of the same story--which as you can guess, was humorous. No worries though, the story was picked up by On Spec, proving that they have excellent taste. :)

~A couple good moments of humor, like the bandit whose bandana got in the way of talking. However, what on earth does this guy do with his flesh-eating turnips? How does he make money? I mean, I'd expect people at market would give that particular wagon a wide berth.

~Didn't believe it. Humor overdone and heavy handed.

~You're not supposed to like the MC; he's the petulant unreliable narrator, and I don't think the all the turnips are flesh eating (except when the opportunity comes up) - just the queen. Omnivorous at most. The purple barn, the pouty turnips, it's so quirky and off the wall, you have to smile. So much of what we see blends together in one grand grey morass, but you have to admit this one stand outs.

~I liked this one. I liked how it poked fun at the hero legend. The first line was pretty darned good too. In some ways it reminded me of the heavy-handedness of The Colour of Magic.

Cute and original. And for once, this round, the execution worked for me.

~Cute in places, but feels kind of half-hearted. Bards and minstrels clash with the modern, slangy language. Overdone.

~Seemed like a tall tale, which is a tough sale for me. Didn't grab me. I did like the idea of mocking the hero legend, but the tale wasn't that interesting to me.

~I imagined the narrator to be a guy spinning tales at the local tavern, with all the tall tales and random inconsistencies it entails.

~I was totally set up for the old "con the bad guys into digging up my turnip field" gag. I was glad that isn't where it went, but I wasn't satisfied with where it did go.

I'm going to stop here, but I'll come back in a day or two to nail at another tip. I also wouldn't mind going over a few types of humor (i.e. satire/sarcasm, black comedy, absurdism), since humor can take many routes. If you think you fail at writing humor, it may just be that you haven't found the right type for you.


  1. Interesting. I'm going to look forward to your thoughts about other types of humour. Terry Pratchett tells a good story. Short stories are so different from novels. You can get away with much less of a narrative arc.

    I like all kinds of short humour. My favourite is the type that you think is fluff and then- whammy -- it hits you over the head with something meaningful. That's what I'm trying to write at the moment. Tricky, very tricky to do with subtlety.

    1. I've noticed humorous short stories without a narrative arc! And they completely work.

      My preferred humor types are satire and absurdism, with maybe a bit of dark humor on the side. I just love general wackiness like what you'd find in a Monty Python skit. Although if humor can say something meaningful, it's always a plus.