Using Humor to Elevate Your Writing ~ by Kim Hunt Harris

I’ve learned something valuable about writing. About life in general, actually. If I can make people laugh, they’ll forgive a lot of other shortcomings.

Seriously. I don't have to be the smartest person in the room. I don’t have to be the prettiest or have the sharpest wardrobe. My jump shot can be complete rubbish. People will automatically like me more if I make them laugh. I mean, they still don’t want me on their basketball team, but they like me.

The same is true for writing. Please understand, I’m not advocating for sloppy writing. Plots still need to be tight, characters believable and three-dimensional, books edited and proofread. But if you’re looking for that little sumpin’-sumpin to make your book stand out, sparkle, be memorable...humor can do it. Like, a four-star review elevated to a five-star. Humor is a superpower that can strengthen everything else in your books. Here’s how:

1. You can convey the brutal truth without being brutal.
     Here's one of my favorite quotes about humor: "A joke is the truth wrapped in a smile." I don’t know who said this, but it’s true. If you need to get something painful out there, but don’t want your character looking bad for saying something unpleasant that needs to be said, a joke can be a powerful way to say it. What’s more, we humans recognize this and accept it.

2. Humor is engaging.
    Humor works the same part of our brains that recognizes a good metaphor. It makes the reader slow down and think. When your reader is amused, they are fully locked in to what you’re telling them. And (perhaps) even better, humor engages us as writers, and boosts our own creativity. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that when we’re happy, amused, laughing, the blood is flowing to our brain better and we’re more likely to think of the answer to a sticky problem. You know how sometimes you’re stuck on a plot point and get frustrated, look for a distraction and end up laughing at YouTube cat videos? Then suddenly, the solution to your problem just comes to you, effortlessly? Turns out, that’s not slacking off—it's your brain’s response to lightening up a little. Watching cat videos is actually a method of boosting your creativity! Your YouTube rabbit trails are now sanctioned. Go in peace.

3. Humor provides punctuation and flow.     In movies, scenes are often closed with a joke, and books are no different. We’ve internalized and are comfortable with this rhythm. If you are writing a scene where tension is high and you need to give your readers a break but need to keep engagement high, a joke is one powerful way to do that.

A running joke is also a phenomenal thing to work into your story’s
climax. Remember the line, “You’ll shoot your eye out” in the movie A Christmas Story? Poor kid got that block every time he mentioned wanting a Red Rider BB Gun. Naturally, when he got his gun, he had to shoot his eye out. It was the perfect full-circle moment. (For those who haven’t seen the movie, he didn’t really shoot his eye out. That would have been what we in the humor business call “not funny.” Now, stop whatever you’re doing and watch A Christmas Story, because something fundamental is missing from your life until you do.)

4. Humor heightens every other emotion.
    Remember the funeral scene in Steel Magnolias? The shock of
Julia Roberts’ tragic death at such an early age? Everyone in the movie is grim-faced or crying, everyone in the theater is swallowing back the knot in their throat. Onscreen, Sally Field sobs about how unfair it is, how she is so furious, she wants to hit something—hit something hard! 
Then Olympia Dukakis grabs Shirley MacLaine, thrusts her up front and says, “Here! Hit her!”

The theater erupted into half-hysterical laughter.  The moment was surprising and amusing, but not exactly comedy genius. What made the moment so powerful was that the joke gave us a release from all that painful emotion we’d been working so hard to build a defense against. We have no defense against humor—we don’t need a defense against it.  Humor unlocks that door, all the bricks come tumbling down, and aaall that emotion is let loose to course through us. Powerful stuff. 

Okay, you’re probably thinking, humor is great. But...how? 
Obviously, only you can know what’s right for when and how to use humor in your work, but here are a few things to get the ideas flowing. 

First, keep in mind what, exactly, makes something funny. 
Dr. Peter McGraw at the Humor Research Lab (HuRL. Seriously? HuRL) developed the Benign Violation Theory. He says that in order to be funny, something needs to be a violation of an expected norm—a social norm, a moral norm, etc, and that violation must be benign—not ultimately harmful or offensive. 

Olympia Dukakis certainly violated a social norm; we don’t usually go around offering up our friends for physical abuse (usually), so there was a violation, but we all knew that Shirley MacLaine wasn’t in any danger. Sally Field probably doesn’t even hit that hard.  

In his book, How to Write Funny, Scott Dikkers says that all humor comes down to surprise. Without a surprise, you can’t really have any humor. That’s why jokes don’t make you laugh after hearing them a few times.  

Now, what about when it’s not really a surprise, like with Ralphie shooting his eye out with his new BB gun? Surely, we should have seen that coming. The foreshadowing was obvious. 

But Ralphie was surprised, and the moment was totally over the top; his shot ricocheted, came back and smacked right into his glasses. His immediate response was, “Oh no! I shot my eye out!” We felt his shock because it was handled so adeptly. 
 
In my book, The Trailer Park Princess and The Middle Finger of Fate, I wrote about a beat-up car with rust holes in the doors and a missing driver’s seat. The owner had put an overturned bucket in place of the seat. This was based, I admit, on my own father-in-law's car. The man had honestly used an upturned bucket in place of the driver’s seat. I do not know what happened to the seat. At the time, pretty much all my mental processing was taken up with the realization that I had married into this family. It all worked out, though, because I got a good scene out of it.  Here’s an excerpt, which opens with my amateur sleuth praying before she leaves, with her dog Stump, to go to her job at Flo’s Bow Wow Barbers:
 
     I started to pray again for a new car, but what was the point? “And please, don’t let my bucket turn over while I’m driving down Slide Road.” Surely that wasn’t asking too much. 
     Turns out, it was. I pulled onto Slide and the freaking thing tilted into the handbrake. I panicked and kicked my legs and succeeded in knocking the bucket completely over, with me sprawling into the back floorboard. I felt the car rolling across the middle of the street, saw my legs sticking straight up into the air. My muscles screamed, I screamed, and Stump jumped into the middle of my chest and growled.  
     I don’t think I’ve ever moved that fast in my life. I threw Stump back into the passenger seat and scrambled up as fast as I could. The bucket was still on its side, and I perched on it and steered the car away from the light pole it was headed toward. 
     My heart thundered in my chest as I looked around at the other cars. Fortunately there were only three others on the block, and all three drivers stared at me. I pretended like nothing was out of the ordinary and headed for Bow Wow Barbers.
 
This scene gets mentioned the most in reviews. To me, the bucket overturning was inevitable, and when she prayed that it wouldn’t happen, it was as if nothing else could possibly happen. There was no possibility of surprise. But I realized that if my character is surprised, that works for the reader, too. Plus I took advantage of the moment and used my other favorite tool—escalated absurdity—to keep pushing it to the point of hilarity. 

At the end of the book, the bad guys kidnap my sleuths in that rattletrap car to kill them and stage an accident, so my heroine kicks the bucket (so to speak) and brings an end to the kidnapping by sending them into a ditch. A full-circle moment there.  Satisfying (I hoped) to the reader, and satisfying as heck to the writer.   

Here’s another quote on humor, from Osho: "Fools laugh at others; wisdom laughs at itself." Have fun laughing at yourselves, dear writer friends, and let’s hope those readers are fools enough to laugh along with us!

Kim Hunt Harris










Kim Hunt Harris writes the Trailer Park Princess series and may be followed by clicking the links below.


6 comments:

  1. So nice having you with us today, Kim. Thanks for sharing. We all need a bit more humor in our lives and our work.

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  2. Thank you, Grace! It was a pleasure!
    Kim

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  3. I loved that scene in Steel Magnolias!!!

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  4. Welcome, Kim! I can truly relate. I tend to throw in a dash of humor now and then, especially to break up tense moments. I really enjoyed your post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! Humor makes the world a better place. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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