Finding the Funny in Your Writing


I met today's guest blogger recently at RWA Nationals when Jamie Wesley and I were waiting to get into a restaurant. The place was crowded and they had a table for four available so we invited two other ladies who were waiting to sit with us. Take this as a lesson: when you go to conferences and such--reach out--you never know who you might meet. Murphy and her crit partner Jami (who will be guest posting next week) were so much fun. We had a great lunch and now have two new writerly friends.  

Now a few months ago I did a post asking if you can learn to be funny in your writing. I honestly didn't know if it was something that could be learned, but Margeanne Mitchell (who goes by Murphy) is here to tell us it can be.  So without further adieu, take it away Murphy.

First off, I’d like to thank Roni for inviting me to hang with you guys today.  She’s awesome, isn’t she?  Not only generous, but gracious as well.  Thanks, Roni!
Hmm..finding funny?  As you can see by the Little Red Devil's picture above, I don't have to look too far to find it - she's usually right there at my feet! :)  But enough about her.
So, what the heck is humor?  

Well, it’s an unlikely pairing of contrasts that reverses the reader's anticipated expectations.  It requires a certain structure and pace, and these things are dependent on one another.  Think of it like this: structure is the building humor resides in, and pace is the speed at which you walk through that building.  If you do it right, you can seamlessly put a clever twist on a commonly held notion.  That’s all there is to being funny.  The reader is surprised in the end. 
Hey, it sounds good, doesn’t it? Easy.  So why can’t a writer, who doesn’t traditionally write funny, make that universal concept -- contrasts vs. expectations -- work for them? 
I believe they can.  I think even if a writer isn't funny in person, she can write a funny scene with the proper tools if she applies herself.  Maybe she won't be able to do it as easily or frequently as someone who has the knack for it, but regardless, she still has an advantage.  She has time on her side to convince the reader that her character or situation is funny. Unlike the stand-up comic or witty individual in a bar, a writer has the opportunity to edit/cut/paste and be critiqued before introducing her version of funny to the world.  Stop and think about that -- it’s pretty powerful, isn’t it?
So, how do you begin to write that funny scene?  

Well, first things first, you need to decide what you want the funny to be.  I tend to write outrageous situations, where it’s not only the situation that gets the laugh, but also the way the characters react to the situation that can make the reader smile.  This way? I figure I’ve got two chances to amuse the reader.  Better than one, right?
My motto?  Start simple: find the reader’s expectation and exploit it.  By exploit, I mean take their expectation and apply unexpected layers to it.  Let's see, in romance, if you have a heroine who’s doing something she shouldn’t be doing, you gotta know the reader is thinking: Uh oh, the hero’s going to catch her.  This is an opportunity, folks. You have the reader anticipating your next move, so use it as your jumping off point toward a funny scene. 
If I were going to write a scene like the one I mentioned above?  Number one.  I’d have the heroine face all kinds of hilarious obstacles.  She’d manage to do what she needed to do, but not without incident.  And number two.  It would be that lingering incident that eventually comes between her, the hero, and her satisfaction with the job she set out to do in the scene.
My scene?  I’d have her do something specific for her hopeful meeting with the hero.  Maybe she has to sneak back to the stables and get the vial of coveted perfume she’s been packing for such an occasion (meeting the hero). It’s his favorite scent and she’s thinking, this will do the trick, as it will separate her from the other women vying for his attention tonight. So, she faces all kinds of difficult, but funny, challenges to retrieve the perfume she figures will cement the deal with her and the hero.  After all, she’s been told that lavender is his favorite scent, and once he gets a whiff of her precious concoction, he’ll no doubt fall on bended knee and propose to her.  That’s why she nearly breaks her neck, ruins her shoes, and thinks she may have swallowed a fly, all to get back to the stables - to her saddle bag with the coveted bottle of heaven.  Hey, in the end, it’ll all be worth it if her lifelong dream to be married to this perfect guy is realized. 
So here she is, successful in her goal.  She has the perfume in hand.  She’s dealt with all manner of obstacles to get it, she hasn’t been caught, and she still looks great despite everything she’s been through.  She uncorks the vial and takes a huge sniff to reassure herself that she’s done the right thing.  Oh yeah.  But then, just as she’s ready to head back to the party (after re-corking her vial), an odor assails her.  And it’s not so much that (she was in a stable, remember), but the noise she hears that has her curious.  She walks to the middle stall and hesitantly opens the gate. This is where she finds the lavender-loving hero rolling around in the hay with a woman.  When the woman realizes they’ve been caught, she gets up and bolts.  She pushes past the heroine so hard that it causes our heroine to fall to one side in the stall.  Stunned, the heroine catches her breath for a second and then sits up.
Scene example (Click full screen to view):
Number one.  Heroine faces all kinds of hilarious obstacles.  She manages to do what she needs to do, but not without incident.  I'd say we accomplished that.
Number two.  The lingering incident is what eventually comes between her, the hero, and her satisfaction with the job she set out to do in the scene.  We definitely accomplished that.  And what does pairing these two things together create?  Irony.
So, the next time you want to try humor, or punch-up an already funny scene, imagine you're the reader.  Ask yourself, what am I expecting?  Then take that answer and look for the opposite.  In our scene, we guessed the reader would assume that after the heroine faced all kinds of messy/hilarious/trying obstacles to get to that vial. She'd be elbow deep, digging through the saddle bags, when the hero stumbled upon her.  

So, that's what we chose to switch up.  We identified that the saddlebag pilfering was a major issue in the reader’s expectation.  Therefore, that became a minor issue in our scene.  We also recognized that the heroine being caught by the hero was something the reader may count on, so why not have her catch him doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing, and hey, while we’re switching things up, why not make the whole reason for her stealing into the stables in the first place end up being a complete bust.  You see?  Layers.  It's all about layers. :D
Do any of you have problems finding the funny?  Making your version of funny shine?  What about other types of techniques that can be used to insert humor? Has anyone found a successful way to write physical comedy?  That's a toughie! I have a couple of theories on that one, but I'd rather hear yours first. :)

Thanks so much Murphy! And everyone remember to stop by her blog (Bad Boys Can Be Fun) and say hi!


**Today's Theme Song**
"Shut Up and Smile" - Bowling for Soup
(player in sidebar, take a listen)