Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it. –E.B. White
So . . . let’s kill some frogs, shall we?
In my last post I explored the phenomenon of the reluctant reader, concluding that both graphic novel formats and humor can be key to ditching the X Box in favor of a book. Not every writer can whip out a graphic novel, but most of us can make our writing funnier. In the next two posts, I’ll talk about what makes writing funny, how to get more (but not too much) funny into your writing, and how to identify books for middle grade readers that don’t equate funny with the words “fart” and “butt.” (Am I right, weary parent?)
It’s All About That Layering
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, good humorous fiction is a chuckle wrapped in a guffaw inside a knowing smile. By that I mean that, while Meghan Trainor may be all about that bass, true humorous fiction is all about that layering. Some jokes take a full chapter to develop, some take several chapters, and some even take the whole book. In this post we’ll focus on the simplest layer, the thin veneer, if you will, of humor: the famous (and infamous) one-liner.
Did you hear the one about the one-liner? (. . . it felt all a-groan)
One-liners are quick, one-dimensional jokes most anyone can write now and then. Part of the reason they are so easy to write is that there are a myriad of forms to choose from. Here are some common categories along with examples from my novels Kibble Talk and Dog Goner (from my ongoing Kibble Talk series).
1. EXAGGERATION. Zach is so thin and bony he could hoola hoop with a Cheerio.
I do a lot of exaggerating in my novels and it can be a blast to write—I just let my mind spiral out in ever more ridiculous circles until I hit the right image. But two caveats.
First, it is easy to be overly cruel. If you are writing for children, a little wincing on the part of your readers is okay as long as it’s only a tiny little wince and it’s accompanied by a chuckle. If you’re writing for adults, you can go for the gut punch, but again, there must be a correspondingly impactful laugh.
Second, if you are writing in first person dialogue, make sure your language conforms to the way your character (in terms of age, education, etc.) would speak and think about the world. In the example above, a nine year old is describing her best friend’s super skinny older brother. Your average nine year old is familiar with both hoola hooping and Cheerios cereal. On the other hand, your average nine-year-old would not be so familiar (one hopes) with someone being so skinny he could fit into the barrel of a 9-gage shotgun.
Here’s a few more examples of exaggeration from my writing:
- His face was kind of pointy, with eyes so small it looked like they might disappear the next time he blinked.
- That lady could talk the ears off a field of corn.
- Dinky prancing is worse than a hip-hopping hippo.
2. SURPRISE: “I am a humble man and I will shout that from the mountaintops,” Mr. Higginbotham said.
Here the reader anticipates that the last half of the sentence will reinforce the message given in the first half, but instead, it entirely contradicts it. This type of one-liner is perfect for delineating a ridiculous character—one who, like Mr. Higginbotham, is oblivious to his own contradictions. It is funny to your audience because they do see the contradiction.
3. Set up a funny visual. (Here Tawny is describing her dog to us for the very first time. The actual one-liner is the last sentence, but you need the lead-up for it to make sense.)
Dinky is huge. He is a Great Dane and an especially great one at that. He weighs more than my dad and is taller than my dad when they are both down on all fours. His undersides are the color of whipped cream, his back, legs and head are caramel, and his face and ears are chocolate brown. I like to think he’s the world’s largest ice cream sundae!
I like this visual in particular because it explains a great deal more than just Dinky’s size and coloring. Without her coming out and telling us, it provides an immediate sense of Tawny’s feelings for her dog. Using those same exact colors, she could have compared him to a military tank in desert camouflage. Instead, he is every child’s dream—an enormous sweet treat.
4. PHRASE TWIST: Jenny has a way with words, and by that I mean that when she is using words, people get out of her way.
I use this style of one-liner the least in my fiction because a) the jokes tend to be formulaic and can come off as wooden, and b) your audience must be familiar with the original phrase and I can’t be as sure of that with children. But if cleverly done, they are very memorable because the reader already knows the original line.
5. BODY HUMOR:
This isn’t so much a category as a caveat. In all of these one-liner formats, body humor is always an option. Both kids and adults (you know who you are!) DO think butts and farts are funny. But if you want your books to be enjoyed by all ages, as I do, you will want to limit them. The Kibble Talk series is certainly not immune to body part and body effluence jokes. After all, these are talking dog books, and dogs aren’t exactly shy about their bodies. But I use them sparingly, and to even things out, I add in plenty of one-liners that only adult readers are likely to get, such as a math teacher talking about the finer points of isosceles triangles, how table manners are genetically determined, and even references to The Fonz and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Rotten Tomato Blaster is No Laughing Matter
The challenge when it comes to one-liners is not in the writing, but in deciding where, when, and how much to use them. The well-placed one liner in an otherwise serious book (mystery, crime, romance, etc.) will endear your readers to you, especially when it arrives like a lifeline just after an emotionally fraught moment. But what do you do when your whole genre is humor? One thing you don’t do is rely so heavily on one-liners that they are essentially the only layer of humor in the book.
Sadly, I see this most often in children’s humorous fiction. Wanting to please her audience, the writer thinks to herself: “Children, and especially boys, like jokes, so all I need to do is write a lot of them and they will love my books.” Sigh.
When that happens, the book becomes a series of throwaway lines and personal slams drowning in a soup of endless whining and negativity, very much like this sentence. The first few quips may be entertaining, but after a short while of having to react to them over and over again, the reader feels as if he or she is in a batting cage at the receiving end of a pitching machine well stocked with rotten tomatoes. Splat! Splat! Make it stop! Splat!
Of course, the real problem is that with so much of the page (and so much of the writer’s mental energy) devoted to the next one-liner, there’s little room left for character development and storyline.
By all means use one-liners, but make them an occasional treat, not the main course. For true humorous fiction—satisfying humorous fiction—the funny must go wider and deeper.
The House That Funny Built
Stay tuned for my next Emblazoners post, Me Write Funny One Day Part 2, where I will share my methods for doing just that. I’ll be pulling examples from two of my favorite series (Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as well as more from my Kibble Talk series, so it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever to rush out and read all those tomorrow, now, would it? Just sayin. And if you can find a young person to read them with, all the better—cause just like hugs, funny is best when shared.
How do YOU funny?
If you’re a writer, how much emphasis do you put on humor? Where do you usually use it? If you’re a parent, how much does humor seem to matter to your young reader(s)?