In Part I we discussed that smorgasbord of giggle-busters: one-liners, including how they are great for adding a touch of little levity to scenes or keeping the guffaws rolling, but, much like Tribbles, can easily end up being too much of a good thing. That’s because focusing too much on the one-liners means you are likely selling character development and plot short. But, you ask (hopefully in your best outrageous French accent), how do we get beyond the one-liners? That is the topic of today’s post: The House that Funny Built.
What’s so funny about a house?
Well, nothing, unless you BUILD it funny. A house built with straight walls, flat floors and ordinary right angles as far as the eye can see will not be funny. But give those floors a wobble and those walls a tilt, and your guests will be smiling all through the tour. It’s the same for humorous fiction. One-liners are funny, but in the house that is your novel, they are nothing more than the interior decorating. For true humorous fiction, the jokes must be built into the very structure of the novel from the ground up.
The foundation of your house, the thing everything else will be built on top of, is its premise. For humorous fiction, your premise is like the lead in to a good joke: “A giraffe, a camel and a naked mole rat walk into a bar…” It will probably sound inherently ridiculous, and it will definitely make the reader eager to hear the rest of the joke. In Kibble Talk, an enormous Great Dane wants desperately to be a teeny tiny lap dog. In Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series, a kindergartener dispenses wisdom. For Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a hapless Englishman travels outer space with nothing but a towel and an eccentric digital travel guide. In A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, a brilliant but utterly slovenly and rude young man expects the world to take him seriously.
Next come the walls, which in our funny house are a book’s characters. With one important exception, straight, upright walls aren’t as funny as ones that hang at odd angles or veer off in unexpected directions. My protagonist Tawny is generally a rule follower, but she is also unable to resist a dare, which sends her into the oddest adventure (so far) of her young life. Her best friend Jenny is a brilliant schemer, but she never stops to think of the effect her schemes have on others, a fact which invariably ends up being the fatal flaw in her plan, the wobble in her wall. Throw in an all-knowing dog and some parents who take their hobbies way too seriously, and your fun house will be ever-teetering on the brink of hilarious disaster. At that point, even straight walls will look funny, and that is the exception I mentioned earlier. Including a few straight-laced characters can be invaluable to highlighting just how off-kilter the rest of your characters really are.
Continuing with this metaphor (cause we’re pretty much stuck with it now!), the chapters of your book are the rooms of your funny house. It’s pretty straightforward, really. Each room has some number of walls (which we already know are the characters). The best funny of all happens at the point where those walls meet up (e.g., the characters interact), with each trying to convince the other that they alone are plumbed straight and true.
But don’t’ forget that each room has a floor too, which is like a mini foundation. That’s right, each chapter is based on its own joke. It’s hard to give a meaningful example of this without reprinting an entire chapter here, but pretty much all of my chapters begin with a funny premise—what the lunch lady is serving that day, what it’s like to spend an entire school day filling out standardized tests, what pet Dinky can’t recognize by smell at the Peet-R-My-Kidz Superstore. By the end of that chapter, I’ve returned to that joke and given it a brand new punchline that is only funny because of what we learned by reading that chapter. Barbara Parks uses this exact same tactic in her Junie B. Jones books. An example I love is Junie B.’s excitement and pride over being allowed to play with a spatula—because she is mature enough to do that. By the end of that chapter, her spatula has been taken away because, she admits to the reader (and we have seen for ourselves), she is not mature enough to play with a spatula.
Bear with me here. You know how when you’re in an actual fun house and you think you know where you are and then suddenly you walk through an opening or look through an interior window and see something you saw several rooms ago? It’s jarring, but also delightful. Recurring jokes and character quirks work this way, and as long as you don’t overdo them, your readers will love you for them. For example, Dinky, being an all-knowing dog, is always referring to things that most 10 year olds will not understand, like protoplasm or the Bay of Pigs or deconstructivist art. Each time he does this, he answers the kids confused looks with an offhand, “Oh, look it up,” and the story moves on. In Dog Goner, a character insists he knows Jenny’s name, but still gets it wrong every time. (And it’s not until book 3 that we find out why.)
Why are these seemingly dumb, simple character quirks so powerful? Each time you give the reader another glimpse of these ‘ticks’ in your characters’ personalities, you are reinforcing for the reader the sense that she knows the character so intimately she can predict something ridiculous the character will do or say. In other words, you are creating inside jokes between your characters and your readers, and only true friends share inside jokes.
The roof of your house, like a capstone, is its conclusion. The roof finishes what the foundation started. For humorous fiction, as we’ve already discussed, that foundation is the lead in to a joke. This means that the roof is the punchline to the greatest joke of all in your book—it’s premise. And while that may seem easy, it is by far the hardest part of any work of humorous fiction. Any fool can pour a wobbly foundation and put up some crooked walls, but only the most gifted carpenter can get a roof over it that will actually fuse that mess together into one structurally strong piece. And you can’t just have an ordinary old, gray-shingled predictable roof either. Your roof must complete the premise joke while offering its own surprises, such as being touching or mind-bending or shocking. If your original premise is ridiculous enough, you won’t be able to put an ordinary roof on it anyway. Plus, your reader will want to get to the end just to see if it’s even possible to slap a roof onto the literary Escher house you’ve built. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide, the answer to the joke is both funny (42) and mind-bending (planet Earth was just an experiment run by higher beings in the form of laboratory mice). At the end of each of her books, Junie B. Jones ends up giving us some actual wisdom after all—wisdom we’ve known all along, but hadn’t realized until it was shown to us by a kindergartner. At the conclusion of Kibble Talk…. haha, as if I’m gonna tell you!
So roll up your sleeves!
Get to work on the funhouse that is your humorous fiction novel, but first make sure your glasses aren’t on too straight, your ruler has a bend in it, and the glass in your level is cracked. Your readers, young and old, will want to lose themselves in the new, the quirky, and the unpredictable, and will delight in visiting again and again!
But before you do, please leave me a comment!