I’m starting my new theme a day early because I just can’t wait to dive into a month that features my favorite genre, mysteries.
Abandoned and forgotten places have always attracted me. An abandoned and burnt-out children’s home is a key setting in my YA Christmas mystery that releases TOMORROW! But more of that later.
What’s the mystery about this abandoned building? What was it used for? Was it a home, an inn, or what? Why was it left to rot?
The empty windows with their crumbling sills looked at me like battered eyes. As I walked on brittle grass, the weeds brushed and snagged my jeans. How long had it been since someone had entered the inn? It was supposed to be haunted. But if I was right, something a whole lot worse than ghosts was hidden between its walls.
At the beginning of the month, I linked to a post on the difference between comedy and humor. Comedy is a deliberate act to be funny. Humor comes from observing situations, remarks, or actions with a humorous attitude. I am a mystery writer who stumbles upon humorous things as I’m writing. Since I am not a gifted humor writer, I find it best to let the humor come naturally to my story.
In my short story “Debt to Pay”, a wife has plotted to kill her millionaire husband by sabotaging his plane. He survives the crash and hides out with two brothers, who live in a remote cabin in Wayne National Forest. When the wife discovers her husband at the cabin, she offers the older brother money to kill her husband on the spot. She says, “You’ve never had money. You don’t know what it can do for you.”
As I wrote that scene, it occurred to me that the twenty-two-year-old brother actually did know what money could do for you. It could get you smashed to pieces in a plane crash masterminded by your wife. Since that observation was suitable to the character’s personality, I had him say it. It was a bit of humor true to the situation and character.
Another way to let humor come naturally is to know my characters in detail. If I have a talkative character, and I pair him with a very introverted one, I just start writing and see what the characters do. The humor surprises yet still feels natural because I know my characters so well.
It’s also a gift to readers if they are reading in a series withe reoccurring characters. If I present my characters vividly enough for my readers to get to know them like family, then when I put, or trap, characters with clashing personalities in a scene, readers get a thrill as they anticipate the conflict and humor to come.
The one rule you want to follow when placing humor in your stories is that you don’t want your characters remarking about how funny a situation or person is.
When my kids were little, they sometimes watched the PBS children’s show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. The Cat made lots of funny remarks. And the two kid characters were constantly laughing at them. I don’t know why the creators did this. It was as if they didn’t think the children watching the show would get the jokes. I found it irritating, even for a kids’ show.
Humor in a story is for the reader. I need to trust that they will get it. Sometimes, I can write that a character laughed or chuckled and then keep on going with my story. For example, in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers,I have my normally quiet main characters crack a joke. His younger brother laughs “so hard he almost fell down the mountain.” That’s the last line of the chapter.
My description of the younger brother laughing isn’t a cue to my readers. It’s character development. My main character did something unusual, and his younger brother showed his surprise and appreciation. Done, end of chapter, move on.
What are some of your favorite funny novels or short stories? I’d love to find new stories that make me laugh.
If it’s appropriate to you story, let humor do the heavy lifting when it comes to character development. Here are four ways humor helps characters.
Humor makes characters likable.
Giving a character a healthy sense of humor automatically makes her more likable to most readers. In real life, someone with good sense of humor is more enjoyable to hang around. The same principle applies to characters. If I like a character’s humorous thoughts or remarks, I’m much more likely to follow that character into a story, regardless of what style or genre it is.
Humor makes character unlikable.
Creating a character with a nasty sense of humor is a quick way to turn your readers against him. It will also intrigue your readers. I’ve read many crime short stories in which the main character is the criminal, and he relates how he committed his crime with an arrogant attitude and vicious barbs directed at the lesser mortals surrounding him. I don’t know if such a vile character could sustain a whole novel, but I stick with the short story because I know the main character forgot something in the commission of his crime and will get found out some way. Waiting for the high-and-mighty to be brought low is delicious to read about.
Humor makes the characters relatable
I’ve been in situations that seem so ridiculous that I have to laugh. Or I look on an irritating situation in a humorous light because it’s so much better than losing my temper or fuming.
When characters see the humor in situations familiar to readers, such as the arrival and dismissal for the car-riding students at an elementary school (don’t get me started), readers find something of themselves in the character.
My husband and I recently watched Justice League. I loved the Flash. As a young man selected by Batman to join the League and act like superhero for the first time in his life, the Flash is a character the audience can relate to. He makes the comments we might if we found ourselves thrust into such a bizarre world. Like when he thinks Batman’s idea of bringing Superman back to life is a plot straight out of a Stephen King novel.
Humor makes readers care for characters.
If characters are likable and relatable, then readers will care what happens to them. Humor makes the drama more dramatic, like the way salt heightens the sweetness in cookies. Such as when a character is in a terrifying situation and cracks a joke. That makes the audience root all the more for the character’s escape. The juxtaposition of opposites enhances both of them.
Who is one of your favorite character with a great sense of humor?
This photo caught my attention because it reminded of the attitude my kids had when they had to attend the wedding of my husband’s cousin. They weren’t in the wedding party, which, I’m sure, would have made the experience much, much worse. Here’s my version of what’s so funny about this picture.
Little sister: Mom lied to us. She said being in a wedding would be fun.
Big sister: The wedding was fun. Mom just didn’t tell us the reception would be sooooo boring.
InThe Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor,author Patrick F. McManus advises that when looking for inspiration for a humorous story, you should write “about your bad experiences, not your good ones.” When life is at its worst, humor can be at its best. My recent trip to St. Louis gives real-world validation of that advice.
In August, I drove my parents and kids to see my sister and her family in St. Louis. One of the highlights was visiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I walked into the darkened church, and my jaw dropped. Covering 83,000 square feet of ceiling and parts of walls are 41.5 million pieces of glass in mosaics. Even in the lowered lights, the ceiling glittered, depicting scenes from the Bible and North American history. Along the sides of the church were four chapels, also covered in mosaics as well as marble. The dominant color in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is red. The marble in the All Souls Chapel is black and white, symbolizing death and resurrection.
I could have stood there for hours, craning my neck at the incredible art above me. As wonderful as the experience was, there’s no humor in it. Awe-inspiring but funny.
The fun came when I took my kids and my niece and nephew fishing. My youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, and my oldest brought five tackle boxes, just so they didn’t forget anything. We went to a small manmade lake behind a Y recreation center.
Since the kids weren’t having much luck, my oldest was trying to lure schools of fish he had spotted from a bridge to where the kids were fishing. He laid his rod on a rock, the baited hook dangling in the water.
I took one look at that and thought, “That’s not a good idea,” and reached for the rod.
A fish took the bait and the rod into the water. The first strike my oldest had had all night.
I lunged into the algae-clogged water because (1) I didn’t want any of the kids to try it and (2) I didn’t want to tell my husband how we had lost the collapsible rod. I plunged my hand into the water, but the rod was pulled deeper. So I waded deeper, reached again, and grabbed the rod. Hiking to the shore, I recovered the rod and a huge bluegill.
I was soaked from the waist down. I wrapped a towel around myself to absorb at least some of the water. And my oldest gave me the biggest grin of his life.
That mishap is great material for a humorous story. Most, if not all, classic comedy movies concern what goes wrong in the main character’s life, and what he does to repair the situation, which leads to more things going wrong.
So I am trying to look at obstacles that normally frustrate or irritate me as writing material. It’s so much better than grinding my teeth.
What bad experiences have you had that you can use for a humorous story?
I see the difference this way. When I do a pratfall on a slick spot in the driveway, that’s humor. I didn’t intend to do the action to make people laugh. If my oldest makes a joke about my pratfall, that’s comedy. He is intent on saying something funny.
I am definitely a humor writer. I create characters or a setting, and as I’m writing the scene, the possible humor of the situation or personalities comes to me. If that observation is suitable for my main character to notice, I include it.
Which do you prefer as a writer? Humor? Or comedy?
It’s not considered as worthy as drama. How many comedies have won the Oscar for Best Picture? Not many. Yet humor helps us throughout our lives. I think it’s a necessary quality to cultivate. The importance of humor in my life is enormous.
I’ve suffered from anxiety since I was a child and from depression since at least high school. When I moved to a new city and spent a year looking for a job, Erma Bombeck’s funny essays on family life came to the rescue. When I was anxious while attending a writers’ conference, I relaxed with P.G. Wodehouse’s hilarious account of how he started his writing career. Damon Runyon’s tales of New York City gangsters and gamblers of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the outdoor misadventures of Patrick F. McManus have lifted my mood time and again.
Some people think if you retain a sense of humor in serious situations, it’s not that serious. But I think the opposite is true. When life is at its most tragic or serious, that’s the time to find something to smile about. The circumstances of the tragedy are nothing to laugh about, but we still need to turn to some kind of humor to ease our pain.
When my grandmother died, it helped my family to share stories, especially funny ones. Like her war with the moles who riddled her yard in the country. Once she moved to the house next door to my parents, she became convinced that groundhogs could tunnel under her deck and into her basement. Being able to laugh about good memories of a deceased loved one is a great gift for those who remain.
One of the best demonstrations of humor in tough times is enacted in the 1942 movie Sullivan’s Travels. A Hollywood director, who has made his career in slapstick comedies, wants to film a drama about the Great Depression because he thinks depicting real-world suffering is a more worthwhile project.
He disguises himself as a hobo to collect background material. Through a series of events, he find himself convicted of a crime and sent to a prison farm. When he and the other prisoners are shown a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he’s stunned to hear their uproarious laughter as well as his own.
After he makes it back to Hollywood, the director decides to return to comedy. He says, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Do you know that’s all some people have?”
How has humor helped you during a tough time in your life?
I featured this book a couple of years ago, but I am revisiting it because this month’s theme is humor, and Patrick McManus is my favorite humor writer. His stories appeared in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and then were collected into books. He also wrote a series of mysteries featuring Sheriff Bo Tully.
One of the many great things about this book is that Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor is packed with great advice.
I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat. What is it and who cares?”
In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques.
In his commentary on the story “Sequences”, Mr. McManus describes the Recognition Factor. These are little aspects of life that are true to almost everybody. Writers notice these thing because we are always on the look out for inspiration. The reader “gets this little charge of delight” when he reads something in a story that he recognizes from his own life.
When he comments on a disastrous camping trip in “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw,” Mr. McManus explains that he visualizes “the kind of disaster I want to produce”. Then he plots the events “that will lead to that disaster.”
Both of these pieces of advice I can use in my mysteries. In my upcoming short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, my main character owns a beat-up truck with gears that jam. My dad had a truck like that when I was growing up. Many readers have had a vehicle that quits working when they need it most. That’s the Recognition Factor.
When plotting a mystery, I often know where I want to end. Then I plot backwards and see how I can logically arrive at my ending.
I’ll be discussing other pieces of advice from this book later this month.
Has a humorous story contained a Recognition Factor for you?