Today I have a guest author, who I commissioned to write this article on the subject of Writing Humour... I am currently writing a chapter on that topic in my soon to be published book WRITING MEMOIR, How to Tell a Story from Your Life . Dave is someone who knows a great deal about comedy, a lot more than I do. . someone who can walk into a room and have everybody laughing within seconds - so here's his article - the author? It's David Powell Davies.
The Use of Comedy/Humour in Memoir writing
(much of it can be applied to fiction writing too)
and How to Tap into your own Comedic Talents.
by David Powell Davies
It’s very easy to tell a joke, but to tell it and have people laugh requires comic talent and not everyone is a comedian. However everyone has a sense of humour and can find aspects of life and human and animal behaviour funny. The trick is, not to try to be a funny somebody else, but to say what you find funny. How do you do that? One way is by careful choice of vocabulary which illustrates what you find funny.A joke : (I’ve literally just made this joke up to illustrate the use of vocabulary and the pacing or rhythm of line and how it adds to the humour of the situation.)
Ahmed is lying on his hospital bed, seriously ill, he is hooked up to a life support machine. His wife Putri is weeping by his bed side.
Ahmed: “Don’t cry my dear. If I go I will meet Allah.”
Putri: “Oh don’t say that Ahmed, don’t talk about going.”Ahmed: “And I will meet Mohammed and my 25 virgins.”
Putri: “25 what!?”
Ahmed: “I have been promised them by Allah.”
Putri has stopped crying, she leans forward with a steely glint in her eyes.
Putri: “Well good luck,” she says switching off the life support with a smile.
A touch of dark humour, may not be 100% pc - many jokes aren't, but it’s about letting the picture that you've drawn of the character create the humour in the mind of the reader. ‘Steely glint, good luck. With a smile.’ The vocab is succinct and draws the picture clearly. Also the pacing of “25 what!?” keeps the rhythm going whereas “What did you just say Ahmed?” would slow the whole thing down. Choosing the right word is essential to humour in writing. The only way to do that is practice, read it to yourself, choose again and again until you find the right word.
Which leads on to how a painful, dark, or tragic episode in one’s life can have humorous facets about it. I’m thinking of the book “Crow” and the coffin scene from my “Fragments Of An Isolated Childhood”. The link between great sadness and sorrow and laughter is paper thin sometimes. A character can say or do something which in retrospect makes you laugh in sheer disbelief. A sombre, sad occasion can be hilarious if placed in a bizarre situation. Dark situations have humour in them and the humour makes them realistic. For example you might be writing about someone with a dysfunction or a dysfunctional family. This can be shown more effectively if you show the light with the dark. For some reason “My Family And Other Animals” (Gerald Durrell) springs to mind here. Basically the whole family is dysfunctional but the humour is in the way that each of them reacts differently to a situation. Gerald Durrell doesn’t try to be funny but his character descriptions are so finely drawn, we see each of them behaving in their own bizarre way. Another classic example is Sue Townsend “The Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4”.
A character that features in your memoir might be funny in your memory. Why do you remember the person as being funny? Did they always speak in a lugubrious manner. [Here Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh springs to mind. He's so miserable, it's funny.]
Choose your vocabulary to enhance their mournful qualities. If they speak, write what they say in a slow, plodding, gloomy way. Did they speak with a stutter, a squeaky voice, or a lisp that you found funny. Again a careful choice of vocabulary can recreate them in the reader’s mind.( e.g. Violet Elithabett Bott – ‘Just William’ girl with a lithp.)
I would say as a rule of thumb never aim to be funny. If you’re not a comic, clown, comedian, or naturally funny person who is always looking for and finding the humour in every situation, then it will sound forced and stilted. However if a situation or experience you had at a time in the past was amusing then think objectively about the experience and pinpoint what it was you found funny. That will then be your focus as you recount the moment. Do not try to mold it into being funny, it will sound contrived. Just describe the moment and keep your focus on the core reason why you found it funny. Again carefully choose your vocabulary to aid and strengthen your core focus. Read it out aloud to yourself. Does it make you smile? Yes? Then good you’ve tapped into the humour of that moment. Remember if it makes you smile, then it will make other people smile. It might not make some people smile but everybody’s humour is subjective.T..T.. T.. Timing. A comedian knows that if they delay the punch line by a second longer than they should, then they have killed the joke. Or if they have unnecessary words that delay or get in the way then the joke or story they are telling loses its impetus. Ok so you are not a comedian but do not faff around, do not waffle. Again focus on the incident and do not pad it out. Do not add words to make it funny. Keep your writing sharp and to the point. Yes of course use vocabulary that enhances the core humour in your story but be very selective and cut out any unnecessary vocabulary that muddies or breaks the rhythm of your story.
Juxtaposition is very useful in creating humour. Putting unexpected things side by side to produce a funny contrast or highlight an absurdity. Some may remember John Cleese and the two Ronnies in the ‘I’m Upper Class I look down on them, I’m Middle Class I look up to him and down on him, (And then Ronnie Corbett looks up at them both and then says, ‘I get a pain in the neck’ sketch. Absurd situation and contrast.
Another aspect of juxtaposition is ‘the rule of three’. This is where the writer/speaker is describing something and gives two similar examples to set/ create a pattern but then completely surprises you by breaking the pattern.
For example : Someone could be describing where they live, their environment.
It was a beautiful day. The sun shone warmly on the daffodils outside, the birds singing in the trees and the pig farm next door.
Or a touch of Welsh humour:
1st woman : I see Mrs Jones’s son is back from Oxford University.2nd woman: Yes, he’s such a clever boy and so handsome.
1st woman: Yes that's true .... [pause] A pity about his club foot.
Thanks Dave for those insights into writing humour. You reminded me of some very funny books and stories.