When I was in graduate school (a million years ago), a guy invited me over to his place for a dinner date and served Chardonnay and Captain Crunch cereal. To be fair, he was living on a grad student stipend and had to economize, and Captain Crunch did double duty as the entree and the dessert. Had he served Oat Bran or Shredded Wheat, he would have had to spring for dessert…and it just wouldn’t have been as funny.
That night I learned two things: Captain Crunch is one of those things best left to childhood memories. And, cereal is about as romantic as cat litter.
Humor is tricky because sometimes it’s a matter of taste…. And not just when it comes to cereal. Some people get the joke, others don’t. Some people get it but think it’s stupid. And some people are just plain offended.
But, done well, humor is worth the risk.
What makes a story funny?
I’ve read that words with “K” sounds (Captain Crunch) and hard consonant sounds are funny. Maybe that’s why when I was born, my parents named me Kelly. It’s true that some words are funnier than others. Colonoscopy is funny—unless you’ve ever had one—Endoscopy, not so much. Cucumber, Twinkie, and Okra are funnier than Bread, Butter or Jam.
In a list, an oddball can be funny. She was well versed in the philosophies of Plato, Nietzsche and Winnie the Pooh. His favorite desserts are Black Forest Torte, Cherry Gateau Basque, and Pop Tarts.
Surprising comparisons, metaphors, and similes can be funny. “With cleavage so deep it could tutor philosophy” (Harlan Coben). She stuck to him like a tick on a rangy deer. She stuck to him like a sequin on a ball gown. He stuck to her like a Velcro on a training bra.
Are there any issues that are off limits to comedy?
A couple of years ago, I was pitching my first novel, WOLF in New York City, and when I told a group of young women authors about the subplot and themes of date rape, party rape, and rape drugs, and I said it was a humorous mystery, some of them were appalled. They didn’t see how rape could ever be funny. Obviously, I agree. Rape can never be funny. Books, on the other hand (even books that take on serious topics like rape), can be funny. In fact, humor often helps us deal with difficult subjects that might be too hard to face without it. Think of John’s Green’s treatment of cancer inThe Fault in Our Stars.
Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Humor releases tension and anxiety, which can help the pacing of your suspense novel. Humor makes it easier to deal with difficult issues. Mark Twain says, “the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” And self-deprecating humor can be some of the most cathartic to write. Having a sense of humor can help get through the darkest days.
Use Humor to Tell the Truth.
Mark Twain also calls humor “the good-natured side of truth.” Humor can lighten the mood of your story. It can help you modulate the pace. But it can also help you give the reader new insights. Funny anecdotes are most effective when they have a deeper meaning.
My husband is from Puerto Rico. He likes to tell the story of his encounter with a giant rat in his college dorm. It was the middle of the night and he’d gotten up to pee. As he made his way down the hall to the bathroom, the huge rat ran across his path. He freaked out and called campus security. When the officer arrived, he asked, “How’d you get into Yale? Haven’t you seen a possum before?” In his telling, the possum takes on a deeper meaning and becomes a symbol for his own status as a fish out of water.
You can see why I married him instead of Captain Crunch.
Who needs drugs?
New studies show that laughter triggers endogenous opioid release in the brain. Hey, endogenous opioid release, that sounds funny… even without a K sound.
Use humor to add some fiber to your story!
Kelly Oliver is the award-winning (and best-selling in Oklahoma!) author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF, COYOTE, FOX, and JACKAL. Her debut novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, and was a finalist for the Foreward Magazine award for best mystery. Her second novel, COYOTE won a Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery. And, the third, FOX was a finalist for both the Claymore Award and Silver Falchion Award. Look for JACKAL, A Jessica James Mystery September 25th. Why wait? It’s available for preorder now and on sale for only $1.99 until launch day!
When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as the refugee crisis, campus rape, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her latest nonfiction book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape won a Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding title. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs.