on the value of humor in fiction.

| Monday, December 20, 2010
Today's Tune: Dog Days Are Over

As many of you know, over the summer I attended the huge and wonderful SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. There were many incredible speakers, and I took many, many, many notes. A few key points from that conference have stuck with me throughout the months that followed.

One such point came from a talk by Gordon Korman. During that talk, he touched on the point that humor is greatly underrated when we consider the validity of a work of fiction.

This point has stuck with me. I can't shake it. As anyone who has ever written a comedic scene or bit (television/film, fiction, stand up) can tell you, that crap ain't easy. Fiction alone is incredibly subjective, but when you add in humor, the subjectivity of a work skyrockets. Making people laugh is something you can't predict. Some are amused by toilet humor, others only relate to dry wit or having their intellect stimulated. Even then, there's no guarantee they'll relate to your brand of humor. There's little worse than having a joke fall completely flat.

So many elements support great humor, especially in literature. Timing, phrasing, word placement and choice, visual (or written) cues, dialogue, action... there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. Humor is universal, but unbelievably difficult (if not impossible) to explain. Imagine explaining a regional joke to someone without the background. Or explaining to an alien without a concept of humor why something is funny. Where do you even start?

Drama and tragedy are often lauded as the pinnacle of literary artistry. If you can skillfully write a story that causes people to feel something deep in their bones, you're golden. Drama is by no means easy to write, but there are certain themes common to the human condition that we can draw upon to write it -- death, sickness, sorrow, loss, war, love, family, birth, journeys. We all know how to find the stories inside ourselves that make us feel unadulterated joy, pain or sadness.

But do we know how to make people laugh? To add levity to a serious situation without seeming cheap? To write a beloved story for the ages that not only causes people sides to split, but stays with them because it was also moving and poignant? Can humor be taught, or is it something innate within us?

We undervalue humor. It always has a place, but so many of us avoid it because we don't think we're funny enough. It might limit our audience. It might fall flat. It might be inappropriate.

I think it's time to reexamine humor. It's time to view it as something more than a vehicle for relieving tension in a tense situation, or something to spice up dialogue. Humor is its own entity; something to be treated with the reverence and respect it deserves. Laughter is so closely tied to our own humanity.

Let's stop thinking of comedy as the lesser sibling of drama and tragedy. Let's stop being afraid to use it to tell a better story. Fiction does not have to be serious in order to be taken seriously.


{ aspiring_x } at: December 20, 2010 at 7:05 AM said...

"that crap ain't easy"
so. very. true.
this whole post is so very true!

{ Matthew Rush } at: December 20, 2010 at 7:54 AM said...

It really is hard. I used to be so afraid to try to be funny in my writing. It was all angst and beauty and nothing in between. Then I realized I could base the humor on my characters' sense of what was funny, rather then my own ...

Now, well ... I'm still not sure if I 'm funny, but I least I have the courage to try.

{ Susan Kaye Quinn } at: December 20, 2010 at 8:24 AM said...

We need to humor - unrelenting sorrow (or joy) is just too much. I find it sneaking in to lighten the tension, but I haven't written straight-out humor. I may tackle that in my next book! :)

p.s. I have a funny post today. With a little drama thrown in. :)

{ Old Kitty } at: December 20, 2010 at 8:45 AM said...

Great post thank you! I do wish I could write unforced and unpretensious and natural humour!!!

Sadly it's not my forte and I am in AWE at writers able to use humour so effectively with their stories! Take care

{ Poetry Is Life } at: December 20, 2010 at 5:48 PM said...

funny is a hard thing

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