Thursday, June 12, 2014

Five Ways to Stand out with Humor in Your Writing

Jordan Dane

Orphan Black

I learned early on that I can’t write the serious suspense plots that I do and NOT add humor. People/characters use humor when they’re nervous, or a fictional buddy is a cynical smart ass and great comic relief at key times. Laser sharp wit can become a way for any writer to stand out in a crowd of authors or a slush pile. 

I remember reading Robert Crais in an airport when Elvis Cole was on stakeout and spied a small dog taking a dump in a yard, ‘straining so hard its back hunched double.’ Elvis thought, “Awful, the things you see in my line of work.” That line made me laugh aloud and I had to call my husband to read him the passage before my plane boarded. I never forgot it.

Lately I’ve been influenced by odd/dark humor in shows like FARGO and Orphan Black, where the writers do the unexpected. They take quirky characters, weird outlandish settings, and put those elements into over-the-top plot notions. This type of humor isn’t new, but I love that the only limits are the writer’s imagination. It feels like the writers took a dartboard of wild ideas/settings/elements/characters and whatever they darted, they had to come up with a story. So I thought it would be fun to talk about use of humor in novels and break it down into elements I have tried (not just read about) and enjoyed writing.


1.) Put Serious Characters Into Ludicrous Situations

I used this strategy for a novella I wrote and sold recently – Lillian & Noah – An uncommon Coming of Age Novel. Picture a small fictitious town in Texas, called Why. A well-intentioned bowling team of widows, called the Ball Busters, meet on league night at Why Bowl & Tanning Spa to brainstorm a scheme to compromise certain influential citizens of the town, in order to stop one woman from financially ruining a nice young man who’s trying to send his sister to college. The Ball Busters convert an old carwash at the edge of town (the Why ScrubADub – Motto: “You like it clean, we like it dirty”) and remake it into a sexual fantasy hotspot to raise money for tuition. Harold & Maud meets Risky Business for the baby boomer generation.

BBC America’s show Orphan Black is a prime example of this brand of humor. The characters are deadly earnest in their attempts to dig into the clone conspiracy and stay alive, but in each episode there are ridiculous situations that make a viewer laugh aloud. One incredible actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all the clone parts from a crazed Russian assassin to a soccer mom to a scientist to this week’s gender challenged Tranny. One example of their over-the-top humor: several of the clones are discussing strategies on Skype with one who can’t be there because she’s sewing costumes for a play she is starring in after she killed her neighbor (by garbage disposal) who had the starring role.

With this type of humor, don’t edit your ideas. Fling them onto a notepad or whiteboard without censorship. Maybe brainstorm with your craziest friends to see what makes you all laugh.

2.) Write Earnest Dialogue With a Sarcastic Internal Monologue from the POV Character

Cut loose on your inner smart ass with this type of scene. The dialogue lines would read as idle banter or may not appear to have color, until the reader sees what the character is thinking or gets a whiff of their cynicism. Whether you write in first person POV or deep third, you can make this happen and add attitude to your character. Remember, people don’t censor their opinion when they think no one hears them, in their head. So let the sarcasm fly, without filter.

Example: From My WIP – Legacy in Blood. My 24-year old bounty hunter wannabe, Trinity LeDoux, argues with Hayden Quinn about coming along on a dangerous trip:

“We? Oh, no,” he said.

“Yeah, but that’s the deal. I go too.”

“That’s crazy. I’m not a coaster ride at Six Flags. You can’t buy a ticket and climb onboard.”

If Quinn were a ride, I’d definitely buy a ticket, but now wasn’t the time to embarrass us both. I had to find another way to pique his interest before he voted me off his island.

Example: Hayden notices Trinity is carrying a weapon when he “visits” her condemned warehouse home

“You’re carrying a weapon,” he said as he let me pass. “I feel better already.”

Busted. Okay, yeah. I had a gun tucked under my Ren and Stimpy T-shirt, my one big investment in my new career. I couldn’t read Hayden’s reaction, but his deadpan sarcasm had begun to grow on me.

I’d once argued that bullets were more valuable than a gun. My shooting instructor went ape shit crazy over that one, especially when I said, ‘Without bullets, any gun is only a passable paperweight.’ It’d been a chicken and egg argument. You had to be there.

3.) Use Funny Sounding Unusual Words to Add Color & Humor

How about these zingers? Bamboozled, bazinga, bobolink, bumfuzzle, canoodle, carbuncle, caterwaul, cattywampus, doohickey, gobsmacked, gunky are but a few of the words listed in my link below, but imagine how you might use these words in a story and who might say them. These words alone could stir your imaginings on a character.

Example: The word ‘parsimonious’ means stingy. Here is how I used it in my latest WIP – Legacy in Blood:

I hadn’t eaten since early yesterday. If Hayden didn’t kick me off his property, I’d eat enough to last. I’d stuff it in my cheeks like a parsimonious squirrel if I had to. 
(The internal voice of Trinity LeDoux. She’s presently homeless and beggars can’t afford to be persnickety.)

4.) Try Tongue-in-Cheek/Deadpan Delivery in the Banter Between Characters 

In my opinion, less is more. Write the banter in short punches and don’t explain. If the reader finds it funny, that’s good, but don’t overwork it by trying too hard to be funny. Also be mindful of pace. Too much of a diversion can slow the plot. Get in, get out. Or in the case of Robert Crais’s example below, add several quick schticks of the same idea (ie. John Cassavetes) through the book to reinforce the humor in short spurts.

Example: In Monkey’s Raincoat, Robert Crais carries on a schtick with Elvis Cole, PI. A new client flatters him by saying he looked like a young John Cassavetes. After that, Cole asks others if they think so too. Each short punch is funnier and funnier. Here’s one encounter:

“Tell me the truth,” I said. “Do you think I look like John Cassavetes twenty years ago?”

“I didn’t know you twenty years ago.”

Everyone’s a comedian.

Example of Lillian’s POV from my novella – Lillian & Noah:

“It’s a sexual fantasy site," I said. "Members share their most intimate erotic fantasies on their profile.”

“In my day, guys just wrote those on a bathroom wall.” Vinnie snorted.

“Shut up, Vinnie. Let her finish.” Candy shushed him with her red nails. “What happens next, doll? I think I saw something like this on Days of Our Lives.”

I clenched my jaw as heat rushed to my face. Not even a pig in a blanket helped.

5.) Use Odd Parings in Comparison Humor
In the examples below, it would take a witty or outlandish character to come up with these descriptions, so get your creative juices flowing to conjure who might say these lines. In the case of Schimmel’s bittersweet memoir on cancer, I can see my younger brother saying things like this. When he had his cancer scare, he made sure I was with him at his doctor appointments (along with my mom) because he knew I would laugh at his defensive humor. Mom couldn’t. So I was stuck between my more serious worrying mom, and my irreverent bro who had to laugh or go crazy(ier).

Games of Thrones is like Twitter. It’s got 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.” 
This kind of comparison takes a poke at Game of Thrones AND twitter.

Example: From the late Robert Schimmel’s memoir ‘Cancer on $5 a Day’

“…this stupid hospital gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down and it snaps up like a window shade. I cross my legs and suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.”

Any book can be enhanced with some humor. Think about people you know. Most everyone has humor in one fashion or another. Maybe you need a funny secondary character to offset the dire circumstances as comic relief, or the clever banter between a man and a woman could focus on their gender gaps. By adding humor, you put another layer to your writing and another tool in your arsenal of tricks.

Humor Writing links:
Writer’s Digest Article on Humor Writing.
Funny Words

So for TKZ Discussion:
1.) Share some of your funny (short) scenes or one-liners.
2.) Or post authors you’ve enjoyed who use humor in a memorable way.


  1. Excellent suggestions, Jordan. I strongly believe in comic relief in suspenseful fiction. Hitchcock was a master of this (e.g., the auction scene in North by Northwest). In fact, this is one of the reasons a movie many critics are raving about, The Immigrant, fails to achieve masterpiece status. It's too one note. I compare it with the much better New York scenes in The Godfather, Part II, the latter using comic relief.

    Let me add one technique, called "Curving the Language," which I learned from Danny Simon (brother of Neil). I lay it out fully in my little booklet How to Write Comedy: The Danny Simon Notes. Basically, it is taking a plain vanilla bit of dialogue and freshening around the edges until it is striking and funny in some fashion.

    In a Lawrence Block crime story I recall a cop describing a particularly ugly suspect. When asked how ugly he was, the cop said, "God made him as ugly as he could, then hit him in the mouth with a shovel."

    1. I love Lawrence Block. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out, Jim.

    2. In re North by Northwest, Hitchcock's original title for the movie was "The Man in Lincoln's Nose," and he had envisioned a scene where Cary Grant was actually hiding inside Lincoln's nose, and has a sneezing fit. Alas, he couldn't get permission from the Park Service to actually film on the monument itself. Now THAT'S comedy!

    3. Ha! That would be. Choice tidbit, John. Thank you.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Crais is very good, as you've noted. Elmore Leonard, of course. Ed McBain had a gift for slipping in little asides that broke things up, or of dropping a humorous set piece into a chapter, just to show the kinds of things cops come across in a day. Declan Burke, John McFetridge, Adrian McKinty, Tim Hallinan, Bruce DeSilva, all have a knack for writing dark stories with lines or scenes that will cause me to snort, then read them to The Beloved Spouse.

    You hit the nail on the head about humor. No matter how dire the situation, funny things happen, or people say funny things, often unintentionally. Good, well-rounded characters have senses of humor. It's also great for scene reversal, to get the reader cruising along in a lighter vein before dropping the hammer om them.

    1. Even dare to give humor to your villain. That is wicked fun.

      Thanks for the reading tips, Dana.

  3. I love happening upon humor in a book where I don't see it coming. For years I only read the Bernie Rhodenbarr books by Lawrence Block, so I was delighted to find humor in his Scudder and Tanner books too.

    Here's something I wrote in a short story years ago. The character suspects someone is after her so she heads to her therapist's office:

    I ran down the hall and pounded on Dr. Clark's door. She didn't answer. I tried the knob, but the door was locked.

    A lab technician poked her head out of an adjoining office. "Is something wrong?"

    "I think I'm being followed."

    She looked at the poster on the wall. Experiencing feelings of depression or paranoia? You can get help.

    "Maybe you should make an appointment." she said.

    1. Ha!!! I love the subtlety of this. I can see it happening on TV or a movie. Well done. Thanks for the chuckle.

  4. Jordan--anyone who doesn't realize how important your post is can be excused from the room: he's already doomed. In my own life, I don't trust people who have no sense of humor--and they're are a lot of them. I look at authors in the same way: a novel without some comic perspective reflects a sensibility that is missing something crucial.
    In my suspense novel, The Anything Goes Girl, my central POV character, a young journalist, travels by tuna trawler to a tiny island in the Pacific (well, OK, pretty much all of them are tiny). Her boat hits a reef, she's injured and brought ashore. When she speaks with a scientist on the island--an entomologist--it's clear he doesn't trust her: "It angered her. She shoved up painfully on her elbows. 'Thanks for the soup, but let's get something straight,' she said. "You have a PhD, it ought to be easy for you. Think about it. A woman travels out here by herself. No camera operator, no translator. She hitches a ride on The Tuna Clipper and gets snagged on a reef. What do you think, Moser? I came out here to get the scoop on your twelve-ton fruit fly?'"

    1. Ha!! I love smart assery in a woman. Love your comment, Barry, as always. Happy writing.

  5. Long post coming next...ignore at will. :-)

  6. I have a major recurring character who is both my primary source of violence but also my main comic relief. Here's an excerpt from the current WIP:

    “Ew, bugs in the hair is my only fear,” Kharzai shook his head, jiggling the thick black curls. “If bugs ever got in this there’d be no way to remove them without fire.”

    Jung shrugged, “Just shave it off.”

    Kharzai froze.

    She stopped a step later, “What?”

    “Shave. My. Head?”

    “Yeah, of course, it’ll grow back.”

    “My lady,” his voice choked, “this hair is an extension of my being. It’s taken me decades to cultivate these luxuriant locks. They get trimmed once a year, and it is a sacred day of mourning and holy silence.”

    “You really are crazy.”

    “Seriously, it's a genetic wonder,” he insisted. “Here, run your fingers through it.” He grabbed her hand. She laughed as he pulled it into his hair.

    “Oh wow,” she said. “How'd you get your hair so soft? We been in the woods for days.”

    Their eyes locked. Her cheeks reddened. He drew her closer, his grin softening.

    “You can shampoo my hair any day m’lady.”

    “You’re too young,” she whispered.

    “You look ten years younger than you are,” he said, “I feel ten years older than I am. That makes me older. Still interested in an older man?”

    Their lips drew near.

    “I must be the crazy one,” she whispered.

    “Don’t move,” he grunted.

    “Huh?” Jung froze.

    “Bear,” he said.

    “Oh god,” she squeaked.

    On its hind legs, snuffling the air, the grizzly was well over seven feet, six hundred plus pounds. It looked at them with an expression they hoped was curiosity and not hunger.

    “Just stay still,” Kharzai said. “Don’t be afraid,”

    “Too late, I’m afraid.”

    Kharzai’s eyes slid down to a pair of fuzz balls on stubby legs that bounded around the giant bear.

    Still on her hind legs mother bear grunted. The cubs quit playing and abruptly sat, looking up in expectation. When she was quiet the ursine toddlers glanced toward Kharzai and Jung, let out a high pitched squeal and bounded toward the humans.

    “No. No heel,” Kharzai flicked his fingers toward the cubs. “Shoo doggies, shoo.”

    Jung tried to stop shaking. It didn’t work. The cubs snuffled their legs, grunting and squeaking happily. Kharzai kept his eyes on momma bear. She grunted. The cubs didn’t react. She grunted again and one of the cubs squealed a protest.
    The dogs came bounding in, barking a late warning to their master. When they registered the playful bear cubs curiosity grabbed them. Wagging their tails the dogs snuffled them. That changed everything. Momma dropped to all fours, pounding the ground with a thunder that jarred across the distance. The dogs loosed a barking frenzy.

    Neck hair bristling, she bared her teeth. She rose again and roared. Jung screamed in response. Happy and Penny cowered. The cubs ran. Momma bear dropped to all fours and charged. Kharzai snapped his rifle up, pumping rounds into the charging bear’s face and chest. She lunged. He shoved Jung away firing one handed. It towered over him. A shadow of blood dark fur collapsed burying him under its massive frame. The bear’s fangs brushed against Kharzai’s cheek, nasty puffs of hot breath blasted his face spattering him with fresh blood. She let out a final guttural growl and her body slackened, her dead weight crushing him into the ground.

    Jung shoved at the mass of fur. It didn’t budge. Others ran up onto the scene, joining her, faces straining as they rolled a third of a ton of momma bear onto its back. The animal’s entrails stretched in a stinking ooze from the burst abdomen to Kharzai’s still form.

    Jung recoiled from Kharzai’s bloody body. He eyes were closed, mouth slightly open, chest motionless. She buried her face in her hands, trembling.

    Brad slapped Kharzai’s face, “Kharzai! Wake up!”

    He slapped him again. The Persian lurched up, eyes snapping wide, sucking air.

    “Whoa! Bear!” he cried. He took a deep breath. “Oh god, what is that smell?”

    He took in the bear, the group crowding around him, the gore on his clothes, then back to the bear.

    “Oh…that’s the smell.”

    1. Kharzai is quite the character. Funny scene, Basil. I was hoping you'd share.

    2. This is hilarious! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Humor can be hard to pull off - and, though I can't find a quote at the moment, I'm loving Ben Withers' The Last Policeman series - has funny, ludicrous and even poignantly funny moments as the world has 77 days to go before a deadly asteroid hits the earth...

    1. Deadly asteriod? That SCREAMS whimsy. I can totally see it.

  8. I've tried for a lot of sharp humor in "Jewel." I enjoy dialogue (probably too much.)


    Ethan popped the trunk and grabbed the duffel. His eyes met mine when he heard the dull metallic clink.

    "Jewel, is there something you want to tell me?"

    "We probably should obey the speed limit today."

    Without another word, he unzipped the bag, took one look and zipped it back again.

    "I don't know if I should be impressed or appalled. Since I saw the shooting trophies in your office, I'll settle for impressed. Are you planning an armed invasion?"

    He didn't press and that increased my respect. "I'm not worried about access so much as egress."

    "Fair enough. And it's funny, I was feeling the same way myself about the speed limit." He raised the lid and I had to laugh. A hard-shelled gun case nestled against the back of the trunk.

    "Should I guess or can I peek?" Without waiting for an answer, I flipped the latches and decided I'd opt for impressed as well. The Mossberg 500 pistol grip shotgun shared space with a Sig Sauer P226. The former glowed with care and maintenance. The latter, worn and pitted, looked like a throwaway.

    "Don't be fooled. That's my personal weapon for street work. After I fixed the damn trigger, I'll drop you at range every time. I thought it was less obvious than my Glock."

    "Nice to know we're on the same wavelength. I do like your taste in automotive accessories"

    "Well, Jewel, I will confess, I thought I might find myself in a situation of having to protect you. I'll just marinate in that bit of irony for a moment."

    After a sigh of mock humility, he finished loading my bags and closed the trunk.

    "So, is this thing a go?"

    "Yes, I made contact. We have a meet with the first layer of security tonight. I'll fill you in on the road."

    He opened the passenger door and bowed.

    "Milady, what's your pleasure?"


    "Then like the man said, let it rock and let it roll."

  9. Nice witty banter. Thanks for sharing, Terri

  10. I love humor in general, but my favorite way to write it and read it is in dialogue, either between characters or interior. There's just something to be said for witty banter between characters.

    Jim Butcher is shockingly good at witty banter, both during the character's inner monologue, and during character interactions. Butcher plots well, and does a great job with characters, but his humor and voice really make his books special.

    One of my favorite passages ever, that had me laughing for days, and I still chuckle over, is in one of the late books in the series, CHANGES.

    Harry, the main character, has been making sarcastic comments about his ex-girlfriend Susan's coworker Martin through the entire book.

    When Harry comes back to his apartment, he finds Martin and Susan (the ex-girlfriend), cocooned to the ceiling by his evil faerie godmother for reasons that would be too complicated to explain.

    Here's the tidbit:

    "She snapped her fingers and the cocoons seemed to sublimate into a fine green mist that quickly dispersed.

    Susan fell limply from the wall, but I was waiting to catch her and lower her gently to the floor.

    Martin plummeted from the ceiling and landed on a threadbare throw rug covering the concrete floor. Nobody was there to catch him, which was awful. Just awful."

  11. Yeah, just awful.

    Ha!!! That would grab me too. Thanks for the chuckle, Elizabeth.

  12. Excellent article, Jordan. I love the way you provide examples for all your great tips. I read this on Thursday and was going to comment then but got interrupted and somehow never made it back until now (Sunday)! Will share it now. :-)

    1. Thanks, Jodie. I love good comedic timing in fiction.

  13. Jordan, great tips on adding humor to your writing. I love to add a little internal sarcasm to my characters when they are stuck in polite company. I'm going to go through my current script to see what I can beef up with a little humor.

    P.S. Tranny is an offensive word, and "gender challenged" does not reflect Ophan Black's Tony.