Locating comedic potential in your story

Authors often ask me how they can make their books funnier. I’m sure early on, I probably said something dickish like “make yourself funnier,” because I’d never taken the time to break it down into bite-size pieces. I considered humor to be more of a knee-jerk reaction for me than a learned skill.

Well, I was wrong. Humor is always a learned skill, and taking a peek into why we humans learn it unlocks the single biggest key to pinpointing opportunities to make your story funnier.

To find where to sprinkle in comedy, first locate the moments of highest tension in your story.

Obviously, the point of highest tension will be your climax. Unless you want the entire story to be viewed as a comedy, this isn’t the best place to inject humor. The climax is a time to resolve all the emotional, philosophical, and external conflicts of the story. If you make a joke out of it, you’re actually undermining all the arguments you’ve made.

That’s great if you’re writing a straight satire, but if you’re not, it can really derail the tension you’ve worked all story to build.

For example, imagine if you were writing a gritty mystery about a serial killer and the climax is Detective InnerDemons coming face-to-face with the notorious Baby Strangler. If this climax is humorous, first of all, that’s a little fucked up, but also, all that tension you created throughout is dispersed by the laughter, and the climax will fall flat. You don’t want that, I assure you.

So skip over the climax and locate two or three moments of high tension prior to it. Draw an X over them on the map. These will be your main veins for accessing the comedy motherlode.

Humor is a pressure valve for the tension you build in your story, and laughter is the air released from that valve.

Humor is a social tool. We employ it during life’s inevitable awkward situations by deflating tension to maintain peace and harmony in the group. Someone call someone by the wrong name? Make a joke about it. Your coworker just get chewed out by the boss? Crack a joke about the boss once he leaves the room.

Keeping the purpose of humor in mind, look back at those two or three points of high tension that you drew an X on. That’s where you should home in to mine the humor because that’s where the most can be found for the smallest amount of effort. The tenser the reader, the less you have to twist open that valve to release a whole lot of high-pressure laughs.

The reverse of this is to look at the points of lowest tension in your story. Getting a laugh out of those moments will be markedly more difficult, so if humor isn’t your strong suit (be real with yourself on this), your attempts are likely to leave the reader feeling impatient with the diversions rather than pleasantly amused. It’s like sticking a pin in a deflated balloon. You’re not getting anything from it.

One of the most common fails I see at generating humor comes when authors try to create false tension solely for the purpose of making a joke. Unless readers are there for jokes, jokes, and more jokes, they sense that this tension is synthetic, not an organic part of the story you’re trying to tell, and it can make the story feel meandering.

Don’t reach too far for the joke.

Make it easy on yourself and pick the low-hanging fruit that grow around the fertile points of tension.

One more important tip: the very best placement for a joke is immediately before or immediately after the crest of tension in a scene, not during the crest itself.

When you build toward a point of tension — a confrontation, a major decision, etc. — you’re making a promise to the readers that there will be a moment of fruition and they’ll receive a satisfying resolution to the build. If you subvert that important moment by adding humor in the midst of it, you’re breaking the promise. However, if you place the humor directly before with, say, a false alarm, or directly after to help their nerves settle from the conflict, you’re actually doing them a huge favor. If they laugh right before the difficult moment, they’ll feel slightly more prepared to take it on. If they laugh right after, they’ll become resilient to whatever hardships they just witnessed. And they’ll love you for providing either of those opportunities.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, my favorite of all time being where the tension is built around unidentifiable and possibly violent sounds coming from behind a closed door. When the door is opened — the reveal and moment of greatest tension — the protagonist finds two unlikely people having sex and freaks out. This trope is quite the crowd pleaser, and I’ve included it in two of my series because it brings me so much joy. It’s just so damn funny.

But in general, stick to these guidelines to add humor into the right places in your story:

  • Unless you’re writing comedy, avoid making the conflict too funny.
  • Moments of high tension bear the low-hanging fruit for comedy. Don’t be shy — pick that fruit!
  • Avoid making the precise moment of highest tension in a scene too comedic; instead, use a false start before or a recovery moment after to help readers cope with the uncomfortable tension.
  • Scenes of low tension are the hardest from which to mine humor.
  • Don’t reach too far for the joke. Creating false tension for the sake of a laugh is likely to annoy readers who want to get on with the story.

I’m aware that these tips focus on where to put humor rather than how to create the humor itself. That second part is a much more complicated topic that depends heavily on your genre, characters, preferred humor style, and setting. It can’t be covered in a single blog post. But if you take another look at your story through the lens of these tips, you’ll be off a great start.

More about comedy: One simple trick to make your comedy funnier

And if you still need tailored guidance, you can always hire someone to help.

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