How to Break Things with Humor

Have you ever made a joke at a funeral?

Take my advice: don’t.  I can’t remember if I ever had, but I wouldn’t put it past myself.  In general, however, it’s not a good policy.

For one thing, a funeral is the perfect time and place to be sad.  It exists for no other reason.  When people go to funerals, they don’t expect canned laughter during the service.  Yes, that would be hilarious, but hilarity isn’t the point of a funeral.  It’s a time of solemnity as we remember the deceased.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the jokes from popping into my head as I sit through the service.

The same thing happens when I read books.  There’s this great emotional scene, perhaps a love scene or a death scene (they’re remarkably similar), and I’ll get an idea for a killer joke that the author didn’t include.  I always wondered why… until I realized something.

Is it possible to create strong emotion when you’re laughing at it?

It’s a serious question.  Let’s say, in the book you’re reading, a beloved dog runs into the road and whoops, bye-bye Fido.  If someone cracks a joke right in the middle of that scene, what’s the overall impression?  Intense sadness, or casual tragedy mixed with hilarity?  Laughter creates memories that often hang around longer than sad memories.  The reader won’t remember the tragedy, they’ll remember the joke.  In this case, the author used the joke to relieve the sadness.

There’s a good rule of thumb about this: If you’re writing comedy, use jokes to relieve tension and emotion.  If you’re not, however, use the jokes to set the reader up for a bigger contrast when the real emotion hits.

For instance, imagine a rewrite of the scene mentioned above.  The family is outside, playing with Fido.  They’re throwing the stick for him to fetch, petting him, letting him run all over the place.  It’s fun.  Someone makes a joke about the way Fido runs, legs flying all over the place like he’s flapping wings, trying to take off.  Then Fido runs into the middle of the road.

That’s some serious contrast.  Laughter, fun, happiness, then wham— dead dog, silence, and sadness.  That’s huge.

Now I don’t even want to keep writing this.  I want to go cry for Fido or something.

If you’re not writing comedy, don’t use your jokes to relieve the tension.  The same goes for any emotion or theme to the scene you’re writing.  Whether you’re trying to write this scene as grand and majestic, or depressing and somber, or high-adrenaline and fast-paced, don’t use the jokes to relieve tension.

It might not seem like it, but jokes are tools.  Tell a joke, the audience loosens up from that high-speed car chase.  They laugh and get a breather from the death scene.  They take a break from the completion of the traitor’s character arc.  Providing the same thing as a chapter break, a joke gives the audience a quick respite, but at the cost of the emotion you were previously carrying.  If that’s the emotion you want readers to remember, don’t use that joke.

Now, there are exceptions to this rule.  In some cases, a joke is the perfect thing to make an emotional scene pack a little more punch.  For instance, in Dan Wells’s Partials trilogy, there’s an amazing character named Marcus.  He’s funny.  He cracks jokes right and left, even in the most morbid of situations.  Why does he work?

Well, if you really look at him, he’s doing the same thing comedy writers do– he cracks jokes to relieve the tension he doesn’t want to feel.  When he’s feeling threatened, or overburdened, or far too sad for his own good, he cracks a joke to help himself.  It’s his defense mechanism.  Knowing that, we no longer see his jokes as funny tension-breakers, we see them as sad, he’s-about-to-crack moments.  We don’t want him to crack.  This translates to: we don’t want him to be funny anymore.  It hurts.

Joss Whedon’s Firefly is a perfect example of using jokes as tools.  It’s such a funny show.  The jokes add contrast, add emotional depth, and build the characters.  These are not throw-away lines– they’re works of art.  A joke said by one character will make a promise, poke at the other character’s emotion, and fit perfectly with the character’s personality, while setting the audience up for an enormous fall.  It’s not just funny; it’s genius.

And one last note: don’t feel like you can’t make jokes.  Humor is not an innate talent.  It can be learned as well as anything else can.  It is a tool in your toolbox, just as everything else– description, contrast, dialogue– is a tool in your toolbox.  Practice using it like a tool.  You can make it work for you to spectacular effect.


78 thoughts on “How to Break Things with Humor

  1. I have the same problem with laughing at things that really aren’t funny. One time I was laughing like crazy at the song on the radio that was supposed to be inspirational… everyone thought I WAS crazy.
    And, about learned humor–yes. People seem to think I was born with a comeback to everything, but no. I had to learn it. (Maybe the real reason I go by the name ErinKENOBI is because I have the same sense of riposte.) 😛

    1. Well… laughing at things that aren’t funny is one thing. Making jokes when you aren’t supposed to is another.

      I think it really comes down to attitude– people who don’t think they can learn humor can’t unless they change their minds. If you believe you can learn it, it becomes a whole lot easier.

      1. True. I’ve gotten very good at holding my tongue over the years.
        I didn’t actually resolve to learn it, though. I just kept on writing and everything else came along with it. ^_^

  2. I can’t even read this post in whole. I basically skimmed the first bit and now I’m wondering how did you even think of writing on this topic? Good job, though.

    You make a excellent points about contrast. And about joking when someone is about to crack. Now, I tend not to joke when I am completely down, but about the time I start to feel better, I start making jokes again.

      1. Ah. This makes sense. Seriously, though, how did you manage to evoke strong emotion from me in one paragraph?

      2. An accident? If you can write like that byaccident, you, sir, are something to be reckoned with!

      3. I realize. Still…
        You’ve nearly made us all cry, including yourself. Robert Frost was correct, it would seem: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
        I remember the last time I stuck that quote in a comment…

  3. It occurred to me, I have a character that’s kind of like that. He tends to laugh a lot, not because he finds things to be particularly funny, but because it’s kind of a relief-mechanism. Sometimes, it makes it seem like he can’t be very serious, but… it works. I think.

    And you almost made me cry over Fido.

      1. I thought they exploded… but you know more about that than I do.

        But I was asking how they assassinate if they aren’t Vorsian. They have awfully blunt looking beaks.

      2. Of course not. I’m touched that you’d think of me. *clears throat*
        Now… *checks under bed for assassin ducklings*

  4. I like to think I’m talented in Humor…it could just be a nice fantasy conceived in my head though. Anyways, I really really like the”jokes are tools” thing and will probably print this out to share to my creative writing club at school. Thanks!

  5. This is so true. I think J.K Rowling does a good job of this in the Harry Potter series. Some bits are hilarious, but she stays true to the tone in the more seriously intense or emotional parts of the book.

    It’s important not to stuff up the hard work you’ve been putting towards tone with an ill-placed joke. Sometimes the right kind of joke can work though, I think. For example in Heart of Darkness, the overall tone is quite, well … dark, but there is a lot of dry, dark, subtle humour, which really fits and doesn’t detract from the tone.

    Your last paragraph is quite encouraging, and I will take the obvious truth of the rest of the post as evidence that this is not just a way to make dull people feel good about themselves. I often feel lacking in a sense of humour — it’s not that I don’t appreciate good jokes (though I suppose sometimes I don’t…), but I’m just not very good at cracking them. Actually, most of the pieces of writing I’ve written that people have said are funny don’t even really have jokes, per se.

    1. Yes, Rowling is very good with this. Her character humor is well done.

      Yes, I’ve found that too, although I try to put as many jokes into things as possible. (Unfortunately, most of my technical posts around here tend to be dry.) Sometimes the funny bone is just tickled by something you say, instead of a specific joke.

      1. Your technical posts may not have jokes, but they’re still very readable, which I believe is why you have so many readers.

        Imagine if there was a humour-class in schools. “This is a joke, children. You can tell it is a joke because […]. Now, for our exercise, we will all write a joke inspired in some way by this one. You will be marked out of ten based on your ability to do […]”.

  6. Wow…..

    Honestly, I’m too afraid to crack a joke during a funeral. I would be so dead if I tried.

    I admire you for managing to write this. (Second sentence in, I thought I’d start crying.) Jokes are pretty incredible stuff. Without jokes, life would be a lot grimmer–and we wouldn’t cry as much at funerals. Even though I’ve got very little talent in cracking jokes in everyday life (My wit is pathetically lacking), I’m now determined to brush up my jokes and make sure they’re used in my writing.

    R.I.P., Fido. You were a great dog.

      1. Dogs are amazing creatures. They’re fun to write and to be with, even if you trip over them while walking across the house. XD
        Do you use dogs much in your writing?

  7. Must you kill the dog, Liam? Must you?

    Anyway, gah. Humor is so difficult! Or maybe the character that I’ve planned as the comic relief is…well, not. And ironically, one of the most angsty characters is the wittiest (and is funnier than the comic relief). Either way, I’ve given up on it. If a joke comes, it comes. I’m not going to go hunt it down with binoculars and a shotgun.

    I see the writing meter is looking good! Congratulations!

  8. I actually disagree that you can crack a joke at a funeral. I have been to several funerals where there has been laughter in celebration of stories of the loved ones who have passed on. The loved ones were full of humor and light, and while tears were shed in sorrow, we also had smiles and comfort. For example, one of my friends passed away last year and her boss and co-workers shared a story where she bought nerf guns for them for Christmas. When they asked her how she would defend herself, she pulled out a big nerf gun she had bought for herself. While we cried, we laughed.
    I think both can coexist in a story, but it needs to be done carefully, with taste, and by design.

    1. Does this make you one of the bad guys from that “How to Make a Character Sympathectic in 15 Seconds” post? Because as was said in the comments, puppies are very much like children.

      I won’t kill you.

      1. I mean, I felt bad for him, but…it was an example. I wasn’t involved. (It generally takes me a while to care about characters.)

      2. It was an example, you’re right, but I’m rather proud that at least some people felt for Fido. Except Dry-Eyed Amanda, who never gets emotional over anything…

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