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[GUEST POST] Laura Resnick on How to Write Humor

Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond series, published by DAW Books. She has also written traditional fantasy novels such as In Legend Born, The Destroyer Goddess, and The White Dragon, which made the “Year’s Best” lists of Publishers Weekly and Voya. An opinion columnist, frequent public speaker, and the Campbell Award-winning author of many short stories, she is on the Web at http://www.LauraResnick.com.

Writing Humor: Laugh, and the World… Doesn’t Necessarily Laugh With You

If I may extrapolate from a favorite quote attributed to W. Somerset Maugham (who is also the author of one of my favorite novels, The Razor’s Edge): There are three rules for writing comedy; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

I wrestle weekly, daily – nay, hourly! – with this knotty problem. Not only have most of my 60 published sf/f short stories been written as humor, but I also write a comedic urban fantasy series, the Esther Diamond novels.

However, despite the tragic dearth of handy rules, I can at least readily identify the two key challenges of writing comedy in fantasy:

  1. How do I write a comedy in which the stakes are high enough for the story to be compelling rather than silly, banal, or idiotic?
  2. How do I write comedy for an audience so varied that one reader will laugh out loud at the same scene that makes another reader decide to use the book’s pages as toilet paper?

Daniel Dos Santos, the talented cover artist who has been doing such a brilliant job of illustrating the Esther Diamond series, commented to me that it’s tough to find the right balance of comedy and menace when he’s creating the cover images for these novels.

As I replied to him, it’s tough to find that balance when writing the damn books, too.

I’m a traditionalist in the sense that I believe a fantasy novel should be about the struggle between Good and Evil, and that the stakes must high enough for the outcome of that struggle to matter. I don’t believe that only a threatened apocalypse counts as “high stakes,” but I do think that tiresome schtick is the inevitable result of writing a comedy where the stakes are not high enough to be compelling.

In Doppelgangster, for example, the city is on the verge of a major mob war (which, contrary to sentimental portrayals of organized crime, is dangerous for everyone, not just wiseguys). In Vamparazzi, there’s a supernatural serial killer on the loose. In Unsympathetic Magic, young lives are threatened; in Disappearing Nightly, the whole city is in deadly danger.

In other words, although the Esther Diamond novels are comedies, the dread result of a struggle with Evil is not that Esther doesn’t get laid or has her vacation canceled.

Which brings us back to challenge #1: How do you write about high stakes comedically?

A bestselling writer (in another genre) once told me one of her steadfast comedy rules (hey, a rule!): “No pet death.” This rule made sense to me… until I found I had to kill off a pet in Unsympathetic Magic, due to my primary rule (hey, another rule!): The stakes have to be high.

Something else I have learned in writing a comedy series is that some stakes-raising events strike me as good fodder for humor (ex. I ruthlessly milked the bizarre deaths of various wiseguys in Doppelgangster); but there are other stakes-raising events that strike me as antipathetic to comedy – and those I keep offstage (ex. although various characters are supernaturally menaced in Unsympathetic Magic, the murders in the book all occur offstage and, indeed, before the story actually begins).

So there aren’t any one-size-fits-all rules (damn!) for writing comedy – in sf/f, or anywhere else; there are only specific choices that work (or not) for the individual writer. After all, I’ve read novels (Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club comes to mind) that make me laugh when reading things I would have said couldn’t be made funny; and that’s one of the great benefits of reading, of course – seeing the world through a mind totally unlike your own. To give another example, although many readers found Doppelgangster light and fun, a few (I learned) considered it tasteless, because they don’t think murder is ever funny.

Which leads us to challenge #2: How can I write comedy that will make everyone laugh?

Well… I can’t. Neither can you. It’s not possible. Let it go, man!

There’s a lot of widespread, nearly-universal agreement about what we find scary (an armed stranger breaking into our home at night; a drooling, befanged demon jumping out of the closet), dramatic (war, natural disaster), important (love, family, loyalty), desirable (sex, money, recognition), and so on.

There is, by contrast, relatively little agreement about what we find funny. Humor, like sexual attraction, is highly individual. Comedy appeals to a very specific and complex set of responses. So trying to make the reader laugh is a much narrower and more idiosyncratic target than is the case with other forms of fiction.

This has a lot to do with why it’s typically harder to sell comedy (and not just in sf/f). You have to find an editor who thinks the book is funny and whose publishing company agrees with that assessment, and then they all have to think it will also hit the humor sweet-spot of enough readers that it’ll make money.

This also means that the best bet for writing comedy – at least, in my opinion – is not to “dumb it down,” or “reach for the broadest audience,” or do what appears to work well for someone else. What the comedy writer is looking for – in any genre – is the reader who shares her sense of humor and finds the same things funny. Which is my ultimate rule for writing comedic urban fantasy, I suppose: If I find the material funny when I’m finally finished with it, that’s the best way to fill my quiver with arrows that have a good shot at finding their target.

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] Laura Resnick on How to Write Humor

  1. Nodding to myself as I read this post. The problem with humor is that you don’t just have to write a funny novel, you have to write a good novel AND it has to be funny.

    I agree 100% with a humor author writing to make themselves laugh. It’s no good trying to write stuff you hope others will find amusing – that way lies failure. Instead, if you laugh yourself silly while reading your own work, then others with the same sense of humor* will also find it funny.

    So, basically I’m commenting to let you know I agree with everything you said.

     

    * Unfortunately this excludes most of the publishing industry. Ah well.

  2. I’ve never attempted comic fiction but I’ve certainly read plenty — it’s interesting to hear your take on the genre’s special pitfalls.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. By coincidence, on an elist of writers that I’m on, someone has (unrelated to me or this post) brought up the “no pet death” rule again! <g> (I am minding my own business and saying nothing.)

     

     

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