One thing I most definitely cannot do is ‘write funny’. It is a talent I am simply not blessed with. However, someone who has that talent by the bucket load is Steve Hartley, author of Danny Baker Record Breaker series and The Wibbly Wobbly Jelly Belly Flop. So I’m grateful to Steve today for offering an insight into how and why he does it.
Are you having a laugh?
If not, maybe you should be.
At the end of the film The Italian Job, the camera pulls away to show the robbers’ coach balanced on the edge of a precipice, the heavy stack of gold it carries threatening to tip the robbers to their doom. The scriptwriter could have left the audience hanging there too, but instead, we hear Michael Cainsay, “Hang on lads, I’ve got an idea”.
I read so many “serious” books that are worthy and wonderfully written, but unremittingly bleak. Yet real life is rarely like that. There’s often laughter in the most desperate situations, and used wisely, as above, it serves to heighten the drama. So give your readers a break: there’s a good reason it’s called “comic relief”!
Shakespeare understood this better than anyone: the “tragedies” are stuffed full of dark comedy. Hamlet’s cynical humour underlines his grief and makes it blacker. Romeo and Juliet, without the wit of Mercutio, would have the audience topping themselves well before the two, too-serious “star-crossed lovers” get round to it; and the shock of Mercutio’s untimely death is even greater because he’s so funny.
So to paraphrase Mary Poppins: “A spoonful of humour helps the tragedy go down.”
But the opposite is also true. Unremitting hilarity can get a little wearing too. I write funny children’s books (hopefully!) but they have “serious” themes at their hearts, and moments of tension, sadness and pathos. There are also real tragedies: fifteen boys and a headteacher being squashed to death by a giant bogey is terribly tragic, but it’s also terribly funny – at least to a nine year old boy!
So don’t shun the power of humour. “Funny” needn’t be difficult to write; it just takes a little planning, and thought. Comedy can come from the characters: their quirks, mannerisms, and attitudes; it can come from the situation or problem they find themselves in; it can come from the setting.
The devilment is often in the detail. A great deal of the humour in my stories is put in during the editing/rewriting process: getting the timing and rhythm right for this bit of dialogue, adding the little bit of funny detail in that piece of characterisation.
However, there are a couple of simple ways to bring touches of fun to your writing:
Don’t just have a trump, have a mighty trump. Don’t have a bad smell, have a vile pong. Make a character larger than life (think of Trunchbull from Matilda). Make a problem more outrageous (remember Basil Fawlty trying to hide the body of a dead guest?). Make your setting surprising or incongruous (like The Home for Abandoned Football Mascots, in The World’s Windiest Baby).
2. Choose your words carefully.
Some words are just inherently funnier than others. For example, a hobnob is a silly biscuit; a rich tea isn’t. A halibut is a funny fish; a sea bass isn’t. As story titles go, The Confused Neuroscientists would be tedium made flesh; but The Baffled Brain Boffinsis a definite smile-maker.
Take a look at the following words; one is intrinsically funny, but its synonym isn’t:
So go on, have a laugh; or should I say giggle, chuckle, titter?
About the Author
Steve Hartley writes the Danny Baker Record Breaker series of children’s books, published by Macmillan. He practiced what he’s just preached with the title of his last book, The Wibbly Wobbly Jelly Belly Flop. The first of a new series, Oliver Fibbs: Attack of the Alien Brain, will be released in 2013. His website is: www.stevehartley.net