Laugh Out Loud with Steve Hartley

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.

DannyBakerSillyOlympicsBellyFlop300

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:

1. Exaggerate!

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:

Wobble/Shake

Belly/Stomach

Nibble/Chew

Chomp/Bite

Jelly/Jam

Custard/Gravy

Numpty/Fool

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

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15 thoughts on “Laugh Out Loud with Steve Hartley

  1. Thanks for sharing. I am a nervous wreck when writing comedy!

  2. Thanks for that, Steve! I’ve no idea how to write humour, even though that is what I write – apparently.

  3. Mark says:

    And I thought it was all about the farts.

  4. Wendy says:

    I would so love the ability to write funny stuff! Maybe this is a good place to start. Thanks for the ideas.

  5. Nick Cross says:

    I think humour is something that is quite difficult to approach analytically, which is a shame because I approach everything analytically! So I find myself tiptoeing around it and will often realise that I need a joke that works a certain way at a particular beat in the story, without always knowing what the joke actually is!

    Steve, it’s interesting you saying about how much humour goes in at the editing stage. It’s another example of writing that looks totally spontaneous, but is actually agonised over at length.

    • Catherine Whitmore says:

      I had the same thought about Steve’s admission that the humour is often added in the edit. Gives me confidence…
      Interesting post. Thanks Steve.

  6. I think I need to get myself the Fawlty Towers box set, I’m sure there are endless hours of inspiration in there.

    And, there are no two ways about it – a mighty trump is totally funny!

    Great tips Steve, thanks

    Kate

  7. Paul Morton says:

    Having listened to some 9 and 10 year olds reading ‘funny’ books I was wondering if getting a ‘groan’ instead of a laugh, is better then getting no reaction at all. Is a groan, an inner
    sarcastic laugh?

  8. You are right Nick, as with all writing, humour takes a great deal of work! I think the broader brush strokes usually come at the plotting and planning stage, and come from the way I see the world – I find inherently funny the idea of a place where unwanted football mascots go to die! However, as I said above, it is usually the detail that makes the joke – those finer brush strokes that make the character/dialogue leap from the page. I sometimes rewrite a sentence several times, trying new words, re-structuring, etc, until it’s just right. So in a way, it is a very analytical process.

    And yes, Paul, I’ll take a groan any day!

    So to all of you who are dithering on the edge, to afraid to take the plunge – come on in, the water’s lovely!

    • This is really interesting, as it’s about the opposite of the way I work! As far as I’m concerned, I don’t write humour, I just write. And people happen to think it’s funny. To be honest, being asked to write the whole book after an editor had only seen the opening (and told me it was funny) was really scary, because I don’t think you can make yourself write funny. The only way I know if I’ve done it, is if people laugh when they read it. For me it is not analytical at all – I think you can be in grave danger of losing all humour if you try and make something funny. There is very little advice out there on writing humour and I think that may be why. So, I absolutely never edit in humour – I don’t think I could do it.

      • Nick Cross says:

        I find that my book ideas tend to have a certain preset level of humour (is there a British Standard Humour Gauge?) and it’s quite hard to change that. The last book I wrote was rather dark, and despite my efforts to the contrary, I could never get in as much humour as I wanted – it just didn’t fit the tone. I also had a particularly difficult time a couple of years ago when an editor kept asking for a manuscript we were working on to be funnier, when I considered it already was! That led to my small section in the SCBWI Defying Gravity video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0WEnLYSrd0). If you listen very carefully, my daughters are shouting “Be funny, Daddy!” as they bounce up and down on the sofa.

      • Yes, this is interesting! Each to their own, Jackie! I think in fact, we agree with each other in the broad sense. As I said, my humour comes from the way I see the world – I love the absurd and incongruous – so the fundamental way I write and the ideas I have tend to be funny, which is what I think you were saying. However, I do disagree that you can’t make something funny. On the face of it, the end of The Italian Job is horrific; it’s Michael Cain’s killer line that makes it funny. And I do think that in the editing process, you can also make things funnier. I don’t imagine that Peter Kay stands on stage and says the first thing that comes into his mouth. His act will be the result of a great deal of cutting and tweaking: using a funnier phrase, improving the timing of a joke, and getting the pace just right. I don’t know how you edit your work, but I suspect that most of what you do does in fact make your story funnier – you probably just don’t think about it!

  9. Mo O'Hara says:

    I was having a similar conversation in the pub just a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was asked about a number in my book and responded that I chose that number because it was the funniest number to put there. About half the people around the table just got that some numbers are funnier than others and others looked at me like I was mad. I think I come at writing comedy in a similar way to Steve. I write something becasue I see the inherent humour in the situation and then “funny it up” more in the edits. That’s where you can layer in recurring jokes, deliver an effective 3 stage build up to a punchline or just think of the right word to stress in a bit of dialog to make it work. I think the best way to tell if it’s funny is to read it aloud. I find it really hard to get the timing right until I hear the scene being read..

  10. […] Number Five: It’s all in the edit. After reading Steve Hartley’s guest post about writing and editing humour, I realised how much of the impact of an action sequence comes from finding the key beats and […]

  11. […] winner to the blog. Steve Hartley and Sara Grant have already offered some excellent advice on writing for comic effect and knocking your first draft into shape. Here’s what Bryony Pearce has to say about the careful […]

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