7 Tips for Adding Humor — Guest: Rhoda Baxter
I’m not naturally a funny person. I’m more likely to be the one who blurts out an unintentional double entendre (who then has to rewind in my head what I said to figure out why everyone else is laughing *grin*) than to be the one making a joke on purpose.
However, I like including humor in my stories, and I love reading stories that contain a fair amount of humor. Most genres benefit from including touches of humor here or there—even the dark and angsty stories.
So I jumped at the chance to include an expert on comedy writing among my vacation-fill-in guest posters. Rhoda Baxter has presented on this topic at the UK’s Romantic Novelists Association conference, and she’s here to share her tips with us. (And even though her focus is on romantic comedy, her tips apply for adding humor to any genre.)
Maybe she can even help me. *snicker* Please welcome Rhoda Baxter!
7 Things to Remember When Writing
Romantic Comedy (or any kind of Humor)
We all know that writing is hard. Writing comedy is harder—not only do you need to make people care, you also need to make them laugh. You have to do it without the help of any visual aids. No facial expression, no vocal expression… not even proper timing. That’s a tough call.
Yet everyone loves a good romantic comedy. These books can make you think, cry, and laugh. When you finish the book, the thing that stays with you is the laughter.
I write British romantic comedy for Choc Lit. My books tend to have a little bit of cynicism to them. When I first started writing rom coms, I wrote mainly to amuse myself, but it turns out there are others who like that sort of thing too.
I’ve seen many, many posts on how to write romance, but rarely have I seen anything about the comedy side of it. With that in mind, here’s my list of seven things to remember when writing a romantic comedy.
#1: Funny Is Great, but Does It Move the Story Along?
This is probably rule number one when writing romantic comedy—or pretty much any story. All the usual guidelines for plot and structure still apply in humorous fiction.
You’ve written a great scene. There are some brilliant one-liners in there, and that bit where they fall, fully clothed into the bath is hilarious…but does it move the story forward?
Each scene must fulfill at least two things—either move the plot along, introduce a new character, develop an existing character, introduce a new setting, or foreshadow something that’s going to happen later. If it doesn’t do any of those things, but is just included to make up the comedy moments, then it’s probably best left out.
Don’t throw it away though. Save the jokes for a different scene or even a different book. (Never throw away a good joke!)
#2: The Characters Don’t Know They’re in a Comedy
All jokes and funny scenes must arise organically from the characters and the way they speak and act. The joke must fit the character.
If a normally humorless characters suddenly cracks a silly joke, it’s going to look weird. Unless of course, that joke shows the heroine that the guy she had assumed was humorless is human after all… and quite attractive when he smiles…
#3: Don’t Be Cruel
It’s not funny to laugh at people because they are at a disadvantage. I’m not saying that a bad-guy character won’t make fun of someone—that’s fine. It’s showing that the character is a total douche and that the reader can hate him. Just don’t do it as the author.
I know a good joke about dyslexia which makes my (dyslexic) brother laugh, but I wouldn’t dream of making that joke to people I don’t know because I don’t know how they’ll take it, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings. This links nicely to my next point.
#4: Humor Is Subjective
Different people find different things funny. You know this. There are some jokes you tell in front of friends that you would never repeat in front of Granny.
Not everyone will find what you’ve written side splitting. I know a woman who read an entire book of jokes, cover to cover, with a slightly puzzled expression on her face and didn’t laugh once (I’m not entirely sure why she bothered…). It happens.
So what does that mean for you while you slave over your book? Actually, it’s quite liberating.
Write what makes you laugh. If it makes you laugh, chances are it will make at least some of your readers laugh as well.
If in doubt, show it to someone who has a similar sense of humor to you. If they don’t find it funny, perhaps you should have a little rethink. And maybe get out a bit more.
#5: Has What You Pictured in Your Mind actually Made It onto the Page?
This is especially true of visual gags. That scene with the banana peel and the open manhole is hilarious in your head, but have you put the right details in the text?
Another thing that’s important with comedy is timing, especially if the joke is in the dialogue. You’ve written down what they said, but have you captured how they said it?
The best way to check this is to get someone to read it out to you. They will read it as they would hear it.
Does the joke still work? If not, rework it—change the words, move the speech attributions around, play with punctuation. Then get someone (best ask a different someone!) to read it out and see if it works any better.
#6: Beware the In-Joke
In-jokes are great. People in the know love them. The trouble comes when people who don’t have the background information read them and wonder what on earth you’re talking about.
I love The Big Bang Theory, which is full of science jokes. The writers on that show do a great job by planting the information you need to get the joke somewhere at the start of the episode.
If they didn’t do this, you’d have the science nerd portion of the audience falling around laughing while everyone else looks at each other blankly. One exception is when Amy Farrah-Fowler makes the “Thriller adjacent to the amygdala” joke—but this is still funny because of Penny’s WTF reaction.
Okay, at this point, a number of people reading this will be wondering what on earth I’m talking about. Which rather proves my point.
So, beware the in-joke. If your editor asks you to remove a joke because they don’t realize it’s a joke—you know something’s gone wrong.
#7: Funny Doesn’t Have to Be Fluffy
A lot of people think that comedy is the preserve of light and airy. It’s not.
It is entirely possible to write a comedy (romantic or otherwise) which deals with dark themes. A Fault in Our Stars has funny moments, and it’s all about kids with cancer. You can’t get much darker than that.
Sometimes, it’s good to have something light to relieve the pressure. The moments of comedy serve as a contrast to the sadness. You can use this to heighten emotions, making the dark scenes feel darker, sadder, scarier.
It’s also good to use comedy to give the reader a break from time to time so that they don’t end up feeling your book is too depressing for words. If you’ve written a particularly tense scene, the laugh at the end gives the reader a good place to breathe out again. Films like Pulp Fiction use this trick a lot, and it works.
Black humor isn’t often found in romantic comedy, but if it works for your book, don’t be afraid to use it.
Laughter is a great thing—it lifts your mood, burns calories and reduces your blood pressure in the long run. And everyone loves a good love story. So if you can combine the two, you’ve got to be onto a winner… right?
Rhoda Baxter writes smart contemporary romantic comedy for Choc Lit. She likes to write about people who make her laugh. In real life she’s a former scientist who now works in intellectual property. She’s a mother of two and manages to be a sensible grown up when they’re around.
She lives in East Yorkshire, England, where there are lots of excellent tea shops. Rhoda a member of the UK Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Society of Authors, and the RWA. Her first book was shortlisted for the RNA New Writing award in 2012.
Learn more and connect with Rhoda at her website, Facebook, or @rhodabaxter on Twitter.
About Doctor January:
If you keep looking back, you might miss what’s standing right in front of you …
Six months after a painful break-up from Gordon, Beth’s finally getting her life back on track. She has faith in her own scientific theories and is willing to work hard to prove them. She’s even beginning to see Hibs, her dedicated lab partner, as more than just a lousy lothario in a lab-coat and goggles.
So when Gordon arrives back from America without warning and expects to be welcomed back into Beth’s arms, she’s totally thrown. She also quickly begins to see that Gordon isn’t the man she thought he was … Hibs has always held a candle for Beth, but he can only wait so long for her to realise there’s more to life than being patronised and bullied by the one who’s meant to love and protect her.
Will Beth forsee the explosive nature beneath Gordon’s placid surface before he destroys everything she’s worked for, both inside and outside the lab?
Thank you, Rhoda! Those are great tips that I haven’t seen elsewhere before.
I especially love your tip #7 about how funny doesn’t equal fluffy, and that’s why I think these tips work for adding humor to almost any genre. As I mentioned above, some of my favorite stories are those with a dark or brooding feel, yet they have touches of humor.
As you pointed out, that breather often creates a contrast. And in turn, that contrast can make our sad or tragic or darker moments more emotional.
One of the first writing tips I learned years ago was to include a light moment right before our Black Moment. The contrast doubles the emotional punch of the tragedy for our readers’ emotions. Humor is one way to add lightness before the dark. *smile*
Do you enjoy reading or writing humor and comedy? Do you struggle to “write funny” or is it a strength of yours? Do you think touches of humor fit within most genres? Do you have any other humor or comedy writing tips to share? Which of these tips was your favorite? (And Rhoda wants to know if you have a favorite joke you want to share too!)
(P.S. Don’t miss my 5th Blogiversary Contest! Entries close this weekend!)Pin It
I’m working on a RomCom right now, and while making jokes isn’t exactly my forte, watching differing personalities interact can be flipping hysterical. These are all great tips!
The humour from characters interacting is the best. Especially, if they do it all by themselves, without you having to force it.
Hope your Rom com goes really well.
That’s usually the kind of humor I write too–characters interacting. 🙂 My characters are much funnier than I am. LOL! Thanks for stopping by!
I write romantic comedies too, and your reminder that humor is subjective is a good one. I always get a few one-star reviews from people who do not get humor at all.
They think everything should be literal and realistic and all characters should be pure and perfect. I wish they’d just stay away from my books, because they won’t like them. If you look at any comedy on Amazon, you’ll find tons of one-stars from people who don’t get irony, whimsy, hyperbole or sarcasm. You wonder why they keep buying humorous books. Sigh.
People not getting the joke is very annoying, but different people are tickled by different things. My husband loves The Office. I can’t watch it because it makes my eyes want to crawl back into my head (it’s just too close to the bone – honestly, I’ve worked with people like that!).
Keep writing. I’m sure the people who get the jokes, really love the books!
Yes, someone not getting our brand of humor is one thing, but someone who acts like they don’t want to find things amusing or absurd or whatever is annoying if they picked up a humorous book. *sigh* It’s a good thing we have readers who appreciate our writing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Great tips! I’m working on my first rom com, and this is super helpful! 🙂
Yay! Glad to help.
I really enjoyed your post about running a launch event, by the way. I’ve got to start planning the launch of my next book (a romantic comedy set in a hospice – not exactly fluffy), so I’m making notes.
Oh fun! Good luck with your story, and thanks for stopping by!
Great tips, Rhoda. Particularly liked the bit about humour arising organically from the character. Thanks for sharing! 🙂 x
Thanks Sheryl. Luckily, some characters are naturally funny around each other.
Yes! That’s a good one. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
I too love humor so very much enjoyed your blog. I usually allow my characters to see the humor in a situation rather than have them pull a joke on someone. Let’s face it, everyday life is stranger than fiction so writers have a wonderful world of situations to draw from. Setting up something up just to provide humor usually doesn’t work. Thanks again for the blog.
Glad you enjoyed it, Sharla. Elaborate set ups can work, but they’re really hard to pull off. Terry Pratchett can do it. Neil Gaiman too, probably, but not me.
I adore bad puns, but I’ve learned that people tend to throw things at me when I say them out loud, so I keep them to myself now.
Yes, making observations on the amusing nature of the world–I like that one too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Like Jami said in her introduction , I have a hard time intentionally “bringing the funny”, and more often than not I either luck out, or just underestimate (subconsciously usually) what a reader may find funny. Just to not paralyze myself with fear and not try being comedic where it fits. Like Rhoda said, it has to make sense and move something key in the story forward, like anything else, and I think that’s especially hard when a writer whose not adept with comedy in ANY form (but esp. in a book where you’re working with words, without visuals, vocals and various forms of comedic timing that are inherently visual or audible) pulls off a knee-slapping moment, but doesn’t do any of the above, or not in a significant enough way to get rid of it. But listen to Rhoda and DO NOT JUNK IT PERMANENTLY! Good jokes are good jokes, and you’d be surprised what changing a few words and phrasing will do to make a “failed” joke in one book or story, will hit the right notes in another. I’m thankful the scenes I mean to be serious are taken as such, and the reader still laughs at other times, and I think a major turn off for me is certain forms of slapstick comedy. Most notably, the “Crotch” stuff just gets my goat. That said, I LOVE slapstick in general, but it’s those “hit in the crotch” scenes I REALLY hate, I always found them disturbing, even… — Read More »
I understand. I don’t care for the Three Stooges style of slapstick humor myself. I realized years ago that I generally dislike humor that comes from hurting or humiliating others. Wit is much more my style. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for replying, Jami,
Just to clarify. I’m all for a “Pie in the face” or something Chaplin inspired (he THRIVED on physicality-based humor, if not obvious slapstick), so long as the point is everyone laughing WITH EACH OTHER versus AT EACH OTHER. Two different things IMHO.
Not all slapstick is mean-spirited, but like humor in general, that can be suggestive, too.
That said, as Rhoda touched on, slapstick is not easy to convey in book form (outside picture books or titles in the comic/graphic novel realm)
Besides Jami, wit can be mean-spirited, too, but I get where you’re coming from.
But next to “Crotch Masochism” slapstick, gross humor does NOT do it for me, a scene or two I can live with, but as I say below, when it’s the ONLY or primary way humor’s conveyed, it’s a major turn off for me (if I ever have kids and this is what they most respond to, I’m in for some “Hard Knock Days”)
Good point! And yes, it’s that AT each other humor that bothers me. Call me a softie, but I just don’t like people being mean to each other. 🙂
Yep, all these are more examples of how humor is subjective. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for your comment Taurean. As you say, slapstick is really hard to convey in books where you have no visuals and, crucially, very little control over timing.
As you say, children’s books mix the dark with the light very well. Do you think adults find more humour in kids books than the kids themselves do? I find, when reading to my children, I can see jokes that you’d only get if you’ve got adult sensibilities. When I read the same books as a child, the jokes just went right over my head. Come to think of it, Pixar movies do this a lot.
I shall check out The Great Cheese Conspiracy. It sounds great.
Thanks for replying, Rhoda, Pixar is my benchmark when it comes to certain aspects of storytelling. Of course, films and television have the benefit of audible and visual cues to help tell their stories, I was just musing on things that are often considered comedic but don’t do it for it me. On top of my issues with “crotch” slapstick, I’m far more of a prude with gross-out humor than most my age. It’s also why I don’t re-watch certain films I love overall but bring about the “Gross Factor.” I haven’t watched the other “Shrek” movies after the first one purely because of my aversion to gross-out humor, and just the first movie was pushing it for me, it was because of the characters and story that kept me with it, so I do make exceptions, but not often. A scene or two I can live with, but when it’s the main or ONLY way humor’s conveyed, I freak out! (Internally). Anyway, I think it’s easier for author-illustrators in this respect because with picture books and graphic novels, they have the added bonus to use visuals, versus novelists like me who have to paint everything solely through words, and maybe an illustration here and there beyond the cover. I agree Pixar films tend to work on two levels, part of why their films do so well overall, the best author-illustrators (be they one person or two people) marry words and visuals that help the reader and enrich the story… — Read More »
Oh yes, good point that multi-level humor like Pixar’s can help our work be more successful too. The more fans the better. 🙂
Great post, Rhoda! Thank you for guesting on Jami’s blog.
I’m bad about including in-jokes. Logically, I know they will stop some readers in their tracks and that’s a no no, but it’s so tantalizing to throw them in there anyway for the readers who would get joke—which, of course, is the equivalent of me snorting like Amy Farrah Fowler and saying, “If you were a brain scientist, you would be busting a gut right now.” Luckily, I have saints for critique partners who don’t roll their eyes too much before calling me on it.
As for Doctor January, you had me “lousy lothario in a lab-coat.”
Good point! There’s a fine line between the in-jokes that will appeal to our readers (especially of our previous work) and in-jokes that make new readers feel left out. As others have said, I think the best approach might be in-jokes that split the difference, and act as a joke to those in the know and just sound like normal narrative to those who aren’t (so no one feels left out). 🙂 Of course, that’s probably easier said than done. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
Hi Leila. Critique partners are great, aren’t they! If I can sneak an in-joke past my critique partner AND my editors, I know it would won’t pull a reader out of the story even if they don’t get the joke. (There’s one Big Bang Theory joke in Doctor January – there were two, but the other one was culled!).
Thanks for commenting!
In-jokes can be a lot of fun, and I do agree that when possible it’s great to reward longtime fans of a series especially with things they know, but in a way that won’t annoy new readers. The “Steven Universe” comics from “Boom Studios” do an excellent job of this where they occasionally reference specific moments from the show, but even if you’re not a hardcore “Stventhusist” as I am, they’re great stand-alone stories that due the source material justice, both visually and in terms of characterization. But not all series can be non-linear or 100% open-ended, and if you have an overarching (linear) story with a clear end point, that means you won’t have the whole story until you’ve read ALL the books and in order. While the “Steven Universe” comics are a stand-alone affair that still respects the source material, the show proper has a more linear storyline, and especially now, you won’t get the full picture without watching earlier episodes if you tune in now. Best case scenario, someone coming in on book two or three might be intrigued to go back and read from the beginning, again, depending on how linear or open-ended the story. Again, depending the type of series, some are more episodic or keep characters static at a certain point and time (children’s book especially are notorious for this) but in general, I personally prefer series where characters aren’t the same age/stage FOREVER, like HP or Hunger Games. I get the “Timeless factor”… — Read More »
Great point! Yes, depending on how a series is structured, there may be more or less of an expectation that readers would have already read the previous installments. So in-jokes in open-ended series might be more risky than in closed loop series like Harry Potter. Thanks for sharing that insight!
“So in-jokes in open-ended series might be more risky than in closed loop series like Harry Potter. Thanks for sharing that insight!” True Jami, but in-jokes don’t have to be unwelcoming of new readers. The “Judy Moody” series mentions events from previous books, when relevent, but not in the “You can’t enjoy the current book” way. But even you haven’t read the book referenced, it doesn’t hinder your enjoyment of the book you’re reading right now. The “Geronimo Stilton” series does a similarally good job with referencing past books when relevent, especially when characters who “guest star” ocasionally appear again in a later book, but it’s done in a way that makes you interested to read the book they first appear, without making it feel “mandatory” to get the story of the book you’re reading now, if you haven’t already. That said, it helps that both Geronimo Stilton and Judy Moody doesn’t have the linear, over-arching plot HP does, but there are ways to do it that don’t annoy/bore new versus exisiting fans. Again, the “Steven Universe” comics do a great job of this. In large part because (as I say in my review of the first few volumes) is that they tell stand-alone stories that while they reference moments from the show proper, it’s not nessecary to be a devout “Steventhuist” to get enjoyment out of the comics. But of course, loving/watching the show helps, and you get the benfefit of fun in-jokes and references, but they’re still accessible… — Read More »
True, a open-ended series can still have in-jokes that don’t leave out readers. It just might be trickier depending on how much context is needed. 🙂
Well, I was ALSO making the point that even NON-open-ended stories can have “in-jokes” that don’t alienate new readers and still reward devoted fans.
Series that have a linear overarching storyline, but have a self-contained plot unique to each book, like HP, or Avi’s Poppy/Dimwood Forest series.
I think the “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques does this in various ways. Some books take place before the events in the first book (i.e. in the first book, we learn about “Martin The Warrior” legend, long before we get to see it play out in a book of its own) I’m not sure if the author knew he’d expand the legend in its own book, but in any case, there are ways to do it. THat’s all I’m saying.
The Hermux Tantamoq series does a great job with this.
They reward devout fans with, but the books are self-contained enough to start with any of them, but I do personally recommend books 3 and 4 in order, but otherwise they’re all great books on the own, but they do have a throughline that reading them all in order that makes a stronger overall reading experience.
Yes, very true! Many closed-loop stories are written where readers don’t have to read in order to get the basic story, and for them, just a little context can help things make sense–and make them eager to read what they missed. 🙂 Good point!
Hi Rhoda! What great timing! Yesterday I went to have dinner with a friend and her sister who came to visit, and for some reason, her sister found almost everything I did or said funny and kept laughing…LOL. XD I mean, I like it when people find me funny, but to laugh at almost everything I did or said, er….LOL it was cute, though. (Well, not literally almost everything, but she laughed so frequently that it felt like that, haha.) Apart from that, I love this post because I write romantic comedy as well! My rom coms aren’t the constant-laughter kind, but are in general pretty lighthearted, and occasionally a character or the narrator would say something funny—funny in my opinion, at least…So I appreciate the point you made about humor being subjective. I think I’m someone who gets jokes pretty easily, but I certainly wasn’t as sensitive to humor as my friend’s sister was. XD It really was quite adorable how she kept laughing; it was both flattering and baffling—am I really that funny??? Lol. Oh insider jokes are my favorite, but I agree that we shouldn’t expect reader to have the insider info already. Hmm apart from insider/ nerdy/ geeky jokes, I think my favorite type of humor is the absurd. When the situation is absurd or made to look ridiculous, I laugh automatically. But I also think that it’s best to have funny things arising organically from our characters (or plot), rather than deliberately forging humor, which… — Read More »
LOL! I’ve been known to “abuse” hashtags too. 😉 And I’m with you in having to sometimes cut humor from stories because it’s supposed to be a dark and serious scene. In the first story I wrote, I couldn’t cut it because it fit the character so well, but I’m still not sure it fits. (That story is currently in a drawer–maybe because I can’t quite get all the pieces to fit together well. 😉 ) Thanks for the comment!
Hurrah, fellow “hashtag-abuser” XDD
Oh man, yeah I have that same problem where something my character says or does, is completely in-character in that she would inevitably say or do that in that situation, but it doesn’t fit the scene’s mood…Don’t you hate it when these two characters are having a happy romance moment, and then this other character in the scene is saying or thinking something that is so mean, so petty, or so cynical, that they ruin the happy romantic atmosphere? OTL And you’re like: Shut up, character X! The reader is trying to enjoy the romance here, don’t be such a wet blanketer/ spoil sport! lol.
Yep, that’s one of those “what part of my muse do I listen to?” moments. LOL!
Hi Serena, thanks for your comment.
I think you’re right that there is a mind set that helps with writing humour. Most observational comics can make a perfectly ordinary situation sound funny because they view it from a different angle. A lot of jokes spring from the gap between what you anticipate will come next and what actually comes next.
It must be fun to meet someone who thinks that everything you say is funny. 🙂
“A lot of jokes spring from the gap between what you anticipate will come next and what actually comes next.”
Yes, indeed! Some of the humor in my story comes from overturning or inverting social stereotypes. So the society would lead you to expect that X would be Y, yet in your story, X is Z instead! Where Z is completely different or opposite from Y.
I’ve never written rom/com and I personally typically don’t enjoy them since as mentioned humor is rather subjective. My sense of humor is very dry, sarcastic and often morbid and this is often reflected in my writing. I do appreciate the point about using humor to lighten the mood and give readers a bit of breathing space.
Another point on humor being subjective, some people, especially those with autism might need things explained since they might have no means of comprehending *why* something is funny. Of course we can’t explain every joke or other readers would get annoyed very quickly but it is something to keep in mind when those 1-star reviews come in.
Great points! I know some who love dry humor and some who just stare and have no idea why others find it funny. So we may find more success with humor if we write in a humor style (slapstick, dry, sarcastic, morbid, etc.) that fits with our genre and reader expectations. Or if we break the mold, we might want to find a way to reflect that in our back-cover blurb to give readers the heads up.
And yes, there are some who would find things funny after it was explained, but our stories typically can’t take the time to give an explanation. It’s often an assumption in society that if a joke has to be explained, it must not be a very good one. That’s often true, but that attitude does leave some in the dark. Thanks for sharing those insights! 🙂
You make a very good point! Often there is no time in a book to explain a joke. I’ve taken out many a joke because because either my editor or my critique partner made a note saying ‘Huh?’ or ‘Is this meant to be a joke’.
This is especially difficult with dry/ sarcastic humour because so much of it relies on intonation and tone of voice, which is hard to convey in text.
[…] vacation break, and I want to give a humongous shout out to all my guest bloggers: Rachel, Tamar, Rhoda, and Amy. (And a bonus shout out to Kerry, who filled in ahead of time to give me a chance to […]
[…] shares 5 tips for making any scene in your novel more tense and interesting, and Rhoda Baxter lists 7 tips for adding humor to any […]
[…] how word choice can add humor […]
[…] add humor as appropriate […]
[…] decide on the appropriate level/style of humor for our story […]