An Anatomy of Humor
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it. -E.B. White
Because I write humorous fiction, I am often thinking about humor itself. For example, what makes it funny? What qualifies a novel as humorous fiction rather than some other category of fiction that happens to have humor in it?
In other words, let’s kill some frogs, shall we?
I’ll begin by paraphrasing (liberally, and with apologies to a great man) Winston Churchill by saying that good humorous fiction is a chuckle wrapped in a guffaw inside a knowing smile. More simply put, true humorous fiction is all about layering. In this post I’ll be exploring the simplest layer—the famous, but oft-maligned, one-liner.
Did you hear the one about the One-liner?
One-liners are quick, one-dimensional jokes that most anyone can write now and then. Part of the reason one-liners are so easy to write is that there are a myriad of forms to choose from. Here are some common categories along with examples from my novels Kibble Talk and Dog Goner, which are part of my Kibble Talk series.
1. Exaggeration. Zach is so thin and bony he could hoola hoop with a Cheerio.
I do a lot of exaggeration in my novels and it can be a blast to write—I just let my mind spiral out in ever more ridiculous circles until I hit the right image. But two caveats.
First, it is easy to be overly cruel. If you are writing for children, a little wincing on the part of your readers is okay as long as it’s only a tiny little wince and it’s accompanied by a chuckle. If you’re writing for adults, you can go for the gut punch, but again, there must be a correspondingly impactful laugh.
Second, if you are writing in first person dialogue, make sure your language conforms to the way your character (in terms of age, education, etc.) would speak and think about the world. In this example, a nine year old is describing her best friend’s super skinny older brother. Your average nine year old is very familiar with both hoola hooping and Cheerios cereal. Your average nine-year-old would not be so familiar (one hopes) with someone being so skinny he could fit into the barrel of a 9-gage shotgun, for example.
2. Surprise: “I am a humble man and I will shout that from the mountaintops,” Mr. Higginbotham said.
Here the reader anticipates that the last half of the sentence will reinforce the message given in the first half, but instead, it entirely contradicts it. This type of one-liner is perfect for delineating a ridiculous character—one who, like Mr. Higginbotham, is oblivious to his own contradictions. It is funny to your audience because they do see the contradiction.
3. Set up a funny visual. (Here Tawny is describing her dog to us for the very first time. The actual one-liner is the last sentence, but you need the rest of it for it to make sense.)
Dinky is huge. He is a Great Dane and an especially great one at that. He weighs more than my dad and is taller than my dad when they are both down on all fours. His undersides are the color of whipped cream, his back, legs and head are caramel, and his face and ears are chocolate brown. I like to think he’s the world’s largest ice cream sundae!
I like this visual in particular because it explains a great deal more than Dinky’s size and coloring. Without her coming out and telling us, it provides an immediate sense of Tawny’s feelings for her dog. Using those same exact colors, for example, she could have compared him to a military tank in desert camouflage. Instead, he is every child’s dream—an enormous sweet treat.
4. Twist a well-known phrase. I use this one the least in my fiction because a) the jokes tend to be formulaic and can come off as wooden, and b) your audience must be familiar with the original phrase and I can’t be as sure of that with children. But if cleverly done, they are very memorable because the reader already knows the original line. It took me a while to find an example of one from my own writing, but finally I found one so close it could have reached out and goosed me: Good humorous fiction is a chuckle wrapped in a guffaw inside a knowing smile. Ta da!
The Rotten Tomato Blaster
But while writing one-liners isn’t particularly hard, figuring out how and when to use them is hard. The well-placed one liner in an otherwise serious book (mystery, crime, romance, etc.) will endear your readers to you, especially when it arrives like a lifeline just after an emotionally fraught moment. But what do you do when your entire genre is humor? One thing you don’t do, is rely so heavily on one-liners that they are essentially the only layer of humor in the book.
Sadly, I see this most often in children’s humorous fiction. Wanting to please her audience, the writer thinks to herself: “Children, and especially boys, like jokes, so all I need to do is write a lot of them.” Sigh.
When that happens, the book can become a series of throwaway lines and personal slams drowning in a soup of endless whining and negativity, very much like this sentence. The first few quips may be entertaining, but after a short while of having to react to them over and over again, the reader feels as if he or she is in a batting cage at the receiving end of a pitching machine that has been well-stocked with rotten tomatoes. Splat! Splat! Make it stop! Splat!
Of course, the real problem is that with so much of the page (and so much of the writer’s mental energy) devoted to the next joke, there’s little room left for character development and storyline.
By all means use one-liners, but make them an occasional treat, not the main course. For the rest of your humor, go deeper and wider. Truly funny humorous fiction is built on a scaffold of jokes that take a full chapter, and even the entire book, to develop and reach their punchline. To see some of this in action, check out my books. Some good examples of chapter-based jokes are the bearded-dragon joke (in Kibble Talk) and the creamed spinach and onions layer cake joke (in Dog Goner), but pretty much all of my chapters have them. And as for the book length jokes, well, you’ll just have to read the book.
Author bio: Living in the fossil-filled hills of Southern Indiana, Cynthia Port writes for the young and the stubbornly young at heart. Her first novel, Kibble Talk, was published toward the end of 2013. Book 2 in the series, Dog Goner, was published in 2014. The Kibble Talk series hooks readers with its humor and lively characters, but tucked between the laughs are heartfelt messages about self-acceptance and not taking others for granted. Dr. Port is currently working on book 3 in the series, as well as a standalone historical fiction that takes place in the Australian Outback. Wombats, anyone?
Kibble Talk Book blurb: Once Tawny decides to do something, there’s no holding her back. So when her best friend dares her to eat dog kibble, down it goes. Little does she know how that dusty, tasteless lump will change her life. Suddenly she can hear what dogs have to say and talk back to them too! This might not be such a big deal, except that her own dog, an enormous Great Dane named Dinky, has a LOT to say. He lets her know right away that his fondest dream is to be a teeny tiny lap dog with all the accessories. Tawny promises to help him, and her life nearly goes to the dogs.
Dog Goner Book Blurb: Secrets will be revealed! Fondest wishes will be fulfilled! Permacrud will be . . . what the heck is permacrud, anyway? Find out in Dog Goner, the second book in the hilarious Kibble Talk series. Tawny and Jenny, along with their dogs Dinky and Gunner, have set themselves on a mission—or really, three missions. Gunner just wants to be clean, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Jenny is determined to find out the secret to Kibble Talking, and she’s prepared to feed kibble to the whole fifth grade if need be. Tawny wants a little brother or sister to make her family complete. But there’s someone else with a fondest wish, and they’ll do anything to get it. And Dinky? He just wants to save the day before someone becomes a dog goner.
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▪ Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Cynthia-Port/e/B00GZRZGO2
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• Kibble Talk Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Kibble-Talk-Cynthia-Port-ebook/dp/B00GZP5LZI
• Dog Goner Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.com/Dog-Goner-Kibble-Talk-Book-ebook/dp/B00JF9GUCE