A joyful heart
is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit
— Proverbs 17:22
I don’t know about you youngsters out there, but at the ripe old age of 61, the last thing I want is dry bones! Had my bone density test a few weeks ago and I’m just a hair shy of normal (my bones, mind you, not my personality!), so I cannot risk reading depressing, dry, slice-of-life books. Frankly I’m a Calgon-take-me-away type of gal who, come to think of it, has dry skin as well. Bottom line? The older we get, the less there is to laugh about, which is exactly why we need humor in our writing!
Now, don’t get your knickers in knot thinking I’m talking fall-down-roll-on-the-floor-type of funny, because I’m not. Let’s face it, there are only so many Robin Williams and Mary Connealys in the world, and I ain’t one of them. BUT … we non-comedic romance writers can and should incorporate enough humor to elicit a smile, quirk a lip or maybe—yes—even give birth to a chuckle.
So, how do we do that? Well, as a matter of fact, I wanted to know how to do it as well, so I asked the Seekers for humorous excerpts and then combed through my books for what I thought were some of the more humorous lines just to see what made them funny to me. And, WOW, I’m not sure, but I think I may have hit the motherlode as far as great ideas to infuse humor in my writing. Now, I don’t know if these methods will be funny to you, nor or these all the methods possible, I’m quite sure, so when we’re done, if anybody wants to comment about additional ways to infuse humor in our writing, GO FOR IT! Because frankly, I think we need all the methods—and humor—we can get. But for the record, here are some key reasons I came up with as to WHY we should incorporate humor in our stories.
1.) HUMOR CAN SET THE TONE OF YOUR BOOK OR CHARACTERS:
Mary Connealy’s Calico Canyon is about a teacher who, in the process of attempting to tame five hellion little boys and their pa, accidentally ends up as a ma and wife to them instead. I'm sure you'll agree that the first line of this true Connealy classic sets the mood for the entire book, which is a light and humorous read.
The five horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in. Late as usual.
—Calico Canyon, Mary Connealy, July 2008
Next, in my novel A Hope Undaunted, the heroine Katie O’Connor is a spunky, sassy and quick-witted heroine with a dry sense of humor, so naturally I wanted to use humor to kick off her story, setting the tone for who Katie is as person, which in turn sets up the humorous head-butting that goes on between her and the hero Luke McGee.
My original first line was a thought by Katie—Love at first sight, my foot—which my editor did not care for, so I changed it. However, because I needed to show Katie’s sarcastic humor right off the bat, my editor let me keep my original line at the end of the first paragraph, which I hope gives the reader a microcosm of who this heroine will be. To further underscore the humor, I tried to give Katie a humorous action with a loud sucking noise when she drains her soda. Here’s the final version of the first paragraph of A Hope Undaunted:
Now this is how love should be—nice and neat. Katie O’Connor sucked the last of her Coca-Cola through a straw in Robinson’s Diner and studied her steady beau Jack Worthington with a secret smile. No, siree, no dime-novel notions of love for her. Love requires a focused plan, she thought to herself with certainty. Cool, calm, rational thinking, not a moment in time where one lovesick glance seals your fate. With a loud, hollow noise, she drained her soda and pushed the glass away, assessing Jack through approving eyes. Her lips slanted. Love at first sight, my foot.
Now, it’s no secret I am a first-line freak (see my Seeker blog entitled The Perfect Pickup Line ... Or How to Hook a Reader!), but when you can slap a little humor in that first line, to me, it’s pure Nirvana! I just think a hint of humor lends sparkle to a first line, you know? Kinda like telling the reader this is going to be a fun read, such as in the excellent following examples:
—Her Unlikely Family, Missy Tippens
If there was one thing Josie knew, it was the smell of a rich man. And whoever had just walked into the diner smelled like Fort Knox.
—A Valentine’s Wish, Betsy St. Amant
Unemployed. Single. And out of brownie mix.
—Surrender the Heart, MaryLu Tyndall
I would rather boil in oil than marry Noah Brenin.
2.) HUMOR CAN ENDEAR YOUR CHARACTERS TO YOUR READER AND PROVIDE A CHARACTER DEPTH THAT FEELS NORMAL, NATURAL AND INVITING. In this scene from my next year’s release A Love Surrendered, Charity O’Connor is the “quirky” sister who provides most of the comic relief in the series, which helps to make the family “feel” so much more fun and close like a family should be.
“Ouch.” Steven grinned, biceps taut as he folded his arms. “Poor Mitch—bet that hurt.”
“Not as much as it hurt Henry. Mitch went off like a rocket’s red glare. Haven’t seen the love of my life lose it like that since …” She paused to think, head cocked and hand to mouth. “Well, I guess since yesterday when he cut his face with the razor I used on the neighbor’s dog.” She scrunched her nose and shivered. “Beggar’s lice and skunk. Don’t ask—it’s not pretty.”
3.) HUMOR CAN BRING BALANCE AND COMIC RELIEF TO A SERIOUS SCENE: In the following scene from A Heart Revealed, the heroine Emma Malloy is devastated by something that happens at the store where she works, which in turn devastates the hero Sean O’Connor who is in love with her. To lighten the tone of what is a very serious last quarter of the book, I layered humor into this heartbreaking situation by having Charity O’Connor, the quirky busy-body of the family, try to weasel information out of her brother. Note the heavy use of stoically comical facial expressions/humorous posture on the hero’s part combined with Charity’s relentless probing regarding her best friend Emma.
Kneading the bridge of his nose, Sean wished he’d never promised Emma his silence because when it came the truth, Charity could sniff it out like a bloodhound, twitching until she was nose-to-nose.
She tapped her foot on the leafy pavement. “Something’s up, Sean, I can feel it in my bones, and so help me I will badger you all the way home if you don’t spill it now.”
His frustration blasted out in a cloud of smoke. “I can’t tell you, Charity, I promised.”
“Oh, fiddle, that’s an easy fix. I’ll just ask the questions, and you give me that stone-face look of yours that will tell me everything I need to know.”
“But that’s not right.”
“Sure it is,” she said, dismissing his concern with a wave of her hand. “I do it with Mitch all the time.” Head cocked, she chewed on her lip. “Okay, it’s something that happened at work, but it has to be personal because Emma’s steady as a rock in all business matters, right?”
He stared, trying not to blink.
“Okay, good, a personal situation at work that involves a person other than you.”
His jaw dropped. “I never said that.”
“Sure you did, when you did that pinching thing with your nose as a stall tactic.”
He crossed his arms to his chest, emotional battlement to ward off the enemy.
“Now ... let’s see,” she said, finger to her chin. “Somebody upset Emma pretty badly, which means it has to be someone who doesn’t work at the store.”
“Why?” he asked in exasperation, his patience as thin as his energy.
Charity blinked. “Why? Because the woman who bolted up my steps was as pale as death,” she said, enunciating slowly as if explaining something to Henry. “Which means it has to be someone she feels threatened by, and that rules out everyone at Dennehy’s.”
His lips compressed.
She gave him a quick nod and started to pace, head down and arms folded. “Okay, so it has to be an outsider she’s afraid of and probably a man.” She halted mid-stride, eyes spanning wide. “Wait, it’s not that bum who threatened her, is it? You know, her neighbor’s boyfriend?”
Swallowing his discomfort, he gave her a blank stare, facial muscles relaxing.
She blew out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good. For a second there, I was worried.”
“How the devil do you do that?” he said in a choke, lips parted in shock.
She tapped a finger to her head. “Stone face, remember?” Her mouth went flat. “It’s a gift—honed to perfection by Mitch Dennehy.”
4.) HUMOR PROVIDES CONTRAST TO DRAMA, DEEPENING THE EFFECT OF BOTH IN A STORY: Let’s face it—if a paragraph is comprised of nothing but run-on sentences, it becomes boring and predictable, so writers know the best prose mixes it up with a combination of short and long sentences. I personally love to sprinkle in short, dramatic one- or two-word sentences/thoughts in my writing, but if I put them in every paragraph, they would lose their effect since there is no contrast to give them punch. It’s the same with humor and drama—a mix of each provides contrast to sharpen both your prose and your story.
In this scene from A Passion Most Pure, the heroine Faith O’Connor meets her manager Mitch Dennehy for the first time, an encounter that is both dramatic and traumatic for her, not only because she is incredibly nervous, but because she is a serious and hardworking person who wants to make a good impression. Mitch arrives late to the meeting and is taken to task by his manager Michael (whose POV this scene is in). Upon introduction, Mitch proceeds to bait and pick on Faith, so to play up the drama, I incorporated traces of humor (i.e. analogy of the blush of her cheeks spreading like blight in the rainy season and comparing Faith’s tension to straddling a mule about to buck rather than a horse since a mule is more comical). I personally think the slight touch of humor helps to sharpen the delivery of a dramatic and hard-hitting line that not only puts her bully of a manager in his place, but conveys the message that she will not tolerate ridicule.
Mitch didn’t say a word, only eyed her with practiced superiority, and the blush on her cheeks spread like blight in the rainy season. Michael watched in fascination as a smile fluttered on his department editor’s lips. Mitch’s penetrating blue eyes drifted from the tiny hands pinched white in Faith’s lap, to the soft tendril of hair that curved the nape of her neck.
There was no mercy in Mitch’s smile. “Michael tells me you were a copywriter at The Boston Herald, is that right?”
Faith hesitated, then sucked in a shaky breath. “Yes, I mean I did write some copy …”
Mitch nodded. His cocky smile worked its way into a grin. “Some copy? Have you done any feature writing before?” He was waiting. They were all waiting.
The hot stain on her cheeks infected the tips of her ears. “No, I haven’t done much feature writing, exactly …”
“Any reviews, editorials, hard news?”
She tensed as if straddling a mule about to buck. “No, I’m afraid I don’t have much experience doing any of that …”
“Well, then, Miss O’Connor,” he mused, his eyes laughing at her, “Tell me. Is there anything you can do?”
The air stilled to a deathly hush. Slowly, she lifted her chin to stare at him with as much defiance as she could politely display. “Yes sir …” she said, producing a smile that was anything but, “I can be on time.”
WAYS TO INCORPORATE HUMOR IN YOUR WRITING: There are dozens of simple ways to incorporate humor in your stories such as good word choice (i.e. the example above in point 4 where I use the word “mule” instead of the more expected “horse” in the phrase “straddling a mule about to buck”), as well as exaggerated emphasis with punctuation such as ellipses and dashes, pacing, timing, silence, facial and body gestures, etc.
Since I don’t have the space (and you don’t have the time), I am only going to highlight a few of the predominate ways that I and other writers have utilized in their work. And, because there are SO many of these predominate ways to discuss and I don’t want to incur the razz of Ruthy with my verbosity, I decided to break this post into two parts, the second of which I will post at a later date.
That said, following are a number of favorite ways I like to inject humor in my writing, but today we will only cover the first four.
2.) Facial Features
5.) Slapstick Dialogue/Internal Monologue
6.) Serious Subject/Humorous Take
7.) Play on Words
8.) Scene Set-Up
10.) Sibling Rivalry
11.) Quirky Personality
13.) Name Calling
Ready? Here we go …
WAYS TO INCORPORATE HUMOR IN YOUR WRITING:
1.) ANALOGY/METAPHOR/SIMILE: A comparison to something that is ridiculous or paints a humorous picture can bring a light tone to the scene as in the following examples where I bolded the humorous “comparison” word. Note the use of alliteration in the second example that I think helps to heighten the humor of the analogy:
— A Horseman’s Heart by Myra Johnson
When the server brought the oversize menus, Kip couldn’t turn pages without bumping elbows with Sheridan. Not that it mattered, because with all his senses attuned to the woman at his left, Kip might as well have been reading hieroglyphics.
— A Love Surrendered by Julie Lessman
“Wait—what’s going on here?” Charity demanded, a talent for digging up dirt that would put a steam shovel to shame.
In the following scene from A Heart Revealed, I tried to play up the humor of Charity O’Connor plotting to manipulate her brother (in front of her mother and sisters) into coming to dinner against his will by utilizing a series of ongoing metaphors for fishing/hunting:
“Perfect! And you may as well stay for dinner …”
Sean hesitated—prey stilled by the scent of the hunter. “I don’t know, sis …” One side of his mouth lifted a fraction of an inch. “I probably won’t smell too good.”
“But you’re coaching, not playing, right? And you gotta eat anyway …” Charity appeared hopeful as she cast her imaginary line.
Nobody breathed as the lure sailed through the air …
“Look, sis, I’m not the best company lately—”
“I don’t mind if you eat and run, honest.”
He cocked his head and gritted his teeth with a smile, his decision likely edging toward “no,” given the apology in his eyes.
Oh-oh, fish or cut bait. Charity smiled and switched strategies. “That’s okay, really—I understand.” With a nonchalant air, she grabbed a spool of purple thread from the sewing box and gave him a wink. “Just more ribs for us.” She held the thread against the silk blouse and looked up. “Hey, do these colors match?”
“Ribs?” Sean said weakly.
Charity fished in the sewing box again, ignoring his gaze as she fiddled with more spools. “Yes, sir … Mitch’s apple-wood smoked variety, his secret sauce, corn on the cob, my prize popovers and—” She looked up, her face the picture of innocence. “potato salad.”
“Potato salad?” He paused. His voice was the pained whisper of a man used to simpler fare prepared by a frugal mother victimized by the depression. He swallowed hard, as if drool were clogging his throat. “Mustard or mayonnaise?”
She plopped back into her chair and flashed him a bright smile. “Sorry, didn’t catch that. What was the question again?”
“The potato salad—is it the mustard kind or the mayonnaise?” It came out as a croak.
Charity worked the edge of her lip, trying to remember Sean’s favorite. “Uh … mayonnaise, I think.”
The man groaned as if a sharp lure had just pierced the soft flesh of his lip.
She set the hook and reeled him in. “And, of course, my homemade devilled eggs, those barbecue butter beans you’re so fond of and last but not least …”
His mouth hung open like a large-mouth bass.
Victory coursed through her veins with a rush of adrenaline. “Warm peach cobbler in a pool of caramel sauce with cinnamon ice cream on the side … from Robinson’s no less,” she breathed, her tone hushed with respect.
“Oh, man …” His voice was a moan of defeat. He blasted out a sigh that could have ruffled the leaves on the lilac bush at the edge of the porch. “What time again?”
2.) FACIAL FEATURES: This has to be one of the easiest ways to incorporate humor because if you can paint the picture for your reader with twitches or exaggerated facial muscles (such as the humorous lines in bold below), a smile will crinkle in your reader’s mind that will hopefully bring one to their face as well:
A Love Surrendered by Julie Lessman
“Mind if I cut in?”
With a sharp jolt, Annie jerked in Nate’s arms, blinking up at Steven as if he’d doused her with cold water. No, make that ice water. She pushed hair from her eyes. “What?”
The tic in his hard-chiseled face could have kept time with the music. “I said, do you mind if I cut in?”
— A Passion Redeemed by Julie Lessman
His lips were white, his eyes red and a vein in his temple throbbed a dangerous blue. Not a good color combination.
— The Cousins McClare by Julie Lessman
The dimples took on a life of their own. “First of all, miss,” he said with a half-lidded stare, obviously enjoying the scold, “ if you’d been manhandled by me, trust me—you’d know it. Secondly, my girlfriend would say nothing because I don’t have one, which,” he said with a mock grimace, “suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. And thirdly …” He slacked a hip and hiked a thumb toward the departing train, heating her cheeks with a wink. “That was my cousin.”
“Horse apples!” The whites of her eyes expanded while her cheeks flamed red hot, which given the flush of heat beneath her blue suit, might be considered warmly patriotic. “And I’m the Queen of England,” she hissed, suddenly wondering why she was berating some poor schmo whose only sin had been to accidentally mow her down and look good doing it.
3.) PUN: Puns are an easy and fun way to lighten a mood, as you can see from Tina’s example below:
— Oklahoma Reunion by Tina Radcliffe
Her gaze met his and she frowned. “You probably shouldn't be leaning against that railing.”
“I just finished the second coat an hour ago.”
He sprang from the wooden rail and looked over his shoulder.
Kait laughed like that was the funniest thing she’d heard in forever. He hadn’t heard her laugh like that in so long that he just stared, delighted at the sound.
“Turn around so I can see the damage,” she said.
“Do I look like I just rode into town on a green saddle? No way. This is downright embarrassing. I can see from the pattern on that railing that I left a little bit of me behind.”
“Is that a pun?”
Ryan rubbed the backside of his Wrangler jeans with his palms.
4.) SARCASM: In real life, I never think of myself as funny and, in fact, tend to tease my daughter about her sarcastic humor, but the truth is, she probably gets it from me. I honestly didn’t fully realize that until I fleshed out Charity and Katie O’Connor’s personalities in the later books of the O’Connor saga, infusing these two pistols with dry wit that makes me chuckle every single time. Here are a few examples that I hope had my readers chuckling as well:
— A Hope Undaunted by Julie Lessman
For the second time since she arrived, Katie stood gaping, the click of Luke’s door a slap in her face. She felt the fire in her cheeks clear up to her eyes. “God, help me … I can’t do this.”
“Oh yes you can, sweetie.” Betty placed a tapered hand on Katie’s arm and steered her toward the time clock, a hint of soothing in her tone. She leaned close to whisper in her ear. “You just have to learn how to handle him.”
Katie peered up, eyes squinted. “What, you have a manual on dealing with morons?”
— A Hope Undaunted by Julie Lessman
Betty casually strolled the length of the room to the far front corner, motioning for Katie to follow. “You might say Bobbie Sue Dulay is our Southern contingent at the BCAS and a real ray of Georgia sunshine. She’s kind of like a permanent paid volunteer who does whatever we need—typing, filing, baby-sitting.”
“Baby-sitting?” Katie’s incredulous tone took a turn toward sweet. “Oh . . . you mean for Mr. McGee.”
— A Heart Revealed by Julie Lessman (Charity & Mitch are feuding)
Chuckles rounded the table as Marcy hooked Charity in a hug. “Ignore, them, darling, you’re more lovely at thirty-two than you were at twenty-two, if that’s even possible. Right, Mitch?”
Charity’s smile stiffened as she glanced up at her husband who sat at the other end of the table next to her father with a glass of ginger ale in his hand. The only way he could get any further away was to sit with the babies in the kitchen. Her mouth crooked up. Where he belongs.
— A Love Surrendered by Julie Lessman
“Trust me, Steven’s been a real grouch lately,” Faith assured her, “which means he misses you as much as you miss him.”
“Then why hasn’t he called?” Annie asked, brows sloped in concern.
“Because men have more pride than common sense, sweetie.” Charity patted her arm, sympathy edging her tone. “Don’t they teach you anything at Radcliffe?”
— A Hope Undaunted by Julie Lessman
“Cluny McGee? Coming for dinner? God have mercy, isn’t he in prison?” Katie pulled a tray of dinner rolls from the oven and set it on the soapstone counter. The scent of fresh-baked bread filled her mother’s spacious kitchen, watering her mouth and rumbling her stomach. Her lips kinked at the not-so-gentle reminder that she’d been too distracted to eat. At least, not since last night when Father had unveiled his diabolical plan to ruin her life. She flipped the oven door closed and turned, giving her family a wry smile. “Or is he out on parole?”
Okay, that’s it—our first four points! And trust me—you don’t want to miss the next thirteen that I will post down the road, because they are FUN!! Till then, leave a comment and humor tips of your own if you like, humorous samples of yours or other writers, or just the name of humorous authors you enjoy. Then I will enter you in the contest for your choice of a signed copy of any of my books (OR your choice of a top CBA book from my library) AND the very detailed handout from Ruth Axtell Morren’s and my ACFW Workshop, “A Kiss is NOT Just a Kiss.” PLUS the commenter with the funniest lines of their own will be asked to contribute additional humorous excerpts for Part Two of this blog because frankly I'm having trouble getting funny clips from other people and I NEED you! So good luck, God bless and break a leg—but if you do, remember—at least make ‘em laugh!