I recently read Hank Quense's Tales From Gundarland: Eight humorous stories from the land of the incongruous. While I work on my review, here's a guest post to whet your appetite a bit. Author Hank Quense talks about writing humorous and satiric fiction. Much of his post is based on Chapter 8 from his ebook on fiction writing, Build a Better Story.
Humorous stories are difficult to write. Besides developing the humor, these stories must have all the other elements of a non-humorous story. To state it differently, a comedic story must have a protagonist, a plot problem and an antagonist. A big reason why many humorous stories fail is because the author assumes the addition of humor will negate the need for one or more of the other story elements. This is always a fatal assumption.
A major part of the problem with writing humor is that humor is very subjective; what one reader sees as hilarious, another will view as stupid. Thus no matter how good a humor writer you are, you always have the disadvantage that many readers will think your stuff is dumb. While this caveat applies to all writing, it is more pronounced with humor and satire.
A mistake I see a lot in short stories, and one that I'm prone to make, is a failure to tip off the reader early on that the story is humorous. The author has to let the reader know this at the beginning of the story. If the story starts off with a serious tone and then changes to a humorous one, the reader will get confused and many of them will get annoyed. Just as annoying is a story that starts off humorous and then bogs down in a serious plot problem. This happens frequently with movies. They start off hysterically funny and then degenerate into a more serious tone that has only a few smiles in the second half of the movie.
Humor doesn't come from mocking a character's disabilities or deformities. A reader will see this as cruelty, not humor or comedy. Humor comes from oddball behavior caused by bizarre inner characteristics in one or more of the story's characters, not through their physical appearances.
A writer can use oblique references to get across these physical deformities and disabilities without actually describing them. As an example, I used the Wyrd Sisters (from Shakespeare's MacBeth) in a short story. The sisters in my story are middle-aged, ugly and obese, but I never directly mentioned these features during the story. Instead I mentioned their tent-sized robes and used the panicky reaction of men when they met the sisters. These reactions told the reader a lot about how the sisters looked without actually describing them.
Like all fiction, the humorous story is about characters. As far as the character's physical appearance goes, that is straightforward and easy. The real effort goes into the inner workings of the character. A comedy character needs quirks, eccentricities and insane motivation. Once the plot drives the character into a serious situation, the quirks and eccentricities take over and force the character to respond in ways that normal people would never consider. The knack to doing this is to visualize what a normal character would do in a certain situation and then twist it to what an un-normal character would do. As an example, consider the basic rescue story involving a hero and a princess. Rescuing the princess is what would happen in an ordinary adventure story and what readers expect to happen. Twist that around and, suddenly, the princess is insulted to be rescued by a commoner and voluntarily returns to her captivity until a noble rescuer shows up. That unexpected turn of events produces humor.
In another story I used two traditional Western heroes (Zorro and the Lone Ranger) and changed them into characters with few if any chances of winning. That gave me opportunities to exploit their situations for a few laughs.
In summary, humor writing involves developing characters with bizarre ways of thinking and acting. The author then throws those characters into situations that will allow the characters' bizarre behavior to take center stage.
Visit Hank's website for more information on his writing and his books. His latest, Tales From Gundarland has become a best seller on the planet Zaftan 31B