By Jay Curtis
Comedy is an important aspect in writing prose and can be used to relieve tension. A funny moment gives the reader a chance to catch their breath, whether the content is lighthearted or heavy and suspenseful. Comedy also sends important signals to the reader about tone, character voice/ characterization, and foreshadowing. Incorporate more aspects of comedy into your writing to establish the level of seriousness, elements of worldbuilding; whether you’re guiding the reader toward a Happily-Ever-After or not.
“Witty banter” is a common phrase, especially among writers looking to deepen the reader’s bond with their characters — but there is so much more to comedy in writing funny prose than off-the-cuff wordplay between characters. Whether characters are narrating or interacting with each other, you can utilize aspects of one-liners, deadpan comedy, physical comedy, and, yes, even word play. In this blog we’ll take a look at what methods are out there to add funny writing to your stories.
Funny writing done well
Today I’m referencing Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, one of my favorite funny books and consequently a movie I saw in theaters by myself at least half a dozen times. Marion’s spin on Romeo and Juliet is funny; it’s painted as a story straddling the genres of romance and horror — I suppose the fantastical zombies are gruesome enough — but roaming masses of the undead aside, Warm Bodies is a comedy.
Marion’s writing tone is light. R roams around the airport, struggling to find pleasure in the mundane tasks of riding escalators and moving sidewalks, and his character voice, despite being a tragic soul who wants more from his “life,” is rather witty.
“I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it.”
This is the beginning of the book, and this wordplay is so predictable (it’s basically a “dad joke”) that it’s both sad and hilarious. These first two sentences not only tell us everything we need to know about our narrator’s character, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the book.
A witty narrator
Even though R is dead, he still feels very much alive to us. He’s a visceral, relatable narrator, and although he laments not knowing his own name, the single letter “R” paints him with a broad stroke that makes each of us R, shuffling through life in search of…well, who knows? Making sure that your readers bond with your characters (or message) is an essential aspect of writing, and comedy is another option you can use to connect your readers to your content.
“His clothes are holey jeans and a white T-shirt. The shirt is looking pretty macabre by now. He should have picked a darker color.”
R’s observational, deadpan humor points to a level of ridiculousness; obviously his friend M couldn’t have planned what his “forever” outfit was going to be. R himself merely got luck with wearing a suit and tie, and this simple statement hints that R must be different from other zombies. For one, he still thinks like a human! R still feels like a human, too. Marion uses this characterization to his advantage in foreshadowing R’s arc, and R’s sense of humor, observations, and memories solidify our undead narrator as a good guy, if not simply misunderstood.
“I grab my stomach again. ‘Feel empty. Feel…dead.”
He nods. ‘Marr…iage.’”
Witty banter between (mostly) monosyllabic undead characters takes a clever mind, and with this as the most dialogue that’s happened yet in the book, it’s very obvious. Plus, we see that for witty banter to work, we don’t even need full sentences.
Brevity is the soul of wit
Comedy is such a strong storytelling tool on its own for this back-and-forth to stand up, even at its barest of bones.
“I’ve walked in on M with his ‘girlfriends’ before, and they’re just standing there naked, staring at each other, sometimes rubbing their bodies together but looking tired and lost.”
Even more clever than witty banter without true dialogue is physical comedy with zombies, especially those pretending to be human. With R’s character voice so clear, it’s impossible not to imagine what this “sex” scene must be like to walk in on. It looks absurd, as if underdeveloped NPCs in a video game are experiencing lag, and this visual is very different from the near sex scene from Perry’s memory one chapter prior. This juxtaposition of physical differences (comedy) plays up the undead’s futility and lack of ambition; this bit also highlights the difference between sex in conjunction with true love and sex for the sake of it. It appears that zombies are tired of feeling left unfulfilled (more foreshadowing).
There are an endless amount of other quotes I could pull from Warm Bodies, but at this point, I might as well recommend giving it a read if you haven’t yet. This book is a great example of contemporary writing in the paranormal – science fiction realms that rely heavily on humor/comedy, so for more examples and a better look at how you can utilize comedy in your writing, check out Warm Bodies.
Different aspects of funny writing
As for capturing these different aspects of comedy? I recommend live action — and this goes beyond reading your writing out loud! Record yourself (either reading out loud or improvising character lines) to find the natural rhythm of interaction, and even act out a scene to nail down the physically comedic elements if you have to. I also find that watching sitcoms or other “funny” TV shows can help with pacing, timing, and delivery (my personal favorites are Community, Bob’s Burgers, and Brooklyn 99, which are all available on streaming platforms).
Also, if it makes you laugh, others will laugh, too. Write down or record moments when you lose yourself in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Why did you laugh? Was it the tone of someone’s voice, the look on their face, the way their body looked, the words themselves? Deconstructing what makes you laugh will help you fit those funny puzzle pieces into your writing and strengthen your writing in the process.
Jay Curtis is a SFF writer who has been published in journals like Quail Bell Magazine and who excels at writing funny scenes and diverse tales of acceptance. When they’re not writing in their hoard of notebooks, they’re championing newly published LGBT+ stories. You can find them on Twitter at @AJCurtis6.