The next installment of my series on What Makes a Great Story is about humor. To see the previous posts in this series, check out these links:
Openings - Part 1
Openings - Part 2
Dialogue and Internal Thought

Humor is a part of most stories whether intentional or not.

Some books like The Princess Bride or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are purposefully written with humor as a primary element of the story. For example, here are a few by Douglas McAdams:
“He hoped and prayed that there wasn't an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn't an afterlife.”

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

“It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.”

And here are a few from William Goldman.
“Life isn't fair, it's just fairer than death, that's all.”

“I am your Prince and you will marry me," Humperdinck said.
Buttercup whispered, "I am your servant and I refuse."
"I am you Prince and you cannot refuse."
"I am your loyal servant and I just did."
"Refusal means death."
"Kill me then.”

People don't remember me. Really. It's not a paranoid thing; I just have this habit of slipping through memories. It doesn't bother me all that much, except I guess that's a lie; it does. For some reason, I test very high on forgettability.”

However, most fiction generally approaches humor in a much different manner. Similar to romance or action, authors treat humor as another tool when telling their story. The difficult thing about humor is that it must feel natural and not forced. From a writer’s standpoint, the harder you try to make something funny, the less humorous it tends to be.

For me, humor must fit not only the situation, but also the characters involved in the situation. I find adding humor later in a story is generally easier than including it early on since at that point each character’s personality and tendencies has been established. The character and story must be true to itself. A joke shouldn’t sound like it is coming from the author. It should sound like it came from the character. A hard-nosed killer with ice water in his veins better not suddenly tell his friend a fart joke unless you’ve somehow set the character up to work in that way long before he does it.

Some stories may not need humor and that’s fine. The worst thing an author can do is force something that isn’t there. Readers can see through a forced joke just as easily as they can see through an implausible action sequence.

Are there any authors you find handle humor better than others?


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