Friday, June 28, 2013

How to Write Humor according to North Idaho's own Patrick McManus

by Ana Parker Goodwin

Do any of you write humor? I am probably one of the worst humor writers on the planet, but I'm learning. So here I am, practicing what I preached in my last blog: Write about something you know nothing about and doesn't excite you.

When I was a kid I grew up with a father and his family who had escaped Communist Russia during the Stalin purges. We very rarely laughed.  My father, the head of our household, saw nothing to laugh about. As a matter of fact on my wedding day he became very annoyed that Ron and I were being silly and joking with each other. "Now be serious, Anna," he said. "Getting married is nothing to laugh about." Actually it was probably one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband. He laughed a lot and could find the humor in almost anything. And so in the years we have been together I have learned to laugh.

When I wrote my mystery/thriller book Justice Forbidden I deliberately snuck in some humor even though the plot is serious. And in the next fiction book that I am presently writing in the Justice series, I am adding even more humor. Why?

If we didn't have humor in our lives when things got tough, where would we be? Probably even more anxious and depressed. The thing is, that the world is pretty stressed out right now and many people are reacting with anxiety and anger. That's okay. People have automatic emotions when they listen to the news and for each person the emotion may be different. But don't forget. We all have choices about how we will respond and act. Can you see the problem from a different perspective? Can you turn the picture upside down or at angles and see the funny aspect of it? Comedians have a great way of doing just that. If you can laugh at a situation it will help you cope with what is going on.  

Patrick McManus, who lives here in North Idaho, is one of the great humorists in this country today. I hope all of you have read some of his books. My favorite of the books I read was Never Sniff a Gift Fish. Most of his stories are about his adventures in the woods, rivers, and lakes in the Sandpoint area, just north of Coeur d'Alene. The last book before he stopped writing in 2000, is one he wrote to teach humor writing. The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor. In his book he included several tips. So if you are interested in writing humor, here are a couple:  

1. Never write real-life humor. I would probably say don't write real life humor if the audience you are trying to reach cannot identify easily with what has happened. Probably Johnny falling off the canoe was hilarious to the family because they knew him, and knew his particular personality, but most of your readers will say, "HUH?"  

2. Write about your bad experiences, not your good ones. Write about your failures, your fears, and situations others have experienced as well and say, "Yeah, that's me," or "That's what happened to my dad, alright."

3. Write about personality quirks. My  character, Evelyn Frampton, in Justice Forbidden, is an elderly, eccentric, but very loving neighbor who runs around helping Faythe capture the murderer by hitting the presumed criminal over the head with a wine bottle. She also gets rid of  her dandelions by slurping up puffballs with the vacuum cleaner. Also create two characters who play well off each other like Lucy and her friend in the ancient but very funny show, "I Love Lucy."

4. Use exaggeration but not so much that it seems completely implausible.  You must be able to imagine the situation and see how funny it would look. Of course if you earlier read the title of Patrick McManus' book, The Deer on the Bicycle, you might say, "A deer on a bicycle? That's crazy."  But you can see it in your mind and it would probably make you laugh. Most people are willing to suspend reality for a while if not too absurd. Another one of his stories is called, "A Bear in the Attic," and it's hilarious. I am finding this technique to be one of my favorites to create humor for my books.

5. Say or do the opposite of what someone would expect you to say or do. Although McManus does not mention this technique, I have found that the element of surprise in humor is very effective. I have heard many people use it, including me, and it works really well as long as it is funny and not hurtful to someone. Of course that's true for all humor. Using four letter words over and over for shock value looses it's effect, and for me just turns into shock.

The more I read and learn about writing humor, and practice it in my writing, the more fun it's becoming.  And yes, I'm getting better at it.

If you have any other great ideas and comments about writing humor to help the rest of us schmucks, let us know.

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