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Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Blog ~ Michael Snyder ~ Humor Dissected

Michael Snyder writes. He is the author of the novels My Name Is Russell Fink and Return Policy, both (at least according to his mother and his publisher) are worthy of your time, attention, and hard-earned dollars. Michael’s debut novel was a finalist in Christianity Today’s 2009 Book of the Year Award. His short story entitled Normal People will appear in the upcoming issue of Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression. Michael is also a regular contributor for the Master’s Artist. For the record, Michael prefers dark chocolate to either Almond Joy or Mounds. And he’s really not sorry about the dissing coconut lovers either.

Read a review of Return Policy.

Humor Dissected: Watch Your Step

"Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."

E. B. White said that. And although it’s not very funny, it is informative. What it means is this—attempting to explain humor, especially how it pertains to writing prose, is a dumb idea. Apparently that’s why I’m here, attempting to answer the age old question: If a tree slips on a banana peel and falls in the forest, and no one is around to experience it, is it still funny?

The answer, in case you’re short on either time or patience is a resounding maybe.

Writing funny is more about being funny, or at least thinking funny, than anything having to do with craft. When we say someone has a good sense of humor, what we’re referring to is this person’s ability to experience humor. And just like a good tango or a pot of tea, it takes two.

Here’s how it works. Someone recognizes the potential for humor, then expresses it in a potentially funny way. When a different someone observes this humorous event, an involuntary reconciliation transpires. If Person B finds Person A’s juxtaposition of ideas amusing, then humor has indeed occurred. Next, a series of mysterious vibrations will begin to assault the muscles that guard Person B’s giggle box. In musical terms, this technical explanation can be reduced to: “The brain bone’s connected to the…funny bone. And the funny bone’s connect to the…bone that allows milk to shoot through your nostrils…”

A few practical points to consider:

Humor cannot be taught…

But it can be coached…only if the raw material is there. Phil Jackson may not be able to turn you into Michael Jordan, but he can certainly improve your jump shot and weak side defense. A sense of humor can be developed, honed, and/or coaxed out of hiding. Chances are, you’ll never do stand-up on the Letterman show, but you can (and should) elicit a few satisfied grins from your readers. It just takes practice. And the best way to exercise your humor muscles is develop the habit of finding the funny in all situations.

Humor is rife with conflict…

Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. Without constant tension and repose, our stories go down like a warm glass of dirty motor oil. So when some writing expert suggests you spice up your writing with humor, what they may be saying is that the conflict in your story needs a little variety.

John Vohaus (The Comic Toolbox) boils it down to this: Comedy is truth and pain. From pies-in-the-face to traveling salesman jokes to nearly every greeting card you pick up, the underlying themes are the truth (shared humiliation, thwarted desire, the plight of living in a fallen world, etc.) and the pain that results. It’s been argued that all humor is laced with hostility. Does this mean that humor is somehow bad or inherently mean? I don’t think so. But just like a dominant chord in music, a humorous set-up begs for resolution. All good prose can be broken down into bite-sized chunks of escalating conflict and resolution (not unlike The Story, eh?). Discord keeps the pages turning. Done well, resolution breeds resonance. And resonance is what makes our stuff worth reading.

Humor is part of a well-balanced diet…

Comic novelists serve up humor as a main course, like a big slab of sizzling protein or a bloated baked potato. Most of the rest of us will use it as a garnish, a zest, a light dusting of spices, maybe a complementary cappuccino or the strawberries on our shortcake.

Moderation is key. Comedic abstinence can render an otherwise savory dish into a bland, soggy cracker. Likewise, you want to avoid inflicting literary Heimlich on your readers by gagging them with funny bones.

My personal recipe calls for three parts pathos for every one part humor. I really like it when people say my books make them laugh and cry on the same page.

Trying to be funny doesn’t work…

When you catch yourself wielding your comic shoehorn…stop. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. It’s transparent and phony, and over the course of a novel, can really turn readers off. The best approach is to create a healthy, nurturing environment that invites your budding sense of humor to bloom organically. Humor should emerge from your authorial voice, not the other way around.

Humor requires risk…

Armed with only a microphone, stand-up comics take the stage nightly and dare people not to laugh at what they have to say. They risk public humiliation by staring down hecklers and drunks and all manner of apathetic patrons. When the writer injects humor and it doesn’t work for whatever reason, the humiliation may be less immediate, but no less devastating to his art.

Humor is in the eye of the beholder…

Some people prefer blue to yellow, Toyota to Ford, or Almond Joy to Mounds. But does that automatically make those brain dead, tasteless cretins who actually enjoy coconut any less right? Morally inferior? Criminal?

I say, “Probably so.”

But more importantly, whether someone gets what you’ve written or not, doesn’t make it any less amusing. Some of the funniest things I’ve ever written have fallen flat. But they made me happy.

Only the truth is funny…

That is the title of a one-man show by Rick Reynolds. And although it may not be technically accurate, it’s definitely worth thinking about for a little while.


  1. You almost lost me at the a. b. yada, yada thing. Almost sounded like a math problem. And, I do not do math. You scared me Michael Snyder! :)

    Great article, Mike. I've been pondering this over the last week. Since what I'm working on now is about grief, I don't want the humor and joy in life to go without acknowledgment. I'm really hoping for that laugh/cry on the same page thing. But I don't want it to sound forced either. Good things to think about here. Thanks!

  2. "The best approach is to create a healthy, nurturing environment that invites your budding sense of humor to bloom organically."

    Well said. Loved this article!

  3. Great article, Micheal. I write a lot of angst in my novels. But I've noticed that just as I deal with incredible bad situations using humor in real life, my characters tend to do the same thing sometimes. I can't say this article healed my marrage, stopped global warming, or changed my life, but you had some great points.

  4. Humor should emerge from your authorial voice and not the other way around. Spot on, Michael. The key to humor in fiction for me is the unexpected. Like this:

    "Some people prefer blue to yellow, Toyota to Ford, or Almond Joy to Mounds. But does that automatically make those brain dead, tasteless cretins who actually enjoy coconut any less right? Morally inferior? Criminal?

    I say, “Probably so.”

    It's funny because it was unexpected and oh, so Michael Snyder.

    Excellent thoughts on a subject close to my own funny bone. Thanks for writing Mike, thanks for the chuckles and tears in just the right proportion.

  5. Excellent! Writing humor is not easy, and writing humorously about humor is even more difficult, but you've done it.

    You made the point that if it's forced, it's not funny. Would you agree that humor is one of those things that, either you have it or you don't? Can you learn humor?

  6. I cried, I shot milk out of my nose and I fixed the link that didn't work. All is all this was a fabulous experience. Thanks, Michael.

  7. Michael, as a fellow humorist, I loved this! Unlike Kelly, I shot coffee out my nose, and that is an unpleasant experience. However, I shall log it for future use.

    I do have one bone to pick: I like coconut.

  8. Mike, this is a great piece. You should submit it to Writer's Digest or The Writer. Really.

  9. Great points, all of them. Having just finished Return Policy I can attest that you wielded all of them with skill!

  10. Well done, making my laugh during my lunch break and everything! As a fellow coconut hater, I especially appreciate it! Although, I also don't relish dark chocolate either. Mmmm milk chocolate with caramel, THAT is how I roll! (quite literaly as I think I gained a pound just thinking about it.)

  11. Having read this article, my life is complete. Thank you, Michael Snyder.

  12. Thanks, everyone for the kind words...even those of you who actually like coconut!

    And thanks to Kelly and the rest of the fine folks at Novel Journey for inviting me over.

    I was, however, under the impression that they were serving dark chocolate?


  13. I knew I liked you for a good reason, Synderman--you're a dark chocolate junkie, too:-)
    Great article, dude.
    Abundant blessings!

  14. I love coconut, and I'm going to punch you the next time I see you. Seriously.

    And I'll have Almond Joy on my breath as I do.

  15. Thanks, Jenny. And abundant-er blessings right back at you!

    Let me just warn you, Byron...I used to watch Kung Fu as a kid. When I go slo-mo, you'd better take cover, baby!



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