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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Make them Laugh! Humor in Fiction

Jenny B. Jones is the four-time Carol Award winning author of books for women such as Just Between You and Me (Thomas Nelson) and newly released Save the Date. To make her further crazed, she also writes for teens, including the series, A Charmed Life. None of these books have been optioned for stage, screen, or Vegas, but Jenny continues to sit patiently by the phone waiting for that lucky call from Spielberg or Donnie Osmond. When she’s not writing, Jenny’s living it up as a high school teacher in Arkansas. Having little free time, she believes in spending her spare hours in meaningful, intellectual pursuit such as watching E!, binge Twittering, and writing her name in the dust on her furniture. You can find her at

Humor makes the world go round. It is the sugar in my tea and the spice on my fajitas. It’s also why I write books— to make someone laugh, to entertain, to encourage and provide an escape.

What I love about humor is that it can sweeten almost any story, whether it’s just a brief moment or the voice of the entire book. Let’s talk about some ways you can incorporate a few laughs, a few smile-inducing moments in your fiction.

1. Kids, Old folks, and Minor Characters
The joy of having an elderly character or a young character is that they have free reign to say and do whatever they want.
Look at the success and beloved legacy of Golden Girls. Use grandma or the four year old to be the voice of reason, to be your blunt characters, and the ones who have no filter. Usually they’re just vocalizing what we polite ones are thinking anyway.

Look for other characters who can be your Steve Martin. While my protagonists always have a sense of humor (probably up for debate), the heavier comedy usually comes from my minor characters, such as a nutty best friend or a socially inept boss. (Think Michael Scott, The Office) This keeps your main character (the one you want your reader to relate to) more believable while letting other characters up the comedic stakes.

2. Contrasts
When you have contrasts in your book, you have built-in humor. How can you twist your story, your setting, your character to provide the unexpected? One of Warren Buffett’s best friends is a woman, Sharon Osberg. The two have been bridge partners and confidants for over twenty years. I find that unexpected, endearing, and humorous. It’s not the first image that comes to mind when I think of Buffet, but man, is there a story there or what?

How could you provide a contrast? Maybe the kindergarten teacher drives a Harley. Perhaps the prim Supreme Court justice dates a 6 ft. 5 wrestler? I think of former beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker (Designing Women) and her much-adored pet pig. Is there an awkward situation you could drop your character in? Can you put your hero completely out of his/her element? Could you align her with someone completely unexpected?

3. Dialog
Dialog is one of the easiest and most effective sources for humor because you can use just a little or a lot. For me, dialog is the driving force of the humor in my books, so I rely on witty dialog a lot. (Again, my use of the term witty up for judgment, but wit is the intention.) I want the comedic dialog to be shorter; a funny piece of conversation is rarely a long one. And I want it to move quickly. In my romance Save the Date, social worker Lucy and ex-quarterback Alex are total opposites, share a mutual dislike, and find themselves in a fake engagement. Here’s a scene from their first date to the local arts center.

“The Russian Ballet is a big deal,” Lucy said.
Alex laughed. “It’s people in tutus. Men in tights twirling around.”
“Oh, yeah, because football is so much better.”
“Don’t make me pull this car over. . .Do you know anything about football?”
“You toss around a ball and throw people to the ground. What else is there to know?”
“Okay, then, what’s a birdcage?”
“The name of the bar where you met your last girlfriend?”
“A cut?”
“A fantasy I have involving your throat.”
His tan hands tightened on the steering wheel. “A hot receiver?”
“Um. . .a mistake you made in college?”

Dialog was used to not just provide the reader with a smile (the author hopes), but also to propel the story forward and up the tension. Makes those jokes count. See if they can serve a purpose besides just some laughs.

Dialog can also be effective for those writing more serious tomes. Sometimes a moment is so dark or the reader has been held under for so long, a brief flash of subtle humor or irony would give them some relief. Dialog is your opportunity.

4. Some Final Rules
a. Put stronger, more vivid words at the end of sentences, especially if it’s the funny word.

b. Look at first and last lines of chapters. Could you begin/end with a powerful line that will bring on a grin and propel your reader to the next line, next chapter?

c. Don’t explain the joke. If you have to explain it to the reader, it either wasn’t funny to begin with or it no longer is.

d. Do use creative punctuation to establish timing, such as ellipsis, fragments, interrupted sentences, italics, and a new paragraph just for that strong line.

e. Read your work aloud.

f. Get a critique partner or group. If more than one person says it’s not humorous, it’s probably not.

Laughter is one of the best sounds ever created. (Right after that noise made by popping the tab on a Diet Coke.) Your readers are surrounded by a bad economy, global unrest, pressure at work, and stress at home. If you’ve been called to write a little comedy, you have the opportunity to provide your reader with moments of escape, a break from the realities of life. Embrace that inner Jerry Seinfeld and bring your gift to the pages of your fiction.
Humor isn’t just a style.
It’s a ministry.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Proposals.

When the funding for Lucy’s non-profit job is pulled, she is determined to find out why. Enter Alex Sinclair, former professional football star and heir of Sinclair Enterprises—the primary donor to Lucy’s Saving Grace organization. Alex Sinclair has it all . . . except for the votes he needs to win his bid for Congress. Both Lucy and Alex have something the other wants. Despite their mutual dislike, Alex makes Lucy a proposition: pose as his fiancée in return for the money she desperately needs. Bound to a man who isn’t quite what he seems, Lucy finds her heart – and her future – on the line.

Save the Date is a spunky romance that will have readers laughing out loud as this dubious pair try to save their careers, their dreams . . . and maybe even a date.

If you would like to read the first chapter of Save The Date, go


  1. Thanks, Jenny. I'm facing the challenge right now of writing my first romantic comedy. This is helpful and also has given me more excitement about the project. I definitely have a few laugh out loud moments in all of my books, but this one should be really fun.

    Loved your speech last year at ACFW. Told all my friends if I ever have the honor of giving an acceptance speech, I'm going to crack jokes and wake everyone up like you did.

  2. Thanks so much, Dina! Hope to see you at ACFW 11!

  3. Jenny B Jones is one of my favorite people. Her humor always comes through. Thanks for the good advice, Jen!

    And welcome, Patty, to the staff of Novel Journey!!

  4. Jenny, is it true that your books are considered Women's Fiction?

    I have been told I write women's fiction and then two of my friends told me they do not like women's fiction.

    Then I learned Patti Lacy writes Women's Fiction, and if your adult novels come under that heading I can relax. We can't please everyone, but it would be nice to please some!

    Loved, loved, loved Save The Date.

  5. P.S. Jenny, THANK YOU (yes that IS shouted) for saying humor is a ministry! I've struggled with that for a while, thinking I should be writing deep subjects, have more Gospel in my writing ... you know - all that jazz. So when I read the last line of this, it kind of jumped out at me with huge bold letters. So thanks, my friend.

    Y'all, be sure you follow Jen on Twitter - it's JenBJones

  6. Thanks so much for this, Jenny! I always struggle with feeling like my humor isn't enough--of course, I write romantic suspense, and bad dudes with a big guns don't always lend themselves to laugh-out-loud, funny moments. But still. I try to have my hero and heroine crack a few witty lines to break the tension for themselves.

    Loved Save the Date. Can't wait for your next one! :)

  7. Humor is overrated. When I write, I attempt to kill every bit of humor I spot. Unfortunately, my readers think I fail miserably.

  8. Ane, check's in the mail. And I can't imagine your personality NOT coming out in your writing. You gotta write humor for sure.

    Timothy, sounds like you were just born to be funny. Time to come out of the funny closet...

    Liz, I think that's a great example of how we can put it in small doses to provide some relief for the heavier moments. You know. Like potential murder.

    Sharon, women's fiction gets tossed around all over the place, doesn't it? I think we're now calling Save the Date and Just Between You and Me plain old romance. To me they don't qualify for women's fiction. But sometimes I use the term, and probably incorrectly, just in the most general sense. It's fiction. . .and it's not written with men as my target audience. Do you think yours has more than maybe 30 percent romance? Women's fiction to me has very little. Anyone else want to clarify? (and thanks for the Save the Date encouragement. MUCH appreciated.)

  9. Sharon, some of my manuscripts don't follow the pure WF genre label, so my agent calls them contemporary fiction. That doesn't work for a contest, but for telling people what you write, it's easier ... especially fro those who SAY they don't like WF. :)

  10. Jenny, my novels have romance. But not necessarily boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.

    With Christian fiction it all gets on the same shelf, but still the publishers want to call it something. Sigh.

  11. Jenny, The other night I was lying in bed, looking at the moon and stars and I thought to myself, what the heck did I do with the ceiling.

  12. Great tips, Jenny! I wish I could be funny like you. :-)

  13. In one of my stories I used the cat to be convey the humor. Since I have two cats now who are numbers 7 and 8, I have plenty of material.

    Thank you for sharing the need for humor. God tells us that a merry heart is like medicine. We need to laugh!

  14. You're seriously funny...we're studying oxymorons...I think that's miles better than the alternative, which is being funnily serious.


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