Humor in Fiction

© 2013 Sandra Balzo

When I sat down to write my first Maggy Thorsen coffee mystery, Uncommon Grounds, I didn’t intend it to be humorous. Why I didn’t realize that having someone electrocuted by a frothing wand and leaving her body to be found “face up, blue eyes staring” in a pool of skim milk would be intrinsically funny, I’m not sure. At the time, though, I just thought it was a cool way to kill someone.

Since then, reviews of the seven-book-and-counting series have ranged from “witty,” “humorous,” and “quirky” by Publishers Weekly and Booklist to “amusing” and “hilarious” by the Chicago Tribune and Fresh Fiction.  People even occasionally say my name in the same breath as Janet Evanovich’s. (I have a hunch I’m more excited about this than Janet is.)

Through the years, I’ve had to figure out what I did in that first novel, even as I recreated and re-invented it for subsequent books.  Here are a few lessons learned in the process:

  • Humor comes from the characters, not the author. If you’re trying to show how funny you are, you will fail.
  • Injecting humor and telling jokes are two different things. Don’t tell jokes. Please.
  • Your characters’ humor likely will arise from 1) their view of life, 2) their interactions with each other, or 3) their reactions to the situations you place them in.
  • Given what your readers know about the people who populate your fictional world, the humor must ring true. Hannibal Lecter should not make jokes about fava bean farts.
  • Have a brilliant but totally distasteful bit of dialogue? Consider giving it to someone other than your protagonist.
  • Gallows humor, though, is fine. In fact, it’s the way many human beings cope with tragedy. Some readers will understand that. Others you will need to cue by another character’s reflection or comment.
  • On the other hand, there’s no need to cue a reader that they should find something funny. Resist “wait for it” and “pah-dump-bump” moments.
  • Recognize that humor is subjective. Some readers will “get it” every time. Others won’t. That’s okay.
Which brings me to my last and, perhaps, most important point:
  • If you remove each and every laugh, your plot still must be strong enough to stand on its own.

So—and, yes, I know you’ve heard this before—go forth and write a good story with complex, interesting characters.

And let the yucks fall where they may. 

Sandra Balzo is an award-winning author of crime fiction, including ten books in two different mystery series from Severn House. Murder on the Orient Espresso is the eighth Maggy Thorsen Coffeehouse Mystery and will be out in early December. Sandra_Balzo


Humor in Fiction — 2 Comments

  1. I love reading these common sense rules about humor. I recently encountered a person with an undeveloped sense of humor. It was sad. The individual looked about 20 years older than her chronological age.

  2. ”Let the yucks fall where they may” … love it! Humor isn’t easy to write, and Sandy does such a great job of it with her Maggy Thorsen series. Some very good advice here, especially on the difference between injecting humor and telling jokes (that said, I have to admit I couldn’t resist putting this joke in the mouth of a character in my Southern-flavored Mace Bauer Mysteries: What are a redneck’s last words? Hey, y’all … watch this! )

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