The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard came from YA author Sarah Rees Brennan. I can’t remember the quote exactly anymore, but the gist of it was this: if you can make people laugh, you can break their hearts.
I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly true in my experience. I’m much more likely to get teary when things are going wrong for the protagonists if I’ve laughed with them first. I mean, how many times have you been watching a sitcom and suddenly you’re choking back tears? Or reading a humorous book and realize your heart’s now being ripped out of your chest? What’s the deal with that??
It’s easy. Humor is a simple, low-pressure way to emotionally connect. So if your characters are making people laugh with their wit (or goofiness, or awkwardness, or whatever it is), your readers are going to be emotionally invested without even realizing it. And if they’re emotionally invested, they’re going to be much more likely to feel for those characters when things start going really, really wrong.
I sometimes see writers suggesting that folks shouldn’t include humor in their stories or dialogue unless they’re 3000% confident the joke is going to land. I’ve also seen writers suggest that having characters laugh at each other’s jokes is some kind of writerly faux pas.
Both of those suggestions, in my quite humble and diffident opinion, are bull***t.
For one thing, humor is, to some degree, a matter of taste. Even professional comedians can’t be 100% sure every joke will get laughs.
For another, humor—like most things—is a skill that can be learned. It’s also a skill that benefits from experimentation. Trial and error. Practice.
As for having characters laugh at each other’s jokes…
Okay, listen. I get it. In some comedy circles, “breaking” (laughing at your own jokes) is considered unprofessional. Sometimes this is one of the only comedy rules novel writers are aware of, so they try to apply it to writing. Having characters laugh at each other must be amateurish as well, right?
When characters laugh in a book, they’re not demonstrating how funny the author wants the joke to be (or they shouldn’t be, anyway). They’re showing their character. Say they just heard the dumbest joke in the world. A character who sneers at the joke shows something different about their own…well…character than a character who laughs at that same joke so hard they cry.
So don’t be afraid to include humor in your stories, my friends. And if no one laughs, try again until you get it right. It’s well worth the payoff.
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