Friday. The universal Day of Happiness. A day when everything seems a little bit zanier than normal, and most people are in the best shape they’re going to be in all week.
What better day to talk about humour, then, and how fickle a beast it truly is! Right?
Being funny is a funny thing. There are people who can make you spew with laughter in general conversation, but who clam up completely or veer slightly too far towards the weird side of eccentric when in certain company, or under certain conditions. There are people who are wonderfully witty most of the time, but ask them to tell a joke and they manage to suck every tiny droplet of humour out of it like a huge grey sponge. What’s worse is they know they’re doing it; they can see the joy and fun evaporating from their words like steam from a boiling kettle, and the rising panic in the eyes of their audience is all too clear. Often, they’ll try to save the situation before it all tumbles down into Humourless Gorge, but it’s normally impossible to bring it back from the brink once the rot has set in. I’ve seen many a conversation turn into an awkward silence this way.
I’m not speaking from personal experience as the joke-teller, of course, before you get the wrong idea. I am a sparkling correspondent at all types of social occasion, naturally.
Anyway. Humour is a strange and personal thing. Even people who have very similar mindsets, who get on really well, who share the same viewpoint in most things, can often have such varying senses of humour that it’s amazing they can hold a conversation without it turning into a fistfight. There’s a particular TV show, for instance, which my husband and I find extremely funny (well, me more than him sometimes, now that I think about it), but which my husband’s friend can’t bear to watch because it’s, apparently, painful dross. My husband and his friend are pretty similar in their outlook on most things, so I find it fascinating that they can have such different senses of humour, at least in relation to TV shows.
This phenomenon has been on my mind quite a bit over the past while. It’s not because I’m planning to change career yet again and go into stand-up comedy, but there is one particularly important side-effect of the subjective nature of humour which has a direct bearing on my life, and that is: humour is an extraordinarily volatile ingredient to use when you’re preparing a story. It’s extremely difficult to use it correctly, and even when you get the balance right you’re not sure the type of humour you’re using will hit the mark. What makes a writer snort with laughter at the keyboard may make a reader set a book on fire in disgust. Is there really any way of knowing how to write what’s funny, and appealing, without sending around a world-wide survey on humour?
The book I’m currently querying, ‘Eldritch’, tells a story which is narrated by two boys, one of whom is twelve; the other has just turned thirteen. Now, it has been a very long time since I was thirteen, and an even longer time since I was twelve. Also, unfortunately, I have never been a boy. I do have a brother, and once upon a time I’m sure he was twelve, and then thirteen; also, he’s very funny and the two of us have always been able to make one another laugh more than is healthy or sensible – but, unfortunately, my memories of him at that age are pretty hazy. So, there have been times during the writing of ‘Eldritch’ when I’ve asked myself what I think I’m doing, as a middle-aged woman (practically, anyway), trying to write a book about two young boys facing a dangerous and potentially life-threatening situation, all the while wisecracking and poking fun at one another the way only best friends can?
I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to that one. I guess the Muse wants what she wants, and all that.
Aspiring writers are often told to avoid things like slang, or self-consciously ‘cool’ language; it smacks of trying too hard to be ‘down with the kids’, which is an instant turn-off for young readers. As well as that, of course, it dates quickly and leaves your book looking like an anachronism after a few short years. However, it can be hard to try to write humour, or realistic-sounding banter, without throwing in the occasional slang word; in fact, as hard as it is to write convincing dialogue, it’s even harder to write believable jokey banter between two people who are younger, far cooler, an entirely different gender and, of course, generations younger than you are yourself. So, you have the problem of trying to sound funny without trying to sound funny, and getting across the coolness and youthful enthusiasm of your characters without being tragically over the top, that thing that so many older people do without even realising it. Trying too hard is immediately obvious to a reader, but very hard to avoid as a writer. It’s also difficult to know what appeals to younger readers, and what they find funny.
Luckily, if you’re trying to write funny for young people, there are things that can be done. Reading books aimed at the same age group, for a start, and keeping your eyes peeled on the internet for the latest trends among the age group you’re writing for – not, of course, to slavishly follow them, but to get a flavour for what’s popular. There are some perennially funny things, too – bodily functions, for one, and the fact that supporting a different football/soccer/hockey/tiddlywinks team to your friend is a never-ending source of insult – and, at the end of the day, just following your own sense of humour. However, it’s important to remember to smooth down the more idiosyncratic sharp edges of what you find funny, in order to maximise its appeal to a general audience. Nobody needs to know about the ten thousand hilarious things you can do with cotton wool, for instance.
Does anyone have any thoughts on humour, and how to approach it in a writing project? I’d love to benefit from your wisdom.
Happy Friday! Hope you’re having a thigh-slapping day.