Writing Funny Stuffby Mark Lowery
First off, thank you to Jenny for letting me loose on her blog. I was wondering what to write about so I flicked through some of the other guest posts and came across Chris Priestley’s excellent guide to writing horror. I thought I’d try to do something similar for how I go about writing humour.
Obviously, humour covers a pretty broad spectrum and it’s very personal. Personally I don’t like zany, wacky, in-your-face stuff. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, it just doesn’t float my boat. Likewise there are plenty of people who’d think my books are about as entertaining as a paper cut on the eyeball but hey ho. By the way they’re not – they are really good, honest! Anyway, even if you’re not into/interested in writing the same kind of humour as me, hopefully this might give you a bit of an insight into how one person goes about it…
You might think that writing funny stuff is easy or great fun. Well… it can be great fun. And sometimes it’s easy. But it can also be maddening and difficult . And, like anything, if you want to do your best with it, you’ve got to take it seriously.
1) First off I start with a basic idea. So for Socks Are Not Enough I thought: “what’s the worst thing that could happen to a teenager? Simple – if their parents were nudists…” For the sequel, Pants Are Everything, I wanted things to get worse so I decided that the main character, Michael, should be mistaken for being a nudist himself.
2) Next I just play with the idea a bit. Roald Dahl called this “sniffing around it”. I jot down anything I can come up with – mind maps of possible funny events (usually ‘what could possibly go wrong?’), pictures and character profiles of the most ill-suited characters for the situation etc. I don’t do much research (anyone who’s read my books would know that…) but I do look around for anything that might come in useful.
3) All the time I’m doing this, I scribble scenes. These might be scripts or lists or unpunctuated streams of consciousness. I try to just do what comes naturally and not put myself under pressure. Usually the scenes involve flinging the main character into a situation they wouldn’t enjoy. You end up chucking most of this away but usually it throws up a joke or something you didn’t know about your character that you can exploit elsewhere. Occasionally you strike it lucky and come up with a scene that you barely have to change. At this early stage of Socks I wrote a scene where Michael’s mum’s nudity collides (quite literally) with his breakfast. The first thing I wrote for Pants was a police interview transcript for when he’d been arrested for dancing naked in front of a stolen donkey. Both scenes appear in the books virtually as I wrote them.
4) When I’ve honed these down into a set of scenes I’m pleased with, I start to look for links between them, or little details I can turn into running themes throughout the book. In Socks, two little throwaway comments about liking custard creams and fearing hooved animals ended up being the key to the entire story.
5) Meanwhile, I’m working on my characters, thinking about what they want, what they hate, why they’re the way they are. The best thing about writing humour is that people are just so weird! There are so many different ways that you can create a funny character. It’s like mixing a cocktail – you just throw together a load of characteristics of people you’ve met, shake them up and see what pours out. A lot of comedy comes from character clashes, so I try to think of different people my main character wouldn’t get along with.
6) When I’m happy I’ve got the balance right and I’ve got plenty of ideas, I plan. I really like funny stories to make sense – I feel a bit cheated by 200 pages of jokes with no progression – so for me, a good plan is essential. One of my favourite funny books is Holes and my favourite funny film is Hot Fuzz. Both are cleverly and tightly plotted so that nothing is wasted throughout. To try to emulate this, I use a pyramid system (from Writing for Children by Andy Melrose), which maps out all of the different storylines in order of importance and ensures they all come together in the end. I think that finding a way of linking everything is the absolute key to good planning – it gives the story a sense of purpose and direction. As a result I generally plan the last scene first and work backwards.
7) Then I write my first draft. Usually I hurry through it because I know it’s terrible and I want to improve it as soon as I can!
8) So, being my own biggest critic, I go through it again and again. The problems with writing humour are that (as I said ) it’s very personal, and also you have no-one there to tell you that your jokes are rubbish. As a result you’ve got to become very serious about it – tearing your scenes to pieces, deleting thousands of words (for Pants, which was 60k words long, I reckon I wrote a total of almost a million words over two years!!!), re-structuring it and re-working it so that it’s as funny as it can be. I always write to entertain myself and hope that other people share my enjoyment of it. Unfortunately, editors and readers also want things to make sense so you’ve got to ensure it’s natural and unforced and that the storyline all fits together.
9) Finally, when I’ve come up with something I’m proud of, I can lie down in a darkened room and eat loads of crisps.
So there you go. I hope this has been remotely useful or interesting. The biggest thing about writing humour is to enjoy yourself.