Monday, February 15, 2016

Being funny

     The late Robert B. Parker’s highly popular novels were deftly threaded with wry, dry humor.  Since Parker’s death, other writers have attempted to mimic his tales under his name.  One of these authors managed to capture the laconic protagonist Jesse Stone believably, and did a fine job with the New England story setting.  But, sadly, that writer tripped on a banana peel and fell on his nose when he tried to emulate Parker’s humor, and it soured that whole novel for me.

     Good humor is some of the most difficult writing there is.

     For example, here’s an exchange from a recent action novel by a well-known author.  Two men are on a private helicopter heading into lethal danger:

     “Is there any food service on this flight?” Joe asked.
     Pete laughed as Joe complained.

     The first line is at best mildly humorous.  It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny, especially under the circumstances, so when the author says “Pete laughed,” it’s not only improbable but also the author is in effect saying to you, the reader, “I’ve just written something funny here, and you’re supposed to laugh along with Pete.”  Incidental problems are that we can see the first line is a question, and don’t need to be told as much.  Also, we don’t need to be told that Joe is fake-complaining.  We’re smart enough to figure that out.

     Compare the above little mess with a few lines from Robert Parker himself.  Sheriff Jesse Stone is speaking with his deputy, Suitcase Simpson, after the deputy has made a wise logical observation:

     “Suit,” he said.  “You may make detective someday.”
     “We don’t have any detective ranks,” Simpson said.
     “Well,” Jesse said.  “If we did.”

     Here’s another example, from the prolific John Sanford.  Detective Lucas Davenport, who has been saddled by his bosses with serving on an ultra-liberal commission to root out every last vestige of discrimination, in any of its myriad forms, from the police department, is talking to his subordinates Sherrill and Sloan about approaching a witness.  He addresses Marcy Sherrill:

     “So I’ll let you warm her up when we get there,” Lucas said. “Woman talk, bonding, chitchat, that kind of stuff.”
     “Sexism,” Sloan said, shaking his head, “And from a member of the Difference Commission.”
     Lucas’s hand went to his forehead: “Ah, Jesus, I forgot.  There’s a meeting tonight.”
     They looked at him with sympathy, and Sherrill patted his shoulder.  “It could be worse,” she said.
     “I don’t know.  You could be shot.”
     “He’s been shot,” Sloan said.  “It’d have to be lot worse than that.”

     The humor in these examples is warm, subtle, and grin-stimulating.  Done with the merest of touches.

     If you can’t write humor, don’t.

     But if you’re still compelled to write humor, first really study a few of the masters such as Robert Parker or Janet Evanovich, then do so with subtlety, a light touch, and respect for your readers, trying your best to emulate the masters.


No comments:

Post a Comment