What Makes it Funny?

One for the Money bookcoverI love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. I usually reread several of them every year. This year I started back at the beginning with One for the Money and have been reading them in order. I’m up to Hot Six now. Even though I know these books inside out, they still make me laugh. And I’m not talking chuckles here. I’m talking full blown honking belly laughs. I know what’s coming and I can’t wait to get to it and let the laughter out. These scenes work over and over again because they are so damn funny. What is the secret to writing a scene that makes it funny no matter how many times you read it?

You have to start with great characters. They need to be distinctive, have their own voice, and connect with the reader. Stephanie elicits a lot of sympathy. She’s just trying to make a living, be a loving, supportive daughter, and maybe find love. Her basic problems are everyone’s problems. How do you make it through the day, pay your bills, be there for your family, and find some satisfaction in life? Can you ever get off the treadmill or is this all there is? Stephanie wants some excitement and spice in her life. Who doesn’t? We connect and bond with her basic problems and desires.

You can’t make every character in your story a comedian. You need the contrast to show the absurdity. The person narrating the story has to be the sane character in the comedic mix so that the reader connects with them. That way the reader experiences the craziness through their eyes. If all of your characters are comedians, the scene falls flat. More is not better. There is no black without white. In Hot Six, Carol Zabo stands on a bridge’s guard rail with a brick tied to her ankle. Stephanie knows she isn’t going to jump because Carol’s wearing a $400 leather jacket. In the burg, you give your $400 jacket to your sister and then you jump off the bridge. Stephanie tells Carol she shouldn’t jump into the river because it will ruin her hair. This halfway convinces Carol. She just had her hair highlighted. Carol’s troubles started when she shoplifted a pair of crouchless bikini underpants to spice up her love life. She was too embarrassed to pay for them and in her haste to get away, she rear-ended an unmarked police car. Carol would rather die than go to jail. She’s seen a special on it. Besides the body cavity search, you have to go to the bathroom in front of everyone. ‘Nuff said. Stephanie knows the cop involved and promises to try and get the charges dropped. And if he won’t drop the charges, I’ll still have a chance to kill myself. That’s a good enough reason to get Carol off the bridge.

When your main character acts crazy they must know it. They must be pushed into it by events or other characters so that their actions have foundation and they aren’t acting that way just to make the scene funny. Stephanie knows it’s crazy to climb the pine tree and check on the guy with suspected mob ties after she’s already been caught once by him. She does it anyway because she knows he knows nobody would be crazy enough to risk getting caught twice in one night. So it’s actually the smart thing to do, right? When, of course, she’s caught, she falls back on the same excuse she previously used and pretends to be looking for her lost cat. Mob guy doesn’t buy it and shoots at her. Crazy actions have consequences.

Go overboard. With a big comedic scene you have to push the absurdity beyond the edge, or what you may think is the edge. In To the Nines, Stephanie, Lula, and Connie go to Vegas to pick up a skip and run into some Elvis impersonators, as you would expect in that city. But there aren’t just a few Elvis impersonators in the hotel, there’s a convention of Elvis impersonators. The girls get invited by a couple of them to go see Tom Jones who is performing at the hotel. But when Lula throws her triple X thong panties at Tom Jones during his act, we discover he isn’t the real one but another impersonator. In fact there is a Tom Jones impersonator convention also going on at the hotel. If he’s not the real one, then Lula wants her panties back. I don’t go giving away perfectly good panties to imposters. You got my panties under false pretenses. And you can’t even sing! I bet these two Elvis impersonators could sing better than you. At this point we discover Elvis impersonators and Tom Jones impersonators don’t get along. Lula makes it worse when she tries to defend their new friends. Someone yells to get the Elvis impersonators and their bitches. Chaos ensues. Connie cold-cocks a Cher impersonator who has a beard and mustache (can’t you just see it) while Lula tackles Tom Jones on stage to get her panties back. You have to go over the top to achieve deep down belly laughs in your readers.

The right details can heighten the comedy. During the fight in the Tom Jones scene, the girls are pelted with beer nuts and wasabi peas. It’s the wasabi peas that add the extra decibel to the laugh. It gives the scene a dose of reality and absurdity (to notice a detail like that) which makes it unique from other funny fight scenes.

Timing is everything. You have to pay attention to the rhythm of your sentences. If your sentences go on too long you can lose the humor. You also need to use short sentences to add punch. One of the running gags in the books are the ways Stephanie goes through cars. My favorite car destruction scene is in High Five. Usually Stephanie’s cars are clunkers, but this time she’s driving a Porsche—a company car from Ranger. Stephanie and Lula are at the trash company looking into her uncle’s account. When they try to leave, a garbage truck sideswipes them. They park the Porsche next to the truck and return to the office to fill out accident forms. Within minutes the car explodes. Flames spread to the garbage truck. The truck driver yells to take cover. He just filled up the tank. And then it blew. Barrrroooom! Lift off. The garbage truck jumped off the pavement. Tires and doors flew off like Frisbees, the truck bounced down with a jolt, listed to one side, and rolled over onto the furiously burning Porsche, turning it into a Porsche pancake.

The payoff must be worth the anticipation. In the previously mentioned scene, the mental image of a huge, heavy garbage truck jumping into the air, and then falling over on top of the Porsche squishing it flat, is the perfect ending for the car. We all know the Porsche isn’t going to last very long in the story. Great cars never do for Stephanie. But we also know the destruction of the Porsche has to be worth it. This scene gives us everything we hoped for and more. Lula sums it up the best: This here’s the first time she exploded a garbage truck. One time her truck got hit with an antitank missile. That wasn’t bad either, but it couldn’t compare to this.

Finally, humor can’t be forced. There is nothing worse than reading a scene where the author is trying too hard to be funny. It’s painful and cringeworthy. Humor has to be natural. It must grow out of the scene. It can’t be troweled on top of it. To see how it’s done right, I recommend all of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. She’s a master of writing seamless, funny scenes where the humor grows naturally out of the characters and the situation.

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