Humorous Dialogue: A How-To

March 30, 2020

 

 

I’ve gotten a few questions about humorous dialogue and how I write it. I’ve taught a few workshops on the subject – generally about how my lifetime as a TV watcher has shaped how I write dialogue. But I haven’t taught the workshop in a few years and geez, my references were dated. So I reconfigured it for my blog without the distracting slides. 

 

There is room for humor in any plot – romance, thriller, horror, you need a humorous beat every once in a while to break the tension and give the reader breathing room. The trick is to find what makes you laugh and try to put in on a page. Think about the last time a group of your friends got together. What was said? How were stories told? What made you laugh?

 

Dialogue is one of the most effective ways to communicate the characters’ personality, motivation, and background. A few sentences can do the work of three paragraphs of exposition. Among other things, dialogue can show history and intimacy between the characters, show character traits and quirks without spoon-feeding the reader information, and break the tension of an emotionally intense scene. 

 

Humorous dialogue must be authentic to the character, add to the plot, and well, be humorous. For me, creating that dialogue breaks down to two elements: Character Development and Sentence Structure

 

Character Development

Character development starts with The Truth.  

 

In every group of people, there is one person that thinks of tact as “just not saying true stuff.” (Cordelia Chase, I miss you terribly.) These truth-tellers humanize your cast of characters. They give your reader someone they can trust, and in general, he or she is the one that other characters listen to because they’re more interesting. 

 

It’s OK to let a character comment on the potential consequences of a decision other characters are considering, or the weirdness of certain character traits or just call it as they see it. If there is an observation to be made, let your characters make it in a humorous aside, rather than bogging your chapter down with exposition and details. If there is a blatant flaw in the main character’s grand plan for plot resolution, let someone near her point it out, because your reader will wonder why you didn’t think of it in the first place.

 

This can be done without obvious breaks in the “fourth wall.”  You just want to crack it a little. 

 

Two more valuable tools in this character development arsenal are Hyperbole and Understatement. Hyperbole allows your characters to express a little nugget of information in a funny, extremely exaggerated way. Half-Moon Hollow’s Ophelia Lambert is an ancient, violent, somewhat sociopathic teenager with a Hello Kitty obsession. We know (or at least hope and pray) that there aren’t people out there who live on this side of the extreme range, but the potential is enough to give us a giggle.

 

Allow your characters to live large. Don’t be afraid of the level of embellishment that can only exist when one is telling a beloved family legend. Establish a bizarre tradition or standing competition for your characters. Assign an extreme phobia to one of your characters. Give them one personality trait that is completely over the top - tempers combined with resourcefulness equals comedy gold. 

 

At the same time, there’s something to be said for under-reacting. Understatement can show bravery, determination, or demonstrate what a character is accustomed to. Imagine how infuriating it is for someone to burst into the room with huge news, only to be ignored by family or friends. Or in a supernatural setting, what does it say when character is far more upset by a shortage of Nutella than an impending apocalypse? 

 

This sort of leads into another favorite trick of mine – the random factor. Making connections between the unexpected keeps the reader’s brain engaged. Also, the strange random things that pop into a character’s mind says a lot about them as a person – about their background, their pop culture exposure, their personal interests. Don’t be afraid to give a character an aspect that is opposite of their personality – think Jane Jameson and her secret unicorn room.

 

As maddening as it sounds, randomness is just that, random. It’s like lightning in a bottle. Humor is subjective. Not everybody will laugh at what you find funny. If all else fails, pull out an encyclopedia, open it to a random page and see what comes up. Sometimes you stumble on the right reference, sometimes you don’t. It’s a matter of experimentation.  

 

TIPS AND TRICKS

-Fantasy cast your books. (Tom Hardy has been cast as an embarrassing number of my heroes. Don’t judge me.) It can help you picture the scenes in your head. 

 

-Each character should have one extraordinary element about them, and magical powers don’t count. 

 

-Your main characters can be mean-ish, but not full-on mean, if you want them to remain relatable. Sidekick characters can say whatever they want. 

 

-Large casts of characters create memorable scenes and are more likely to give your readers someone to love. 

 

Which leads to the second element, Structure 

 

STRUCTURE

As a reader, it drives me crazy when characters don’t speak as people would in real life. It’s our job to make sure the characters’ conversations sound natural and realistic. Each character’s voice should have a unique tone. Ideally, the reader should know who is talking without conversational tags.

 

When I write large cast dialogue scenes, I try to remember that there has to be a point to the conversation, something that justifies discussing it “live” – beyond avoiding an info dump. You have to know which idea you want to be expressed by which character and build the conversation from there. I call this the conversational “thread.” Keep that thread going from one statement to the next. 

 

There are ebbs and flows to conversation. And since you’re trying to be economic about your word use, each character needs to express new information about the subject, moving the conversation forward. No repeats. No reiteration.

 

I admit to using manipulative punctuation to help this along. I am an abuser of M dashes and ellipses. Everybody cannot talk at once! My characters frequently interrupt each other, particularly if I’m afraid that the character is going to reveal too much of my mystery element. But for humor purposes, one character not allow another to reveal a secret or finish an insult can be really effective. The reader can fill in the blank and crack themselves up. 

 

Embrace the ellipses. A lot can be said in a pause. A non-response can be as funny as a one-liner. A character can state her innocence, only to have her friends stay silent, instead of insisting they believe in her. Or a character can let a sentence fade into nothing, expressing their embarrassment. Or they can answer their own question or correct themselves after thinking about it for a long uncomfortable moment. i.e. “I didn’t grovel… I groveled a little bit.”

 

Picture your chapter breaks at the lead up to a commercial break. What can you write that’s going to make the viewer stay glued to the screen instead of surfing channels?

 

Upsetting realizations always work. (Uncle Irving is dead!) or dramatic announcements (We’re pregnant!) But since we’re dealing with humor, I thought I’d share some of my “joke models” that work for chapter breaks.

 

- The Walkaway – That drop the mic moment when the character drops a comedic bomb and walks away. “Just so you know, I left a dead fish somewhere in this room.”

 

- Conversely, there’s ‘What Do you Mean?’ That moment when the character realizes they’ve just been zinged or taken for a fool and they shout after the departing character. “What do you mean ‘sorry about my car?!” 

 

- Muttering to Yourself – The character has had an upsetting revelation and processes it alone. “I have to stop taking financial advice from fortune cookies.” 

 

-Something Evil This Way Comes – One character warns another that doom is imminent. “You’re smiling now, because you don’t know what’s in my purse.”

 

FURTHER TIPS AND TRICKS

-The Universal Principle of Comedy – The Rule of Three. Once is an example. Twice proves a pattern. Three times confirms it. 

 

-Don’t be afraid of well-placed sentence fragments. 

 

-Letting a short sentence stand as its own paragraph helps it stand as a punchline. 

 

-Parentheses allow you to make a conversational aside without breaking the reader’s concentration. 

 

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