Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Little Goes a Long Way: Writing Laughs in Chick Lit

Invariably—yep, I’ll stick to my guns on this one: invariably—chick lit features a funny heroine. There are as many versions of this heroine as there are types of humor, but Ms. Protagonist is funny, in her own way, no matter what curveballs life is chucking at her head. Definitions of chick lit readily acknowledge this basic element of the genre, but many how-to writing guides ignore it as a process to be broken down, unlike plot or character development.

I don’t know the magic humor ratio of a chick lit novel, but I know what seems to work (i.e. what makes me and reviewers laugh out loud) and, perhaps more important, what doesn’t. Take, for example, a passage from an upcoming project here at EPE. The narrator’s name is such that her old flame nicknamed her “Ju-ju,” and when they reunite after twenty-five years, he recoins the term of endearment immediately:
He gave a low laugh. “Sorry, Ju-ju. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was aiming for pleasant surprise.”

Ju-ju. Holy God, I hadn’t heard that name in twenty-five years. Charlie had coined it at the height of our heat. I was his Ju-ju, he’d murmured in bed, his fetish, his lucky charm. I hadn’t the heart to tell him Ju-ju meant “breast milk” in Korean.
Here, humor is introduced at the very end of the paragraph, which otherwise might have been fairly generic. The first three sentences of the second paragraph point toward the narrator feeling sentimental and nostalgic. But the fourth line, because of its placement and unexpectedness, comes off like a punch line, and readers smile in appreciation. The narrator isn’t feeling totally sappy after all. When the author can go on at length about the nickname’s history, she cuts herself short with a quick, clever joke, and when she can take the joke even further—e.g. “I didn’t think Charlie would have been too enthusiastic about calling me his ‘breast milk’ over and over, although my mother would have found it hilarious…”—she reins things in and moves along in the scene. The next line is the narrator’s reply to Charlie.

Herein lies something approaching a how-to for chick lit humor. It seems there are (at least) two major factors to keep track of when writing a funny chick: placement and unexpectedness. Placement deals with questions like whether a joke will ruin the tone of the scene, whether it will slow down a paragraph’s pace, or even whether it will distract a reader from the lines that come before and after it. If a narrator’s silly musings get so off track that they’re no longer related to the scene at hand, chances are the humor has gone too far.

Likewise with unexpectedness, if readers can see a joke coming from a mile away, its effect is diminished. Just as people will notice when someone is trying too hard to make a good impression at a party, so too will we sense when an author is focused on cracking jokes at the expense of plot progression or realistic character development.

These considerations are especially important in chick lit because of the aforementioned funny-chick narrator requirement, but as a diversely experienced slush reader, I know writers of all genres struggle with humor. Notable bedfellows are genres like YA (too-sassy teen narrators often make readers want to ground them) and thriller novels (you’re being shot at from a plane and you have the presence of mind to voice hilarious one-liners to your partner in crime—really?).

This post is certainly not a how-to for writing funny narrators. (If only I knew it so well!) It’s a call for caution, or at least for awareness. An author’s fabulous sense of humor will not necessarily transfer, intact, to her heroine, but it’s important that if a narrator is aiming to be funny, she does so pretty successfully. A narrator who is trying for laughs but failing is often not engaging enough to spend the length of a novel with. My time so far at EPE has taught me that, indeed, the reverse—a narrator who isn’t trying for laughs but gets them anyway—is the trickier but preferred route.


1 comment:

Author Guy said...

Some of my best humorous writing has been in places where I wasn't trying to be funny. In fact I often notice the line's humor value only some time after I've written it, and realize what a pun it is. When I'm trying to be funny it's much more obvious. My style of humor is more Zero Mostel meets Monty Python.

Marc Vun Kannon