When Funny is– Not Funny?


You give your manuscript to a beta reader or a writing buddy. They take a few days, give it back and say, “It was good. And that part in Chapter Five where she…. That was hilarious.”

You blink.

Clear your throat.

Blink again.

And again.

You mutter a weak, “Thanks,” and snatch back your manuscript, all the while thinking, Dillhole. Dillhole. Dillholedillholedillhole.

You walk away fuming. That part wasn’t funny. That part was never meant to be funny. You poured your heart and soul into that scene, hoping it would tear the same out of your reader’s chest. And they giggled. Chuckled, maybe. Who knows? There could have been a whooping fit to match a hyena.

If it hasn’t happened to you already, it probably will. And I feel there are two ways to handle the situation: ignore it, or don’t ignore it (mind-blowing stuff, right?).

Let’s start with Don’t ignore it. I feel this situation applies only if you were trying to establish the most tragic, romantic, or profound of moods. For example: You write a scene where your protagonist, after six years of searching, finally finds the home of her birth mother. She rings the doorbell and peeks through the sidelight to catch her first glimpse of the one brought her into this world, only to give her up. An older woman appears at the top of the stairs. She squints back at the familiar-seeming face, her expression of curiosity melting into one of recognition and joy. She steps forward, arms outstretched, and trips over a puppy playing on the tread below. The protagonist screams, but can do nothing to stop the horror playing out in front of her eyes. Both woman and dog tumble down the steps, a windmill of fur and extremities. They hit the landing with a sickening crunch, the window framing their deaths like a grisly postcard.

At this point, unless you happen to be one of the Python boys, you’ll be wanting your reader sobbing onto the well-worn pages of your novel (not enough to smudge the lines, mind you, but enough to leave a telltale grief stain so other readers will know in advance of your knife-twisting skill). If, instead, they’re holding their sides and howling, “A puppy!” between shrieks of laughter, you’ll probably want to rewrite it (Scratch that. If you write anything involving puppy-tripping-tragedy, you should definitely rewrite).

Moving on to the more apt option, Ignore it:

Not everyone has the same sense of humor as you. Some people find irony in things we overlook. Some people have a very dry wit. And others are just plain weird when it comes to what they think is funny (like Adam Sandler movies). Unless no one gets your jokes and everyone thinks your drama is hysterical, just let it go. It’s not worth second guessing every single reader’s reaction to your work. In fact, it’s impossible. Just let them find what they need in your writing, and move on. At least you’re getting a laugh. It’s more than you can say about I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

I know, I didn’t have to go there.

I just wanted to.

About Avery

I am a roller derbying, dark fantasy author. This blog chronicles my adventures in life, writing and skating. View all posts by Avery

10 responses to “When Funny is– Not Funny?

  • Christina

    Yeah, I’ve had a few moments of my own in that area. Mostly in college when we were supposed to bring in copies for a class of 25 to tell us how they felt about it. I had some pretty nasty reviewers too.

  • Lana Gramlich

    This post reminds me of the days when people sometimes asked (of my art); “What is it?” I don’t mind that, when it’s an abstract, but I didn’t DO abstracts back then.😦 Charles actually asked me yesterday what part of a current painting is–a sure sign that I have to do a better job on it.

  • Avery DeBow

    Spy — Maybe ‘cuz he thinks you’re cute in a temper. Laughingwolf — Marginally funny on SNL. Not funny at all as a separate entity.Sqt — If you walk away with something other than confusion or absolute loathing of the author, I’d say you’re reading it right.Steve — An excellent approach. I’ve always liked Mr. King’s no-nonsense approaches.

  • Steve Malley

    I think Stephen King has a good idea: if one reader doesn’t ‘get it’, tie goes to the writer. If two or more don’t ‘get it’ in the same place, it’s back to rewrites…

  • SQT

    My favorite kind of horror fiction is the kind that mixes humor into the story. Though now I wonder if I’m reading it right….

  • laughingwolf

    yeah, like charles sez, at least they got something…i like your references to the zero humor of both sandler and c&l, totally useless

  • spyscribbler

    My husband laughs in all the wrong places, ALWAYS. If the heroine gets mad or does something remotely clumsy, he cracks up. If she gets herself in a temper, he grins and thinks it’s cute.I confess I have not spoken to him for a whole hour after he laughed in the wrong place.Now I’m not allowed in the same room with him when he’s reading my stories.

  • Avery DeBow

    Charles — You’re absolutely right, and there are many aspiring writers out there who over-correct and end up with a steady stream of gore, with no actual horror in sight. Kate — No worries. It hasn’t happened to me in a while. I just thought of it today and decided to write something on it.The puppy-tripping was an attempt to show how poorly attempted pathos can fast turn into hilarity. My plan worked; it amused me while writing it.

  • Kate S

    Oh, poor Avery. Been there. I obviously don’t do scathing and horrific very well. At least 5 people told me it was one of the funniest things they’d read in a while.Huh. Who knew?Like Charles said, at they got *something* out of it.By the way, puppy tripping tragedy=funny. (:

  • Charles Gramlich

    Horror is, I think, the most delicate of emotions. It takes very little to take it over into humor. I’ve had scenes where folks have misread it that way but I figure they got Something out of it at least.

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