Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to Write a Humor Story (Part 1)

Today we examine the steps necessary for creating a humor story.  Over the course of this post, we will in fact create a humor story.  Notice we said “humor” story and not “humorous” story.  If you want to write a humorous story, simply write a regular story and throw in some funny parts.  

In a regular story, character, setting, plot, etc... are all paramount while humor, if present, is secondary.  A humor story, on the other hand, is different in that plot, character, etc... are all considerations secondary to the hilarious premise.

For instance, Dinosaur Ghost, by Christamar Varicella is an example of a humor story.  Dinosaur ghosts return from extinction and start eating republicans because of their stance on gay marriage.  It’s a very silly premise.  Character, plot, theme, structure, etc... are only important in that they serve the comedy of the story.

Whereas, The Blue Whale, by Christamar Varicella, is about a young man on the verge of a crack-up who seeks solace with a hallucinated blue whale in his bathtub.  While the story has certain comedic elements, in this case the comedy serves the overall story while character, setting, theme, etc... are of equal or greater value than the comedy itself.

For the sake of this article, we have decided to go with a premise derived from a conversation we had with our eight-year-old daughter.  A guy goes back to “olden times” and hilarity ensues.  You’ll notice this is pretty basic and rather vague as far as premises go, but we will develop it as we go along.  The reason we chose this premise is because we were slightly amused by her reference to “olden times.”  And while the story has been told before (isn’t this the premise for Hot Tub Time Machine) there is plenty of room for comic exploration. 

Sometimes the decision to write a humor story comes down to a gut reaction.  Humor can usually be found somewhere near the guts.

As any story writer can tell you, having a character is extremely important.  So, let’s brainstorm at least one character (or protagonist) to populate our premise.

Possible characters:

A psychic.  It might be fun to watch a psychic go back in time and still get predictions wrong due to a basic lack of historical understanding. 

A detective.  Might turn into a detective story.

A Know-it-All.  Similar to a psychic.  Audience might enjoy seeing him/her get things wrong.  For the sake of time, and since we’ve already stated that everything takes a backseat to the comedy, let’s just go with this one. We can always make him/her a psychic later.

So now we have this as our premise: A know-it-all goes back to “Olden Times” and gets a lot of things wrong that the reader might know.  Hilarity ensues.

It still sounds a bit hackneyed.  We’ve all seen something like this before.  Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court comes to mind, and people who think they’re smart getting their comeuppance is such a well-worn comedy trope we won’t bother listing examples.  

That’s okay, though.  This is a humor story, perhaps the least known and least popular of all the fiction genres and it’s highly unlikely anyone will read it anyway.  (Oops.  We probably should have saved that bit of information until the end in hopes that you will continue reading.  Oh well. The cat’s out of the bag.)

So how does this character, let’s just call him Bob, travel back to “Olden Times?”  Again, we brainstorm:

1) He just wakes up there. (Boring.)
2) He gets struck by lightening while sitting on the toilet.  (Toilets are always funny.  Will have to explain how lightening was able to circumnavigate the ceiling.  Maybe there is no ceiling.  Maybe the toilet was outside on top of a hill. In any event, a lot of exposition is required.)
3) He hits his head.  (Falling off the toilet?  A little too close to Connecticut Yankee I think.)
4) He drowns. (In the toilet?  Let’s get off the toilet.)
5) He falls into a black hole (Instead of a toilet bowl.  How does that happen?  Is the world destroyed?  Again, too much exposition.)
6) He falls into a regular hole.  (Eureka!)

Guy Falls into a Hole.  It’s got a nice ring.  It nicely follows the standard joke: A Guy Walks into a Bar.  In essence, this tells the story of what happens after the guy leaves the bar.  It turns out, he’s too drunk to drive and he has just enough sense to know it, and since his apartment is only a mile and a half away from the bar, he decides to hoof it. One problem, or complication as they say (there always have to be complications in a story and this will be the first big one, a.k.a. the initial problem), the guy falls into a hole.  It also makes a great title.

When he manages to climb out, he’s in another time, an “olden time” as it were and hilarity ensues. 

A note about form and structure.  There should probably be some sort of form and/or structure.  For this premise, an episodic structure makes sense.  Whenever Bob climbs out of the hole, he enters a new era.  It could be during the Iron Age, or it could be the 1980s.  Every time he goes into the hole, he comes out in a new time period.

As a know-it-all, Bob will instantly size up the situation (wrongly, it will turn out) and hilarity will ensue.  Perhaps he will go in and out of the hole two or three times during the story, making this a longer work, a book even, where each chapter or installment features Bob in a new era, or maybe we will just stick to one moment in time and milk it the best we can. The decision will largely depend on how long we can sustain our interest in Bob and his experiences.  For the sake of simplicity and brevity, we suggest focusing on a single time period.

More brainstorming, this time for the setting (time and place):
1) Prehistoric times.  Maybe in a jungle or something. 

Okay, let’s go with that.

As we know, Bob is a know-it-all who’s going to get his comeuppance, but he is somewhat likable (he elected not to drink and drive after all) and thus he is someone the reader will want to root for as well as laugh at. 

Hmm.  We should probably give the reader a little something extra to help them buy into the story’s conceit, some way for them to suspend their disbelief so they will follow Bob on his journey.

Perhaps, as most of  us do these days, Bob only pays nominal attention to his surroundings due to a fixation with his “smart” phone.  Naturally, Bob will have an iPhone or a Droid or something, but in prehistoric times, it will be impossible to get service.  Therefore, he will constantly be looking at his phone, checking for “bars.” Thus distracted, he will fail to absorb and process all the details and clues provided by his new environment.

You will have noted previously that Bob was a one-dimensional character.  Now we have another, second dimension to add, which, for the sake of a character in a humor story is plenty.  We also have the added bonus of a little social commentary on the modern individual’s dependence on technology.

No doubt, you’ve heard of the Rule of Three in comedy.  Well, we’re going to do one better, and change it to the Rule of Four.  Bob should encounter four funny obstacles in each era before he is driven back into his hole. Each obstacle should become increasingly difficult while gradually filling in the overall picture of the world Bob is inhabiting.

Brainstorming obstacles:
1) Bob notices changes in his environment. He suffers through tropical heat, humidity, and thick prehistoric vegetation.  Rather than recognizing the new world he has entered, however, Bob attributes these minor obstacles to dehydration suffered from last night’s bender and global climate change.  To clear a path, he uses his phone to search for landscapers.  Damn! No service.
2) Bob is attacked by giant prehistoric mosquitoes.  Bob will overcome this obstacle thanks to the handy pocket-sized bottle of bug repellent he carries due to his ever present concerns over Encephalitis and the West Nile Virus (Turns out Bob is a bit of a hypochondriac.  Look, Ma, more character development. Three dimensions, a new record!)
3) Bob comes into contact with a saber tooth tiger.  Naturally, this will draw his attention away from his iPhone.  He will assume he has stumbled upon a mountain lion that has ventured away from its natural habitat in search of food.  Again, he will attribute this to climate change. 

Notice how the obstacles are becoming increasingly difficult to overcome. 

So, how can Bob expect to escape from a saber tooth tiger?  He can’t outrun it and he used up all his bug repellent on the mosquitoes.  He can’t knock it out with his cell phone.  (We might need him to have that later.)  He will likely be too frightened to move.   Yes, he’s frozen in his tracks and the beast is about to devour him when it steps into a trap set by one of Bob’s primitive ancestors.  (Ding Ding Ding!)

4) Bob encounters prehistoric man.  Territorial in nature, lacking basic language/communication skills, and seeking to drive away a competitor from his food supply, prehistoric man will attack Bob with a stone ax.  Bob, seeing the thick beard and unusual clothing, will assume he is being attacked by a deranged hipster. 

That’s four!

The ending writes itself.  Bob turns around and runs away, only to fall back into the same hole from whence he came. There he will stay until we are ready for him to emerge in another era.

Now that we have a basic outline, we need to hammer out a first draft, and then revise carefully, seeking opportunities to expand and elevate (or lower) the humor, then make several more passes through the manuscript with an eye toward repairing errors of  grammar and spelling and increasing fluidity, and then submit the final product to us for review and criticism.  Did we forget to mention that this post requires homework?  Silly us.  We’re so forgetful sometimes.

Assignment: Take the hilarious premise, character(s), plot (with increasing obstacles), setting, theme, and ending provided by us and construct a story in which hilarity ensues.  You may then submit the final product to us at  The winner may or may not receive a few chuckles.  Or we may not read it.  By that time, most likely, we will have moved on to something else.

Guy Falls into a Hole


Christamar Varicella and ?


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