Thursday, October 18, 2012

Getting the joke - long-running gags

I'm going to pick up where last week's post left off by looking at how you can use humor for the serious matter of boosting your readership through the best forms of promotion – free advertising and personal recommendation.

Note that to reiterate a point, this is not about writing jokey, slapstick comedy; this is about the insertion of a moment of levity (in one form or another) into otherwise serious prose in order to create drama and effect. One thing that is essential to remember - if you're not to alienate the readers, you mustn't laugh at a real group of people. That would take your humor into the realm of bad taste and offensiveness.

So what can you do?

So that I can illustrate my meaning, I’m going to use popular films as examples. The advantage of doing so (over literature) is that I know the humor is contemporary and it also leaves me free to concentrate on the content rather more than having to wade through a sea of adverbs about how something is being said.

What are the sorts of humor that you can use?

The flirty aside

This can be very effective although, in an era of political correctness, the flirting shouldn’t be seen to be threatening or presumptive (and probably other things, too). An example of how effective and memorable this can be is illustrated by the numerous Miss Moneypenny & James Bond interchanges which spanned 21 years from Dr No to A View To A Kill in 1985 when it was deemed that Lois Maxwell's obvious age difference with Timothy Dalton (who took over from Roger Moore at this point) was too implausible.

The whole thing worked well because it was a 'maybe next time we can hook up' type joke. This allowed it to be effectively replayed many times and, to give rise to Moneypenny’s famous retort (but not Lois’ as she’d been retired by then), “Someday, you'll have to make good on your innuendos.” Bond never does, of course. That’s the point.

The gadget joke

Everyone gets flustered with gadgetry at some point and we all have our nemesis lying out there in the technical world. The machinery doesn't even need to be anything particularly complicated - look at Indiana Jones and the love-hate relationship with his trusty revolver that always gets him out of trouble - well, not always. It might also be worth noting that the snake gag (Jones’ ophiophobia) was not anything like as popular.

The plus side of using gadgets as the butt of your jokes is that they’re by definition inanimate therefore can’t be offended. The downside is that, with some exceptions, they date your books. Accordingly, falling out with a specific model of car or computer is quickly going to put a shelf-life on your stories and may make sequels seem strained.

The memorable phrase

If you can create a popular catchphrase for your lead character, you really are well on the way to setting up a sequel. Deliberately ambiguous comments like "Make him an offer he can't refuse" (The Godfather), "Do you feel lucky? Well, do you?" (Dirty Harry) and "I'll be back" (Terminator) have now gone into the English language and what better form of promotion is there? Can you come up with something of that ilk?

This type of humor lends itself better to action stories where a moment’s levity accentuates the seriousness of the rest of the story (as I discussed in last week’s blog).

Ongoing wise-cracking

Probably nobody did this better than Raymond Chandler’s world-weary private eye, Phillip Marlowe, who gets his suspects to talk to him through sheer exasperation with his wise-cracking. Although this device might be a bit ‘wearing’ nowadays, I've seen the same approach used successfully in poker games where one of the players irritates one or more of the others to the point of their making mistakes through loss of concentration.

“She tried to sit on my lap while I was standing up” is a good double-entendre one-liner. When Marlowe is asked by a sniffy butler if he was trying to tell him his duties, Marlowe responds, “No, just having fun trying to guess what they are.” Both of these quotes are from ‘The Big Sleep’.

Shared joke

Another way of 'branding' your story and setting it apart from the work of other writers is to dress your lead character in an unusual or otherwise idiosyncratic manner. Probably one of the greatest examples of this was William Link's disheveled detective, Columbo, who used his tramp-like appearance to put the 'bad guy' at much ease. He was so 'obviously' incompetent as an investigator, that villains always ended up incriminating themselves. The audience, of course, know it's just a convenient act and, even if they are struggling a bit with the complexities of the plot, can still laugh along with the seemingly aimless (but really very deliberate) bumblings of Peter Falk.

These are just a few uses of an ongoing gag. There are plenty more but they all serve the same purpose in that they:
  • Introduce a light moment just before you hit home with the real tension
  • Brand your books so that they are uniquely yours
  • Encourage demand for a sequel - we've identified with the character, we love the joke and now we want more
  • Allow the readers to share in a secret joke which helps facilitate their suspension of belief
No matter how serious your novel (or even piece of non-fiction), there is almost always scope for the use of humor.

I'll be back!

Author Profile: Clive West

Clive West was born in the West Country of England in the early 60's. He was educated at a traditional English public school before going on to university to study civil engineering. Over the years, he has worked as a civil engineer, tutor of maths and science, schools quiz-master, employment agency boss, and writer.

His work includes a collection of short stories with twists called Hobson's Choice (also available in print), a full-length novel called 'The Road about the consequences of corruption on ordinary people and an accessible job hunting interview guide (based on his years of experience as the boss of an employment agency.

He has also written a book about lymphedema. This is a disfiguring, life-threatening and incurable disease he now suffers from and which his experience shows that most fellow patients have (like him) been abandoned by their respective health services.

Clive now lives in a rebuilt farmhouse in the Umbrian region of Italy along with Damaris, his writer wife of 22 years and their three rescue dogs. Apart from his fictional work, Clive also writes commercial non-fiction on a variety of topics but especially relating to business and employment. He and Damaris run an indie publishers called Any Subject Books Ltd –

You can also follow Any Subject Books on Facebook –

Clive is now disabled but, aside from his writing, he also enjoys playing the keyboard, listening to music and reading.

Clive's contact details:

Personal Facebook site:

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