On being funny

I try to not try to be funny when I write. My books are funny. I sure hope so, at least. I think they’re funny. But I don’t fill my books with comedians walking around doing their bits wherever they can, because that wouldn’t be funny. (Okay, also I’m not holding back a bunch of comic gold material.) My characters say what they would say, or else the story would fall apart. I couldn’t make my book funnier by pulling out what my characters are saying and putting in, instead, funnier material. It wouldn’t be funnier.

It all comes down to ear, and ear is really just opinion, but nothing is less funny than a character saying some clever, funny quip that doesn’t sound like something they would say. Because it sounds like the author popping in to show off how funny they are. Maybe the author is hilarious, maybe the author’s quip is the funniest quip ever quipped, but how rude of him or her to pop in on me. I’m trying to read a book!

In chapter four of Flowers on Concrete, Trey walks into a gas station and feels, after a pretend date with Angela that went really well, empowered to engage the attendant, Michael, socially. He is talking about expensive futuristic-looking lighters and feels like he’s just nailing it. Then he says, “I didn’t even know people smoked in space.” They both laugh. Trey laughs because he’s so damn excited he’s pulling off talking to somebody. Michael laughs to be polite.

I forget if it was a few people or just one who made an impression, but when I got that portion of my book critiqued in a writing class, several years ago, someone commented that what Trey said wasn’t that funny.

Wasn’t that funny? It’s not funny at all. The scene is funny (I think so, at least) because it’s what Trey would say, something lame and unfunny.

I’m not sure where I picked up the importance of sticking to what your characters would say instead of the funniest or most clever thing you can think of having your characters say. Call it instinct, but writing instinct is picked up somewhere, from books I particularly enjoyed, hard to say where your writing style comes from, except that it comes from somewhere. But just recently, I happened to see an interview of Gene Wilder talking about improvisation. He and Richard Pryor improvised a lot of the scenes from their movies. He said the key to improv was to never try to be funny. Don’t try to come up with a funny thing to say, come up with the right thing that character would say and trust it to be funny.

Chapter four is part of the amazon sample preview. I’ll leave a link, for anyone interested in peeking at the opening chapters of Flowers on Concrete, which includes Trey’s comical interaction with Michael at the gas station: http://amzn.com/1938897048

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