In writing the humorous mystery series The Accidental Detective, I explored different types of humor in writing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll delve into each type and give examples. First, here are the types I’ll address. (Different sources will give a different number and types of humor.)
- Physical comedy, such as slapstick
- Quirky characters
- Wordplay, including puns
- Observational humor, such as comments about the oddity of life
Today, let’s look at physical comedy. This works well in movies and TV shows, where you can see pratfalls, clowning around, people making funny faces, and so forth. It was especially important in silent movies that depended on visuals rather than words. It is more of a challenge in books, where the action must be described in words. Still, some authors use a lot of physical humor – Jana DeLeon is an example. Her humorous mysteries are full of comical explosions, people flying through the air, and messes.
I generally prefer to use a light touch with the physical comedy in my books. Still, these moments can add humor as well as advance the plot. In Something Shady at Sunshine Haven, former war correspondent Kate is back in Arizona recovering from an injury. She uses a cane to support her damaged left leg. An old acquaintance who runs the nursing home where Kate’s mother lives asks Kate to quietly investigate whether something is wrong in the home.
In the following excerpt, Kate has been interviewing an elderly man in a wheelchair when one of her suspects, a cranky employee named Norman Mendelson tries to interfere.
Mendelson joined us, his hands on his hips. “Miss Tessler, I see you’re here again. I hope you aren’t bothering the residents with your questions.”
“I prefer Ms. Tessler, and I was having a lovely chat with a very interesting man.”
Tommy beamed at Mendelson. “Not many people want to listen to my war stories, but this young lady has been humoring me.”
I spotted Mrs. Gregorian and her family. If Mrs. Gregorian was one of the overmedicated patients, that opened up a new line of questioning.
I turned to Tommy. “It was lovely talking to you. I hope we’ll meet again when I’m here visiting my mother. I need to speak to some other new friends now.”
Mendelson scowled and shuffled his feet, but he could hardly keep me from talking to people in the public room.
I grinned. “Have a great day.”
I felt his gaze on me as I turned to cross the room.
Between the residents and visiting family members, the spacious room was a swirl of activity. I waited for a woman using a walker to cross in front of me. My leg ached, so I shifted more of my weight onto my good leg and the cane. A man to my right half turned, gesturing wildly with his arms while he told a story. I flinched back to avoid being hit.
Something slammed into my left leg. I grunted in pain as my leg collapsed. My cane swung upward, goosing the gesturing man and tangling in his legs.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the floor in a heap.
This is a minor moment, but several early readers noted that they laughed when the man got goosed. The scene also moves the story forward, as Kate now wonders if Mendelson tried to stop her from interviewing other people. In addition, it reveals Kate’s character as she has to deal with being the center of attention in a way that makes her uncomfortable.
Small moments of physical comedy can add humor and make a scene more visual too. Here's an example from Felony Melanie in PageantPandemonium: A Sweet Home Alabama romantic comedy novel:
Melanie perched on a stump half hidden among the bushes and weeds. Jake and the gang would be along soon. It was finally starting to cool down a bit, though the humidity still thickened the air. Today had been what her daddy referred to as a “three T-shirt day.”
Something rustled in the bushes behind her. She twisted to peer through the heavy growth. The cherry bombs had made her jumpy. Sure, the woods could hold dangerous critters, but this was most likely only a bird or rabbit. But you had to watch out for wild dogs, and wild pigs were huge and nasty, with tusks like Bowie knives. She sniffed the air for the smell of wild hog, all wet fur and decaying mud and piss, stinking to high heaven. None of that, thank goodness. But was that … body spray?
A new sound rumbled through the dusk. “Eldon, are you hunnnnngry?”
Melanie leapt to her feet. Clinton popped out of a bush a few feet away.
She groaned. Not this again! She spun away from him.
Skinny Eldon stalked her from the other side, grinning. “I’m starving.”
Melanie backed up, but her legs bumped the stump. “No. No, no, no.”
“I could use a Melanie sandwich,” Clinton said.
She darted for the road.
Clinton and Eldon jumped forward and squashed her between them. Clinton’s flowing mullet tickled her cheek as his broad chest smothered her.
Melanie wriggled. “Did y’all forget to shower after the game?”
So when it comes to physical humor, I usually like a light touch, but it is one of many techniques that can work to make writing funny. In some genres, such as children’s books and romantic comedy, physical humor can be extreme, even over the top.
As a bonus, a little physical humor might make your book seem more cinematic. Who knows, you could attract the attention of Hollywood!
Something Shady at Sunshine Haven: War correspondent Kate Tessler has followed the most dangerous news stories around the world. But can she survive going home?
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