…the key element of humor.
You lead your reader down a familiar path. Just when they think they know where you’re going… you pull the rug out from beneath them. Works for slapstick, works for word play, and everything in between — two pats on the back, and a swift kick in the pants.
That’s where clichés come in. Remember yesterday when I told you to save all the clichés your overzealous editor ripped from your manuscript? This is where you put them back in, this time with a twist. They’re great fodder for humor.
The element of surprise.Let’s take a cliché, “If at first you don’t succeed…”
… we have a lot in common.
… quit. No sense in being a fool about it. (W.C. Fields)
… you’ll get plenty of advice.
… cry, cry again!
… (for apprentice reporters) pry, pry again!
More cliché humor—
“A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place.” — Harry Anderson
“To err is human, but it feels divine!” — Mae West
“I will not cut off my nose to spite my race.” — Golda Meir (See? Even politicians recognize the power of a reworked cliché.)
OTHER ELEMENTS OF SURPRISE TO LOOK FOR —
There is power in threes. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Turn things upside down with the third element.
“If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil comes from olives, where does baby oil come from?” — Lily Tomlin
Over the Fourth of July, a local carpet store announced they were holding a sale—a red, white, and mauve sale.OPPOSITES
Take an extreme trait, reverse it, and parade it around with all innocence.
I just bought a great new money-saving book: Secrets to Shopping at Thrift Stores by Paris Hilton
Miguel Cervantes used this element of humor effectively for an entire novel, Don Quixote. His premise: In a day when chivalry was dead, there was a knight in armor who sallied forth dispensing truth and justice.
Take a trait and blow it all out of proportion. Comedy is essentially truth exaggerated and distorted.
“One editor returned my manuscript with a Dr. Scholl’s odor-eater.”
Take a familiar line and give it an unexpected twist.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch… like you.”
A play on words that sound similar to other words. Reader’s Digest calls these, “Pullet Surprises.”
Dilate —to live longer
Barium — what to do when CPR fails
A humorous misuse of words.
Baseball great Yogi Berra has a knack for these. He said —
“That restaurant is so crowded, nobody ever goes there anymore.”
When asked by a reporter if he was the source of all the quotes attributed to him, he replied,
“I really didn’t say everything I said.”
“A verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s printed on.” — Samuel Goldwyn
“All right, everybody line up alphabetically according to height.” — Casey Stengel
On a patient’s medical chart. “When she fainted, her eyes rolled around the room.”
Never underestimate the effectiveness of humor. It’s narrative dynamite.
A great example of humor in an opening scene is William Kienzle’s The Rosary Murders—
“It wouldn’t have been a valid priest’s funeral without Father O’Brien. Funny thing. Before they closed the lid on the casket, O’Brien tried on the dead priest’s glasses—took them right off the man’s face and tried ’em on. Looked around the church, decided his own were better, put the glasses back on the deceased, and went back to his pew like nothing happened. It’s a good thing O’Brien didn’t need teeth.”
Look for it.
Use it in your writing.
Your readers will sing your praises.