Humor Writing Lessons from Semple, Goldstein, and Ulinich

Posted by September 6th, 2013

Infusing humor in your writing is a smart way to get readers to stick around. Who doesn’t enjoy good comic relief? Yet there is no recipe to make a book funny; “funny” is easy to spot but harder to recreate.

That’s why I decided to look at books I’ve read in the past month and study the strategies they’ve used to make me smile, chuckle, and even hoot with laughter.

Humor & Character

bernadetteHumor can affect the way we perceive a character, appeal to our sympathies. WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple is about a mother who retreats from the world. Kooky Bernadette is pretty hard to like at times, but her zaniness is steeped with so much humor that I couldn’t help but like her a little. To avoid interacting with other people, she hires a seventy-five-cent-per-hour virtual personal assistant from India to do her shopping for her and organize her life. Bernadette affectionately refers to the other mothers at her daughter’s school as gnats. She can spend hours fuming over the design of Seattle roads. Humor softens up Bernadette’s edges, brings out her humanity. It heightens her character in a way that is almost loveable. Bernadette has flaws but is not unsalvageable.

Humor & Voice

illseizeComedy is sometimes most palpable in a writer’s style and the unique way he or she nudges us to interpret the world. I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW by Jonathan Goldstein is a memoir about the anxiety of turning forty and having “no wife, no kids, no car, and no house” to show for it. “Not even a houseboat.” Here the humor is more muted and intellectual but no less engaging. Putting the most insignificant life events through a humorous lens, Goldstein can turn even the most mundane occurrence on its head and infuse it with meaning. When the janitor at his job empties the trash can earlier than usual,  Goldstein embraces this break from the routine: “I look at the trash can, its emptiness one day early and so full of possibility I hardly know where to start.” Humor here is a philosophical outlook, a key aspect of the narrative voice. Hey, I might have had a few existential epiphanies along the way myself!

Humor & Story

 petropolisComedy can also help us perceive a book’s narrative arc differently. PETROPOLIS by Anya Ulinich is a very funny book but not the type that will make you double over with laughter. Its shades are darker, satirical. Sasha, a black Siberian girl, lands in America as a mail-order bride. Her journey might be thorny—and I pitied her and rooted for her—but the ridiculous situations she gets herself into and the wacky ways in which she manages to extricate herself from them transformed the story and my idea of the heroine’s path. After she runs away from her American fiancee, Sasha ends up as a maid to a rich Jewish family. Treated like a prisoner, she views her predicament with pragmatism: “Washed the floor in the Russian room in exchange for a bed to sleep on. Scraped the gunk from in between the hallway stones for a bowl of granola.”  Humor here is a token of Sasha’s resilience in the face of adversity.

Humor enhances the different elements of writing, deepens a book’s message, and adds texture to its style. As such, it’s an important part of a writer’s toolbox.

What humorous strategies do you use to keep readers turning the pages?  

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4 thoughts on “Humor Writing Lessons from Semple, Goldstein, and Ulinich

  1. Beatrice Labissiere

    In XVII century, some writers like Molière for example used humor in order to criticize ” les moeurs et les travers” of his society. Some of the characters painted by the author in his books like “Les Femmes Savantes et Les Précieuses Ridicules “helped me to gain insight about what was going during this time period. I would like to try Molière’s strategy to keep readers turning the pages. I do not know it is going to work out what do you think about it?

  2. Gary Horsman

    One of my favorite authors was Douglas Adams, writer of the HItchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently series. His style was infused throughout with humor. I especially enjoyed his imaginative metaphors that kept the narrative plugging along.

    I usually decide the tone I want to use in my writing in advance, depending on the subject matter, and it can either be serious or humorous. But that doesn’t mean I can’t use humor in a typically serious story or be serious within the context of a novel that has a humorous tone.

    Humor is an attitude towards life and in fact a healthy one. As far as writing goes, it can transform an otherwise dry narrative into something entertaining where the reader is less tempted to skip over passages to get to the ‘good bits.’


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