Seven Tips for Writing Funny Mysteries
By Billie Thomas, author of
Murder on the First Day of Christmas
When I count my blessings, I’m always careful to list the fact that writing humor comes easily to me. Notice, I didn’t say that I’m funny. That’s subjective. You can’t call yourself funny any more than you can call yourself cool or – god forbid – badass. No, I’m saying that I naturally hear the “beats” of humor, the way some people hear the beats I’m told are in music. (I don’t hear the beats in music, which is why I dance to the words.) But just as I’ve had to brush up on the skills that don’t come easily to me – plotting, for example – I think anyone can learn some tricks for writing humor. Will these tips make you funny? Again, subjective. But they can help you stack the odds in your favor.
Tip 1. Know your characters:
Having a thorough understanding of your character lets you understand how they relate to situations or to other characters. My protagonist, Chloe, for instance, is self-deprecating and a little ditzy. Funny things happen to her and she’s smart enough to see the humor in them. In Murder on the First Day of Christmas, a gynecologist corners Chloe at a party:
“Hear you’re a personal trainer now. Maybe we could trade services. You get me back into fighting shape, I’ll give you free Pap smears for life.”
I watched him lick lobster puff from his fat little fingers. Somehow, my usual line, “Let me check if I have any openings,” didn’t seem quite appropriate.
See? Chloe is the type of girl that gets offered free Pap smears for life and she rolls with it. Her mother, Amanda, on the other hand, is more sophisticated and has a razor sharp wit. When the president of the Garden Club insults her, Amanda might fire back “Says the woman who puts the ‘hor’ in ‘horticulture.’”
The differences between Chloe and Amanda make the banter between them funny, but their affection for each other keeps it light.
Tip 2. Create a context.
Before you can deliver the laughs, you have to have set up. Consider the context of your story and think about where the humor is inherent. Will yours be a fish out of water story? One where the banter of two opposite characters provides the laughs the way it does for Chloe and Amanda? Maybe you’re writing a screwball comedy where zany things happen to unwitting characters? Whatever context you choose, don’t let your character in on the joke. “I’m a fish out of water,” your character acknowledges in a stage whisper. Your reader puts down your book and works on their taxes.
Tip 3. Story first, humor second.
The most important thing I’ve gleaned from all the rejection letters from agents and editors I’ve received over the years is that story is the entrée and humor is the seasoning. Hearing that your story is “laugh-loud funny but…,” that your writing is “great, however…” is more frustrating than I can communicate. As I said above, I’ve had to work really hard on plotting to make my stories strong without losing the humor. But relying on humor – the seasoning – at the expense of story? Look up “eating cinnamon” on Youtube to see what that’s like.
Tip 4. Don’t chase the joke.
This rule is as hard to obey as “kill your darlings.” And yet, it’s just as non-negotiable. A joke that requires too much set-up, that changes the trajectory of a scene, or worse, the story, that is out of context or undercuts the tension, simply has to die. Ok, it doesn’t have to die. It can be cut out, filed away and saved for another day. But it has no place in your book.
Tip 5. Repetition is funny.
There’s a saying that comedy happens in threes, so repeating a line, situation, or character foible can be a great source of humor. More importantly, it lets your reader feel like they’re in on the joke, giving them that “wait for it…wait for it” feeling that is so engaging.
I do this a couple of times in Murder on the First Day of Christmas with the way Amanda can’t help herself from commenting on something that annoys her about Chloe’s clothing choices. A repeated line, known as a callback appears in the beginning of the book and is the last line of the book as well. Also Chloe’s sister, Bridget is always tangling clichés. (“I know this town like the back of my head” or “You should march back in there and give him a piece of your ass.”) Repeating this character trait several times (but not every time we see Bridget) adds to the humor of her character.
Tip 6. Keep humor in its place.
Mysteries have to have suspense. If your MC is cracking jokes while the murderer has a gun trained on them, the tension is sorely undercut. That could be what you’re going for – having your wisecracking character use humor to diffuse the situation. But if you want your reader on the edge of their seats, save the jokes for a different scene. The reader isn’t scared unless your characters are.
Tip 7. Mix it up.
Humor from any one direction is tiresome. If your book is all slapstick, all dirty jokes or all snark, your readers will get bored and start to tune out. Humor should also have an element of surprise, so let something slapsticky happen to the very poised person, or have the prude make an off-color remark. Using all the weapons in your humor arsenal will engage the reader and keep them turning pages.
What I love about writing humor is that the joy is inherent. Yes, there are tortured comedians and sad clowns, but ultimately humor comes from a positive place – the desire to make someone laugh. And, after what I did to Santa in my first book, I need all the good Karma that I can get.
About Murder on the First Day of Christmas:
Finding a severed hand at a client’s house might throw lesser decorators off their games. But Chloe Carstairs and her mother, Amanda, won’t let a little thing like murder keep them from decking the halls. With a body under the partridge’s pear tree and a dead Santa in a sleigh, they have to crack the case before the killer strikes again – this time much too close to home.
Filled with laugh-out-loud humor, romance and a delightfully difficult mother-daughter relationship, this new series from Billie Thomas offers a fast-paced caper as these two southern ladies try to keep their very merry Christmas from turning into the Noel from hell.
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About Billie Thomas
Billie Thomas is the pseudonym of a Birmingham-based author. After the real Billie passed away unexpectedly at the end of 2011, getting Murder on the First Day of Christmas, the first of a series, revised and published was her daughter’s top priority as a way to honor the mom who had given her a lifelong love of books.
In her real life, Ms. Thomas writes within the advertising industry and is a founding member of the writing collective, IndieVisible. Other publications include Bar Code: Your Personal Pocket Decoder to the Modern Dating Scene.
Connect with Billie Thomas and her protagonist Chloe Carstairs at:
Follow on Twitter: @ChloeGetsAClue