Write Humor Like Anne Lamott
I attended a meeting recently where Anne Lamott promoted her new book, Grace Eventually, to a mob of adoring fans. She speaks as she writes (or is it the other way around) – in punch line after surprising punch line that is riddled with her foibles, her shortcomings, her fears and her passions. I first learned about Anne from her book Bird by Bird, which is on my must read list of books for all writers. I don’t write like Anne and I don’t think like Anne but I can see in her a passionate communicator and that is what I want to learn from her – to be able to connect with other people through my writing.
To that end, during her talk I paid attention to how Anne handled herself --to her delivery and her story telling as much as her content. I’ve occasionally been accused of being overly analytic. That evening I was guilty. I’m fascinated by humor. It is a complex form of art that’s easy for some people and is as tough as a chicken fried steak from a fast food restaurant to others.
Humor is timing, disconnect, and surprise. A timed pause in a story and a look that tells more than words is hard to do on paper. Timing can be done in writing by setting up a situation and resolving it later in the story in an unexpected way. In fact, most story telling comes from these two incidents – the set up and the resolution. Too many times a writer will put the resolution too close to the set up. Let there be time and space. In fact, you might have several set ups and a single resolution that “solves” them all. And, although we’re talking humor here, this also works for horror, drama, or any other type of storytelling.
Disconnected humor happens when two things happen that are seemingly unrelated but effect one another. For example, one character might be talking to someone about death while the other person thinks they’re talking about trimming the rose bushes. The reader knows the disconnect and (hopefully) a bit of humor happens as the two characters try to resolve conflicting statements.
Surprise humor happens when something happens that is (usually) a pleasant surprise. Suppose a friend is setting at a bar and insists on introducing you to his companion. He builds up this guy, but you don’t see him anywhere. Is he in the restroom? Is he coming back? Your friend then turns to an empty stool next to him, puts his arm around an invisible being, and introduces you to a six foot rabbit name Harvey.
I’ve heard many times that on-stage comedy is harder to do than drama. I think it’s the same in writing. But, don’t believe that it’s only the natural comedians who can do it. Learn from people like Anne Lamott – she’ll be the first to tell you that to write a good funny 500 word story takes a week and thousands of words that are thrown in the trash.