After last Friday's April Fools pulse, I was asked to blog about writing humor. But keep in mind: there's nothing more serious than writing about the techniques of humor. So…no laughing today. Sorry.
Satire is right up my alley. If you list every one of my publications, the majority of them are either satire or humor, and even my serious pieces have funny moments. I believe exercising our sense of humor makes us more human and less apt to get upset over small matters. I would never have survived the querying process without a sense of humor.
Humor in the middle of a serious novel can break up the tension and give your reader a much-needed break. Laughter helps us connect with the characters so we feel as if we're on their side. That doesn't mean villains can't use humor too. In fact, I think they should. But in general, humor makes characters and books more appealing. So we have to learn to use it well.
Humor in general arises from a surprise. When we're looking for laughs, the key is to take something familiar and frame it in an unfamiliar way, turning it on its head in the process. In order to do that, you need to know your material inside-out. For satire in particular, you need a thorough familiarity with every aspect of what you're satirizing, and then take every aspect of it and wrench it around sideways.
Robert Darden, editor of The Wittenburg Door, rejected one of my pieces with advice that has paid off in spades ever since: keep it focused. Short humor pieces need one point, and you can build from there. (I rewrote the piece and he accepted it.) Sometimes we're trying to do too much. Neil Gaiman said that when writing Good Omens with co-author Terry Pratchett, the most shocking thing was how much hilarious material they threw away. It just didn't fit the focus.
So let's go back to last Friday's Pulse, since it seems to have most of the elements of good satire and good parody (although that doesn't mean it was good -- only that it shares the same elements, like being written in full sentences):
The absurd: everyone announces movie deals, but would anyone really film a movie about a man designing a database? If you've been here for a while, you recognize that the "five hot women" who join his quest (database =/= quest) would be the five blogging authors in the sidebar. Then we take it over the top with a famous actor and musicians, and polish it off by saying one of the writers will have a cameo in the movie. It all sounds totally normal if you've ever read about a movie deal, but it's absurd.
Inversions: we're used to romance writers crafting stories about vampires; a vampire writing a story about romance is the reverse.
Hidden bonuses: Our artwork didn't win an award, but you wouldn't see that line unless you read the caption. Did you notice my author photo was flipped? Did you translate the Latin name of the shark?
Insider knowledge and subtlety: twisted agent names, subjects agents do blog on but wildly inverted, a new feature announced in exactly the wording Patrick normally announces them. Listen to master parodist Weird Al Yankovik: the littlest quirks of the songs he parodies will turn up in his versions, right down to holding the last note too long on "Spam."
Irony: The "prize" for the one billionth query letter is that you get a response to your query. it's exactly the same as the "prize" for sending the 384,797th query.
Bad puns: well, those speak for themselves. I'm sure you found at least three.
A disappearing author: for satire and parody, you as the writer need to immerse yourself in the thing you're sending up so none of your own voice comes through. Become what you're satirizing. Again look to Weird Al as the master chameleon, and notice the range of voices he's able to imitate.
A point: satire should have a point, albeit subtle; parody doesn't need one.
And finally, take it over the top. If you have a singing query letter, follow your idea through all the way to the end. How did this start? How would it be implemented? How would the agents react? And then, how would you take a question authors frequently ask about their query letters (such as pitching a multiple-POV novel) and apply it to song?
There you have it. All the elements you need, although I have to add that a warped childhood and a decade of reading every issue of MAD Magazine are extraordinarily helpful as well.