What does it mean for a novel to have an inherently humorous premise?

Lately I’ve been getting a little fed up with all the very serious novels in the world. I open up a book, and it’s just…heavy. Even when it’s a love story, there’s just so much drama and angst. The heaviness permeates the whole book. It sinks into the writing itself. The sentences are long and lugubrious, and they dwell heavily upon the landscape and upon the internal.

And I’m tired of it. No special reason for that. I think heavy books can be awesome. But I don’t want to read any for awhile. And I especially don’t want to write any. This is, I think, why I’ve lost interest in a few of my novel ideas lately. They’ve just been too heavy.

So I’ve been sitting around and trying to think of how to write a humorous book, and it’s not easy. In fact, it’s a task I feel distinctly ill-equipped for. All my life I’ve been writing what are, in my opinion, relatively more serious books. If I was trying to write for TV or for the movies, I’d be hosed, since those humor writers are really sharp and on point: there it’s a distinct path in life; something you need to study and plan for.

But in books it’s different, since even the funniest books aren’t particularly funny, and writers like Elmore Leonard can get a reputation for humor even though their books have at best a mild tinge of the absurd.

When it comes to writing humorous books, I’ve concluded that it’s best to start with an inherently humorous premise. This is not a requirement. I think it’s possible for a work to be very funny even if it doesn’t have a humorous premise. For instance, I think the movie Super Troopers is brilliant, but there’s nothing inherently funny about a group of state troopers trying to make a big arrest so they don’t get shut down by the higher-ups.

But that required injecting laughs into each scene, and I think that’s a difficult thing to do. You need to be a very gifted gag writer if you’re going to sell each scene, over and over, as a humorous set-piece.

Far easier, I think, is to start with a premise that has humor baked in.

But this made me wonder, what is an example of an inherently humorous premise? Is this really a thing that exists? Or am I chasing a mirage?

But then I thought of some examples. For instance, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In Night Time is about an autistic kid who comes across a dead dog and tries to investigate its killing, and find the culprit, as if this was an Agatha Christie mystery. I told that concept to my girlfriend, and she laughed right away.

Or take the movie Old School. It’s about a group of old guys who start a fraternity.

Or one of my favorite light-read fantasy novels: Martin Scott’s World Fantasy Award winner, Thraxas. It’s about a hard-boiled private investigator who lives in a fantasy city, complete with elves and orcs, that’ loosely based on Constantinople.

In these premises, there’s an immediate disjunct between expectations and actuality. We are given something that ought to be one way, and then it’s presented in a different way. I like to think of it as universes colliding. If you’re just in a fantasy city, it’s not funny, because it has its own rules, and even if those rules are inherently ridiculous, it’s the job of the novel to make you believe in them. And if you’re just in a hard-boiled crime novel, it’s not funny either, because there you’ve got different rules that also make internal sense. But in a novel with an inherently humorous premise, you don’t know what the rules are, and the range of possibilities is much wider.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on humor. It is something I’ll learn eventually. I think Enter Title Here has humorous elements. And I just finished writing a humorous middle-grade novel: A Sword Named PERHAPS (which is about a world where the rules oscillate back and forth between gritty realism and fantasyland). But I think I could do better. And I will. Probably.

Comments (