April 1 – 8: “Is it difficult to write comedy or humor into your thrillers?”

To commemorate April Fool’s Day and relaunch the Thriller Roundtable, we look at comedy and humor in the thriller genre, and ask: “Is it difficult to write comedy or humor into your thrillers? Is it necessary, desired, or just a tool to release the tension in some needed spots?

Join ITW Members Cat Connor, Bonnie Calhoun, Mitzi Kelly, William Todd Rose, D.P. Lyle, Jean Harrington, Charlie Cochrane, James Conway, Deborah Coonts, Eileen Robertson and C.E. Lawrence!


New Zealander Cat Connor is the author of KILLERBYTE, TERRORBYTE, EXACERBYTE and FLASHBYTE – her latest FBI thriller about the life of SSA Ellie Conway. Her first novel, KILLERBYTE, was a finalist in the 2010 EPIC awards. Cat spends her days writing with her retired racing greyhound – Romeo, keeping her company.

Bonnie Calhoun is owner of the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, a 220+ member book reviewer organization. She publishes Christian Fiction Online Magazine, devoted to readers and writers of Christian fiction. She serves as Northeast Zone Director for American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and garnered ‘Mentor of the Year’ for 2011. She is President of (CAN) Christian Authors Network, and also the Appointment Coordinator for the Colorado Christian Writers Conference and the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference.

Read more about Bonnie and her latest novel, COOKING THE BOOKS, in the April edition of TheBigThrill.

Mitzi Kelly grew up in El Paso, Texas and then moved to San Antonio where she met her husband of 31 years.  She has one terrific son and five very spoiled dogs.  She started writing feature articles but soon realized that was not what she wanted to do, so she created The Silver Sleuths Mystery Series.  The first book, CLASSIC REVENGE, has received wonderful reviews.  The second book, DEADLY POLICY, is now available.

Read more about Mitzi and her latest novel, DEADLY POLICY, in the April edition of TheBigThrill.

William Todd Rose was named by The Google+ Insider’s Guide as one of their top 32 authors to follow. He writes speculative fiction that lends itself to the dark, and often surreal, realm of the macabre. For more information, including links to free fiction, please visit his website.

William Todd Rose was featured in TheBigThrill’s April edition. Click here to learn more.

D. P. Lyle is the Macavity winning and Edgar nominated author of both fiction and non-fiction. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

To learn more about D. P. Lyle and his latest nonfiction book, MORE FORENSICS IN FICTION, click here.

Jean Harrington lives in Naples, Florida with husband John (no cat, no dog, no kids anymore).  After teaching English lit at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts for 17 years, she now spends her days writing and loving every minute of it.  Jean’s published works have won several RWA contests.  DESIGNED FOR DEATH is the first in her Murders by Design Mysteries, and she’s having great fun wallowing knee deep in fictional dead bodies.

Jean Harrington and her latest novel, DESIGNED FOR DEATH, was featured in the April edition of TheBigThrill.

As Charlie Cochrane couldn’t be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice—like managing a rugby team—she writes. She lives in England, but has yet to use her local town Romsey as a setting for her stories. Maybe one day… Charlie’s Cambridge Fellows Series of Edwardian romantic mysteries was instrumental in her being named Author of the Year 2009 by the review site Speak Its Name.

Eileen Robertson, born in Yorkshire, England is now living in Gosport, Hampshire. Eileen was a former lecturer in German and creative writing at Highbury College in Cosham and at Portsmouth University. She became a carer when her husband William suffered a stroke. Although the transition from lecturer to carer was not easy it gave her the opportunity to focus on her life-long interest in writing.  She says: ” In life as one door closes, another one opens.” Her first crime book, MISS MCGUIRE IS MISSING, was a huge success and her second book, BLACKMAIL FOR BEGINNERS released at the end of February is selling well. She is currently working on her third crime novel which will be on sale in summer 2013.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). SILENT SCREAMS, SILENT VICTIM and SILENT KILLS are the first three books in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge. Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, THE STAR OF INDIA.

My mother tells me I was born a very long time ago, but I’m not so sure—my mother can’t be trusted.  These things I do know:  I was raised in Texas on barbeque, Mexican food and beer.  I currently reside in Las Vegas, where my friends assure me I cannot get into too much trouble.  Silly people. I am the author of WANNA GET LUCKY? (A NY Times Notable Crime Novel for 2010 and double RITA™ Finalist), LUCKY STIFF, SO DAMN LUCKY and a novella, LUCKY IN LOVE.  I can usually be found at the bar, but also at www.deborahcoonts.com.

Don’t miss out on Deborah Coonts’ featured write-up for the TheBigThrill.org, and learn more about her latest book, SO DAMN LUCKY.

James Conway is a pseudonym for a hedge fund insider and a global creative director at a major advertising firm.  He has an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.  Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/@ByJamesConway or JamesConwayBooks@gmail.com


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  1. Good Morning, All–and happy April fool’s Day! Humor in thrillers: for me humor, or the wry quip, comes easy. I think it had something to do with my wide sarcastic streak being stifled when I was young–snarkiness is apparently not a trait appreciated in young, Southern ladies.

    That being said, the humor has to be germane to the character who is spouting-off or it has to serve a plot function, ie slow things down, take a breather. Humor simply for humor’s sake, to me, is distracting in a story. But using humor to defuse tension after the threat has passed (or perhaps as a tool to lure the readers into thinking the threat has passed) is an effective use and one I enjoy. We do this in our own lives, so it stands to reason we would accept it in the thriller world.

    But, given that thrillers are pretty serious/dark–I can’t imagine a place for Keystone Cops kind of humor. I certainly wouldn’t want my thriller hero to be bumbling. And, since the hero is only as strong as the villain, I wouldn’t want my villain to be inept and risk demeaning the capabilities of my hero. But I do like a strong guy/gal who can throw off a good line in the heat of battle:) Or who has a bit of swagger and bravado after he’she has prevailed.

    How do the rest of you feel? Do you like humor in thrillers or not?

  2. Far from being a little cosmetic on the cheeks of thriller, mystery, and suspense novels, comedy goes bone deep. Yes, it is difficult to write, is desired and is a release of tension. All three. But necessary?
    Playwright Arthur Miller didn’t think so. He wrote that a hero fighting evil—even if he dies in the attempt—elevates us by his noble deeds. On the other hand, comedy does not. A man slips on a banana peel, and he falls not on his sword, but on his behind. And we laugh at his suffering. Nothing glorious about that.
    But let’s give comedy its due. It can serve a valuable purpose even in gritty noir works, especially irony with its unexpected outcome or bit of dialogue. The ironic remark gives the hero an edge. His humor shows he’s above the terror. He doesn’t dismiss it, but he doesn’t let it intimidate him either. How cool is that?
    Case in point. Nelson De Mille, speaking through his character John Corey. Witty, sarcastic, wildly funny remarks are a Corey staple. Who can forget his comment about the two cities in China? It’s blue, so I won’t quote it here, but if you read the line, for sure you remember. Simply put, when a hero makes jokes in the middle of a crime, he isn’t scared. Or if he is, he’s concealing his fear well.
    Just as in life, self-deprecating humor makes a character more likeable. Even in thrillers, suspense and mysteries, if you want the reader to care about the fate of your hero, he should be likeable. Otherwise why care?. And if he can laugh at himself, chances are the readers will like him all the more.
    Ian Fleming understood this and had James Bond poke fun at himself as well as at
    Goldfinger and a motley cast of villains. We liked Bond for his sophistication and glamour, also for his tongue-in-cheek humor. As a result, the series was one of the most popular ever published in the thriller genre.
    Best of all, it’s fun to be scared, at least when you’re in the safety of your own living room. Or sitting around a campfire with your pals, the bad guys just out of reach beyond the trees. As the story teller goes into more and more creepy details, you toast your marshmallows while shivers run up and down your spine. What fun! Just like a roller coaster. It chugs to the top slowly, and we know what’s going to happen soon. Oh No! Oh No! Over the top!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
    Yup, scared stiff, laughing, and enjoying every minute of it.

    1. Jean:
      You are so right about comedy, especially the tongue in cheek kind. I also think it breaks up the tension and gives the reader a chance to rest between the more stressful scenes. And a good sense of humor is always a plus when it comes to heroes.
      You are in wonderful company here. I’ve read many of these authors work.
      Teresa R.

    2. Hi, Jean.
      Interesting discussion. I’ve been thinking about humor in the villain. I think for a mystery to really work the reader has to connect with the villain. You do a beautiful job with this in your next book – I’m grateful for the sneak peak. You make him “likable” and totally unexpected which leaves the reader satisfied at the end of the story. I’m not sure you could do this so effectively without some humor. Just my thoughts.

  3. Just lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend – people asking me questions that I actually have to think about before I answer. It’s really not fair, especially when I haven’t had my morning coffee yet!
    Is it difficult to write comedy or humor into my thrillers is one such question.
    I’d honestly never thought about it, probably because I don’t think I do. I write the way I think/speak. (Which may or not mean that I am a little bit of a smartass.)
    I write some pretty gruesome and scary scenes and tend to put my main character (the lovely SSA Ellie Conway) through all kinds of hell and during that I find odd thoughts pop into my head (or out my mouth). They not only relieve the tension for the reader but for me too – it gives me chance to go check the windows and doors.
    Humor is a way to deal with the awful things that police, paramedics, nurses, and fire fighters see far too often. If you can’t find the humor in any given situation you’re not going to last long in those jobs – your brain will probably explode. (Lets face it, exploding brains are messy things.)
    With my main character being an FBI agent I get to fully embrace the terror and the humor.
    The little things amuse the hell out of me and find their way into my novels. Like nurses/paramedics humming Queens ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, while preforming CPR. It just so happens that that song is perfect to help you to get the timing of the compressions right. I’m thinking singing probably crosses the line… but I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. (Go on try it!)
    There are situations when you just have to let whatever teeny little amusing thing you find override everything else or you’d never make it.
    It’s the same in life as it is in fiction. Something funny always seems to sneak in, and break up the tension or lull us into a false reprieve.
    My grandfather told me a story (he was a sole charge country cop) about a man who was hit by a freight train. Granddad spent ages picking up the pieces of the person and bagging them. As he told me about it a grin spread across his face. He said he was just looking for a toe to hang the tag on.
    Humor is all around us.
    It’s not politically correct.
    Laughter keeps us from going off the deep end when something awful happens.
    Is it difficult to write? Not really, for me it’s quite a natural thing, but only because I don’t think about it. I’m not trying to be funny; it’s just how I think when something horrible happens. (I say think, but everyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t think those thoughts I say them, out loud.)
    A little bit of black humor never hurt anyone. Did it?

  4. I’m a great fan of comical murder mysteries, from the strange world of the Bryant and May stories to the wry humour of Simon Brett’s Mrs Pargeter, they’re spot on when I’m in reader mode. Comedy done well adds to the pace, the timing and the enjoyment of a crime yarn. But humour needs a light touch – it shouldn’t be forced or too farcical. Compare the irresistible black comedy of the original The Ladykillers film with the heavy handed, almost slapstick remake. The jokes make the former and kill the latter. So with a mystery novel – comedy should be used to illuminate character and to keep the reader engaged, rather than making them think, “This is just silly”.

    I write cozy mysteries and my style is always to have a thread of gentle humour running through them, usually in the form of witty (I hope) dialogue. I have two pairs of historical sleuths and they both indulge in what I guess you’d call banter, partly to give the story a bit more depth than just a crime to solve, partly to lighten murder and angst-riven storylines, and partly because that’s part of the barrier my amateur sleuths put up against the rest of the world. (Both my sets of sleuths are gay and operate in an era where exposure would mean a prison sentence and disgrace. If you can’t say “I love you” in public then exchanging insults is the next best thing.)

    Is the banter hard to write? For me, no. Years of listening to radio comedy and the wonderful sports commentaries on the BBC have given me an ear for dialogue and a fund of lines to draw on or adapt. I also keep a note of any funny things my family have said or done, so the humorous situations are drawn from real life. Jonty Stewart deciding he’ll roll down the hill because he enjoyed it as a child and deciding half way down he’s going to die and how embarrassing the story will be when it hits the press is based on me doing the self same thing.

    The main care the author has to take is not to make the humour so overwhelming that he or she forgets that they’re dealing with serious issues. Murder is no laughing matter, so irrespective of the comedy you build up around the central mystery, you have to both treat it with respect and play fair. No amount of jokes will hide an “unfair” solution.

  5. I believe humor can play an important role in thrillers. LIfe too for that matter. Everything is funny if you look at it the right way. In thrillers, humor can not only break tension, but also reveal character and character relationships. Of course it has to be properly placed. In the middle of a climatic battle might not work but during the necessary and sometimes tedious investigation of a crime it can add depth to characters. I use humor in both my Samantha Cody and Dub Walker thriller series.

    An example would be a scene from my upcoming Dub Walker book, RUN TO GROUND. Television reporter, Claire McBride, is trying to convince Dub and Homicide Investigator T-Tommy Tortelli to let her go with a story on her evening news broadcast. A report that would dance very close to evidence they want to keep out of the public eye at this point in the investigation. The character dynamic is that they have all known each other since grammar school and Claire is Dub’s ex-wife. Though no longer married, Dub and Claire are still best friends and occasional lovers. The three, particularly Claire, use verbal jabs and sarcasm to keep each other grounded. Here is part of the scene:

    “So what’s it going to be?” Claire asked. “You going to green-light me going with the story or do I kick your butt?”
    T-Tommy grunted.
    “Better you than me,” I said.
    “I’m sorry,” Claire said. “I didn’t mean to leave you out. I should have said both of your butts.”
    “How could we refuse?” I said. “With you being so nice and all.”
    “I was nice last night. This is business.”
    “Exactly how nice were you?” T-Tommy asked.
    “Don’t duck the subject, Tortelli.” She tried to give him a look, but a smile broke through. “If you want to know ask Dub how nice I was.”
    I shrugged. “‘Very’ would be the word.”
    “Not extremely?” Claire said. “Or stupendously?”
    “Those, too.”

  6. ‘Humour is a funny thing’ so they say. It can pop up in unexpected places, sometmes to the astonishment of both the reader and the writer. ‘Gosh, where the hell did that come from?’ we say. I think humour is at it’s best when it’s in the character, whether that character be either hero or villian.
    Is humour essential or even necessary? I would say no. Sometimes an excess of humour slackens the pace of the story, it can, if overloaded, ruin the plot. Writers are by occupation tellers of stories and entertainers, and if we have an ear for humour (as musicians have an ear for music) our stories can be funny, but as Shakespeare said, “The play (or in our case the book) is the thing.”

    1. I always knew you were a classy girl, Eileen. Anyone who mentions Shakespeare gets my approval.

      And we overanalyse the use of funny scenes in Shakespeare in terms of their function. There’s one in As You Like It whose sole purpose must be to allow eveyone else to get changed for the big wedding scene!

  7. Everyone has already spoken so eloquently about this that it’s hard to think of anything to add, quite frankly. I think Deborah’s thoughtful comments about using humor to relieve tension are well taken – and it’s interesting that Eileen mentions Shakespeare, because he famously used humor to relieve tension in nearly all of his tragedies.

    I come from a comedy background, having made a living doing improvisational comedy for some years. I was a comedy geek at a young age, and for me humor is always welcome in any kind of genre.

    The one caveat I’d have to make is that any story, thriller or not, needs a certain consistency of tone, and if you’re writing a very dark thriller, your humor had better be pretty dark as well, or you’ll violate the tone and mood of your story. Otherwise, I say bring it on!

  8. Comedic relief can be a great tool in a writer’s bag of tricks but humor can be difficult to write at times. Everyone has a different definition of what they think is funny; a line which makes one person collapse into gales of laughter might make another simply shake their head sadly. It can be tricky to pull off and I have nothing but respect for those authors who not only do it, but do it well. For humor to work, in my opinion, it has to be natural. Something that the character would actually say or do. And that can really be the tricky part. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s necessary in a thriller, if done right it can go along way toward building a believable character. In real life, humor has this way of surfacing even in the most tense situations. My wife, for example, is notorious for dealing with stress by cracking bad jokes. It’s as much a part of who she is as the color of her eyes or the beliefs she holds as incontrovertible truths. So if we’re trying to mold our characters into people who could actually live and breathe outside the pages of a book, it would stand to reason that comedy would play a role.

    1. I’m with you entirely when you talk about the humour being in character. One of my big turn offs for books/TV is when characters do or say things which appear to be imposed on them.

      1. It can be a kill your darlings moment, I think. You come up with a great funny line, but it’s actually too funny for the character. That person just isn’t that witty. It’s a very hard thing to do to cut out the line, but consistent characterisation has to take precedence.

        1. You’re spot on, Becky. I’ve had to force myself to take out things I’d love to include because they jar. And if I can’t convince myself about them how can I convince anyone else?

          1. I agree–characters and their voices need to be consistent. but, if you come up with something delicious, save it. I have a HUGE outakes file–every now and again I check it and I find some gems that are perfect and that I had forgotten about.

          2. I too have various out take files, because somethings are too good to toss away.
            I was looking for something the other day – a sentence from a recent novel – and found an entire scene I’d pulled, it was centered around the reactions of several characters to an earthquake they’d all felt and had me in hysterical laughter as I re-read it.
            At the time it was written it was considered impossible (really, an earthquake in Christchurch – not likely…) so I pulled the scene from the novel because the alternative was to re-set that part of the novel and that wouldn’t work. Then much to my surprise Christchurch was pretty much flattened by a series of earthquakes (insert Twilight Zone music) sadly it’s probably still too soon to use that scene… but it’ll keep.

            I love going through out take files, they hold such gems and are quite the pick-me-up on a dull day. 😉

  9. I love this subject and am so happy to be able to participate in this Rountable. For me, humor is absolutely necessary in the thriller genre. There are different levels of humor, though, that I feel are acceptable and that don’t hurt the plot. For example, a very serious, dramatic mystery should only have minor, subtle humorous inserts. Otherwise, the reader is carried away from the plot and instead of getting wrapped up in the suspense, they are looking for the next “funny” situation. But to release tension, add realistic traits to the characters, I say, “Oh, yeah . . . definitely make me grin now and then.” It’s a very powerful tool.

    My series, The Silver Sleuths Mystery series, is a prime example of how humor works in the thriller genre, but that’s mainly due to the type of mystery it is. The characters are funny before they embark on solving a crime, so humor in their actions and reactions to events are expected. The reader isn’t insulted by a silly remark or action by one of the characters because the characters are being true to themselves.

    Adding humor just to add humor never works. Readers of the thriller genre are more intelligent than that and they see right through it. It’s not difficult to add humor or comedy into a plot, if done honestly and sincerely, because when you get right down to it, everybody can be funny and every situation can be humorous. You just have to balance the humor with reality and the mood of the novel.

    This is just my opinion. I’d love to hear yours!

  10. What a great discussion. This topic hits close to home. THE LAST TRADE is my first thriller after writing two darkly comic novels under another name. From first page to final, I was acutely aware of how far I could, should and shouldn’t go with humor. As with any piece of fiction, my goal was to be true to the mood and plot of the novel as well as the personalities of its two anti-heroes.

    Both characters have sardonic, wry senses of humor, and this is on full display in the earlier sections of the book. Nothing endears a character to a reader quite like a sense of humor, from the way they talk to others to the way in which they cope with a comical situation. But because I was trying to create an authentic, realistic and believable world — in this case the world of Wall Street and the threat of financial terrorism — I made sure they never went too far with their humor, especially as the stakes got higher and the threats they dealt with became more potentially catastrophic. I didn’t want them to be too cavalier in the face of grave danger, to have too much comic book hero swagger or drop a James Bondian one liners after witnessing the demise of adversaries. That’s perfect for Bond and for many other excellent thrillers, but not for my guys in this novel. If anything, it would have interfered with what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream” that a reader has with a work of fiction, and it would have killed the plausibility factor that was essential to gaining the trust of my reader.

    Also, because this was a such a departure from my previous books which were so dependent upon humor and absurdity, I was determined to not make every character sound like Jonathan Swift and to resist the urge to add anything that could be construed as gratuitously comic.

    So, for this novel, it’s not that it was difficult to write humor into the plot, it was that it would have been inappropriate and weakened the integrity of the story.

    Of course, there are as many shades of humor as there are types of thrillers. The key is to be true to the personality of the book and its protagonist. Some day soon, I’d like to write one who is hilarious!

  11. This is a great topic and very timely for my new release, Cooking The Books, because it is one of those blends of heavy duty suspense and humor. Is humor hard to write, not in the least. It a gut reaction to my natural personality. My tag line is “Snark & Suspense.”

    I do believe that if humor is hard for someone to write then they should probably avoid it because it might come out stilted or feel forced. I pretty much agree with Cat Connor. That comedy vein runs through me to.

    Another thing that might become important is the target audience that you are going for. For example if your trying to gather an all male audience (not meaning anything mean guys!) comedy probably isn’t your best bet. My target audience is women, and many of the women in my associated circle are what we call “big honkin’ chickens.” in other words heavy suspense plots unnerve them, so therefore adding a comedy element gives them a breather and allows them to come out from behind their husbands to read the next chapter.

    If you write good comedy (I think I do :-)) and it fits with your target audience…go for it!

  12. Hi all, The consensus above indicates that while humor is useful in the suspense/mystery genre, especially to pacing and the development of character, how it is handled is all important. Too much and it seems farcial. Too little why bother at all? Couldn’t agree more

    Taking this one step further, how everything is handled in a–may I say work of art?–matters. Humor is another arrow in our quiver. No more, no less. But guess I’m preaching to the choir here; you already know this. Time for coffee.

  13. After reading all of the comments so far, I’ve decided humor is like sex–too much and it seems gratuitous; in the wrong spot it becomes uncomfortable; and with the wrong character it’s just, well, wrong. Luckily, in my first series, the Lucky O’Toole Vegas series, humor and sex go hand-in-hand (sorta like my life). Since the Lucky books are comedic mysteries, humor is integral. Since it’s Vegas, sex fits.

    Often people ask me how can murder be funny. I tell them to remember a particular odious Ex spouse/partner. Then I tell them to picture tossing that person out of a tour helicopter so they land in the Pirate’s Lagoon in front of the Treasure Island Casino, disrupting the 8:30 Pirate Show…or perhaps, tossing their limp body into the Shark tank at Mandalay Bay as a late night tidbit for the Tiger shark. Point made. The questioner usually leaves with a smile of glee, er, understanding.

    So, murder can be funny….

    1. I’m so glad we revived these Roundtables. This is a great one.
      You are absolutely correct in that murder can be funny…I agree with Eileen below when she talks about the double whammy tension builder as well.

      I suppose real life doesn’t’ always translate to the written word but I will tell you that most of the cops I’ve worked with over the past 29 years, including myself, use humor to relieve tension at ALL but he very worst crime scenes–and at those (i.e. kids involved) we generally don’t say much of anything.
      Some of the funniest one liners I’ve ever heard come from men and women who are emotionally stretched so tight they’re about to snap. Very often they’re wading through blood and various body parts.

      I was sitting surveillance in a rough part of town a couple of years ago. Our bad guy had a lengthy history of assault on officers and was known to be armed all the time– so the situation was tense. The new agent in the car looked across at me in the dark and said: “We got a Tango Tango Charlie here.” I had no idea what he meant. “Turd Touchin’ Cloth,” he explained in all earnestness. I laughed my head off — which didn’t help his Tango Tango Charlie at all.
      I jotted the line down that night for later– and it was just spoken my a character in my last book.

      1. Marc, So you write one-liners down, too? so do I. I keep a notepad by my chair and lucky me I’m married to a witty guy. Whenever he says something I enjoy, I steal it. One of my favorites though it isn’t funny, is “All great writers have an Iago.” Have to love that line.

        That’s his dark side, In a lighter vein, “She’s as much fun as weeds in a driveway.” Or “The kid’s a duplicate of him, like he came out of a Xerox machine.” These last two make cameo appearances in my Murders by Design Mystery Series. So yes, I do use humor to etch the character of my series heroine, Deva Dunne. As she goes about her amateur sleuthing, I want the reader to enjoy the probing as well as the “aha” moment when the killer is brought to justice..

  14. Carole and Deborah I agree wholeheartedly. And Carole…I loved that movie. Two other great comedies about murders…”Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitters Dead” and “Weekend at Bernie’s”. The timing has to be perfect though to pull it off. It’s like being in the theater for your movie debut and hoping that they laugh at the right part. I had several critters in my group that read my novels as I’m writing. If they don’t laugh at the right spot, it’s back to the drawing board.

  15. ‘Aw Schucks Charlie! You know what a name dropper I am, and I haven’t got round to mentioning Thurber, Wilde, Twain and Dickens yet.
    To be serious for a second though, I do think writers of tragedy have a distinct advantage over the comedy crime writer. When reading tragedy we all feel sad, whereas in comedy some of us prefer to laugh at physical comedy, some of us enjoy the witty one liner, and some of us have a graveyard sense of humour.
    Speaking for myself I really enjoyed writing the graveyard scene in my latest book, ‘Blackmail for Beginners.’ This is where my villian becomes convinced that God has come to get him.
    I do have a dark sense of humour though, I put this down to coming from a long line of Irish police men. I find they use this macabre humour as a defence against the terrible stuff they have to deal with on a day to day basis.
    Another point I would like to make is that most people assume that comedy can only be used to relieve tension. Not so. I’ll give you an example. Our hero is hiding on a stake out one night when a stray dog takes an interest in him and tries to pee on his leg. Having managed to shoo the animal away successfully he breathes a sigh of relief then split seconds later he’s confronted by the villian who meanwhile has crept up on him. In this case the tension is increased…I call it ‘the double whammy’.
    Well folks, the midnight hour approaches and it’s time to dream. Talk to you all tomorrow.

    1. I’d quite forgotten the ‘double whammy’ aspect of humor in thrillers, Eileen.
      I tend to do that too, but again, me being me, it’s just how it happens. It’s a natural thing for my main character to be a touch smart-mouthed at times and to see the funny side of many horrid situations, and sometimes the situation isn’t over yet… and she doesn’t realize, which means the reader doesn’t either. Ah, the fun of first-person!
      You can scare the bejeezus out of someone and make them laugh, simultaneously sometimes.

      1. ###You can scare the bejeezus out of someone and make them laugh, simultaneously sometimes###

        Yep. The two emotions are very close, something to do with adrenaline maybe. (I should know this, I;m a biologist…)

  16. A quip is a verbal swagger. If it is real, then it shows a bit of toughness especially if used in dangerous situations. If the quip is a defense mechanism, as a lot of sarcasm is, then it exposes a layer of emotional complexity to the character. So, while we use humorous situations to advance the plot, diffuse tension, or create the double-whammy, we can also use the one-liner to add the to depth of the character, which seems oxymoronic:) However, for me, too many one-liners or too much sarcasm, tends to harden the character. In my Lucky O’Toole Vegas mystery series, my protagonist is a complete quipster–and she loves cliches (which she jokes to herself about). When the reader meets her in the opening scene of the fourth book, LUCKY BASTARD, she is staring at a young woman sprawled across the hood of a Ferrari with the heel of a Jimmy Choo embedded in her neck. As you can imagine, the one-liners are endless (Death by Jimmy Choo, at least she went out with style, etc.) However, since the reader hasn’t met Lucky yet, if I let her run her mouth, then I run the risk of the readers thinking she was pretty hard-hearted–which is not the case. I struggled with the balance.

  17. This is spot on. Too many one liners and your work will probably come off as the literary equivalent to an action B-film, where the hero has some ironic comment to say after every kill. In my newest book, The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People, one of the protagonists is a drug abusing time traveler who is a bit arrogant. The humor in Bosley’s chapters (when present) stems from his tendency to belittle those people who he feels are not his intellectual equal and from using archaic terms in a modern environment, which comes naturally to him since he was basically present at the time the terms were in wide circulation. My other protagonist is a young girl whose home has always been the apocalyptic wastelands of the future and the humor comes from her misunderstanding things that she sees but for which she had no frame of reference. For example, upon seeing a can of dog food, her natural assumption is that it contains canned dog meat since people in her time do not keep pets and, to her, that is the height of decadence. The humor I used was very sparse. When used at all, it is usually dark humor since the overall tone of the novel is pretty grim.

  18. My favorite archetype is the trickster, and that means I have a deep appreciation for smart-asses, in fact, any characters (or people) clever and intelligent enough to make me laugh with snarky social commentary or mind-adjusting insights, especially when they spin ’em out when the going gets tough.

    Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, and Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series are among the heroes I turn to when I need an attitude adjustment, as are Jean’s Deva and L J Charles’ Everly. I ALWAYS feel better after a good, seriousness-cleansing session with a smart-ass.

    And somehow they prime the pump so my own Inner Trickster starts making observations as well … which in turn makes my writing MUCH more fun!

    This is a really useful and inspiring discussion! Thanks, everyone.

    Cheers, Faith

  19. Back to the topic of discussion. Well of course comedy is not necessary in thrillers, I suppose we all like to sit on the edge of our chairs and read tense well plotted thrillers that scare the hell out of us and have us going to bed and leaving the lights on for the rest of the night. But after reading three or four of these doubtless excellent books I do feel the need to lighten up. I reach gladly for a book that has some wit and humour in it (as well as the ability to tell a good tale) I can only suppose that comedy crime writers are the ‘Jokers’ in the thriller writer pack…But then again everyone needs a joker… so here we are.

    1. I think that’s a good point about variety of reading. Have just finished a really harrowing and depressing book and have had to turn too an old, much reread favourite, to cheer me up.

  20. Charlie, you bring up a good point: is “funny” out of favor in the era of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO? Sometimes I think it might be. I guess it depends on what readers want when they dive into a story–and that certainly can vary. I read to escape (I also write to escape, but that’s something to take-up with my therapist…if I had one). The worse the news gets, the more I want light, fun stories. However, it seems I might be out of step with the general readership out there–darker and darker stories seem to be capturing the collective imagination. What do you guys think?

    1. Deborah
      I think (hope) that there’ll always be a market for both the gritty and the fluffy and all shades in between! I guess it’s like any genre, there is a range of sub genres within, to cater for all tastes.

  21. Deborah, Your comment to Charlie expresses a widely held view–the darker the news becomes, the lighter you want your reads. Doesn’t that suggest that while noir is “in” humor is never “out.?”

  22. As a long time mystery writer, I remember a series from 30+ years ago which was promoted as the first comedy mystery series. It was Dover 1, Dover 2, etc. I enjoyed the series which was a chuckle a minute interspersed with a police procedural. More recently, I have enjoyed Robert Barnard’s humour in his mysteries and the sometimes ribald humour in the Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries.
    Now, in the process of writing a thriller, I tried to bring in some of that broad humour into one of my characters. My copy editor did not like the character, thinking he was too much over the top (Philistine!) so I split him in two, allowing the more conventional side of his character to survive the novel and his more clownish side diverted into another character who was killed off early on. Thus I saved the jokes.
    But this brings up a semi-serious question: are mysteries more amenable to humour and thrillers less so?

  23. Jean: that whole the worse the news, the lighter the story doesn’t seem to hold water anymore. The news of late hasn’t exactly been all peachy keen, yet most of the popular reading today seems to be awfully dark. Maybe folks are buoyed by tales of survival and ultimate triumph? I like those as well, but I really look to stories to take me out of my reality, not mimic it:)

    And as for mysteries being more amenable to the use of humor than thrillers, I would agree. Mysteries run the gamut from cozies to the well, not-so-cozy, allowing for a lot of opportunities for and acceptance of humor. Also mysteries often use an amateur sleuth, and being a amateur at anything is inherently funny (at least in my world it is). Thrillers have that whole world-hanging-in-the-balance thing, which isn’t humorous. Although,a sidekick to the hero can be somewhat funny (Clive Cussler used that pretty well) and the hero can be appropriately glib as we’ve discussed, I think thrillers require a certain gravitas that obviates too much silliness.

  24. This has been such fun.

    Just thinking about how and why I write what I do (and the way I do), has been really interesting and being able to read such fabulous responses has made for a very entertaining week down here in New Zealand.

    Seems that all of us here have the ability to see the funny side of most situations and use it to both lighten tension, crank up the tension, deepen our characters and above all, entertain.

    I’m (a day ahead and it’s already Good Friday) off to Marlborough. No internet. (I’m going dark) I’ll catch up with the rest of this very interesting discussion when I get back which will be Monday for me and Sunday for the rest of the world!

    It was wonderful to meet you all.

    Happy Easter.

    Cat x

  25. Bonnie,
    I LOVE Weekend at Bernie’s!! One of the best dark comedies ever. So silly and yet so, so effective. No one has ever equaled, though there have been imitations. The silly hat, the sly smile he wears the whole time – talk about laughing at death. Makes me want to put in my will that someone takes me to a beach party after I’m dead…..

  26. Going back to the first question on this subject, ‘Is it difficult to write comedy or humour into your thrillers?’ Well no, it’s not, not if you have the right type of brain. By that I don’t mean that your brain should be square shaped or even oblong, I think it’s something in the way that comedy writers think, they have a sort of quirky reaction to most situations, and they don’t take themselves too seriously Comedy writers learn to laugh at themselves and the mistakes they make.
    Sometimes I think we should take ourselves seriously and write something profound and truthful and thought provoking as the thriller writers do. But then again who was it that said “There’s many a true word spoken in jest.”?
    As for humour being mainly character drawn, yes, this is true, but it is possible to ramp the humour up with dialogue that’s at cross purposes, and misunderstandings that can occur when someone can’t speak English.
    Also you can use embarrassing and fearful situations. Example: burglar breaks into a house, it’s dark and someone is coming down the stairs. He slips intro the nearest room, closes door and finds lights wont work, discovers he’s in the toilet and the door is stuck, then he hears someone breathing close by…he realises he’s not alone.
    Well you guys, it’s Good Friday and Easter is approaching, I’ve really enjoyed talking to all of you and I’ve made a note of all your books (this should ensure some amusing reading over the next few weeks, good comedy crime books are hard to find (so what does that tell us?))
    Bye for now…And don’t forget to write!

  27. When I made my first feeble and woefully inadequate attempts at fiction writing, I was told that the two most difficult types of stories to pull off well are those told in the first person, and humous ones. So, what did I end of writing? Yes, of course I did. But I honed my rapier wit by writing a humor column for an aviation magazine–at the time my then-husband and I were sharing the cockpit of a small plane. He was the “Navy pilot” and I the newbie. Venting in the column off-loaded enough emotion that I was able to resist shooting him.

    So, humor rescued me from incarceration…I wouldn’t have liked jail. And it rescues me still. A day, no matter how bleak, always looks a bit better after a belly-laugh.

    I’m in a bit of a conundrum now though–I’ve several really dark ideas for medical thrillers and I’m wondering if I can go there as a writer. My sense of the absurd might make it more of a challenge than it already is. We shall see. However, it’s been my experience that doctors are among the most irreverent and darkly humorous. Should be a challenge–Vegas shenanigans in the morning, death and dismemberment in the afternoon….

  28. Deborah, Well thank God i didn’t know stories told in first person and with humor were the hardest of all to pull off. Would have paralyzed me before I began. Re first person, some years ago I had the privilege of meeting and speaking at length with the late Leslie Waller (Dog Day Afternoon, Strange Encounters of the Third Kind). We spoke of casting a novel in first person which he believed was the most dynamic of all the POVs. Above all, he said, the first person protag must be charming. And not necessarily the sharpest person in the book. Let someone else be the brightest star, this keeps your narrator likeable. Apropos of that is self-deprecating humor. And that is surely part of a charming personality in and out of fiction.

    This has been such an interesting exchange. You’ve all give me some wonderful insights. Thanks and have a great weekend.

  29. Bonnie,
    Good point about the personality showing through in 1st person – and yes, funniest “dead guy” movie ever. And since we’re on the subject of humor, there’s a type of campy-but-scary humor that George Romero pulled off in Night of the Living Dead. You had to laugh at times, but that was just before you were screaming.

    I wonder if anyone can think of any literary equivalents?

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