Today we’re we have the pleasure, and fun, of hearing from Ryan Aldred on humour in writing. Ryan is the Author of Rum Luck, published June 22, 2016. Ryan loves a beach, so it’s no surprise RUM LUCK takes place on a beach in Costa Rica. But more on that later. First, let’s hear from Ryan on Humour in Writing.
Ryan Aldred on Humour in Writing – The Spice, not the Supper
Writing Humour – The Spice, Not the Supper
I am sitting in a curling club that is nearing 40 degrees, behind a folding table that is equal parts rust and lead-based paint. In front of me, a fairgoer’s brow furrows as she examines the back of my book’s jacket whilst I mull the futility of selling a novel set in the tropics on one of the hottest days of the year.
“Is it… is it funny?” she asks suspiciously.
I take a deep breath, unfurling the mental toolkit needed to disarm this verbal landmine. With three friends trying to control an out-of-control bongo drummer and tangled up in the murder of the bar’s former owner, Rum Luck is a funny book – but I rarely describe it that way.
“It’s fun,” I say, trying not to quote my sell sheet verbatim. “And fast-paced.”
She nods, doubtful.
Humour books can be a tough sell. If you don’t believe me, check out the humour category on Amazon. Watch out for tumbleweeds while you’re at it. Readers might enjoy funny books, but they rarely seek them out. Yet authors like Donna Andrews and Kyra Davis do a great job with their humorous novels – and have the sales figures to prove it.
The problem is that readers have vastly different senses of humour. So when you describe a book as humorous, readers don’t quite know whether to expect Eddie Murphy or a string of eye-rolling puns.
“It’s the kind of funny you get when you take people with a sense of humour and put them in a near-impossible situation,” I explain. “Amusing, but not silly.” I segue into the other aspects of the book – the tropical setting, the Canadian characters, the owner-for-a-week series premise and Rum Luck’s spot on the Arthur Ellis shortlist.
She buys a copy, which I happily sign.
Despite her initial reluctance, this reader may well end up using terms like “laugh out loud” and “perfect vacation novel” to describe the book – phrases that seem to appear regularly in early reviews, and are likely part of why Rum Luck is already well into the second half of its initial print run.
Humour can work in mysteries, if it’s done right. So, what’s the right way?
No idea. But I can share my own views on what readers – and writers – can look for in a humorous mystery.
The Plot Still Comes First –
Antonio died well. Will you?
“Seriously? Letters cut from a magazine?” Victoria asked, peering over his shoulder. “Do criminals even still do that?”
Ana shot her a glare. “Not everyone in Tamarindo has a fancy office with a printing laser.”
“Laser printer,” Victoria corrected.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before, Victoria?” Ben interrupted.
When the banter is flowing, it’s easy to let the characters prattle on at one another – but I try to bring the dialogue back to the plot as soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk losing the narrative. And if there are other jokes that leap to mind? I keep a separate document for just that purpose. If it’s gold, I’ll find a way to use it later – and if it’s not, I won’t miss it when it’s gone.
Another test of plot is to look at the back-of-jacket summary. If there are more than five jokes in that little tiny column, then you might be dealing with a funny book, not a mystery that also happens to be funny. See The Martian as a key example – a laugh-out-loud book without a single joke on its jacket.
Humour Serves a Purpose –
“The photo. It’s the deed to the bar. It’s in your name.”
“Bar? Which bar?”
“The bar. Your bar.”
“My bar?” The thought slapped Ben. “The murder bar?”
“Don’t call it the murder bar. It’s bad for business.”
I’ve been told that every sentence in a novel should serve one of three purposes – to advance the plot, develop a character, or create a sense of place. I will occasionally bend that rule to add a fourth purpose – to make a joke – but wherever possible I try to serve another purpose at the same time.
In this case, the ‘murder bar’ dialogue hints that Victoria puts her friend’s business ahead of a stranger’s murder – a key bit of her character. And as funny as a book might be, if the setting and character development are missing, it’s unlikely to have a compelling story.
Tone Matters –
Ben Cooper had had his share of hangovers over the years, but this one deserved to be immortalized in poetry. Where lesser ones faded with time, this one was still returning on a winged tequila worm to take him to Hangover Valhalla. Unfortunately, his other senses were now coming into focus, including his sense of smell. His cell reeked of hot sweat, stale beer, and bitter disappointment.
Rum Luck is a humorous mystery, but the emphasis is on the mystery. Jokes aside, I still have to put my characters through an equal measure of hardship and intrigue. Sometimes, that means the humour is sometimes self-deprecating or dark – but if everything is a joke to them, then there’s no tension. No tension means no stakes, and no stakes means no story.
As you’re flipping through, ask yourself: Do I genuinely believe that something bad could happen to these characters, or is it all just slapstick?
Humour That Stands its Ground –
“Tara was cheating on me.” He took a deep breath. “With some clown.”
“I’m so sorry, Ben. Was he someone you knew?”
“No. Not a friend,” he spat. “A real clown. You know, the guys with creepy face paint who make bloody balloon animals at kids’ parties? Tara has a . . . a . . . thing for clowns.”
He waited for Victoria to make a snide remark. When none was forthcoming, he continued, “I came home early the night of my bachelor party. I walked into the bedroom in time to see Beeboo the Clown step out of the bathroom wearing nothing but face paint, a red nose, and a smile.” And a profoundly disturbing balloon animal. “Tara screamed when she saw me. I froze. Beeboo grabbed his floppy shoes and a bathrobe—my bathrobe—and was halfway to his van before I even knew what had happened…”
There are many books out there that are written to a formula with the hopes that it’ll lead to a massive bestseller. In that process, these books lose the unique elements that would let them stand out from the herd. The solution: Don’t be afraid of a book that is different.
I’ll admit, I had my doubts regarding the whole Ben-catches-his-fiancée-with-a-clown plot point. I wondered if I was shooting myself in the foot while querying agents. That went double for publishers.
But this was part of Ben’s story from the earliest days of Rum Luck’s outline, and I wanted to keep it there. And when Five Star sent back the edits with nary a word about the clown romance, I knew Rum Luck had found the right home.
Parting Thoughts –
All of these rules boil down to one simple question: Is the humour in the mystery treated as the spice, or the supper? And if it’s the supper – well, we know how the Cinnamon Challenge turned out.*
*If this is the first you’ve heard of the Cinnamon Challenge – 1.) Look it up on YouTube for an evening’s entertainment and 2.) Where on earth did you spend 2012?
Ben Cooper wakes up in a Costa Rican jail cell with a crushing hangover, arrested for murder.
Worse, Ben had bought a bar on the beach from the victim, hours before the man’s death. With his ex-fiancée’s life savings. So much for parting on good terms.
With foreclosure looming and death threats piling up on the rum-soaked bar, Ben and his friends turn to the wild idea that got them into this mess — building a business around those who’ve always wanted the experience of having their own bar on a beach somewhere, even for just a week.
Rum Luck is the first book in the Bar on a Beach Mystery series, and was a finalist for the 2015 Unhanged Arthur Award from Crime Writers of Canada.
This novel was inspired by Ryan Aldred’s travels to Costa Rica, which involved three-alarm fires, monkey vandals, late-night visits to underground repair shops run by Nicaraguan illegals and a real estate agent desperate to hack Interpol to clear up a ‘misunderstanding’ regarding some cocaine.
Rum Luck was published June 2016 by Five Star, part of Gale Cengage.
Who is Ryan Aldred?
When not writing, Ryan Aldred runs a small Canadian charity that supports education in Afghanistan, Tanzania, Uganda, and other at-risk regions.
Ryan previously worked as a defense analyst and continues to serve as a Sergeant in the Canadian Forces Reserve. Ryan and his family live in beautiful Prince Edward County. He’s never met a beach he doesn’t like.
To learn more visit http://www.ryanaldred.com.
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