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#WritingCommunity , How Do You Write Humor and Heartbreak in #Fiction?

Have you read books that balance humor with heartbreak? Would you be reading The Language of Divorce? Do you have questions for Leanne Treese?

Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Leanne Treese, the author of The Language of Divorce . She speaks about humour and heartbreak in fiction.

Humor in novels which tackle difficult subjects? That doesn’t seem right. After all, there is nothing funny about death, divorce, crime or other serious topics. Still, the use of subtle humor within emotionally challenging story-lines can create a more satisfying book than lamentation alone. Why? First, humor helps balance out the hard parts of the narrative. A quick laugh or smile gives readers an emotional release. Second, humor is relatable and, done well, can bring fictional characters an additional depth. Finally, the best books, in my opinion, allow readers to feel the whole spectrum of emotions, not just the painful ones.

A good example of a book that incorporates humor into a serious topic is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The underlying theme of the book is domestic violence. Notwithstanding this serious issue, Moriaty creates funny characters (the blonde bobs) and funny ideas (the adult book club). Neither of these detract from the seriousness of the main topic; yet, their presence makes the book effortlessly readable.

The hit television series This is Us is a good example of a creative work that allows viewers to feel every emotion. The characters in the series face a gamut of emotional issues: anxiety, obesity, substance abuse, death, and teenage pregnancy. However, in between the circumstances engendered by these tough topics, the television characters laugh and grow and live their lives. In my opinion, it is the full range of emotion viewers experience that makes This is Us a fan favorite.

Convinced? Here are a few tips and strategies for incorporating snippets of humor into your serious fiction:

Use humor like a spice: Too much will overpower your book. All you need are a few shakes here and there.

Find funny in ordinary people: People are funny. Maybe your character lives near a woman who knits sequined scarves for her dog. What if that woman gifts a scarf for your character’s dog? And keeps asking about why the dog is not wearing it! This woman does not have to be a big part of the book but she’ll show your character’s compassion if he has the dog wear the scarf. And the idea of it might just make your readers laugh.

Go for the smile: You do not need your readers to laugh out loud. In the example above, I wouldn’t expect anyone to guffaw. I would expect a smile and a sense of connection. After all, we know someone who might knit a dog scarf. That connection adds levity and draws readers in.

Irritation can be funny: You read that right. Irritating your character can lead to a bit a humor. Maybe your character is a neat freak but has to share office space with slob. Or maybe she hates reptiles but gets roped into watching her neighbor’s iguana. The character’s internal reaction to these events can funny but, at the same time, makes them relatable. We all know a neat freak (or are one!). We’ve all been roped into doing things not of our choosing. I know I have!

Have fun with incongruity: Characters that are incongruous can lend a bit of humor. Imagine a self-described environmentalist who drives a giant truck or a health nut with a stash of Diet Coke. Closely related to incongruity is the surprise attribute: the librarian who takes hula lessons or the tough cop who rescues injured birds. While none of these characters traits are hysterical, they will lend a bit of levity to the narrative while simultaneously giving your characters depth.

Timing is everything: If your character is in the middle of a traumatic situation, it’s not the best time for humor. That said, the character might flash back to an earlier time when circumstances were easier or happier. These flashbacks can include a bit of humor without making light of your character’s current situation. In fact, the flashbacks can provide context, making the current situation even more poignant – things were not always this way. Another way to use timing is to create a few humorous moments before the point in the book where things take a turn for the worse. By way of example, in my work in progress, the main characters are attending an animal rescue charity ball where cats up for adoption roam around the star-studded ballroom. There are a cringeworthy number of cat puns before my characters get the call which changes the course of the book.

Use side characters/situations: If your main character is going through a difficult time, it is unlikely that he or she will be funny. But there can be a funny friend or sibling or co-worker. Or a funny event. In The Language of Divorce, one of the side characters is a reporter who features stories on new trends. His latest: a woman whose cowboy costumes for pigs become an internet sensation.

Your turn! Have you used any of these strategies in your writing? Do you think any would work more than others? Any I missed? Share below!

Have you read books that balance humor with heartbreak? Would you be reading The Language of Divorce? Do you have questions for Leanne Treese?

Leanne Treese: Humour and Heartbreak in FictionLeanne Treese lives in New Jersey with her husband of twenty-five years and their three wonderful children.  A passionate student, Leanne’s dream life would include going back to college and majoring in everything. Leanne is a graduate of Lafayette College and The Dickinson School of Law. A former attorney, Leanne is now lucky enough to write full-time.


Are you part of nay online or offline book groups? Founded any? What is the experience like? Do you think online book groups are similar to those offline?My debut literary crime novel,”You Beneath Your Skin,” published by the fab team at Simon and Schuster IN is making its way into the world.

It is available in India here.

Worldwide, here.

Reviews are appreciated–please get in touch if you’d like a review copy.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her forthcoming literary crime thriller, The Blue Bar is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency, and will be published by Thomas & Mercer on January 1, 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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44 Comments

  • Natasha says:

    Just what I needed to read, and something I have been toying with for a while.
    Humour is so essential not just in our broken days but also in our writings when we are broken.

    Thank you fo sharing these fabulous tips from Leanne.

    Love.

  • Obsessivemom says:

    What an interesting thought. As a reader I appreciate humour in heartbreak situations. I think that makes the the story easier to read while still getting across the message. Those are fantastic pointers.

  • Shalzmojo says:

    Wow I loved how the author has handled dishing out the tips with such brilliant examples. I will be keeping these in mind for my next fiction writing.

  • Parul Thakur says:

    These are such amazing tips and work not just in non-fiction but other form of long writing too. Thank you for having Leanne share these with us, Damyanti.

    • I am so pumped you liked the tips! Honestly, I was trying to figure how how my book (about divorce) ended up having a lighter feel than the topic might suggest. I analyzed what I did to come up with the tips. I am so happy to have a forum like this blog to pass them along. Good luck with your writing!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Thanks Parul!

  • Great tips. I have chosen to include humor in my current WIP by having humor be part of my main character’s personality. He’s def got a silly side. But you’re right – a little goes a long way.

    • Thanks for your comment! I have not tackled a funny main character yet but will try in a future novel. Most of my funny characters are cameos or friends of the main character. Good luck with your WIP!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I’ll look forward to it reading it Lissa! Good Luck!

  • Like everything else, writing humor takes practice. While I’ll probably never have anything funny enough for McSweeney’s, I do think the freedom and frequency and habit of writing on a blog (or journal or anywhere else) helps with practicing humor writing. I think my writing is a little funnier than when I started blogging 4 years ago, so that’s something.

    • Thanks for commenting! I am impressed by anyone who can write funny blogs. My blogs always end up sounding serious — ironically, even this one about humor! Good luck with your writing.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I do love your writing Rebecca!

  • I agree that humor is a nice addition even to intense or sad stories. I’m not naturally funny, but I usually have at least one character who has a sense of humor (despite me). Otherwise there’d be way too much stress in my books. Great post that clarifies the point. :-).

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the post! I think it’s very important to have some humor in books with tough topics (as you can probably tell!) Good luck with your writing!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      It does help to bring in a bit of levity! Thanks for dropping by Diana.

  • JoAnna says:

    Very helpful ideas and examples! I related to the one about the health nut with a stash of diet coke since I have a stash of dark chocolate.

    • I am so glad you find the ideas helpful! I think incongruous characters can be the most funny — they might realize the incongruity (and hide it) or not realize it (and be a hypocrite). Either way, it’s an easy way to give depth! Good luck with your writing.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I just may raid that stash JoAnna! Be vigilant 😉

  • Juneta says:

    Great tips, bookmarking.

  • DutchIl says:

    Thanks for sharing!!.. whenever, however and whatever I write I do the same thing always, I let my fingers do the walking (typing/writing) and my heart do the talking… 🙂

    Until we meet again…
    May the sun shine all day long
    Everything go right, nothing go wrong
    May those you love bring love back to you
    And may all the wishes you wish come true
    (Irish Saying)

  • Prachi says:

    This is good advice..I find that most of the things I write fall in the humour category

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti … I’m sure Leanne’s book has some very ‘clever’ ideas woven into her story, especially with legal background. Great tips too … and I suspect this will be so useful to many, and many of us who perhaps haven’t a need but have an interest. Thank you – stay safe – Hilary

    • Thank you for your comment! My legal background inspired the book but, once I started writing, it became more about the characters than the legal process. Glad you liked the tips! I used just about all of them in the books!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Thank You Hilary! Take Care.

  • Almost Iowa says:

    And the reverse is true too. Use tragedy to add weight and substance to your humor.

    • I agree. I think the perfect books or movies are a balance of both. It it’s just one funny thing after another, it’s too much. But just reading sad things isn’t enjoyable either. I have found that it’s sometimes hard to find a book or show that does both.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Yes! You’ve certainly got a point.

  • Natasha says:

    Humour keeps us all going even in the darkest of our moments. And yes, humour in writing and in movies gives it a whole new dimension.
    These days I just like to watch funny movies. Maybe a phase. But yes, it adds to my happiness quotient.

    Humour also breaks the monotony of an otherwise staid story. Felt Big Little Lies had just the perfect amount thrown in. Tempered with caution.

    • I definitely think funny books and movies are underrated and they can be hard to find! One funny movie I would recommend is Game Night with Jason Bateman. I’m also reading a funny book right now: The Overdue Life of Amy Byler. I laughed out loud twice in the first few pages. Thanks for commenting!

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Whatever works Natasha! These days it is better to go with the flow rather than force oneself to do something else.

  • Vinitha says:

    I loved Big Little Lies. True, we need humor. A little smile always helps to connect with the characters and the book.
    Thank you for introducing Leanne, Damyanti! 🙂

    • If you liked Big Little Lies, you’ve probably read all the Liane Moriarity books. All her books have that same, understated humor. I’ve listened to a few on tape and the narrator she uses was phenomenal. One of my favorites of hers on audiotape is Three Wishes. It’s one of her first books.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Welcome Vinitha.

  • I firmly believe we need humour. Even at the darkest time. Laughter has kept me from drowning more than once.
    Despite that, I rarely read ‘humour’ books. It is a spice which needs to be added carefully.

    • I try to alternate between funny books and serious books. I think it’s hard to find books that do both. If you have any recommendations on that front, let me know! I do a weekly book vlog and am always looking for new ones.

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      I do intentionally look out for a ‘light read’ just after a particularly heavy read.

  • With timing, later on other characters could poke fun at him for a dumb mistake.
    I like action films, but they can have the same problem as a serious or heavy story – little to no humor is exhausting. They are just go-go-go, and that’s what heavy with no humor does to your emotions.

    • I like that idea! Bringing up silly past mistakes would also be a good way to get in backstory. I agree with you on action films. They are often one-sided. Thank you for commenting. Leanne

    • Damyanti Biswas says:

      Agreed Alex! Thank you for stopping by.

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