Guest Post: Kristen Tracy on Where Does Humor Come From?

By Kristen Tracy

I discovered that readers found my writing funny after I published my first novel, Lost It (Simon Pulse, 2007), and multiple reviewers used the word “hilarious” in their evaluations of the story. I thought, Cool. I’m a funny writer. That makes sense. I’m a jokey person.

But this realization soon gave way to something else.


How can I be a humor writer?! I haven’t taken a class in that! (I have an M.A. in American Literature, an M.F.A. in poetry, and a Ph.D. in English, so obviously education is my favorite resource).

Okay. So I attended a class on humor writing with the great hope of uncovering the nuts and bolts of comedic writing so I could make my writing process and life easier (because I think it goes without saying that if I understood the formula for humor writing, my books would basically write themselves).

That didn’t happen. The panel was smart and hilarious. But they said things like, “There is a rule that things are funny after they are repeated three times. But that rule is crap. I’ll repeat something 14 times, because at some point it becomes funny again.” Or, somebody else would say, “The only reason you go into a life of comedy is because you never got your father’s approval.”

Thought-provoking stuff, but it wasn’t really nuts and bolts.

This is where my guest blog post gets very real.

Listen. When it comes to humor writing, I’m flying blind. I use my intuition. I start building my story by creating an interesting and often freethinking character. But I don’t really think that’s where my humor comes from. I think I plant my humor around events.

I attended a conference a couple of years ago and had a great critique with C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly. I gave him a couple of short stories that I’d written for adults that had child protagonists.

I was braced for brutal feedback. But that didn’t happen. He was delightful! And he told me something that really stuck with me. He said, “You think your stories are about your characters. But they’re not. They’re about situations.” And he was right.

In The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter (Delacorte, 2011), my character faces the challenging waters of middle school.

And guess what? Surprising things happen. Surprising things that are also funny.

A lot of people will say that my voice is funny, but I think the more accurate comment is that my voice is sincere. Or at least it’s trying to be. When I’m writing middle-grade fiction, I do everything I can to inhabit the mindset of a tween. And if I nail that mindset, the humor will arrive.

Because that not-quite-developed-into-a-mature-person lens, that I-am-twelve-and-impulsive-and-want-to-stalk-my-gorgeous-high-school-neighbor persona will carry a lot of humor into the story. Then, add a school bus, a P.E. class, a hall monitor, three psycho-bullies, a disastrous haircut, a malfunctioning vending machine, a mascot contest . . .

With these situations how can you not wind up with a humorous story?

I still haven’t found a formula for writing comedy, though I do tend to ingest quite a bit of it. I like watching stand-up comedy. I like reading funny books. But I also like dramas. And devastatingly tragic stories that make me feel alive in a different way.

Do I have any advice? Don’t write what you think will make a tween laugh. That’s not sincere. Write what makes you laugh.

If it helps, think of yourself at that age. I do that. Let your humor be personal.

My love of animals, especially bears, often finds its way into my stories. This is true not only for The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter but also the sequel (due out in March 2012!!) Bessica Lefter Bites Back. Again, I start with a character with lots of comedic potential, but it’s the events she goes through–those funny situations–that in my mind deliver the most laughs.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Kristen Tracy on Where Does Humor Come From?

  1. There's something so refreshing about a novel with humor! Yet humor is so subjective. A preteen recently asked me about some authors who write with humor. I had to give some serious thought to the matter! So, I'll recommend The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter.

  2. Thanks, Cynthia and Kristen, for this guest post! I think that "write what YOU think is funny" is great advice. Having written a humor column as well as a novel with a lot of humor in it, I can attest to the fact that it's hard enough just striking a balance with what tickles your own funny bone without worrying what other people will think of it. 🙂

  3. LW, it takes a lot of courage to write humor, I think. You may also want to point your young friend to Lisa Yee.

    AF, column writing must be terrific training for fiction and of course a lovely end unto itself. I tip my cap!

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