If you ever put a book up on Scribl, a venture that uses “crowd-based pricing” as an attempt to automatically put books into the slot for their ideal value, you’ll be asked a number of questions rating things like the level of violence, religious overtones, and the quality of llamas in the manuscript.
One of their questions concerns the humor element, and it veers, among its choices, between the deadly serious and the assertion that your book is essentially a long list of jokes.
I find myself choosing “Moments of Levity” for my stories. I’m trying to say that my characters do funny things. Sometimes they’ll laugh. Sometimes the reader is meant to laugh with, or at, them.
For most of what I write humor is a spice. Thrown in here and there, it adds flavor. Another dimension to the characters and/or the place. If my sinister villain drops an out-of-nowhere joke, then perhaps he still has some humanity. If the tough-as-nails protagonist chuckles at a bit of physical comedy, then that clues you in that he’s not some sort of doom-dealing robot. It’s awfully hard to find someone that won’t laugh at anything. That won’t quirk a smile at the right circumstances. To strip away all the humor from a work is to remove its reality, in my opinion.
Of course, you can also find humor woven into the lines themselves. Sardonic sentence construction that invites the reader to partake in a goofy series of events or ironic twist. These, I think, work best when you have a narrator capable of delivering the words in the way you want the reader to take them (see: The Hitchhiker’s Guide).
I’d be lying, though, if I said this was all for the reader. Writing, it turns out, can be fun for the writers too. While there are plenty of times when a whipsaw wreck of violence is what we’re looking for, or pages of detailed wanderings through a magical land, it’s also a good time to turn a phrase. To know that you’ve thrown your characters into an absurd situation and to have them recognize it. To toss a joke from one mouth into another’s ear.
There are, naturally, tonal pitfalls to watch out for. Your gloom-and-doom war story probably shouldn’t have goofball jokes or slapstick moments – though dark humor certainly has a place. Too many obvious winks to the reader will jerk them out of the story, or rob them of the emotional weight in a particular scene. So as always, make sure you’re reading your work out loud. You’ll catch those blips and know if they made you smile, or roll your eyes.
In short: laughter is good for the reader, good for the writer. Use it.