How do you make murder funny? In fiction, that is. When I first started writing, I wrote mostly twisty, dark thrillers that involved a healthy (or unhealthy, depending how you look at it) body count. I had a lot of fun writing these thrillers, and I think that was part of the problem, because my critique partners came back with the same feedback over and over again. “Your characters are way too flippant about something as serious as murder,” they told me.
I tried to make my characters behave in a more serious way, giving the murders and my books the somber environment that they deserved, but that made the story vastly different from the one I meant to tell. Because something that is very important to me in books and in life is humor. While writing Dial A for Aunties, I knew that it would have murder, and I knew that it was going to be funny. But I didn’t want it to run into the same problems that my old thrillers did. Here was what ended up working out for me.
1. Have a balance of serious and non-serious characters.
In Dial A for Aunties, Meddy, my main character, is my “typical” character. That means she reacts to situations the way your average, typical 20-something-year-old Chinese-American woman might. She freaks out at the accidental death of her blind date. She freaks out at the sight of his dead body. She gives his death the seriousness it deserves.
On the other end of the line, we have Meddy’s mother and aunts, who are your comic relief. They do not adhere to the common rules of typical behavior. I’m free to have them behave as ridiculously as I wish, and that is very ridiculous indeed. I don’t need to be concerned with them being flippant or unrealistic, because I have good old Meddy there telling them that they are being flippant.
Meddy is literally voicing my readers’ concerns out, which gives the aunties the chance to defend their position! As long as you have a sensible, believable character, I find that you can go all out with your side characters and use them to infuse your story with humor.
2. Acknowledge the severity of the situation.
One of the reasons I often get frustrated at books or shows about murder is that I feel like the murder isn’t given the full weight that it deserves. If there’s a dead body, someone’s going to be in a whole world of trouble, and you shouldn’t shy away from it, even if the story is meant to be humorous.
I like to highlight the stakes: What would happen if the murder is found out and take that as a chance for my characters to do something completely ridiculous; something they wouldn’t otherwise do. People do the most over-the-top things when they are pushed into it, so don’t hesitate to go for the most overwhelmingly outrageous choice possible!
3. Think cinematically.
When I was writing Dial A for Aunties, I got stuck at around the 75% mark. All of my plot threads had come to a head, and I had no idea how to get my characters out of the trouble I’d made for them. There is a rule in writing that you are supposed to paint your characters into a corner to build a good story. Whenever possible, you’re supposed to have things go from bad to worse from them. I had done that and now my characters were in a corner and had nowhere to go. What was the worst thing I could think up for them? Well, it was prison. The worst thing is that the corpse they’d been hiding is found and they’re carted to prison. But that would make Dial A for Aunties a very different book. I knew I wanted them to have a happy ending, and following this rule wasn’t helping with the comedic tone of the story.
I talked it through with a friend who said, “Instead of trying to come up with the worst possible thing for them, how about thinking of it as a film? Close your eyes, picture the story, and imagine the most cinematic outcome. Where do you want the dead body to end up? What is the most cinematic way the body could be discovered?”
And I realized, Aha! The dead body should be discovered at the biggest moment of a wedding—that is the ceremony! And as soon as I thought that, it all came together beautifully, and I still managed to get the happy ending I wanted. So if you want your murder-filled story to still be comedic, avoid thinking of the worst possible outcome. Instead, focus on what would bring you the most joy when watching it on screen.
I kept all these techniques in mind when I wrote my second adult novel, Four Aunties and a Wedding. I didn’t want to repeat things that had happened in my previous novel, but thankfully there is no end to the outrageous things that can happen at a wedding! I had a lot of fun dreaming up ways to make Meddy’s wedding day interesting for her and her new husband. Between a kidnapping, the mafia, and many other hijinks, let’s just say it’s a day they won’t forget!
I hope that these tips help you infuse some humor into your next murdery manuscript!