I am not funny.
Humor is subjective, so perhaps there’s someone out there that thinks I’m hilarious. Regardless of whether I’m funny or you’re funny, understanding how to write humor might be pivotal to our (commercial) writing success.
This doesn’t mean you have to write comedy or comedic fiction. I wouldn’t even know where to start in that genre, but god bless Tina Fey for existing. As you hone your skills as a writer, humor is another great tool to have in your writer’s toolbox.
Why should I write humor?
Humor is a way to get your readers to feel. If you can get a reader to laugh, or at least exhale more air out of their nose, then you have connected with them emotionally. Books that connect with us emotionally are the books that we love.
Obviously you can get readers to feel by evoking emotions of happiness, sorrow, pain, elation, love, lust, fear––I could go on––but humor is like a squeeze of lemon on a savory entrée; it’s a bit of brightness that stands out and adds a burst of something fresh.
Even in intense thrillers and epic fantasies, a punch of humor can balance out a scene and give the reader a breath of air from an overdose of melodrama.
When should I use humor?
If you’re writing comedy, I think it’s safe to inject humor as often as possible while still having a coherent plotline.
If you’re like me and writing any other genre, then it’s important to place humor delicately into your story. Remember this golden rule of comedy: timing is everything. That means it’s important to consider when to thread moments of comedy into your story.
When done well, humor can add a lighthearted moment to heavier content. It can spice up a rather lackluster scene (think exposition). It can even increase character development. When humor is ill-timed, it can pull the reader out of the story or leave a sour taste in their mouth.
Balance is key. Don’t inundate a reader with comedy and then leave them barren of it for chapters. It can brighten dark spots of the story, but don’t let the humor feel like it is competing with the action or the drama. If all else fails, seek feedback. Ask beta readers to pay attention to the balance and timing of the humor in your story.
What if I’m not funny?
I don’t think I’m funny. In fact, I believe that’s how I opened this article. Writing humor is sometimes difficult for me. There are times when I write knowing the scene needs a few quippy lines of dialogue, but I’ve got nothing. I’ll just write “insert quippy joke here” and let my future self deal with it while editing.
Even though I know humor is hard and I don’t believe I’m particularly gifted with comedy, I have a sense of humor. I have laughed at a joke. I have told a joke before––albeit badly––and have evoked laughter.
Identifying the types of humor you find funny will make it easier to write humorous material. For example, I know I love clever turns or phrase, puns, innuendo, and the occasional deadpan anti-joke. Thusly, I lean into those styles of humor the most while writing. Once you identify a few different styles, that doesn’t lock into that style forever. It only helps you understand the humor and what makes a joke work.
Bonus tip: while it’s helpful for you to understand why jokes work, never explain the joke in your writing. That’s another golden rule with comedy. Having to explain a joke will hardly ever make it funny.
What are some quick and dirty tips?
- Expect the unexpected – subvert cliches and tropes. It can be very humorous to feed the reader something they know and expect and then turn it on its head. It’s a real “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” moment.
- Great things come in threes – the rule of three is a general comedy rule. This involves establishing a set pattern of two items and then subverting it on the third. Such as if you could have any superpower, would you choose flight, invisibility, or a really good sandwich.
- Repetition can sell a punchline – Repetition can sell a punch line. If you incorporate a witty turn of phrase or a situational joke, a call back to that same joke can lead to a stronger comedic payoff when repeated. However, the rule of three comes back into play. If you repeat a similar enough joke more than three times, the effect weakens. And remember, repetition can sell a punchline.
- If the character laughs the reader won’t – This is a play on the piece of advice for writing emotional scenes, in that if the character cries the reader won’t. This obviously isn’t always true, but the root message is don’t tell your readers something is funny by having the characters laugh, let the reader laugh because the content is funny.
- Exaggeration and Absurdity are your friends – This comes in play with the subversion of expectations, but making things over-the-top ridiculous has a way of tickling the funny bone. This is why it’s upsetting to find a fly in your soup, but it’s comical to find a velociraptor in your soup.
- The jokes are there to support the plot – I know I’ve said this in a previous article, but everything in your story should serve a purpose and support the plot. Humor is a great way to add texture to your story, but jokes that mean nothing or don’t further develop plot/character will be more likely to fall flat.
What’s stopping you?
If you’ve reached the end of this article and are still uncertain whether you can write humor, don’t stress. Everyone is capable of laughter and everyone can tell a joke. It might be counter-intuitive to this entire article to say this, but don’t think about the rules, tips, and tricks. Use the situations of your book and your characters to create moments of humor.
Don’t force it. Let your humor weave naturally into the folds of your story. There’s no magic comedy formula you can follow. Write what amuses you. It will more than likely amuse someone else.
Remember, you can always edit!
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