Everybody wants to be funny. Humor puts people at ease and makes them more receptive—exactly the place you want your reader to be. But how do we write it without it sounding forced or, as my kids would say, cringey? Luckily, we’ve got Dan Brotzel—a 25-year veteran writer of humorous feature articles and newspaper columns—to give us some tips.
It’s a great feeling to read something so amusing that you can’t help breaking into a broad smile or even laughing out loud. Perhaps the only greater feeling – for a comic writer at least – is the satisfaction of knowing that you made that happen. But how?
Many writers would like to be funny writers. But humor is one of those things that can slip away if you look at it too closely. Analyzing funniness is hard brainwork and a notoriously humorless activity, and when a writer is really making an effort to get laughs all the time, the effect is often labored and off-putting – quite the opposite of what was intended.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about how to amuse people through writing. Here are a few practical thoughts about how to get more humor into your work…
Humor flows from authenticity, and efforts to fake it will usually founder. If you’re the sort of person who likes confrontational, taboo-busting humor or biting political satire, you may struggle to write a genteel comedy of manners or a whimsical, childlike fantasy. If you find what you’re writing funny, others may well agree, but if you don’t get it, how can you expect anyone else to?
Listen to Your Words
Reading your work out loud is vital for any writer, but especially so for comic writers, where the slightest hiccup in rhythm or unfortunate repetition can ruin a funny line. You may have noticed that the key word of a joke’s punchline is often never mentioned in the set-up, so as not to ruin the effect. Similarly, in fiction, you sometimes need to rewrite sentences and paras so the really funny part of an incident happens at the very end of the line. Paying attention to these subtle tweaks can massively improve your humor quotient.
Think Hard about Funny Words and Sounds
Once you start really listening to your words – and to other people’s – you start to notice that some words are inherently funnier than others, perhaps because of how they sound, or their associations, or a mix of both.
In the world of vegetables, for instance, marrows and aubergines are funnier than potatoes and onions, and a Brussels sprout will always trump a lettuce. In footwear, wedges and mules are funnier than court shoes and slip-ons. An ottoman is a comedy piece of furniture while a settee just isn’t. Ankle is funnier than knee; beard is funnier than fringe.
I could go on. This is only my own personal comic lexicon I’m citing here, and words will go in and out of funny fashion for me over time. But the key thing, if you want to write funny, is get into the habit of thinking at this granular level and developing your own funny vocabulary. (Pro tip: Words that begin with C and O are often funnier than average too.)
Don’t Try and Be a Stand-Up
A friend of mine with aspirations to write a comic novel says he aims for a ratio of 2 gags per paragraph. While some of his gags are very good, this is a self-defeating approach, because no one can keep up that level of quality across so many pages, and the reader will quickly start to feel exhausted by someone trying so hard to make them laugh. Speaking of which…
Aim for Smiles, Not Laughs
When you write a story, you want to create something that delivers a subtle pleasure that lingers in the mind and bears re-reading. Big laughs, on the other hand, tend to derive from shock tactics and crude shortcuts; while you may laugh loudly at the time, the effect is short-lasting and quickly forgotten. To be humorous in fiction, you don’t need your writing to be a series of gags; humor that stems from dialogue and character can often be much more appealing over the long term.
So when you write, go for smiles, not belly-laughs. The smile is a response to a style of humor that’s more observational and less punchline-driven, and what it lacks in fireworks it can make up for in emotional staying power. As the very funny novelist Muriel Spark said: “I have a great desire to make people smile—not laugh, but smile. Laughter is too aggressive. People bare their teeth.”
Be Open to the World’s Funniness
The world, as someone said, is an ocean of set-ups waiting for a punchline. Often the best humor doesn’t have to be invented; it just needs to be observed and packaged for the reader. So always be taking note of things that make you laugh as you go through your day: unusual turns of phrase, anecdotes, strange street moments. If it makes you laugh, and you can work it into your story, go for it; don’t try to analyze too much why it’s funny, but be true instead to that initial reaction of amusement.
Don’t Tell Anyone You’re Trying to Be Funny
There’s nothing more unamusing that someone who announces: “Listen to this everyone. It’s really funny!!!” When you do that, you put extra pressure on yourself, and you encourage people to want to prove you wrong. Someone said to me once not to tell anyone that the story’s funny. Let them find out for themselves, like uncovering a secret treasure. If the humor works, they’ll smile or laugh anyway and be pleasantly surprised. And if they don’t laugh, it’s nobody’s funeral!
Prepare to Fail
Great humor makes us gasp with admiration because the writer has taken risks – the risk of saying something that normally goes unsaid, the risk of exposing a vulnerable part of themselves, above all the risk of not being funny – a sensation so unbearable to us that we actually call it dying.
If you want to be funny, you have to be prepared to take those risks. You won’t get it right every time, but that’s okay. If your attempts at humor come over as authentic and sit well with your story, people will forgive you the odd slip. On the other hand, if you take no risks at all, you’ll never be in any danger of making anyone laugh.
Dan Brotzel is the author, with Martin Jenkins and Alex Woolf, of Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a reader of this blog, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount. Simply enter promo code KITTEN10. You can also connect with Dan on Twitter.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.