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Writing funny

It is sometimes said that you can’t teach someone how to write comedy. I think that’s a bit silly, though — I think it’s more accurate that you can’t teach someone how to write something universally funny, because humor is tied so closely to our hindbrain animal limbic system electrical zoomies that what each of us find funny is deeply personal, tied to our experiences and preferences and whatever the monkey is screaming in the back of our heads.

In other words, you could equally say that you can’t teach someone how to write a universally hot sex scene, or a universally scary horror scene. You can, however, write something you find funny (or hot or scary or all three, go for it, I’m not your boss). And in that case, while you won’t hit everyone’s funny bone, you’ll definitely get somebody — you’re your own proof of concept.

And once you accept that, then– sure, you can be taught how to write comedy. It’s all practice, study, and:

A Few Handy Hacks (for Writing Humor)

1. Having a “straight man” and a “comic”, a’la the traditional double act, actually works. Feel free to switch who’s who as need requires.

2. Having a good rhythm – and strategically breaking that rhythm – is important. Listening to a good stand-up comic’s monologue will demonstrate that, or reading any good comic writer’s work. The rhythm catches the reader, and the break makes them laugh.

3. Having mostly funny stuff and then tossing in a dollop of real-life consequences or angst will make the funny stuff funnier and the real stuff realer.

4. Lead the reader to expect one line of dialogue because of circumstance or internal monologue, and then give them a different (preferably banal or off-topic) one. Bait and switch.

5. I sometimes like to fuck around with punctuation and “um”s and stuff, because I think that’s hilarious, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. “What. Um. Yes. I mean. What?” is guaranteed to make me giggle, is what I’m saying.

6. Heighten humorous reality by being a bit more fun with description and action. Don’t just have your character smile at annoying person’s misfortune – have them on the floor beneath the conference room table, gibbering gleefully and throwing in random unhelpful comments. Give them some adverbs. Later, do a call back and have them remove some errant carpet fuzz.

7. Typically, the word “said” is all you really needed to get by in dialogue, when you need a dialogue tag at all. Comic fiction is one of the places where you can get a bit more frisky if you so wish. (Particularly when paired with bait-and-switch, as in, “Basil leaned over and wrapped his arm comfortingly around Ted’s shoulders. He gave a quick squeeze and, in tones of kindest understanding, murmured, ‘You absolute tit.'”)

8. Never underestimate the power of an amusing and unexpected prop, the funnyman’s version of Chekov’s shotgun. Georgette Heyer accomplished great things with a strategically placed baby duck.

9. There’s something really satisfying about a super long sentence followed by a really short one. Or a very long paragraph followed by a very short one. Or a section of any sort of decent length followed by an absolutely minuscule one that consists of nothing but a joke. Somehow that’s just really funny.

10. List humor. Humans just get a real buzz out of lists that get progressively sillier (or even just lists of quite normal things, but extended beyond what could be considered reasonable. Monty Python did a lot of this.) The internet has unfortunately discovered this as well, but it still works. I could get into why, but, unfortunately, I won’t.

(Image credit: Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay)

1 thought on “Writing funny”

  1. Those are some handy hacks as well, though putting them to practice isn’t necessarily easy. I’ve been trying to add some humour to my creative non-fiction (can’t seem to do it with fiction for some reason) and these tips will definitely find their home during my writing sessions. Thanks, Katherine!

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