Everyone enjoys turning red in the face and struggling to breathe for a few seconds after a hilarious experience. Laughter lightens your mood, reduces stress, and even improves your immune system. On a relational level, humor helps you connect with others whether you’re swapping anecdotes in the same room together or reading a character’s wisecracks from a printed page. Humor makes stories more engaging overall, as well as balances out tenser scenes.
I love writing humor, but I have a confession: I’m not particularly funny. It’s a skill I had to develop, and no matter how serious of a person you are, you can too. Humor offers a lot of creative freedom because the form it takes will differ from story to story. However, jokes aren’t immune to falling flat and neither are comic relief characters to acting corny. Through practice, I’ve learned two tips to avoid those failures.
1. Focus on What Cracks You Up
If you’ve ever giggled over a snarky meme or a slapstick scene in an animated film, you have a sense of humor—which means you can gauge the dialogue and incidents that might amuse readers too. Your taste in humor is an effective starting point, as it will often come more naturally to you than other styles. Are you fascinated by wordplay? Do you binge stand-up comedy to relax after a rough day? Let those interests influence how you incorporate humor into your stories.
While you’re experimenting with ideas, ask for outside feedback. If you can entertain a group of your friends, you’ll know you’ve succeeded. They may even be able to suggest types of humor that hadn’t occurred to you, or they’ll warn you that your tactics aren’t appropriate for your intended audience. After all, morbid jokes don’t belong in a children’s book, nor bathroom humor in a romantic drama. And YA tends to lean toward sarcasm rather than highbrow witticisms.
Fortunately, you have a wide variety of options to choose from, and each one can be adapted to any genre.
When a writer wants to liven up a scene, the delivery of a punchline is usually the first possibility that leaps to mind. But unless a character tells a joke in the flow of a conversation, it’ll likely feel forced. Besides, verbal humor extends far beyond clever one-liners.
William Shakespeare, Lewis Carrol, and Charles Dickens interspersed puns throughout their work, a technique that’s still popular today because of its versatility. Wordplay can complement both narration and dialogue, as long as it’s used sparingly. Clichés will annoy readers, though, so aim for originality.
A running gag is another approach that carries the extra benefit of deepening characterization. In the Harry Potter series, Hagrid’s habit of mumbling, “I shouldn’t have told you that.” after blurting confidential information undergirds his forgetful and blabbermouthed nature. In the TV show Full House, Stephanie Tanner’s iconic exclamation, “How rude!” reveals her sassy personality. When a catchphrase is repeated just enough to stay familiar without wearing out, it will endear the character to the audience.
Last but not least, you have sarcasm, but since readers can’t hear the speaker’s tone, conveying it may be difficult. You’ll need to rely on body language and facial expressions to indicate that a character is kidding. If he praises his older sister while twisting his lips, then he doesn’t mean what he says. The other character’s response can provide clues too. She may fire off a retort, cringe, or snicker.
The best method, however, is hyperbole. The sarcasm will be immediately recognizable, as in this exchange from James Patterson’s School’s Out—Forever. After Max gets caught in a lie, she snaps back with exaggerated shock and concern.
“Now, Max, I think we both know your parents aren’t missionaries.”
I opened my eyes wide. “No? Well, for God’s sake, don’t tell them. They’d be crushed. Thinking they’re doing the Lord’s work and all.”
As I’m sure you’re well aware of, this brand of humor has its own TV genre: the sitcom. But what you may not have considered before is that your favorite shows can supply endless inspiration for your own stories.
One episode that I’ll never forget is in the first season of Friends. Chandler gets locked in an ATM vestibule with supermodel Jill Goodacre. Although Chandler is famous for his snark, he’s so freaked out in this moment that his bumbling thoughts, comments, and actions take over instead. He smiles at Jill but stares too long, which gives her the impression that he’s leering. Later she offers him a piece of gum, and when he tries to blow a bubble, he accidentally spits it onto a table across the room. He rushes over to cram the wad back in his mouth, only to realize after chewing it that it’s not his gum. He chokes as the studio audience roars with laughter.
A character’s circumstances can also go askew when an assumption or stereotype is overturned. Irony is an incongruity between a statement or norm and the actual reality, and I can point to no better example than the opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The line that comes next suggests that men are generally apathetic to matrimony, whereas women are preoccupied with it. The contrast between this “truth” and the behavior of the characters wraps the entire story in irony.
The fastest track to humor is the element of surprise. To send readers into stitches, all you need to do is the opposite of whatever event, reaction, or description they believe is ahead. This will require setup, such as asking a question with a seemingly predictable answer or quoting the beginning of a cliché. Then you can tack on an unforeseen (yet fitting) outcome like these:
- She skimmed the items on her shopping list: bread, milk, eggs, and a pet dinosaur. Her son had scribbled that last one.
- The early bird gets a caffeine addiction.
- You can’t judge a book by its movie.
- “Are you nervous about this week’s wrestling match?” he asked. I snorted. “Why would I be? My opponent is twice my size and strong enough to bench-press a rhino. I won’t even have to flex a muscle before I lose.”
2. Don’t Rely Solely on a Comic Relief Character
No matter what tickles your funny bone, it can’t compete with that uncle of yours who manages to get lost in his own hometown, or that friend who misuses big words because she reads everything except the dictionary. Real-life discussions, foibles, and misunderstandings create comedy. When writers attempt to replicate that in fiction, they typically resort to a comic relief character. Unfortunately, for every Luna Lovegood (from the Harry Potter series), a dozen Jar Jar Binks (from Star Wars) crowd the page and screen. When comedy is a character’s entire personality, and he doesn’t advance the plot—maybe he even derails it—he’ll come across as a nuisance.
Although Star Wars fans can list many complaints against Jar Jar, Luna Lovegood escapes censure. Luna is more than a collection of bizarre conspiracy theories. She has passions and experiences that shape her, and her unique perspective enables her to help her friends with their escapades. Most importantly, she isn’t the only source of humor. Fred and George are pranksters. Neville is clumsy and shy. And the arguments between Harry, Ron, and Hermione never leave room for a dull moment.
Instead of making one character responsible for your story’s humor, give several members of your cast a chance to be the laughingstock. Some characters may rattle off one-liners while others prefer battles of wit or playing practical jokes. When you build humor into character interactions, the resulting scenes will be more authentic and relatable.
Humor is meant to bring people happiness, yet it unnerves many writers. Don’t get so uptight that you can’t savor the process! When you enjoy the humor in your story, readers are likely to as well. So embrace your inner comedian. Tuck in lots of surprises. And spread the humor between your characters instead of packing it all into one. Soon you’ll realize that humor is as easy as pie. Both are much less challenging to make once you know your favorite recipe.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.
I gotta say that The Wingfeather Saga is one of the funniest books out there. So. I think that’s it. XD
Yes!! I think Andrew Peterson did a great job using a bunch of different techniques listed here.
Ah, writing humor in fiction is *so* hard for me. Pithy Facebook statuses or a funny story with a group of friends comes easy to me. But write it into a scene? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ll have to keep these tips in mind, though!
Awesome post, Allison! I love how you focus on so many different types of comedy. I often find myself stuck on only one or two.
“The early bird gets a caffeine addiction.”
Couldn’t help but crack a smile at that one XD
I also love The Hero’s Guide To Saving Your Kingdom. Christopher Healy’s opening lines just makes you bowl over with laughter!
Thanks for the amazing article!