How to Write Humor That's Actually Funny

Dec 15, 2010

There's a character in Devolutionaries that's given me trouble from the beginning. I love him-- he's goofy and funny and knows how to lighten dark situations. In some ways, he reminds me of my husband. But that makes him a tough character to write, because that goofy, joking person is not me.

It's not that I don't have a good sense of humor. I just have a different sense of humor than Lucas, my character. In my first draft, sometimes I had to write "[insert funny line here]" in place of Lucas's dialogue. My husband helped me make him funnier in subsequent drafts, and I also thought a lot about some notes I took in a class on being humorous from funny-man Howard Tayler. Here are a few tips from Howard (with a little Shallee-extrapolation) on writing humor that's actually funny.

1. There are five elements to being funny (He said six, but I apparently missed one. Sorry.):

Be recognizable- if the audience doesn't know what you're talking about, it's not funny. Be sure to introduce context early on.
Be clever- This can be a hard one, but it doesn't necessarily mean to come up with something brand new. Find a little twist on something old. Think about your audience's expectations, and bend them.
Be bizarre- Pull something out of your hat that doesn't just bend expectations, it completely takes your reader by surprise.
Be cruel- Just a little. Make your humor wry and just a bit biting.
Be cute- Or sweet, or silly, or goofy. Slapstick is still funny as long as it's not the only type of humor you rely on.

The key is to try to hit as many of those as you can-- even within the same joke. Layered humor has a much stronger effect on your reader.

2. Leverage the audience's imagination. Let them tell themselves the punchline-- the more you explain the joke, the less funny it is. This makes the audience find humor from inside themselves that you might not have even intended.

3. Context is the most important thing to humor. Introduce the context of a joke early on, so the audience knows what to expect. Lucas's very first line makes the reader realize he's a goof, so they know what's coming every time they see him.

4. Point of view can change the type of humor you use. Something can be funnier depending on whose head you’re in. If you have multiple viewpoint characters, you may want to tell a certain scene from one point of view to change the humorous effect it has. In Devs, Lucas isn't a witty character, or a sarcastic one. He's just a goofball. Some of his quips are genuinely funny, and some are silly-- but they're made funny by his goofy personality. In setting up his character and point of view, I can make even stupid things funny through him.

So, my friends, any tips to share on how you write humor? Or any tips on what you find humorous when you read? What are some of your favorite books or movies-- comedy or not-- that have humorous moments you can learn from? Please share!


Tony Noland said...

This is a great summation, thanks.

Summer Ross said...

I have a very difficult time writing humor, my humor is very different. I do like romantic comedy though, I just don't know how to write it. LOL This helps a bit, I might try some of these suggestions in the future.

nindogs said...

This is very helpful, thanks Shallee.

I do think your audience also has something to do with what kind of humour and how much humour an author should use. I've been having some trouble getting my head around the fact that nearly every guy I've asked to help with my male joker has said "bodily functions".

le sigh.

M Pax said...

Peter Mayle's "Provence" books [the first two] made me laugh out loud on the Metro - especially a scene at a picnic with a white suit, rain and inappropriate undergarments.

Writing humor definitely takes skill.

Anonymous said...

I started following Howard Tayler's brother Randy Tayler on Twitter just because someone I followed retweeted some of the things he said and they were very funny. Then later I found out my brother knows Howard Tayler. I haven't met either in real life, but Randy's very very witty so I wouldn't be surprised of Howard is, too.

Twitter is actually a great workshop for one-liners (with instant feedback) although of course it doesn't give you any of the opportunity for the kind of build-up you can have in a book.

Humor is so tricky. I love it when a writer can make me laugh.

Angie said...

Those are good tips. I never try deliberately to be funny, but sometimes characters come out that way. I'm not sure how well it works.

Melissa said...

These are great humor tips. I don't try for humor but I HOPE it's in there somewhere.... Lucas sounds like a fun character to get to know.

Sujal said...

I'm new to this whole thing (both reading your blog, which I found through Rachel's blog, and writing, which I've been doing for about 5 months now), but the one thing I've tried is comedy. I don't know why... all of my short stories (well most) are more sad/dystopian in nature, but the longer works I've been working on are out-and-out comedy.

Or so I'd like to think. The friend I'm co-writing this attempt with (and a friend I made through NaNoWriMo) both seem to love the humor too... which worries me. I thought I was the only crazy one...

I guess we'll see, but I think I mostly agree with the tips you've stated. POV (1st person present, in my case) is really important, I think, in making it work. And I've got the bizarre/cruel going too.

I guess that's it really... don't have much to add right now. Maybe later... after I get my own writing blog up and going.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post with some really helpful points. Even for the wittiest person, writing humor that translates for the vast majority of readers can be difficult.

As far as humorous books go, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens is my favorite. It's absolutely laugh out loud hysterical.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I think it's cool that your character's sense of humor is so different from your own. I worry that all my characters are on the same humor-wavelength ... mine! I guess it helps (or maybe it's cheating) to listen to real people you think are funny and hear their voices when you're creating your characters. I did this in my WiP for one of the minor characters. I guess my betas will have to tell me if it worked or not. :)


Rachna Chhabria said...

These are all great tips. Thanks Shallee. I am trying to add humor to my current WIP, I hope that I am going to do justice.

I did a post on humor in November. But your post makes me see humor from a different angle.

Abby Minard said...

I haven't written that much humor in mine. I have a few snipets here and there, but since the book is somewhat dramatic (a YA fantasy) I hope the small bits of humor scattered throughout will be a break from the seriousness of the situation.

Susan Fields said...

Great post! I usually don't even attempt humor, and sometimes it surprises me when someone will read one of manuscripts and comment on how a part was funny. I don't have any tips of my own to share, but I especially agreed with your point about not over-explaining the joke, but letting the reader tell themselves the punchline. I think that's true in all writing.

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