Making Readers Laugh

Humour is highly subjective, and not something you can think too hard about. There are fine lines between making your reader laugh, making them smirk, making them roll their eyes, and making them downright cringe. Depending on the character speaking, any of those reactions might be what you’re aiming for, but for the sake of this post, let’s say you’re aiming for laughter every time (or perhaps a mildly amused sniff).


Disclaimer (And perhaps point number one?): Analysing humour is the fastest way to make something unfunny, which means this post is destined to ruin a few jokes for you. You’ve been warned.


So what makes something funny? When adding humour to your narration or dialogue, there are a number of techniques you can consider, and definitely don’t feel that you’re limited to only one—many of these examples utilise multiple.


Juxtaposition


Here, you’re mostly looking at the tone of your scene. Bringing in a line of dialogue that completely opposes that tone will emphasise the comedic effect of whatever the line is—only use this where appropriate, of course. Don’t go doing this during scenes of tragedy, for example. If your reader is too immersed in an emotion, bringing in heavy contrast will feel awkward, unwelcome, and out of place.


While researching for this post, I actually came across an example of this in an article by The Atlantic that resulted in a smirk from me:

Yet another approach, pioneered by Kant and Schopenhauer and affirmed by Henny Youngman, sees humor as arising from incongruity: When conventions are undermined by an absurd situation, we’re tickled.

Specifically, the line that titillated my humour button was “we’re tickled”—but not that line standing alone. I found its plainness compared to the rest of the sentence to be mildly amusing. Not only is it two simple words to end a complex theory, it is also slightly colloquial which emphasises that contrast against the academic text.


Contrast can also arise from subject matter. Here’s another example from The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson:

There are only two things I can do better than most people. One of them is to make vodka from goats’ milk, and the other is to put together an atom bomb.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many similarities between goats’ milk and an atom bomb. Note also that Jonasson said “most people,” when the skills are clearly so unique I’d be surprised if any people at all could replicate them. This is a form of understatement, which I’ll get to.


Exaggerations


Exaggerations can come in two forms: reactions, and exaggeration in relation to a subject.


The first, reactions, you need to be careful with, as exaggerating reactions and emotions can quickly turn into melodrama. The key is to keep things, for the most part, calm. This means communicating an exaggerated reaction into dialogue or thought tracking - not actions.


Take this example from the rather… unique children’s storybook Go The Fuck To Sleep by Adam Mansbach.

All the kids from daycare are in dreamland. The froggie has made his last leap. Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom. You know where you can go? The fuck to sleep.

This short excerpt fostered quite the guffaw from my rumble chambers. It’s relatable, yes, but the exaggeration lies in the fact the story 'appears' to be a book for children, so adding in the cursing and the rhetorical question (both arguably 'adult' in nature) makes it seem like an overreaction when directed towards a child. The sudden rise in perceived anger from “Hell no,” also makes a humorous and juxtaposing difference to the first tw