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.
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 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 two lines.
When it comes to exaggeration in relation to a subject (a noun or abstract noun), you'll be looking at a particular attribute of that noun and exaggerating that through a false extra detail.
So (off the top of my head), let's say your character bought a coffee that was particularly expensive. Your narration might read:
"That'll be $15, please," said the barista. I stared at him. "What, does it come with the Peruvian man that grew it?"
Understatements can be presented through dialogue or through actions. You’ll unlikely ever be at risk of melodrama with an understatement. Understatements works best with an appropriate lead up that implies drama that never comes.
We saw the understatement from Jonasson earlier, so now let’s see an example from Andy Weir’s The Martian:
"He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now." LOG ENTRY: SOL 61 How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.
This one hit me right in the giggle dick! The understatement in this extract lies in the set up. The dialogue before the LOG ENTRY makes sure to gear the reader up for a moment of drama, or heartache from the trapped crew member. However, what we’re presented with is the exact opposite and, frankly, completely off topic.
Understatements can also be subtle. This is where you take a particularly terrible, horrifying, hilarious, or amazing thing and describe it in a way that minimises that sentiment to a colossal extent.
For example, say your characters are conversing about cannibalism. One might describe the act as 'frowned upon', which is clearly a light way of putting it. Or maybe a character speaks of World War 2, describing it merely as "the world got into a bit of a kerfuffle." Have your characters just had an important piece of equipment stolen? "Well, that's a bit of a nuisance."
When drawing humour from the unexpected, you can be physical or keep it in dialogue or narration. The key to this is either bringing something out of the blue (but in a logical way!), or turning a situation in a direction the reader wouldn’t predict. When writing comedy using the unexpected, the key lies in the set up your scene beforehand; effectively, you set up as normal, just as you would if no joke was going to take place.
Check out this example from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Prior to this moment, McGonagall and Dumbledore were speaking about the fall of Lord Voldemort, and the wizards acting carelessly during their celebrations:
“It certainly seems so,” said Dumbledore. “We have so much to be thankful for. Would you care for a lemon drop?” “A what?” “A lemon drop. They’re a kind of Muggle sweet I’m rather fond of.” “No, thank you,” said Professor McGonagall coldly, as though she didn’t think this was the moment for lemon drops.
What rattles my ribcage in this scene is the complete inappropriateness of Dumbledore’s offer, considering the situation.
This next example is actually a joke from a stand up set by Steve Martin, but 'the unexpected' still applies:
I gave my cat a bath the other day. You know, I’d always heard you weren’t supposed to give cats baths, but my cat came home, and he was really dirty and I decided to give him a bath, and it was great. If you have a cat, don’t worry about it. They love it. He sat there, he enjoyed it. It was fun for me, you know, and uh—the fur would stick to my tongue, but other than that, you know, it was great!
The above gets its humour from a 'benign violation'. Basically, we all know, as humans, what having a bath is. But what Martin was suggesting is a complete violation of social norms.
And here’s another quick one for you from Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?:
One of the main reasons I don’t like leaving the house is because I might find myself face to face with a Canadian.
You'd expect her to say something like 'a bear' or 'an axe murderer', but the surprise of finding out she is talking about Canadians is innately humorous. The implied exaggeration of the unpleasantness of a Canadian also adds to the comedy factor.
Certain words simply sound funnier than others. So next time you write out a line that isn’t as funny as you’d like it to be, get out a thesaurus and switch the words around until you find something that fits. For example, I find the word ‘little’, funnier than ‘small’. I also find the word ‘droplet’ mildly amusing (and adorable, somehow?).
Describing simple concepts in complicated ways (or vice versa) can also create humour. For example, you might call a microwave 'a radioactive turn-table', helicopters as 'sky boats with turn-y bits', or describe a sponge as 'a porous brick designed to inhale liquids'.
Some words have dual meanings that can be played with, and often figures of speech can be misinterpreted for comedic effect. In my novel Seeking Shadows, I play with the fact that my main character is a reaper. Therefore, there are certain parts of human culture (especially those intangible and online) that she is unfamiliar with. That unfamiliarity resulted in this scene:
I found myself reading an article on what appeared to be the human’s take on angels— wrong, but fascinating to read about. The borders of the text were surrounded by more links with enticing looking images. I read one of them; Smoking Reapers Getting Down and Dirty. Horrified and somewhat intrigued, I went to click on the link, but a finger reached out from beside me and pressed a button on the keyboard, sending the laptop to sleep. I looked up to see Jay grinning sheepishly. “We don’t click on those...” “But I want to know what it’s about! Is somebody setting my reapers on fire and forcing them into manual labour? I don’t get it,” I made to turn the screen back on again. Jay ripped the laptop from my hands. “It’s, er... it’s not what you think it is,” she rubbed the back of her neck as she spoke. “Nobody is on fire, let’s put it that way...”
Just as it sounds, physical comedy involves actions more than words, though dialogue can obviously be added in for effect, or even to trigger the comedic moment.
Physical comedy is perhaps the hardest to write, as it relies heavily on pacing—too many words, and you risk dragging the moment on, too few and you don’t give enough context for the reader to understand what’s happening. Short, snappy sentences are best to keep your pacing quick, while at the same time, using many of those sentences side-by-side and setting them on new lines can heighten anticipation.
Bottom line is: your visuals need to be clear, and your pacing needs to be on point.
Take this example below from Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!:
Vimes shrugged. "That's it, then," he said, and turned away. "Throw the book at him, Carrot." "Right, sir." Vimes remembered too late. Dwarfs have trouble with metaphors. They also have a very good aim. The Laws and Ordinances of Ankh and Morpork caught the secretary on the forehead. He blinked, staggered, and stepped backwards. It was the longest step he ever took. For one thing, it lasted the rest of his life. After several seconds they heard him hit, five storeys below. After several more seconds their faces appeared over the edge of the ravaged floor. "What a way to go," said Sergeant Colon. "That's a fact," said Nobby, reaching up to his ear for a dog-end. "Killed by a wossname. A metaphor." "Dunno," said Nobby. "Looks like the ground to me. Got a light, Sarge?"
A short scene, but certainly one that activated my chortle chamber. The perceptive of you will notice that there are a few types of comedy in this short extract. First, you have the physical comedy which at first relies on the reader putting together the conclusion for themselves: “Dwarves have trouble with metaphors. They also have a very good aim.” From this point, we know Carrot is about to hurl the heavy book at the secretary.
From this moment, we have the subsequent death of the secretary being described in an ‘understating’ way (“He blinked, staggered, and stepped backwards.”), keeping the situation light. The next line is a form of exaggeration—we know the fall will have been quick, but Pratchett slows the scene dramatically by emphasising “it lasted the rest of his life.” The dialogue following this moment is equally funny, particularly the final line where a figure of speech is yet again twisted.
Keeping the Moment Funny
Do not, and I mean do not have your characters laugh at your jokes other than quickly and in passing. Unlike in real life where laughter is contagious (which is why laugh tracks exist on sitcoms), the same doesn’t apply in writing. Describing the tears of laughter in your characters’ eyes and how they are keeled over, clutching their stomachs as they howl, only serves to slow your pacing and reduce the impact of your joke by distracting your reader from your punchline.
Plus, have you ever seen someone tell a joke and laugh at themselves? It’s cringe, right? Well, your characters are still you.
Pacing and Repetition
Don’t dwell on your funny moments. Elongating your punchline with unnecessary repetitions, heavy amounts of laughter (or other reactions), or simply slow pacing takes away the punchiness of your funny moment, and bores your reader. Repeating the same joke format is just as bad (unless it is a running joke, where the repetition is part of what makes it funny).
It’s called a punchline for a reason. Where you can, keep your sentences short and description to a minimum; only give enough context for the reader to orient themselves. Propel your joke forward with every sentence until its finished, then drop it completely and move on. Using plosive language can also help to make your narration sound punchier.
Now, by no means is this post a comedy rulebook, it is merely a collection of ways that you can consider adding comedic flair to your writing. As I said at the beginning, humour is highly subjective, so at the end of the day, if you can make yourself laugh, that’s a good sign! Not all of your readers will laugh at your jokes, and that’s okay. What you want to avoid is a scoff or cringe, and you’ll do that by brushing over reactions and perfecting your pacing.