writing humourTips on Writing Humour

by Marg McAlister

Why is it that some authors manage to have readers laughing out loud, while others couldn't write humour if their lives depended on it? Why is humour so hard to pull off?

Just how do you make people laugh?

If there was a sure-fire recipe for humour, we'd all be able to cash in on it - because people love to laugh. Unfortunately, it's not something that's easily learned, or even easily defined.

If you look at authors that have a reputation for being able to write humorous novels, the first thing you'll notice is that their work doesn't necessarily appeal to the same readership. Some novels are almost slapstick in their approach - for example, Janet Evanovich's humorous romantic crime novels starring Stephanie Plum and her overweight, over-the-top sidekick Lula.

Also popular with romance readers are authors such as Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jennifer Crusie. However, although these authors write funny stories, their heroes and heroines are more like everyday people than the characters in an Evanovich novel.

Then there's Carl Hiaasen, famous for his humorous crime novels set in the Everglades. Despite his wacky characters and amusing situations, Hiaasen manages to get across a serious environmental message without appearing to preach. (It's hard to seem 'preachy' when your stories feature some of the craziest characters ever to find their way onto the pages of a book.)

No one 'brand' of humour appeals to all readers - but the good news for writers is that it's possible to examine humour to get a better understanding of how it works. Then you can pick the style of humour that appeals to you most, and try applying it to your own work.  

Some Quick Tips  

1. Writing humour is not about telling jokes. It's not about penning one-liners like stand-up comedy, either (although the occasional one-liner can be funny in a scene of dialogue). Humour is largely based on the viewpoint character's attitude. He or she looks at life in a light-hearted way.

It's all about being able to spot the absurd in everyday situations, and expressing this in dialogue or in thoughts. The successful writer of light humour will have an eye for what people do or say that makes a situation amusing.  

2. Analyse what it is about a situation that makes you laugh. Most of us know someone who has a gift for making other people laugh. Why is this so? Is it their comic timing? Is it their ability to exaggerate a situation so it becomes funnier? Is it based on wry observations, or tone of voice? Whatever it may be, can you replicate it in your writing?  

3. Analyse successful comic movies, sitcoms or books. Borrow a stack of movies from the video rental store, or watch some re-runs of your favourite sitcoms. Re-read books that have made you laugh. Whenever the content brings a smile to your face, or makes you laugh out loud, stop and pay attention. Backtrack a bit and watch or read the scene again.

What was it about the scene that worked? What pressed your buttons? Some of these sitcoms have run for many years because people enjoyed their regular dose of laughter so much: Friends, Cheers, Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, Mash, Happy Days... the list goes on. Once you have identified what made you laugh, jot down a brief note.

Some reasons might be:

  • You can identify with a situation. Quite often it's almost painful to watch, because the character is in some way humiliated or does something stupid - and you can either remember doing something similar yourself, or you can imagine yourself in the same situation. You wince, but you laugh.
  • You're surprised by a sudden switch. You're expecting a character to react in a predictable way, and they don't. Or they say the opposite of what you're expecting.
  • Shock tactics - often because the writer creates characters that are deliberately politically incorrect (such as Al and Peg Bundy). You laugh and shake your head because you'd never dare say or do what they do. (This can backfire though: it may offend your readers if you can't handle this kind of humour adeptly.)
  • Characters that see the humorous side of most situations. (We all know people like this: whether they recount an anecdote about tight clothes, a parking fine or a pompous boss like the one in The Office, they manage to have us laughing with them.) These characters will smile sweetly at another character while thinking rebellious thoughts, or make a comment that can be interpreted two ways, or reflect wryly on the direction that life has taken.  

4. Build Your Own Humour Library. Whether you want to write comic novels or just convey a sense of lightness in your scenes, it pays to look for advice from people who have done it. Search for how-to books on writing humour, and make sure you read the reviews before you buy. If you can, read an excerpt before putting down the cash - you need to ensure that the book is not teaching you how to churn out one-liners when you want to write light-hearted, entertaining novels.  

5. Make Your Humour Subtle. If you try to be funny and you're too obvious about it, readers may groan rather than burst out laughing. Never have one character crack a joke, then have the other character in the scene think: "Sam is so funny; he always makes me laugh." If the reader didn't think that Sam was funny at all, then not only do they roll their eyes at Sam, they lose respect for the character who thought that Sam was hilarious. The bottom line: never telegraph your intentions ("This scene is supposed to be funny!") because if you fail, you fail big time. If you make your humour subtle then the reader can interpret it how he/she wishes. They might not even realise that what they're reading is meant to be funny: they might just think it's entertaining. Great - you win on all counts.

If you're a natural comic yourself with a gift for timing, you will probably find it easier to write humorous novels. If not, it's time to do some research: spend a few hours reading or viewing different forms of humour. At least you know you're going to have an entertaining time while you're learning! 

© Marg McAlister


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