It’s a great feeling to be the creator–or the recipient–of a piece of genuine funniness. Using humor in writing can do so much for us: it can help deliver a difficult message, turn a dull story into something everyone wants to hear, or even serve a serious moral purpose, as you can see in the work of great satirists from Swift to Jonathan Coe. As the sometimes-very-funny Martin Amis has said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
But the flipside of all this is that laughter and humor are elusive things that don’t like to be pinned down or explained away. Humor is subjective; what you find funny isn’t always what others find funny. Humor is fickle; if you work too hard at getting laughs, people don’t find it very funny. Also, variables that you can’t control come into play for your reader, such as their state of mind.
All this means that using humor in writing is a real challenge, and one always dogged by the risk of failure. But here are some thoughts on how to improve your chances of getting it right.
What Kind of Humor Works in YOUR Writing?
There are many kinds of laughs: the throaty guffaw, the silly giggle, the derisive snort, the big belly laugh, the hysterical paroxysm, the dirty chuckle. All of these reactions are quite different, and each can be associated with a different approach to humor.
Think about what kind of reaction would be right for you, your characters and your story–and work out from there. If by nature you have a gentle, playful, whimsical sense of humor, you may struggle if you keep trying to force dirty belly-laughs from your work.
Fiction Writing Is Not Stand-Up Comedy
The biggest laughs are usually the highest-risk ones, and also not necessarily the most suitable for fiction. Once the reader has heard the punchline, they don’t need to hear it again, and there can be something tedious about a writer who tries to systematically shoehorn a joke into every paragraph.
To be humorous, you don’t need your writing to be a series of gags. A short story or a novel is not a stand-up routine; humor that arises from dialogue and character can often be much more subtle and appealing over the long term. You want to write something that people want to read more than once, after all.
Don’t Aim for Laughs; Aim for Smiles
Rather than going for laughs, then, it’s often helpful to think of your writing as a way to make your reader smile. There are many smiles too—a smile of recognition, of affection, identification, surprise. The smile is a response to a style of humor that’s subtler and less confrontational, that’s more observational and less punchline-driven, and what it lacks in fireworks it can make up for in emotional staying power.
As the novelist Muriel Spark – who knew a thing or two about humorous writing–put it: “I have a great desire to make people smile—not laugh, but smile. Laughter is too aggressive. People bare their teeth.”
Your best chance of making your reader smile or laugh is to write characters, situations, and sentences that you find funny. Let go of any abstract idea of funniness that requires a scholarly, theoretical approach. Instead, write things that genuinely tickle you, and you’ll be more likely to tickle other people.
Jot down things that make you laugh as you go through your day: unusual turns of phrase, anecdotes, strange street moments. If it makes you laugh, and you can work it into your story, go for it; don’t try to over-analyze why it’s funny, but be true instead to your initial reaction of mirth.
A lot of poetry works this way: the more personal, the more universal. That is, the deeper and more honestly the poet goes into their personal experience, paradoxically the more other people can relate to the poem. Craft comes into it, of course, but also a commitment not to censor subjectivity or worry about what they should be saying or thinking.
Don’t Flaunt Your Comic Ambitions
Nothing is more likely to ruin the comic potential of a piece of writing–or a joke–than the author starting off by saying: “Listen to this everyone. It’s really funny!!!” When you do that, you put a whole layer of extra pressure on yourself, and there will be those in your readership looking to prove you wrong.
A valued writing mentor said to me once, “Don’t tell anyone that your stories are funny. Let them find out for themselves, like uncovering a secret treasure.” So don’t promote yourself as a humorous writer. If the humor works, they’ll smile or laugh anyway. And if it doesn’t, well, you never said otherwise!
Practice on Others
Nothing is as useful for fine-tuning your comic sense than trying out your words on other people. Joining a writers’ group is a wonderful help here – you can try out your material on a willing audience of friendly supportive peers and see what works and what doesn’t.
It helps if you are prepared to be a little bit of a performer yourself. Even the best comic writing will struggle to hit home if it’s delivered in a mumble. The act of reading out loud helps you to learn a lot about rhythm, pace, and timing – all classic comic ingredients.
Don’t Bolt-On the Jokes
As you read, pay attention to the way people react, and learn from it. At my writing group last night, for instance, I read what I thought was a very funny line–and got only a few mild titters. But another line a bit further on, one I hadn’t paid much attention to, had the room in hysterics.
It is tempting to try and analyze why an individual line worked better than another, but perhaps it’s better not to over-think it and to just be grateful that something worked. But the key thing here is that both the lines I read flowed from a story that was comic in its conception and structure. Humor in fiction has a better chance of succeeding when it flows organically from character and situation. Humor does not work as well where readers feel that gags have simply been bolted-on to the story in the hopes of a few cheap laughs.
Find the Funniest Words
I once sat in on a stand-up course. One of the many interesting things I learned was the idea that some words are inherently funnier than others. Our teacher even suggested that words that begin with certain letters are funnier than others.
I think there is a lot of fun and truth in this. Certainly, an ottoman is funnier than a sofa, for example. The two funny color words (according to my co-author Martin) are puce and taupe. (I agree with this, though I also think fuschia has its moments.) Among animals, otters and squirrels and baboons will always get more of a smile than mice and robins and snakes. The pawpaw and the banana are strong comedy fruit, while the apple or the orange will always be the straight man.
There’s a lot of detailed craft involved in writing funny material. You need to be very alive to these tiny details of word choice, to the play of different sounds, and the rhythm and economy of your killer lines. Comedy writers need to be very sharp self-editors.
Choose an Inherently Comic Story
In literary tradition, tragedies tend to end in death and the end of an era, while comedies tend to end in marriage and the promise of rebirth. You don’t have to follow this template strictly, of course, but do bear in mind that some subjects lend themselves to comedy more readily than others.
If your story is about old friends or an unlikely romance or a villain who gets his comeuppance, for example, there will be lots of opportunities for laughs and smiles. If your story touches on darker themes, such as grief or violence, a comic tone may not sit so well with the essence of your piece.
Of course, there is black comedy and laughter in the dark–where humor acts as a foil to the bad stuff that is happening in the story–but this needs to be handled with great care if your world is to have a credible structure and fabric to it. The sitcom Fleabag is a great example of this–at the start of the story, the tragedies (the death of the main character’s mother and best friend) have already taken place, and the story is all about how humor helps us fend off pain and keep going when the worst has happened. This dark backstory gives all the funny bits an extra edge.
And Most Importantly, Be Prepared to Fail
All humor plays with transgression in some way—whether that’s saying things we’re not usually allowed to say, even if we think them, or playing with our everyday conventions of which words or ideas go together.
So for humor to work, it needs to bring into play our sense of non-humor too—our shared understanding of the lines that can’t be crossed and the edge we can teeter along but shouldn’t actually fall off of. Making people laugh often involves just pushing things that little bit too far–saying something that people think but don’t normally say, for example.
That means taking a big risk–the risk of exposing yourself, of getting a cringe instead of a chuckle, of getting nothing but terrible tumbleweed silence. A laugh, I think, is a physical expression of admiration and gratitude at the audacity of someone who has taken that risk on your behalf.
And remember: you’ll never get it right every time. If your attempts at humor come over as authentic, confident, and organic to your story, then people will forgive you the odd slip. But if you take no risks at all, you’ll never be in any danger of ever making anyone laugh.