There are many articles on writing serious characters, creating action, intrigue, and high drama. Yet what about comedy writing? Read the following ideas and examples for tips on using humor in your writing:
1. Know your audience
Toni Morrison said ‘If there’s a book you want to read, then you must write it.’ Yet in comedy writing, it helps to balance writing what you yourself find funny with the general comedic tastes of your ideal audience.
For example, when writing comedy, you might ask:
- How old is my audience? What’s funny to a five-year-old versus a fifteen-year-old differs
- What expectations might my audience have? Part of comedy is the delight of the unexpected, subverting your audience’s expectations
On the second point, think of Sir Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld fantasy series. Part of what made Discworld such as global success is Pratchett’s understanding of the genre. Because Pratchett knows the tropes and cliches of fantasy so well, he can poke fun at them and be original (and funny) in the process. It’s comedic writing backed by deep genre understanding.
For example, here, Pratchett describes the magician Rincewind’s clothes comically in The Colour of Magic. He takes the standard garment wizards often wear (robes) and adds humor:
‘He was wearing a dark robe, made darker by constant wear and irregular washings.’
In the magical, mysterious world of wizards, we don’t expect something as mundane as ‘irregular washings’ to describe a wizard’s clothing. Especially not after Pratchett describes, in an earlier passage, the fancy symbols and sequins adorning Rincewind’s robes.
Throughout his series, Pratchett takes common objects, ideas and character types from fantasy and makes them surprising and funny. His familiar grasp of the language, ideas and objects common to fantasy as a genre help him achieve his comedic effects.
2. Create great comedy using repetition
Repetition is a core building block of comedy writing. Repetition with surprise, in particular. A simple ‘knock knock’ joke is a repeated formula, often with a surprise at the end (usually, a play on words). These jokes may be ‘dad humor’, but they are simple examples of the basic ingredients.
Types of repetition you can use to create humor:
- Characters who keep making mistakes: This is a staple of situational comedy, where awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable events become funny. For example, in a solemn, formal setting, a character might keep calling an important figure by the wrong name
- Characters who repeat absurd or ridiculous actions: In Don Quixote, the delusional title character gets into skirmishes with everything from peaceful travelers to windmills that he imagines are giants
- Characters using funny phrases or gestures: For example, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a boy follows the main character ‘Pip’, after Pip becomes wealthy, repeating ‘Don’t know ya!’ and strutting along behind him, as though he too is a gentleman dressed in fine clothes. The effect gets funnier with each imitation Dickens adds
Here’s an example of comedic repetition by the essayist David Sedaris.
In his collection Naked, Sedaris describes reading a seedy book he finds in the woods as a teenager:
‘The first two times I read the book, I found myself aching with pleasure. Yes, these people were naughty, but at the age of thirteen, I couldn’t help but admire their infectious energy and spirited enjoyment of life. The third time I came away shocked, not by the characters’ behavior but by the innumerable typos.’
Sedaris creates humor by describing repeat readings of the book. The shift in the source of teenage Sedaris’ shock – from the book’s sexual content to its mundane language mistakes – creates comedy through surprise.
3. Create humor in writing via delay and understatement
Part of the effect of a great joke is waiting for the punchline – the delay. The build-up and expectation as we see the payoff coming, but don’t know when it will strike.
Understatement is also useful for comedy. Instead of saying, for example, that a character is ‘torn to shreds’ in battle you could say subtly they look ‘worse for wear’. The following description, however, could make just how understated this is clear.
Sir Terry Pratchett is a master of dry understatement. He uses this device to create tongue-in-cheek, dry humor. For example, here he describes a bar fight:
‘Rincewind reached the Broken Drum at a dead run and was just in time to collide with a man who came out backwards, fast. The stranger’s haste was in part accounted for
by the spear in his chest. He bubbled noisily and dropped dead at the wizard’s feet. Rincewind peered around the doorframe and jerked back as a heavy throwing axe whirred
past like a partridge. It was probably a lucky throw, a second cautious glance told him. The dark interior of the Drum was a broil of fighting men, quite a number of them–a third
and longer glance confirmed–in bits.’
The phrase ‘The stranger’s haste was in part accounted for by the spear in his chest’ is understatement. The narrator’s subtle expression of the man’s misfortune makes the tone dry and morbidly humorous.
Note also how Pratchett builds to the last words. The tongue-in-cheek tone continues to Rincewind’s third observation – that the bar is ‘a broil of fighting men, quite a number of them …[are] in bits.’ The hyphens separating the character’s third glance from the rest of the sentence delays the final words ‘in bits’. The extra delay builds up to the punchiest, driest, most morbid observation.
4. Take advice from comedy writing greats
Many great comedic authors (and actors) have given interviews that provide useful insights into doing comedy well. Read interviews with comic writers. Sometimes you find valuable comedy writing advice you can apply to your own work.
David Sedaris, for example, has often shared his dedication to keeping a diary. As an exercise, try keeping a diary for a week and jot down anything funny someone says to you or any unexpected and funny situation.
Often, funny things that happen to you or someone else can be transposed into a story (switched up, of course, to cover your tracks).
5. Get feedback
As with all other kinds of writing, it helps to get feedback on your comedy writing. Share humorous scenes or lines with friends, families, or your writing group. Share extracts in the members area of Now Novel for constructive feedback. As you learn from others with differing senses of humor, you’ll build your skill.
3 replies on “Comedy writing: How to create humor in writing”
I think another great source of American comedy is the use of Brit spelling, humour being an obvious example.
Good one, Jim. We do indeed use UK spelling down here in the South. We have Norman invasions and other historical events to thank for that. Thanks for reading!
This is SO very hard to balance but SO worth the effort.