Does it sometimes feel as if your writing is a dog chasing its tail—you circle around and around, but keep returning to the same themes, characters and ideas? But does the thought of going down a new path cause your palms to sweat and your heart to beat like a hummingbird who’s downed a double espresso? If so, you may have SWEATS: Serious Writer Experiencing Anxiety and Timidity Syndrome. The surest sign: You have on occasion referred to yourself as a “Serious Writer” without cracking a smile.
Fortunately, you don’t need medication to cope with your ailment—all you need is a shot of Comedy Writing 101.
It doesn’t matter what writing style you call home; every writer can benefit from learning a few new tricks. If you’re a fan of such bestselling authors like Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Christopher Moore, or Maureen Dowd, you know that humor can be a great tool in many different genres. But beyond that, the reckless act of trying to be funny can free any writer from the fear of taking chances and boost creativity in unexpected ways.
With that in mind, here are 10 ways you can improve your writing by thinking like a comedy writer.
10 Ways to Improve Your Writing While Thinking Like a Comedy Writer
#10 Hold Your Readers’ Attention With Incongruity
Incongruity is the main reason we laugh. When logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together, such as a man lying in a hammock in an elevator, humor arises naturally as our minds recognize that things are out of place and try to find a way to make them connect.
Donna Gephart, author of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award–winning middle-grade novel As If Being 12¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is President, notes: “I always strive for the unexpected—quirky characters, unusual settings, wild plot ideas, etc. And I tend to find opportunities to sneak more humor into my books through successive revisions.” But incongruity is effective in other ways, too. Even if your goal isn’t laughter but simply keeping your readers engaged, you can use incongruity to keep things fresh by finding ways to combine unexpected elements.
A great way to summon incongruity is an exercise I call the Journalistic Association List. Simply write the words who, what, where, when, and why across the top of a sheet of paper and separate the columns with vertical lines. Then draw a horizontal line about halfway down the page. Choose your topic (the more concrete, the better—for example, “space travel”) and in the appropriate columns in the upper half of the grid, fill in all the words you naturally associate with the topic. Then ask yourself, What don’t I associate with this topic? Fill the bottom half of the page with your answers. (See Page 20 for a short example of what this exercise might look like, though yours should be much longer.) Select the most interesting associations, and consider: How can you use them to add interest to your work-in-progress?
#9 Keep Them on Their Toes
Similar to incongruity is the idea of misdirection, a concept used by all writers who make readers believe they are going down one path and then lead them astray. In comedy, the setup of a joke provides direction and the punch line provides misdirection, which is why it goes at the end.
“Learning the art of misdirection has benefited both my novels and my stand-up comedy by giving me the ability to zap an audience with the unexpected,” says bestselling mystery author L.J. Sellers, a former comedy-writing student of mine. But that doesn’t mean just throwing in a twist near the end of a story. Instead, consider using misdirection throughout any given piece in order to keep your readers guessing.
One of my favorite exercises for generating misdirected ideas is called Illogical Ways. First, choose a problem you’d like to resolve with misdirection. For example, let’s say you’re writing a novel and your main character needs to have a broken leg. Your goal is to find illogical ways for that to happen. Starting at the end of the alphabet (because it makes your brain work differently), list one illogical way for each letter. For example:
• In a ZEBRA stampede
• Slipping on nonfat YOGURT
• A XYLOPHONE accident
• WEARING pantyhose too tight, causing her to trip …
You can use this exercise to push even the most benign details of your stories beyond the obvious, keeping your readers enthralled along the way.
#8 Find an Element Worth Repeating
Comedy relies on repetition. Watch a sitcom and notice how often something is repeated before the big laughs come. The magic number is usually three—an action is repeated twice, and then the third time, the writer goes for the hilarity.
But repetition serves a purpose beyond just building the joke: It gives readers a feeling of being an insider, someone who knows what’s going on because they were there the first time. Whether you’re striving for humor or not, consider how you might use repetition and the “rule of three” as devices to achieve this.
#7 Use Familiarity to Your Advantage
Building on the idea of repetition, the running gag is a popular comedy device. A running gag is an amusing character, situation, or catchphrase that reappears throughout a work. It’s easiest to illustrate this concept using examples from TV comedies: On “Cheers,” everyone yells “Norm!” every time that character comes into the bar; on “Home Improvement,” Wilson’s face is always obscured by something; and whenever Rose (Betty White) starts to tell the other women on “The Golden Girls” a St. Olaf story, the laughs begin before she even reaches the punch line.
You can draw on the effective idea of a running gag without it actually being a “gag.” Simply introduce an endearing character quirk into your next short story, or end an essay or article with a recognizable tagline, and you’re there.
#6 Satisfy Readers With a Callback
A callback refers to using a memorable line from the beginning of a piece later in another context. This is an excellent tool for creating a feeling of completion in readers’ minds. Fans of Dave Barry will recognize this as something he frequently uses to close his humor columns. (Once you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll see I’ve used it as well). The great news is, a callback doesn’t have to be funny to work. Try it and see.
#5 Employ the Power of Play
It’s very hard to write funny or innovative stuff if you’re in a serious mood, so I always strive to be as childlike as possible when approaching my craft. As children we were motivated by fun and didn’t have an inner critic whispering in our ear, “Is this project leading to something worthwhile and productive?” Most researchers and parents agree that young children (from 3-7) laugh much more often than most adults. Clearly, we knew something decades ago that would come in handy now.
No matter your genre, lack of playfulness can drain the creativity out of your writing faster than a leaky bathtub drains chocolate milk and Lucky Charms. The best way to introduce more childlike fun to your writing is to follow Shakespeare’s advice: “The play’s the thing.” Of course, he meant this in another context—but this article is about taking things out of context, so go for it! Play with your children or your pets. Take an improv class. Dance badly to your favorite music. Take recess instead of a coffee break. Just make sure your inner 5-year-old has a chance to play at least once a day, and even more often when you’re facing a writing deadline.
#4 Stretch Yourself Short
Of all genres, humor is one that lends itself best to short-form writing, which is why it’s a great field for writers with commitment issues. Stalled in your efforts to write the Great American Novel? Take a break and write sticky notes, greeting cards, one-liners, and T-shirts instead. I do. Behold, some of my recent work:
• On an apron: My other apron burned in the fire.
• On a sticky note: You’re not the boss of me. Oh, wait, you are. My mistake.
• On a button: I’m now available in 3-D. Glasses not included.
The beauty of learning to write short and snappy is that it can help anyone create attention-grabbing titles, subtitles, and sidebars. Gephart, who has written for a humorous greeting card company, agrees: “I think my practice writing short, funny lines … helped tremendously in my ability to come up with catchy titles for my novels.”
A great exercise for honing this talent is to set a clock for 10 minutes and try to write as many bumper stickers as you can on a topic you’re currently exploring in your writing. When you’re done, choose a favorite.
How might you put it to good use?
#3 Use the Power of 10
One of the truisms in comedy writing is that it takes most writers approximately 10 attempts at a joke to create the funniest punch line. This is a great rule to remember as you’re rewriting your feature article for the seventh time. If things are going well, you’re way ahead of the game.
The rule of 10 also works in brainstorming, which is why I teach my writing students to use top 10 lists to come up with titles, plot points, or character names. The most important part of this exercise is writing a headline that stimulates creativity. Instead of Top 10 Good Names for a Bad Guy, for example, try Top 10 Unexpected Names for a Bad Guy, or Top 10 Nicknames a Bad Guy Might Have Had in Middle School. The point is this: No matter what you’re writing, you should never settle for the first thing that comes to mind. Only good can come when you push yourself further.
#2 Remember: Nothing Is off-Limits
Comedy writers and comedians tend to push buttons and boundaries. Think of Mae West, George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, Larry Gelbart, Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman, and Chris Rock, to name a few. It may be that people who are attracted to writing funny have fearlessness built into their DNA, or perhaps comedy is a socially acceptable form of expressing outrage at society’s foibles.
Fearlessness and unflappability, however, are important for any writer. The minute a voice says, “Don’t go there,” you may find that rejecting that advice will lead you to the most important writing adventure of your life. I’ve written many humorous political essays and wondered what consequences might ensue. But I haven’t let it stop me—despite the fact that I once came home to a message on my answering machine that began, “This is a call from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. …”
#1 Expose Yourself
Comedy writers who also perform are regularly exposed to others’ material. As a stand-up comic for the past 20 years, I’ve witnessed the work of several hundred other comedians. Watching and listening to them has influenced who I’ve become as a writer and performer.
In the same way, all writers should regularly learn from other writers. If you’re a poet and don’t attend local poetry slams, you’re missing out on the rush of creative thought that happens when you’re around others who do what you do. If you’re a writer and don’t participate in writing groups or conferences, now is a great time to change that.
With the idea in mind of exposing yourself to others’ work, I’ll leave you with one last exercise, which I call Where Do We Go from Here? Just write down a sentence or two from any piece of writing by a favorite author, then use that as a prompt to write two pages in your own style, going in any direction you want. For example, where would you go from Dorothy Parker’s, “I’d love to dance with you. I’d love to be caught in a midnight fire at sea”? Or how about Gelbart’s, “I don’t know why they’re shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread”?
With all these techniques for pushing beyond the expected, learning to be silly, and reaching outside your genre, it should be easier to approach new projects from a different perspective. And if you become a better laugher and have more fun at the same time, I won’t tell anyone. Your status as a Serious Writer is safe with me.