Short story writer and novelist Dan Brotzel dishes out 15 tips on how to use humor in fiction writing.
It’s amazing how often you hear aspiring writers say: ‘I can’t write humor. I’m not funny.’ While it’s undoubtedly true that some people come across as naturally funnier than others—though often this may be the product of unseen hard work as much as raw talent—I believe that everyone has the potential to be funny. After all, if you can laugh, you have a sense of humor.
The subject of how to find the funny in your writing is one I think about all the time. I’ve spent the last 25 years writing a variety of comic material designed to tickle people’s funny bones—sketches for BBC radio, humorous columns for magazines and newsletters, short stories, and now a comic novel. I was even Asda Christmas cracker joke-writing champion in 2004, a UK prize that’s roughly the equivalent of a comedy Pulitzer*, so I couldn’t really be more qualified.
If you’re interested in getting more humor into your fiction, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way…
Think of comedy as an ingredient, not a genre.
Try not to think of comedy as a genre in its own right that you have to write in all the time. When you think about it, comedy can be found in all sorts of stories and genres. Horror and sci-fi novels can have their funny moments, as can YA, romance, and literary fiction.
So think of humor as one of the tools in your writing toolkit, like tension or strong characterization or voice. It doesn’t have to color everything you do in the way that a true genre does, but it’s a great thing to pull out when the occasion demands.
Think of comedy as a craft, not an inspired gift.
Let go, too, of the idea of funny writers as people who have amazing flights of imagination and deliver great comic revelations from a perspective that you could never possibly emulate. Of course you need ideas and inspiration, but as we’ll see, writing comedy is as much about craft: selecting the right word, paying attention to rhythm and pace, replacing an obvious element of a story with a surprising one.
People who seem to be naturally funny are often actually people who spend their spare time quietly practicing routines and crafting material to themselves. No wonder it sounds so polished when you hear it …
Make yourself laugh first.
As a novelist, you have so many routes to humor. You can create characters with funny traits. You can set up situations that are funny because they’re so unbelievable (farce) or, on the other hand, make us laugh because they’re excruciatingly close to home. You can describe things in funny ways. ("The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t"—Douglas Adams.) You can use humor as a satirical tool to make powerful points about politics and society.
Whatever route you choose, your attempts at being funny will have more chance of succeeding if they flow from own your own sense of humor. If you don’t make yourself laugh, how can you expect anyone else to find you funny?
Don’t see your fiction as a comedy routine.
What you don’t need to do is act like a stand-up. You don’t need to introduce a crashing boom-boom punchline every paragraph. Humor in fiction is more subtle than that. It arises from character and plot, from an interesting authorial voice, from a unique way of looking at the world.
So there’s no need to go for big belly laughs—aim to make your reader smile instead. Gags are crude, throwaway things; humor in fiction is slower-burning but packs more emotional power. As the comic novelist Muriel Spark once said: "I have a great desire to make people smile—not laugh, but smile. Laughter is too aggressive."
Keep an open channel to your unconscious.
A comedy writer I know once said that when he comes up with a funny line, he laughs because it’s as much a surprise to him as to everyone else. Like many creative people, comic writers often have this ability to allow thoughts to bubble up uncensored and unforced from the unconscious. The trick then is not to purposely think funny things, but instead to be open to the free flow of your unconscious mind, so that you can pluck the ideas with comic potential from that fertile steam and package them for your audience.
Like a good idea or a strong emotion, humor isn’t something that you can force on to the page. There’s nothing less funny, in fact, than a writer straining too hard for their comic effect. A good tip is to write in stages.
Let’s say you have an idea for a good set-up or a funny situation, but you can’t quite find the concluding line or action that will pay it off. Don’t give up—comedy is an instinctive thing, and you know you’ve got the germ of something funny there. Instead, write down whatever you’ve got, then just add ‘xxxxx’ or ‘insert final line here’, and put it aside. Your unconscious will continue working on the challenge for you, and at some point when you’re not looking for it – probably when you’re in the shower or on the bus to work – the final piece of that comedy puzzle will bubble up to the surface of your mind.
Keep quiet about your comedy.
‘Don’t tell anyone your stories might be funny,’ my agent said to me recently. ‘Let them find out for themselves.’ This is a great piece of advice. If you go round telling everyone your stuff is really funny, you will raise expectations and people will be keen to prove you wrong.
But if they discover that, as well as being well-written and well-observed and full of emotion and suspense, your writing is also often really funny as well, you will have given them a lovely extra surprise to enjoy. And besides, only other people can really tell you if you’re funny.
Listen out for the world’s funny stuff.
The world is full of funny lines, people, and situations. Some of my favorite stories have come from observing funny things in real life: a child who thinks a seal is a kind of bird, a lad who tries to slip a love note into his girlfriend’s handbag only for her to lash out at him because she thought he was a pickpocket, a bodybuilder on a beach using his baby twins as dumbbells, a man claiming to have the skills of a Ninja who can’t find the door in a glass-fronted restaurant …
Here again, the trick is just to have your channels open. Capture what you hear and see, so others can enjoy it too. Want to be funnier? Grow your comic antennae.
Don’t worry if you stop laughing.
If you think or see something funny, stay true to that initial reaction. Don’t worry that by the time you’ve written the incident into your story, you’re not finding it funny anymore. Why would you, after all? You know the material inside out. But when other people hear or read that moment, it will be for the first time, and if you’ve done a good job they will be amused as you were initially.
Use funny words.
Some words and sounds are just funnier than others; as a comic writer you want to listen for these and sprinkle them in at opportune moments. As a character says in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys: "Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say “Alka Seltzer”, you get a laugh ... Words with “k” in them are funny." It’s true: think cockatoo, kazoo, mackerel, crinkly, rickshaw. B-words (bassoon, banjo, bungalow, budgie), O-words (otter, ocelot, ottoman) and oo sounds are often quite funny too. Alliteration and assonance also often amuse.
Other words make us laugh because of cultural connotations, perhaps they are so naff or because they convey a certain misplaced pretension (cummerbund, fish kettle, gazebo, meatball tongs) (tongs, incidentally, are always funny in my book). Here are some words I’m finding quite funny at the moment: snood, otter, beard, trotter, florid, taupe. You may disagree with some of my choices, but the key thing is to be thinking about funny sounds and words in the first place.
Create contrasts in context.
Words can be funny in themselves, but often also become funny when combined in surprising ways in context. ‘You need to go and see my accountant’ isn’t very funny; whereas ‘you need to go and see my accountant down the nail bar’ paints a very different and more amusing picture. Compare also ‘He injured his hand with a steak knife’ and ‘He did himself a mischief with the nutmeg grater’.
Work your similes.
Here’s my bodybuilder again, reflecting on his amazing physique: ‘Coming across a body like his in the course of a normal day was a scandal to the senses, he knew, a bit like a nipple popping out in church.’ Similes are another area where creativity and surprise can deliver great comic effects. The writings of PG Wodehouse are a case in point.
For example: "Good God, Clarence! You look like a bereaved tapeworm!" Here we have two words, both potentially quite serious on their own, which combine to make something quite delightfully absurd. Or again: "Bicky rocked, like a jelly in a high wind." Jelly wobbles; this we know. A jelly in wind, rather more unexpected, is getting quite funny. But the addition of the simple word ‘high’ turns this comparison into something splendidly silly.
Read your work out loud.
All writers should read their work out loud, if only to themselves. But comic writing, where rhythm and tone and diction play such an important part, especially benefits from a read-through. Joining a writer’s group and regularly reading out your work to others is even better. You can tell instantly what’s working and what isn’t, and whether you got the effect you were hoping for. Just don’t tell people before you start reading that you’re about to try and be funny …
Become a ruthless self-editor.
If you observe an accomplished joke-teller or raconteur doing their thing, you’ll see that the flow of their words has been carefully weighed and polished to deliver the optimum effect. If a punchline relies on a surprising phrase, for example, such as ‘extractor fan’ or ‘donkey’, the performer will have taken special care not to use any word beforehand that could give the game away.
Similarly, comic novelists often need to edit their work carefully so that the scene climaxes in the line that delivers the maximum comic value. With comic writing, every word has to pull its weight; there can be no redundancy or waffle or clunkiness.
Final thought: Dare to be funny
If you want to be funny, you have to take the risk of failing, and often. Many people are terrified of this prospect, something that we even refer to as dying. But the more you try, the thicker your skin will get, and the more you will succeed.
When we laugh, we are giving a gasp of admiration and gratitude for running the risk of failure that someone has taken on our behalf. Aiming for comic effects will often fail; but then you’ll never run the risk of being funny if you never dare. And of course, it’s such a wonderful feeling when it works.
*no it isn’t
Dan Brotzel is co-author of the comic novel Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a WD reader, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – enter promo code KITTEN10.
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