Playwright and author Stephen Evans explains how to write funny dialogue with these five key tips informed by neurology, rhythm and theater.
I remember the first time I heard an audience laugh at one of my plays. It was thrilling. And fascinating.
Laughter is what scientists call an affective nonspeech vocalization, which means it is one ways humans (and other species) convey emotion without speech. We are learning more everyday about the neurological basis for laughter, using techniques like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
Contrary to the title, you can’t make people laugh (unless they are ticklish). But you can help them laugh. What I mean is, there are specific techniques you can use to create the conditions that evoke laughter. Those conditions are slightly different depending on the kind of comedy you are doing: stand-up, theater, or literary. But they all depend on the basic human mechanisms on which comedy is based.
In a novel, unlike standup or a play, there is no performer to help you create a comic experience. Instead, you have to help the reader create that experience in their own imagination. Most readers have no training in comic delivery, so it is a challenge. Here are five techniques that I use when I am editing comic dialogue in a novel:
1) Create funny characters.
Someone once asked me how to write funny dialogue and I answered “create funny characters.” He did not seem satisfied with my response. But I was serious, in this sense.
Comedy doesn’t need to derive from character, even if the best and most efficient comedy does. Comedy has value in itself, and more than just entertainment value (but I won’t get into my philosophy of comedy here—that is a longer discussion). It is nice but not necessary that the comedy both entertain and advance the goals of the novel, enriching the character or relationships or advancing the story.
But though the line may not derive from the character, it should not undermine the character either. A comic line needs to be natural to the character who says it. If the line is out of character, you'll trip up the reader and lose the laugh and the character.
2) Don't telegraph the joke.
Comedy results from an expectation in the reader that is suddenly upset. The set-up line, the line (or two or seven) before the laugh needs to create that expectation. But it can’t be written in such a way that the joke itself will be obvious. Don’t help your reader to the conclusion; just build the bridge for them to get there.
3) Put the funny part at the end.
Don't step on the joke. It is amazing to me how often this happens. The trigger—the part of the sentence that initiates the laugh—needs to be the last thing in the line, or as close as possible as you can get it. And don't put tags like "he said" after the line or you'll smother the laugh. Unless "he said" is the funny part, he said.
4) Craft the rhythm of the line to lead to the trigger.
This is where I expend the most time in writing dialogue: making the rhythm of the line point to the trigger. Get out all the extraneous words before the trigger. Velocity is as important in comedy as timing. A slow line lets the reader catch up to the joke, which undercuts the laugh.
Delete as many commas as you can without losing the sense of the line. Commas are the enemy of comedy.
5) Leave space after the line for the laugh.
In a play, actors are taught to wait for the laugh. This is a tricky skill—you have to wait just long enough to know that it is coming, but not too long to lose the momentum of the scene. And one of the great misdeeds among actors is stepping on someone else's laugh, guaranteed to make you unpopular with your fellow actors.
In a novel, you don’t have actors to create your timing (or not). So you have to do it by yourself. One way is the in-line rhythm discussed already. Another technique is just as important: Create space after the trigger to wait for the laugh. Give the reader something unimportant to create the time to process the comedy.
For example, don’t reveal that a character is the long-lost child right after a laugh. If you do, you lose either the laugh or the plot point.
So what do you put instead to create the space? I often use simple business for that purpose, which is why my dialogue reads something like a play. It is spacing for the laugh. And because I hate writing description.
And most importantly don't put funny lines one after another. Give us a break.
A Final Thought
Someone reading your novel and smiling is wonderful. But one of the most important aspects of laughter is that it is designed by evolution to be shared. Laughing out loud is a marvelous way to bring joy not to just one person but a whole group. It is worth a little extra attention to make that happen.
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