Tips on Writing Humor

Photo by Kim Byrd Copyright 2014

In articles about writing funny, some authors say if you can write well, you can also be funny. That sounded reasonable. Others say humor writing is "tricky." Getting warm. Note: mustn't mistake for hot flashes. I didn't even let Frank Gannon discourage me when he said, If you want to write humor "you obviously have something wrong with you, and that is the one single quality that all humorists must have. You have something wrong with you, but you don't want anyone to notice what it is. Therefore, you try to make them laugh." What a relief. Finally, someone has the guts to tell me what's wrong with me--I want to write humor!

Jokes aside the truth is, most say humorous writing is hard work. I say, we writers work hard at everything else. Why not humor, too? Here are three reasons to try:
  • People love to laugh; laughter is good for us.
  • Humor is an effective communication tool that can humanize our work and even make the act of writing more enjoyable. Also, it boosts creativity by challenging us to approach our craft in new ways. From: How to Write Better Using Humor, by Leigh Anne Jasheway.  
  • Toss in the bottom line and there you have it, every reason to give humor a go: "Humor is the one thing that I've never seen an editor say they have too much of . . . period. They all say they'd like to see more." Jan Fields, Author, Instructor and Web Editor of the Institute of Children's Literature.
Ways to Ease into your Funny Bone

Make your humor lighthearted: Try poking fun at human nature. Funny things happen around you every day. Everything you do has potential for humor. The keys are to remember to be gentle, be consistent throughout the book; and as stated below in the Tips, your humorous parts must move the story forward and/or relate to the story's theme (just like everything else, or out it goes).
  • An unexpected turn in Bruce Coville's book, The Skull of Truth, made me laugh out loud when the main character, Charlie, ate dinner with his family. Charlie had somewhat of a problem: he was a liar. Throughout the book the theme of "Don't lie" came out loud and clear. The dinner table discussion offers a seamless example of combining humor with the book's theme: "Andy Simmons ate a bug today," put in Charlie's youngest sister, Mimi, who was in kindergarten . . . "Then he spit it out. It was gross." She looked very pleased with herself. Charlie wondered if the story had any truth to it. He still hadn't figured out how to tell when Mimi was fibbing."
  • Jack Gantos' book, Dead End in Norvelt, the 2012 Newbery prize winner, is replete with good ole, new-fashioned edgy humor. If the first sentence about Jack's mother ruining his summer vacation doesn't grab you, the excruciatingly long second sentence will: "I was holding a pair of camouflage Japanese WWII binoculars to my eyes and focusing across her newly planted vegetable garden, and her cornfield, and over ancient Miss Volker's roof, and then up the Novelt road, and past the brick bell tower on my school, and beyond the Community Center, and the tall silver whistle on top of the volunteer fire department to the most distant dark blue hill, which is where the screen for the Viking drive-in movie theater had recently been erected." Talk about getting hooked by an introduction. I was already smiling, which made absorbing the opening facts effortless.
Exaggerate: Author Connie Willis wrote that Mark Twain called exaggerations "stretchers." Stretching the truth is funny, just don't go too far.
  •  Later in the Norvelt story, it would be hard to top how Jack saved a deer his dad had in his sights when they went deer hunting together. At the most intense moment when his dad was about to pull the trigger, Jack was squatting high up in a tree house in the freezing cold   . . . when . . . "a gut desire to save the deer gave me just enough oomph, and I let out a thin stream of gas which sounded roughly like the slow opening of a creaky coffin lid that had been closed for a thousand rusty years .  . .'Good timing.' [his dad] said sarcastically without even looking at me." (I urge you to read this exhilarating, hilarious yet touching book because this example is far too brief and covers only a slight part of that scene; like so much else in the book it is hilarious while at the same time pulls the heart strings.)
For Children:
Bathroom humor: Describe situations where someone breaks wind, something smells, mention underpants, make-up words and names
Slapstick comedy: Exaggerate physical clumsiness, such as slipping on a banana peel
Tell Jokes

David Lubar, author of Hidden Talents, an ALA Best book for Young Adults, voted onto over twenty state lists by thousands of kids and educators; the sequel True Talents, and short collections including, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies on writing funny:
Overstatement: Comic exaggeration or overstatement is especially easy with first-person narration. In "Get Out of Gym for Free:" "I figured the gym teacher would be tough, but he looked like he was about to bite off someone's head and spit it on to the floor. Maybe after sucking out the eyeballs."
Understatement: In "At the Wrist:" "I'd lost Dad's hand. This was not good."
Death, and taboos: In general can be funny as long as it isn't personl. Lubar wrote a whole series about a dead kid that is a hoot.
Relief: We laugh at pratfalls because we're relieved that they happen to someone else.
Surprise: The joy of figuring out the unseen connection or seeing the unexpected solution. Humor arises when the reader figures out the unstated connection. In "Cat Got Your Nose?": "Emily liked visiting Miss Reaker. She made wonderful cookies, as long as you didn't mind a bit of cat hair among the chocolate chips, and the occasional little crunchy thing that was better left unidentified." Seeing the connection between two objects is funny, too: "Even with his face wrapped in black cloth, I had no trouble identifying Jimmy, thanks to a unibrow that could have been mistaken for a climbing rope." FromSeven Stages of Humor, by David Lubar.

Ideas from Susie Brown's blog

Use Funny Words:  For "destroy, " say "pulverize;" for "impractical," say "dorky."
Timing: Construct an artificial lull by starting a new paragraph before something funny happens; gives the reader time to think about what came before and brace themselves.
Tell a dumb joke, then make fun of it.
Say the punch line in a foreign language.
Make fun of yourself: Keep self-ridicule light; don't be afraid to call yourself a dimwit, but if you do, do it proudly. The key to self-ridicule is confidence. FromWrite Funny--You'll Make More Money.

Additional sources: How to Write Funny, by John Kachuba, Chapter 6, "The More and Less of Writing Humorous Fiction," by Connie Willis, and Chapter 12, "Writing 'Funny Bits' for Kids," by Patricia Case; "Writing Humor--But Seriously, Folks," by Esther Blumenfeld and Lynne Alper, Writer's Digest, January 1982; "How to Write Funny," by Lynn Coulter, from an undated SCBWI newsletter; "Funny Business," by Frank Gannon, Writer's Digest, December, 1993.

Next month: Tips on Writing Humor, Part 2

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include Biography TodayHighlights for Children, Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Kathleen Moulton said...

Hey, Linda, I learned something new today. : )

Linda Wilson said...

Hi Kathleen, that's great! I know it helped me with the humorous parts in my WIP to realize that I can't just drop the humor in, that the humor must carry the story forward and or highlight the theme. I hope the post is helpful to you. Thanks for writing!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what a great post. You give lots of insight and tips on writing humor. Personally, I think writing humor is more difficult than other types of writing. I guess that's why they say, different strokes for different folks. :)

Thanks for sharing this!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Karen! I do think writing humor gets easier if one purposely develops their funny side. I suppose it's all in a writer's priorities. I do agree with the author who pointed out that a good reason to write humor is to have a good time doing it. I can vouch for that. Others may not think I'm funny but I do!

Magdalena Ball said...

Good suggestions, Linda. I find writing humor very tricky, but you've provided some very helpful ideas.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Maggie! I didn't realize what a big topic writing humor is until I looked into it! It's loads of fun learning about it because so many of the articles and books are so funny!

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