Writers: Tips on Writing Humor, Part One

Lots of Humor in Waddles the Duck: Hey, Wait for Me!
                                  Linda Wilson's latest picture book, illustrated by Nancy Batra

By Linda Wilson @LinWilsonauthor

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 personal. Lubar wrote a whole series about a dead kid that is a hoot.

Relief: We laugh at pitfalls because we're relieved that they've happened 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." From: Seven 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. From: Write Funny--You'll Make More Money. by Susie Brown

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: Part Two of "Tips on Writing Humor" takes a peek at how farce and sarcasm are used in fiction.

Linda Wilson lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a classical pianist and loves to go to the gym. But what Linda loves most is to make up stories and connect with her readers. Visit Linda at https://www.lindawilsonauthor.com. Sign up for Linda’s quarterly giveaways. Choose your prize! 

Find Linda’s books at https://www.amazon.com/author/lindawilsonchildrensauthor.


Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this interesting article about humor. I don't tend to use much numor in my writing--and need these tips to increase my use.

author of Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Revised Edition)

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Terry. I appreciate your comments, always. I hope the article helped.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Linda, the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop at Dayton University was one of the best #writersconferences I ever presented at. If you haven’t been, try it! It only runs every other year.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Carolyn. I used to live in Centerville, Ohio, close to Dayton. I would love to go back and enjoy that conference! Thanks for the tip!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

When I present, I always attend as many seminars as possible. I never realized until then how humor can be used in almost any genre, promotion! I even on occasion use it in email subject lines since then!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what a helpful article. A lot of writers are intimidated by writing humor and if you're writing for children, it's often important to include. You've given lots of tips!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks again, Carolyn, and thanks Karen. Did I say it's loads of fun to write humor?!!!

V.M.Sang said...

I tend to shy away from humour as I think it's hard to pull off.
Having said that, I do have a young girl who is rather clumsy in skirts, (long, as it's a fantasy in a medieval-style world) and when forced to wear one has a tendency to trip, and a dwarf who hates horses, and when he needs to ride makes hard work of getting on. But I've never considered writing a humorous story or book.
This is an interesting and helpful post. I might try a short story to see how it goes.

Karen Cioffi said...

Hi, V.M. Thanks for your comment. Kids love 'funny' so great idea to give it a shot.

Annabelle Franklin said...

Excellent tips. Oddly enough, I don't find humour hard work - it's the most enjoyable part of writing for me. Then again, there's probably something wrong with me.

Karen Cioffi said...

Hey, Annabelle, thanks for commenting. Ha! You're one of the fortunate ones. A lot of us struggle to make humor work.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Annabelle, I think quite the opposite!

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