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Humor in fiction can be a tricky thing to pull off, but when it works, it’s one of the most satisfying elements to read. Whether that’s the subtle humor in a piece of literary fiction or the laugh-out-loud funny of a good comedy, humor is an element that can vastly improve your story. The key is knowing how to write humor in fiction, which is a skill that takes some time to master. If you’re ready to add some humor to your writing, here are some tips to help you get started.
Watch comedy and character-based comedies
It’s necessary for writers to read things that they don’t necessarily like and don’t particularly enjoy reading in order to find inspiration for the techniques that they can use at some point. Even if a comedy isn’t funny, you can still study its structure and learn how the characters interact.
You may also want to take in certain things that might not actually be considered “comedy” while teaching you lessons on how to write humor in your fiction. Some of these include Family Guy and Futurama, and most notably, Seinfeld. Watch these shows so that you can analyze the interaction between the characters and how the humor makes them funny.
Even though you can learn a lot from television, many of us no longer have the time to sit down and watch shows anymore. Certainly, it’s possible to learn how to write humor in fiction by watching movies in a similar manner, but it’s also important to engage in reading different kinds of media as well. Self-published books result from competition with traditional books. Blogs get exceedingly popular through social media. If you read any kind of fiction from these locations and places and attempt to identify situations and motifs that are funny, you can recall them later.
Pay attention to what makes you laugh
You probably know what those are — your favorite shows, books, and comedians. Incorporate those kinds of things into your stories as often as possible, and write down why they made you laugh. This helps you get to the heart of what is funny in the first place, and more easily identify moments to utilize in your writing. Common components are irony, a reversal of expectations, or just a plain joke.
Decide what types of a sense of humor you’re going for in your writing. You can happily decide on a general sense of humor for your work, like the fantastical, sad, dark, or conversational styles. Alternatively, you could take inspiration from a specific piece — a standup comedian, movie, or book you’ve enjoyed. But it’s important that whatever sense of humor you’re choosing to emulate is one that you and your story can actually pull off. If you’d like to add a serious moment in your story that’s meant to be moving and emotional, it doesn’t serve to tell your reader a corny knock-knock joke beforehand.
Find your tone
Understand that comedy and humor are different. You can laugh at something, but it doesn’t mean it’s funny, or you meant to make your reader laugh. To write humor in fiction successfully, let’s make sure we’re not mixing these two up. Comedy simply deals with what makes us human. Your characters, and their situations, will need to come across as both human and believable in order for your audience to have a connection and empathy for your characters. This can be done through sharing an experience, or sharing a mindset. This can be done through sharing an experience, or sharing a mindset. It’s how we can both love, laugh, and cry about Forrest Gump and relate to Deadpool because we both know what it’s like to be a jerk from time to time. Both characters are severely flawed, but these flaws are what makes them real. When trying to find your tone for your story, think about what comedians do. What’s your reality? Are you a comedian or a comedic writer? The last thing you want is for your characters to make someone laugh but have it not be understood why.
Once you have developed your characters, and know what your tone is, it becomes easier to write into it, and to write humor into your story. To do this, think back to when something has made you laugh. What prompted this to happen, and what can you translate this to? Understanding where humor comes from just living your life can go a long way to writing it effectively and successfully into your work. No, this is not all there is. Transferring real life situations can lead to moments that could have effects on the story, but if they take over, readers may feel let down, and they may think you just drew from a real life moment without actually crafting it to fit the story.
Reflect on how you want your character to be
Humor is tricky when you’re writing fiction, in the sense that a line must be straddled. You don’t want your reader to get bored, but nor do you want them to go flying out the door with an axe ready to face the next enemy. This can be difficult to manage, but if you understand that humor is about playing against expectations, you can put that knowledge to work for you. You can start by writing your boring characters. Give them flat, boring names, dull hobbies, and a dry demeanor that indicates that anything funny about life is over for them. In other words, in everything they do, save your character from the banality of their situation by how you write it.
Once humor is in your prose, it needs to be balanced against drama. This can mean contrasting a funny scene with a serious one, or it can mean giving a comedic moment a dramatic gravitas. Most importantly, you don’t want your story to be seen as silly because you want it to be taken seriously. If you find that your jokes are sitting weird in the rest of the story, it means you haven’t managed to balance the two properly.
Play with time
In the case of literary fiction in particular, humor often arises through the contrast between a character’s perceptions and what’s actually happening in the realms of the physical, psychological, and sociological. A short story is especially well suited for comedic structure and cathartic punchlines, in part because of its limited timeline. One very effective way to create humor in fiction is to play with time. Do an unexpected rewind. Consider the small strange things that people do on an ordinary day and exaggerate them until they are outrageous — think a character repeatedly checks to see if he locked his front door although he just did so five minutes earlier. Try taking a well-worn moment of bliss and do a time jump to the hour after it. Something quite different should be happening then, perhaps with a hint of some disaster to come. It’s what Mad Magazine refers to as a “slow burn.” The humor builds and builds before the anticlimactic letdown flattens the reader.
Another way to use the limited time in a short story to set up comic tension and then comedy is when the character or narrator isn’t forthcoming with missing information, and the reader is left to wonder what is going on. When the author drops clues but the character doesn’t see them, hilarity ensues. Take for example, Browning’s My Last Duchess. The humorous value of this poem lies in the mysterious Duchess and the satisfaction of the reader when he discovers she’s just another person with feelings like us, despite the description by the chauvinist Duke. The Duchess’s refusal to laugh at the Duke’s joke and the huge glowing smile she gives off with her children forms an effective revelation for the Duke when he learns about her true nature. But the humor and comic effect on the reader is the result of the reader proceeding to connect these images, a decoding process that serves to highlight the Duke’s bigotry and the artfulness of the poem.
Pacing is important
Another key element in humor writing is pacing. As you write, keep an eye both on the big picture—whether you set a solid, ever-escalating pace for the larger story arc—and on the smaller details—i.e. day-to-day encounters and events for the characters. It’s one thing to have a goal for your protagonist, but it’s another to have your protagonist taking breaks with friends along his journey. And if, as the old saying goes, ‘Laughter is the best medicine,’ then laughter is perhaps the greatest goal for a writer.
To ensure humor in your story, be intentional with the amount of humor events you pack in. Get a sense of the pacing of the genre — are the protagonists only encountering major events? If so, make sure that you’re not packing too much humor into the smaller, in-between moments. However, if the genre typically involves a significant amount of events and interruptions, then make room for those moments in your story, to ensure an appropriate pacing throughout.
Create something unexpected
The beauty of humor is that each person’s expectation colors the humor for him or her, making it hard to pinpoint a truly objective source of humor. For this reason, the core of how to write humor in fiction is leaving readers surprised. Making characters say something blatantly unexpected is a simple way to let humor register. Volleying the narrative voice from one character to another is another way to encourage humor in your writing, as the reader has no expectations about what is coming. Put the two together, however, and you have a recipe for disaster. Readers expect their own responses to humor, and poignantly stated or turned narration will grind a joke to a crawl. When writing humor, remember that minimalism works best, and you may want to end a humorous scene earlier than you think it needs to.
Speak “truth.” One of the best ways to encourage humor in fiction is to develop characters who say what you wish you could say in response to a situation. But this requires extensive knowledge of your characters and who they are. If you want witty characters saying things you want to say, you have to first have witty thoughts—and humor is fresh for most writers precisely because saying their thoughts aloud is relatively new. If your characters are scattered and lack consistent viewpoints or conceptions of themselves, try tracking the changes over time that occur in these identities first. Instead of immediately writing rants or zingers between them, allot the humor to add depth as it arises organically from that instead. It also helps the reader to concentrate on things other than the character’s humor, which will ultimately bring depth, since there is always a reason behind the types of changes your characters make, even if it’s obscured by your characters’ inability to see them.
Irony is the one of the most direct ways to make your reader laugh in your story – after all, humor is often based on subverting expectations. So you’ll want to think carefully about where and when you use irony in your story in order to maximize effect. Consider how Alan Moore uses irony repeatedly in The Killing Joke to say more about the foibles of godhood and the shortcomings of superheroics. Reacting to his subject’s captor’s statement that he “isn’t much of a god,” Batman replies, “Merciful Minerva, the fella’s got a point.” or when he states with evident disdain that the Joker’s creator “wasn’t the Messiah…he was a very naughty boy.” Irony becomes particularly poignant when used to simultaneously undercut expectations and underscore the tragedy of a character’s fate.
This uses the irony to illuminate Batman’s own mental state. Irony can also add an additional layer of depth to your plot and subplots – for instance, the caricature of society in the Futurama franchise would hang like a dark shadow over the existential explorations that predominate the balance of the series if not for the tendency to repeat situations from multiple perspectives. Though it’s often difficult to pull off, recycling jokes in order to maintain continuity by reiteration is always hilarious.
Use only the amount of humor as necessary
One of the biggest mistakes beginning authors make when trying to write humor is putting in too much. Don’t overload your reader with jokes, or immediately get into your funny story lines without allowing them to build up any context. Just as with the rest of your fiction writing, you need to master the art of the slow burn. If you try too quickly to make your reader laugh, their natural inclination will be to resist. Their fight-or-flight instinct will kick in, and they’ll either bury the hint of humor in the corner of the page, or ignore it altogether. Instead, you need to slowly implement humor into your story line.
Begin with the context and allow the humor to build up inside it. When it comes up naturally, that’s when you can surprise your reader with a funny line attached to the moment. When a scene turns ominous with foreboding, build up the tension and then release them suddenly with a zinger. You can let one moment of light-heartedness in immediately after it aligns with them on an emotional level, but otherwise, you shouldn’t overload them with silliness.
Mix comedy and tragedy
Like many artistic elements, humor is a matter of knowing how to blend and contrast different styles, genres, and tones. This is what gives books like Huck Finn the power to move from dry humor that focuses on words to darkly comical sections of murder. In fiction, there needs to be both comedy and tragedy. It can either be depressing and funny at the same time or just plain funny. Either one can work. When you’re trying to write humor in your fiction, begin by figuring out what kind of reader finds this funny. In other words, what is the definition of funny? Talk to friends and family, read books and consider how they approach humor in their fiction. The same can be done by simply reading more literature. It may surprise you how much you can learn by observing the difference in tone between what is being produced now and what was produced in the past. Once you have found a style of humor that fits what you are trying to accomplish, you can begin writing this approach in your own fiction.
What’s more, you’ll have to learn how to incorporate humor into what you’re already doing. That includes making sure that your story can support the sort of humor that you would like to work with in the first place. For example, you wouldn’t want to try and inject humorous goodness into a story that’s little more than pure tragedy at this point. Choose those fantastic characters to inject some humor into their otherwise dire circumstances and be rewarded with a successful work. If none of the characters are really suited to work for you, write a character from scratch to work for this special purpose. Just make sure that you don’t do this too much or it’ll call into doubt the authenticity of your characters. The same expansion into darkness that humor allows is also what pushes comedy into drama — make sure that you don’t lose sight of your balance and allow your stories to get too skewed one way or the other.
Don’t make it mean
Humor is subjective. Not everyone thinks the same things are funny. Don’t rely on shock, innuendo, or off-color jokes. Save these darker choices for more appropriate works, like horror fiction. In humor, you need to make the reader laugh, rather than feel distaste. In some humor approaches like dark humor or gallow humor, the feeling may be bleak. They express a very different tone than comedy by nature. Because of this, don’t rely on them until you’re very sure of your material.
Instead of darker humor, use comedy to spice up your tale. Comedy is funny by nature, and your readers will see what you mean without any help. Instead of lecturing the reader, teach them with humor. Your characters may be smarter than the people around them if you have a novel-length story, and that makes them inherently funny. Just make sure your reader feels better, happier, or geekier about life at the end of the story for it to land. Understanding your own tone will help you choose the right types of humor. Your novel may be an adventure, or a romance, and that will either help or hinder your chances. As a group, comedy, gallow, and dark humor have similar tones. While they overlap, remember to not take a hard line with one approach or another.
Humor in fiction is a skill and an art that improves with years of practice. Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect perfection overnight. Make up funny stuff in your head, internalize it, and then try it on a page. See how good you can get at that. But don’t go in with any expectations, or you will just become one of the frustrated ones. Write something, see if you can make yourself laugh a little, then see if you can pull it off on paper. Keep trying, keep experimenting, and soon you’ll have a sense of humor in your writing!
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