Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How to Write Humor

Ask any writer about how to write humor, and the first thing they’ll tell you is that there is no process. There are no rules, no steps you can follow.

Oh yeah? Well, one of the nonexistent rules for writing humor is to do the unexpected. So here are some steps you can follow. I expect a large group of writing experts to send me hate mail now. The rest of you can enjoy.

1. Eavesdrop.
Find funny people. Write down what they say, then figure out why it’s funny. You can do this with friends, of course. But the danger there is that some people are just funny because you know them and share a lot of inside jokes. If a stranger says something you find hilarious, it must be pretty universally funny, because you have no context for it.

One of my favorite eavesdropped conversations took place between two twenty-something guys in the Arts and Crafts section of Walmart. Guy 1: Dude, did you really try to *glue* the button back on? Guy 2 (very defensive): Hey, I don’t sew, okay?

There is, of course, a line for acceptability for when research becomes just being creepy. Check out this quiz to make sure you’re not crossing it.

2. Think like a sixth grader.
This one is for creating funny dialogue in scripts or stories. At my school, the sixth graders always did a musical at the end of the year. There was one role that every single kid wanted to get.

No, it wasn’t the lead. It was the funny character. What kid doesn’t want to get to deliver the punchlines and have the entire school laugh at his jokes? It’s pretty much the definition of cool.

Whenever I write a play or a funny story, I try to picture all of my characters as sixth graders who want that chance to make everyone laugh. Every character can be funny (even accidentally) if you work at it long enough. Spread out the jokes so there’s not just one goofball who gets to have all the fun. This can lighten up tense scenes, make your villain more relatable, and keep certain parts of the story from being crammed with all the humor.

3. Use what-ifs.
In your brainstorming, be as outrageous as possible. Some of my stories have come from pretty ridiculous what-ifs: what if Cupid had an evil twin? What if I wrote a story about death set in Disney World? What if a collection of fairy tales got its pages rearranged…and the characters came to life in the wrong stories?

Later, you can sort out the good from the bad, but sometimes the most ridiculous ideas end up being the best. For more on this, check out this clip that talks about how one Pixar brainstorming session put out the ideas for A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-e.

4. Be specific.
Your friend Joe who constantly carries around a guitar so he can casually pull it out at every available opportunity is funnier than mentioning a generic showoff. Especially if Joe also has a certain way he gels his hair or a swagger in his step. More details allow the reader to picture what’s happening.

Practice noticing small, funny details. When my world religions class went on a field trip to a mosque, most people wrote their papers on the prayers and the Q&A session with the imam. I wrote about the ad I found on a bulletin board for a Muslim fashion boutique where four different women had scribbled out a heated argument about whether or not it was acceptable under the Koran to have a clip art image of a woman in a mosque.

5. Don’t laugh at your own jokes.
In an essay, you are the narrator. Try being very serious about what you’re writing. In high school, I wrote an essay about E. Coli in lakes as if I were a tabloid reporter trying to make everything more dramatic. Right now, I’m writing an opinion piece where I’m pretending that the only reason I became friends with a group of people is to do an undercover investigation. They’re funny because the narrator is treating the topic with absolute seriousness, even though it’s ridiculous.

One of the articles that’s been most helpful to me on this subject is by Jon Acuff, who is a really funny guy and the creator of Stuff Christians Like. Check it out here.

6. Read it out loud.
This is a good way to find the parts of your writing that don’t sound naturally funny. If you get to a part where it feels like you’re just cramming in jokes, time to edit some out. If a line doesn’t flow too well, change it. If a character stops being funny and just becomes groan-worthy (beware of too many puns), give them a serious side. It’s also a good way to entertain a small audience like family members, your mirror, or an audience of stuffed animals.

Most importantly, to be funny you have to enjoy life. Watch comedies. Say silly things, even if they get written down and put on Facebook. And laugh as often as you can. Good advice for both writing and life.


  1. Read it out loud! Yes! That makes all the difference! Or go away for a few days and come back and read it again to see if it still seems funny or if you were just in a weird mood that day. I read most funny things I write to my husband, because I want to make sure they make him chuckle. When "funny" writing isn't funny, it's just pretty pathetic. :)

  2. Solid pointers. One thing I would add is save the punch line for last. It's a matter of timing. Beginners often get in a hurry and spoil the joke instead of saving it for the end of the sentence or story. Step 6 will help you with this.