Tricks, Traits, Tools & Techniques of Humour Writing
Everyone need humour to survive…seriously!
Aha, humour! You say. You like it. Well, everyone loves to laugh. What a simple yet a powerful statement! It is universal and beyond any borders. Ask anyone what kind of life they want and chances are their answer would be: I want a happy life.
Humour is colourful addition to all genres. In the writing world, humour is what salt is to recipes. Akin to salt being critical in every cuisine, humour is essential to every genre. So, if you are writing a best mystery novel or a travel journal, do consider a touch of humour. It will add a touch of class and enhance your writing.
In writer’s world, humour is considered as one of the most difficult genres to write. Unlike mystery or thrillers where multitude of options are available to create twists and turns, humour offers so little room to be creative. So one has to try and find humorous situations to introduce humour in one’s writing.
But all is not lost. Even with little latitude to work with if one is first prepare to learn the tricks, traits and techniques and then practice patiently over a period of time, one could write humour well. Now finding humour is easy. But making good use of it is where the art of writing lies. It has to be subtle, suitable and simply amusing.
What is the mystery behind humour, you may ask? Well, a writer must conjure an image in the reader’s mind that makes him chuckle, giggle, and smile. Whether or not a writer is personally funny is not important. It is obvious, right? I mean you don’t have to be a murderer to be a crime writer? Writer makes readers laugh not by trying how funny your writing is but how humorous your characters are. It is important that the writer makes the reader think that the characters and situations are funny.
Learning to effectively use humor can enhance one’s work, but can make the act of writing more enjoyable, too. Trying to find the wittier side of characters and situations boosts one’s creativity by challenging one to master one’s writing craft in innovative ways. Humour could lighten a tense situation easier an in an uncomplicated way than a voluminous narrative, As Eric Idle once wisely said, “Levity is the opposite of gravity.”
Humour isn’t burdening your writing unnecessarily with jokes—far from it. Humour in writing could be blatant or subtle or anywhere in between. Fifty shades of grey! You know what I mean? It may surprise you to learn that one of the greatest humour writers of all time was William Shakespeare, way back in the 16th century.
There exists a misconception that humor is best used only in travel misadventure or satire. But subtle humour introduced as lighthearted fun could be quite effective in creative misdirection—leading readers someplace they don’t expect to find themselves—and imperceptibly choosing metaphors that make readers giggle without even knowing why. And a smiling reader is one who’s paying attention and eager to read on. He could be your repeat customer.
Whether you choose dry humour, pleasant humour, slapstick, or satire, you may find you'd need to first learn ways and means of adding humour. The following are several tricks, traits and techniques involved in developing humour in your writing. Even if you could grasp a few then with time and practice your writing would reflect witty aspect that would make your readers smile. So how can you use humor to write better? Read on to find out.
FIRST RULE FIRST – So here is a very simple rule. To be funny, write something funny. Your readers must feel what you have written is funny. But that doesn’t mean goofy antics. Far from it! Approach humour sincerely, delicately and yes, seriously. You can be a serious type of person and yet have the ability to write fantastic humor. This adds more zing and a glow of enigmatic attribute to your personality as a humorist.
EXPRESS YOURSELF – Your own natural expression, the way you talk, is the foundation of writing humour. Once you stay natural, you can then embellish it by bringing in life experiences, people you know, and situations you want to exploit. This is where metaphors or similes come into play. Build your humour step at a time starting with your own self and then wrapping it with layers of humorous aspects of life—yours, theirs, and anyone’s. Always be true to your voice and your assertions. Remember characters create situations and with the dynamics of situations your characters would evolve.
PAINT A PICTURE - Using action verbs, the writer can create a fun-loving image and rouse smile from readers. Yep, as an Asian philosopher once said: ‘One look is worth thousand words’ it helps if you paint the picture with words. Use of vibrant adjectives helps the writers to do exactly that. Grab a dictionary and thesaurus handy to look up adjectives that will spice up your writing. What no dictionary? Alright then. Ever heard of Google? That will solve your problem.
If the writer describes ‘a dog,’ readers are left to color in the dog on their own. Use adjectives to describe all five senses as you paint a picture with words and you’d have an entirely different picture: ‘Doggone it, Sadie was more than a dog. She was my best friend. A true companion! She was a raging beauty with soft-brown swirls of thick tuft hair, pointed alert ears, and a flag-of-friendship waggling tail – the most trusting friend I’ve ever had’.
DELIVER ONE-TWO PUNCH - When writing humor surprise your readers. That is, don't tell or announce upfront about your funny intention. Don't tell the reader that they will experience something funny. Let the reader discover that for himself. Use concise, direct and simple words that everyone can understand.
Surprise requires distraction. Nowhere it is demonstrated more aptly than in boxing. It’s a combination of two blows delivered in a rapid succession (in boxing), a confusing left followed by a surprise right cross. This humour technique of one-two punch allows one to build one’s own idea starting with a somewhat serious note and then finishing by adding a surprising statement. Here’s an example: Jogging is simple: First warm up with stretches and then find a pretty girl to run after.
MAKE USE OF METAPHOR & SIMILIE – Nothing gives more vivid understanding as metaphors or similes. Metaphors if chosen selectively could give a humorous edge. Metaphors and similes endow the power of visualization and have uncanny ability to form a picture in readers’ minds. Used effectively, metaphors and similes say volumes with a few words.
So, what is a metaphor? A metaphor is a figure of speech using a word or phrase that usually means one thing to refer to something else. In a literary sense metaphor is a rhetorical device that transfers the sense or aspects of one word to another. A metaphor compares two things, but it does so more directly without using as or like. Some metaphors are apt. Some are not. It is always a good practice to develop your own metaphor rather than to use the ones that have already been well used. The conscientious writer endeavours to come up with fresh metaphors. Many metaphors are used so often that they have become cliché. We use them in speech, but the careful writer avoids them: hungry as a horse, as big as a house, hard as nails, as good as gold.
The technique involves thinking of several metaphors and then trying them one at a time like a fitting a jigsaw puzzle piece in its right place to see which makes you as a writer laugh. Because if you’re not being amused by your metaphors then trust me no one else would be either.
We haven’t talked about simile yet. A simile is a metaphor, but not all metaphors are similes. Well, that was useful, you might say with a frown. Let me explain. A simile is a type of metaphor in which the comparison is made with the use of the word like or its equivalent. A simile is where two things are directly compared because they share a common feature. The word AS or LIKE is used to compare the two words.
Here is an example: “We were boxing like two titans vying for victory, only he was enjoying it and I felt like a punching bag," shows, not just tells the reader about, a funny situation.
EXPLORE IRONY & SATIRE: It is a type of humor where the writer writes in a manner that normally signifies the exact opposite of what is written. Confused? You wont be…read on. Satire is the use of irony or wit to attack something. Satire and irony could add significant flavour to otherwise a dull story. Irony is the use of words to express the opposite of their literal meaning.
Literary artists have been using satire in their work since 16th century. It is the highest form of humour where the authors exposes the shortcomings and follies of an individual or society as a whole and then mock or ridicule them. Satire is itself divided into two types: Horatian satire and Juvenalian satire, where the former is a mild satire and the later is chronic or intense.
NOTHING WRONG WITH CLICHÉ - Cliché when used in an innovative way could yield an amusing writing. It is about leading your readers down one path that is familiar to them and then doing a switcheroo. Let me explain. Ever heard of the phrase; You can take the man out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the man? Well, if you were to rephrase it something like: You can take the man out of the country…Wait a minute. Now readers expect you to finish it by writing: You can’t take the country out of the man. But instead you finish by writing: But you can’t take him out of Vegas. You know what is happening here! Unexpected twist in the end makes people stop of a moment and then smile.
If you find it hard to come up with something which is amusing yet not inappropriate for the readers, try using what they have already heard a dozens of time before: Cliché. You may use synonyms or homonyms to write different versions of a cliché to keep it amusing and unique at the same time. Now that you got the idea, you can create you own clichés.
FIND ANECDOTE - The best fiction should always sound like the reality and the amazing true stories must appear like fiction. Why? Because that is what makes them unbelievable and also appear to readers! The secret of such writing is that both non-fiction and fiction are derived from facts. Yes. Even the fiction has its roots somewhere in factual events. Well, at least good fiction does. Likewise, the humour, the good humour, is derived from real events in life. Of course one needs to expand, embellished and exaggerate to give it a humorous effect to appeal to readers.
SHOW, DON’T TELL - Remember the old adage—show, don’t tell? Well it applies to humour too. Don’t tell readers that something is funny. Let the reader discover this for himself. Do this by putting a picture together with the help of words that readers can relate to with all five of his senses—smells, textures, tastes, sights, and sounds. Readers have to be a part of your emerging picture.
It actually is quite simple. Ask yourself what aspects how, why, who, when, and where applies to your characters and then describe a character or situation. As a writer try creating images using words that stir the reader’s senses, evoking emotions in readers as well.
An example might demonstrate it better! If your character is a tough looking cowboy and accidently enter a gay cafe, it may be more awkward then funny. But if your cowboy character enters a gay cafe and accidently gets hit in his face by a rainbow color ice cream with dollops of whipped cream on top sprinkled with chocolate chips that a beautiful, colourful gay man was carrying to his friends. The gooey, ice cream begins to melt and slide down his face as tiny chocolate chips stick to his pointy nose and whipped cream dripping off one of his ear lobes.
This is likely to paint a hilarious picture for readers. If the ice cream slopped across his face emanates multi-coloured display of vibrant colors, along with bits of chocolate chips resting on his nose tip as he sticks out his keen tongue to bring home the tongue-smacking flavour—this is a blast. How about if the gay man tries to lick the whipping cream off his ear lobe? Now the reader can smell, feel, taste, see, and hear that colourful ice cream.
USE DIALOGUE TO BRING CHARACTERS ALIVE – What do you find more humorous—reading or someone telling a joke? Right! It adds zing to it when you make use of a dialogue in adding humour to your writing. Imagine someone saying to you: “She walks like a camel whose legs haven’t been introduced to each other”. Doesn’t that conjures an image in your mind and makes you smile rather than reading a line: ‘She walks funny’? Next time pay attention to someone who is good at telling jokes. See how he or she breaks down the joke in the form of short dialogues. Observe and apply. You get the idea.
ADOPT DYNAMICS – Humour is always better when told by a comedian on stage making faces and gestures with his hands. It is all about drawing the audience into a situation and making them a part of the story. A writer doing the same by using his character that is moving, like a comedian on a stage, has more potential for hilarity than one that is not moving.
BE INNOVATIVE – Think of a twist and create new ways to say the same old thing. Was the man strong? Or does he look like he’s built for serving as a security guard rather than a banker? Was the woman skinny? Or did she disappear when she turned sideways? Words are nothing more than resource to you. Use innovation as the process to craft sentences.
BE STRATEGIC – Deploy strategy when getting ready to tell a joke. Don’t scatter jokes willy-nilly; instead, think of humor as parenthetical information. First you need to develop a character whose nature is to relay information in a jovial fashion. When readers see him coming they would already relax and expect a funny situation. Create situations in your plot where funny scenes add value to your story. You be amazed how humour would play a significant role in the development of your story. Your humour, once incorporated well, would add the same value as by incorporating cartoons and pictures.
AVOID SARCASM. This humor style may work in some arenas, but many readers find it hurtful and mean, and because it often relies on tone, it can be especially hard to pull off in writing. Sarcasm is a tool most of us pick up at a young age as a way of feeling better about ourselves by putting others down. I recommend leaving it there.
Before you try to use humour in your work, you need to know the fine line between sarcasm and humour. Remember, humour brings amusement or smile, while sarcasm always offends. Hence, keep away from sarcastic jokes. Instead, poke the reader with a mild humour using tools like exaggeration, irony or double irony.
BOLD? YES. BRASH? NO – Laughing is a serious business. It takes courage to be bold. A cardinal rule for anyone who wants to write humor is to become bold. Contrary to what most people think humor writers are actually very brave people. You need to develop a thick skin, nerves of steel and become brave slowly day by day. You cannot be funny if you are scared to poke fun at things, issues, people, etc. And you can't be funny if you're afraid of embarrassing yourself or lampooning a famous personality. Verbally anyone can be funny, but it takes guts to put the same in writing and let the public read, and maybe the entire world see it.
NO BAD LANGUAGE PLEASE - Don’t use bad language. Don't make fun of religion, caste, race, physical disabilities, gender, languages and politics. Did I say politics? Sorry, my mistake. Delete that. Make as much fun of politics as you like. But the rest of the areas I mentioned must remain out of bound. Humor in these areas can put you on a death list, start riots on the streets or even start a war. Don’t use real names of people, friends, relatives, co-workers, etc. You will never know how they may get offended. But no one will be offended if you focus on yourself.
SELF DIRECTED HUMOUR - Most people think writing humor is simply about saying and writing jokes about other people. But this is only partially true. Top humorists mainly make fun of themselves and not about someone. The best humor is always self-directed. Direct the humor towards yourself. Simple rule: people will laugh if you make fun of yourself. The most important thing about writing humor is to allow your readers to laugh at you and with you, and then optionally at themselves.
DON’T OVERDO IT, EASY DOES IT – The way to approach subtle humour is to let it work for you. If it were good, you’d know it. Because you would be wearing a smile while you are writing it. Once you’ve tools for humour in your arsenal, you’re ready to put them to use in your work. As with ‘walk before run’, don’t overdo it because you don’t want to stifle your creativity. Build it over time.
It is not funny to be always funny. You know what I am saying? There is a time to be funny and there is a time NOT to be funny. And this is something you need to observe and learn. Something that is extremely funny in one place may not be understood at all in another. Something that is funny in a bar may sound offensive inside a church. And in some situations or circumstances you should not indulge in anything funny no matter how irresistible it is to write something hilarious. Unless you’re writing about an inherently funny topic, you should limit the humor you use to selective references.
As a creative writer, you need to be highly cautious of when, where and how much humour you shall use in your creative write-up. Since creative articles are not usually funny or comical, it is necessary that one must use humour sparingly throughout his work so that may keep a fine line between a comic and a creative writer.
Be sure your use of humor doesn’t distract from or demean the true purpose of your project. Humor’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention and help you make points in creative ways. Don’t confuse the reader by coming across as a comedian.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU ARE FUNNY – Pretend you are the reader. When using humor in writing about a difficult subject—your own illness, for example—your first responsibility is to give your readers permission to laugh. Find subtle ways to let them know that not only is it OK to laugh, but you want them to.
WORK AT IT - A piece of writing can never be final and fully funny in one go. Like a golf swing needing several practice shots before one could hit perfect 250+ yards tee shot, one needs to review it in terms of using a better sentence, a more mischievous word, rearranging the sentences, modifying to a completely different angle or deleting something that does not seem right, etc. After you think you have finished writing a humor piece revisit it after a few hours or a couple of days. Suddenly you can discover new and better ways of writing the same article that can seem vastly superior to your previous article.
Although the tips I’ve mentioned in this article are proven, they will not make you a humorist within a day or two. You need a lot of practice to polish your humour writing skills to see the desired results. What was wrong with this ad?No one can teach you exactly how to write something funny, but the possibilities of creating humor on anything and everything are limitless.
So, the final piece of advice is: writing humor takes time. To excel in humor is a lifetime job, and is not something that you can learn in a day or two. You will have to teach yourself how to be funny. The process is mostly by trial and error, observing other people’s comical situations, mistakes, laughing and applying it on to your writing.