Tips for Humor Writing (Part 2)

*Read Tips for Humor Writing (Part 1)

Writing funny can be difficult. What comes off funny in spoken word does not always translate to paper so easily. Following are a few tips for humor writing as a follow up to part 1.

***WORD CHOICE (and the K rule)***
As a humble writer of prose, your humor rests almost exclusively on the power of your words, which is why you must pick them with care and arrange them for maximum impact. William Zinsser, in his well-respected reference manual, On Writing Well, states that humor is the one type of writing where using a thesaurus is actually beneficial. Careful word selection allows you to assume many different voices or tones in your writing and use them to sneak up on your readers while carefully concealing your punch line until the last possible minute.

Some words just sound funnier. (I mentioned this in Part 1. Consider which is funnier—pull or yank?)

Also, words with the k sound (cadillac, quintuplet, sex) are perceived as the funniest; and words with a hard g (guacamole, gargantuan, Yugo) create almost as many grins. This may be because much of what makes Americans laugh today has roots in Yiddish humor, the language of which includes many guttural sounds—and the k and hard g are as close as English comes.

Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the setup) and then misdirecting the reader (with the punch line). For something to be funny, it has to first have a solid foundation; there needs to be something there for the humor to play against. One thing to note, however, is that it is important to anchor the humor in something familiar. Exaggeration is funny only to a point, but for it to be funny, it needs to be believable on some level.

One simple way of doing this is to pair two like ideas in a list and then add a third, incongruent, idea. Here’s an example of a sentence using the Rule of Three: Losing weight is simple: Eat less, exercise more, and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.

This is one of the most flexible ways to naturally incorporate humor into your narrative. Take advantage of the element of surprise; after listing two everyday things, throw in something your readers won’t expect (like the quip about NASA).

Most of the things we laugh at in real life are true stories, sometimes exaggerated for effect. In fact, experts say we laugh far more at these types of everyday happenings than at “jokes.” That’s because all humor is based in truth—things people think and ways they act. It makes sense, then, to use real things to help illustrate your points as you write. When Your Money or Your Life authors Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin wanted to demonstrate the importance of changing the way we think about money, they did so by telling the story of a young girl watching her mother prepare a ham to bake for dinner. As the mother cut both ends off the ham, the daughter asked why. Mom replied that her mother had always done it that way. When the daughter still insisted on knowing why, a quick call to grandma revealed the reason: “Because the pan was too small.”

* * *

So what do you think? Do you find writing funny to be hard? Have you ever tried using a rule of three or a specific word choice to add humor to your writing?

6 thoughts on “Tips for Humor Writing (Part 2)

  1. Great post. I find writing humor can be challenging sometimes but not others. Taking everyday happenings and let the character get into a position where they are in over their head, so to speak, and humor just flows out. In Giving Love Drew a 1870’s sheriff in Iowa needs to change his infant daughter’s diaper. His efforts at something men of that day never did (without snaps, Velcro, tapes, etc.) and all the clothing infants wore at the time and several pages flowed from my fingers easily. Other times it can be very difficult to create a humorous scene.

    • This is true. Sometimes it’s easy, and other times the humor comes with more difficulty. That scene sounds like it definitely could be humorous. It’s a great idea to put a character somewhere out of their comfort zone and see what they can do with it.

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