Some people are naturally funnier than others, and the same is true of writers. But there are things you can learn to increase the comic potential of your writing…
For the last 20 years, I’ve been trying to write funny stuff — radio sketches, humorous columns and articles, humorous short stories and now a comic novel. Here are a few pointers I’ve picked up along the way about injecting more humour into your writing…
Keep your eyes and ears open to the world’s funniness
So much of humour is about observation rather than ideation. The funniest people we know — as writers or in person — are often those who have a knack for remembering things they hear or see, intuit their comic potential, and then know how to re-package them for our entertainment.
Funny writers have great comic antennae and memories, it’s true. But there is a muscle here we can all develop as writers. Get into the habit of jotting down overheard remarks, strange situations, unexpected street sights — anything that might later provide grist to your comedy mill.
Don’t think of yourself a writer in the comedy genre
Saying you write comic novels or stories puts a lot of pressure on yourself. It’s like when someone says, ‘Listen to this joke — it’s really funny!’ Inevitably it makes people think, ‘I bet it isn’t.’
Comedy in fiction can arise in all sorts of genres and situations. There are funny bits in horror, romance, action thrillers, literary fiction — pretty much any fiction outlet has the potential for a certain brand of funniness. Stories are rarely just funny; they are also moving, thought-provoking, provocative, scary… lots of other things too.
So think of humour as a tool you deploy, along with other staples such as characterisation, pace and suspense. And let others be pleasantly surprised by how funny your writing happens to be too.
Use words and sounds are inherently funny
Let’s say you have a character who experiences a comic misfortune at a house party. The incident needs to take place in a room, on their own. What room do you choose? A hall or a kitchen might do, but a breakfast nook or wet room would be funnier. What are they wearing? A cardigan or a singlet would be funnier than a shirt or a jumper. What’s on their feet? A pair of brogues would do, but flip flops or Cuban heels or winkle-pickers would be funnier.
All these little details add to the comic effect of a scene. There are nouns and verbs in our language that have an inherent comedy to them, and others that don’t. Beard is a funny word, for example, as are cummerbund, gout and winnebago. Some comedians even say that there are funnier sounds than average to begin words with, such as C, B and O. You will have your own preferences here, but the key thing is to start thinking about sounds and words that have comic potential.
Remember a story is not a routine
Being a comic fiction writer shouldn’t mean that you feel obliged to shoehorn in a new gag every paragraph or two. In fact, it doesn’t really mean gags at all. The best humour in fiction arises from character, dialogue, action; it happens organically within the story.
This also means that you don’t need to be going for big belly laughs. These often rely on shock tactics and are quickly forgotten. We’re going for a more subtle and emotionally lingering effect. In short, we’re going for smiles. As the very funny novelist Muriel Spark said: ‘I have a great desire to make people smile — not laugh, but smile. Laughter is too aggressive.’
This might sound obvious but it’s surprising how often it’s overlooked. When trying to inject more comedy into their fiction, writers often shoot for what they think of as an ideal of comic writing. But humour flows from authenticity, and if you’re not doing your own thing and making yourself laugh, chances are no one else will find it that funny either.
Humour can’t be strained or forced. If your natural comic writing mode is in-your-face politically provocative satire, there’s not much point trying to write like PG Wodehouse.
Read your work out loud
The best comedy writers are relentless self-editors. A line’s funniness, after all, can stand or fall on the positioning of a single word, the ordering of a small syntactical element, the organisation of a paragraph.
As with new information in a canonical English sentence, the best place for the comic payoff is often at the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a section. Careful crafting is often required is to deliver the optimum effect and, as we have seen, individual word choices can make a big difference. So read your words out loud, and develop an ear for the subtle nuances of timing and rhythm and sound that can all cumulatively help to make things funnier.
Fail harder, fail better
Inevitably, people who want to get laughs and smiles are bound to get it wrong sometimes. Trying to be funny means taking risks — the risks of saying things that usually go unsaid, the risk of causing offence, the risk of self-revelation, the risk of what we actually call dying.
But if you’re serious about injecting more humour into your stories, you have to learn to embrace this perpetual risk of failure. Joining a writer’s group is a massive help here — you get to test the effect of your comic writing in a safe environment, and to build resilience and a tougher skin.
A laugh or a smile, I always think, is in part at least someone’s gasp of admiration and gratitude that you have taken all those risks on their behalf. It won’t happen every time, but if you never take any risks you’ll be in any danger of being funny.
Dan Brotzel (@brotzel_fiction) is author of a collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, and co-author of a new comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). For 10% off your order, quote KITTEN10
This article first appeared on The Creative Penn