How to Use Comedy in Your Writing
by Rhoda Baxter
Laughter is good for you. It releases endorphins in your brain, reduces your stress levels and does all manner of good things. Making people laugh also makes increases their tendency to like you. Or – more relevant here – like your book.
Comedy does not have to be the preserve of the comic novel. A touch of humour can help any book – fiction or nonfiction. So, how can you use it in your writing?
1.) Use comedy to build reader sympathy for your protagonist.
In general, main characters need to be sympathetic. They don’t necessarily have to be nice, but they have to be realistic and relatable. It helps if the reader likes them. We are predisposed to like characters who make us laugh. So, throw a difficult situation at your main character. Show them resolving it with ingenuity and good humour and your reader will follow them anywhere.
This is a great way to get the reader on the side of characters with a darker side. This is how we end up with lovable rogues like Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Carribean) or Danny Ocean (Ocean’s Eleven).
Be aware whether you’re making the reader laugh with the main character or laugh at the main character. Laughing with the protagonist makes for a likeable hero that the reader respects. Laughing at the hero leads to Mr Bean. There’s room for both, just know which one you’re aiming for.
2.) Use comedy to show character
If a character is always making jokes – do you know why they do that? There are several reasons why a person may crack jokes. Usually, it’s a deflection mechanism – making a joke to direct attention elsewhere. So, what are they deflecting attention from?
Perhaps they are insecure. They want people to like them and are trying to hide their fear of rejection behind the jokes. Everyone likes the jokester, right?
People crack jokes when they’re nervous. This usually takes the form of puns – often really bad ones, followed by nervous laughter. What are they nervous about? Are they scared of one of the other characters? Or in love with one of them? Or both? They could be trying to deflect attention from something they’re hiding. If so, what is it?
Alternatively, they could be deflecting attention away from someone else by jumping in with a quip before attention is drawn to the other person. Who are they protecting? Why are they protecting them? In romance, this can be quite an important point. But even in other genres, relationships between characters are important. How people use humour is often a nice way to signal this.
Sometimes, humour is a more straightforward defence mechanism. It’s no coincidence that a lot of comedians talk about how they were worried about being bullied when they were young and humour was a great way to either to distract their would-be tormentors or to get a joke in before they became the joke.
Some people use humour to distract themselves from thinking about something painful. Humour and pain are related. Laughter is known to reduce pain levels. If your character seems incapable of being serious because they’re avoiding the pain that being serious would bring … how can you use that in your story?
It could be that your character has a streak a cruelty in their humour. If the jokes they make are at the expense of other characters, you have the makings of a villain.
It’s worth remembering that the things that the characters don’t laugh at can also be used to reveal aspects of personality and their particular sensitivities. Similarly, the way they respond to when someone doesn’t laugh at their jokes can be very telling.
3.) Use humour to make people think about unpalatable facts
As the saying goes, there’s many a true word spoken in jest. The joke that makes people laugh and then makes people think is a powerful one. This is what the cartoons in the New Yorker tend to aim for – laughter, followed by a thoughtful pause. Comedy shows often do this to great effect by flipping roles. My personal favourite is the 90s show Goodness Gracious Me, but that’s very UK specific.
You can also use a joke to cast a familiar topic in a different light. The comedian and actor Daniel Glover tells a joke about how there are plenty of crazy ex girlfriend stories, but none about crazy ex boyfriends because a crazy ex-girlfriend will annoy you, but a crazy ex-boyfriend will kill you. The story first makes you laugh, but it almost immediately follows this up with the sobering truth about domestic violence.
4.) Use humour to make things memorable
This is especially useful for non-fiction writers. People will remember a joke better than they remember a fact.
How many things do you remember only through mnemonics? Of those, how many are funny? The funnier ones are likely to be easier to remember (because they made you laugh and released a bunch of endorphins etc etc).
People also tend to repeat things that are funny to other people. So wrap your information in a funny story and it’ll spread.
5.) Use humour to highlight the darker scenes
You can use funny scenes to provide contrast, making your dark scenes feel even darker. In a consistently funny book, a dark or sad scene will stand out in the same way that white looks whiter against a black background. If the reader is invested in the characters, they will feel the absence of jokes all the more keenly.
As a side note, a lot of people think that humour is the preserve of the light and frothy. It doesn’t have to be. As Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman say, funny is not the opposite of serious. There is no reason why a book that handles dark themes can’t have funny bits in it. I once wrote a rom com set in a hospice. I used the lighter scenes to contrast against the darker ones.
In a particularly heavy book, having a moment of levity can give the reader breathing space. Similarly, in a very sad scene, a quiet joke can make the scene all the more poignant.
6.) Use humour to craft a resonant ending
Making a small callback joke to something memorable that happened earlier in the story can be a very nice way to end a book. This works because it gives a pleasing sense of coming full circle and also includes the reader in an ‘in joke,’ thus making them feel part of the book’s world.
If you’re a romance writer, this is a good way to leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling when they close the book.
There are a few ‘bewares’ worth remembering. Humour is subjective. Not everyone will find every joke funny. Humour also varies regionally – things that are funny in the UK may not be funny in the US, for example.
If you’re making a joke about popular culture, be aware that not everyone will know what you’re talking about, especially these days when different people have watched different sets of TV shows. A Breaking Bad joke might be hilarious to those who have seen it, but those who haven’t seen it will be left baffled. The best ‘in jokes’ are ones that will make those who get it fall about laughing, but are innocuous enough that a person who is not in the know will skim past without noticing.
Humour is tricky, but if you get it right it can make your writing a much richer, more pleasant experience.
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