How to Write Funny Fiction
Have you ever watched a movie that left you snickering so hard you couldn’t breathe? Or read a book that made you laugh out loud in public? Examples appear in pop culture all the time, penned by writers who seem naturally funny. Their characters are all unique yet each of them gets a laugh. Everything these writers produce exudes a hilarity. Every time you think you’ve escaped, another joke sends you back into thigh-slapping convulsions.
As an author, as you read or watch their work, you imagine the writer having fun, chuckling to themselves as they jot down these scenes. You can visualise them enjoying the process as much as you enjoy the result. You think about their emails. How fun it must be to edit their work. To experience that effortless funniness all the time.
You imagine writing that way yourself. It can’t be that difficult, right? You’ve written a jokey tweet. A witty Facebook post. You’re a funny texter. A book is just a longer version. At least, that’s what you think until you try to write one. That’s where most authors run into problems. Despite how easy it looks, writing any book is hard work. Add the pressure of being funny on cue and it becomes a horror show. Many writers who try fail because they end up writing a series of jokes and call it a story. They forget that one-liners quickly wear thin and that comedies that people remember don’t abandon the fundamental rules of strong storytelling.
A minority of talented writers definitely find writing comedy easier than most, but it is still a learnable skill. If you struggle in this department then take heart and try practicing a few of the following tips. It’s hard work – certainly not as carefree as you might have imagined – but take this seriously and you too could have your readers cry-laughing at your latest novel.
Rarely does a funny story end with the line, “So, everything went as planned.” Look at funny storytellers on chat shows or at your local bar for the evidence. Those who cause their audience to erupt into hysterics aren’t often people who have it all together. Nor is it those who live safe lives, never out of their depth. Frequently, funny storytellers are constantly finding themselves in ridiculous and sometimes dangerous situations. They admit to making terrible choices that lead embarrassment. Yet they value the calamity, recognising the comedy in their mistakes.
If you’re struggling to make your story a laugh riot then look at your protagonists’ actions with this in mind. Have they strutted through every challenge, destroying enemies and outsmarting every villain they encounter? Granite-faced action heroes produce cool fight scenes, but they don’t typically provide many opportunities for comedy. Considering how they could misjudge a situation, however, is a simple way to layering in the laughs.
Think of Nick Frost’s policeman character in Hot Fuzz. Having seen his super-cop partner summersault garden fences in pursuit of a criminal, he attempts the same and wipes out on the first fence. It doesn’t have to be your hero, either. In Scary Movie, the killer calls his victim with one chilling message: “I’m in the house. Where am I?” Then she sees his feet sticking out behind the sofa and forces him to scramble for a second hiding spot. It doesn’t matter what goes wrong. Mistakes add humour.
Focus on Characters
Many writers new to comedy think that a silly plot, full of tomfoolery, makes a story funny. But books written with this approach tend to end up one of two ways: they’re either fine but bizarre, or contrived and boring. Rarely does the comedy sizzle on the page. This is because it’s characters, not a ludicrous plot, that drive comedy in a story. Yes, a funny premise can help, but only so many jokes based on a single idea will land well. Before long, they get old and lose their power.
To bypass this fate and add variety to your comedy, don’t immediately outline your plot points after discovering your high-concept idea. Instead, first turn to the characters that will inhabit your world. What eccentric quirks can you bake into them? Giving them each an individual personality will allow for a greater range of hilarious reactions to plot twists. This, in turn, will enhance the story, because it will make readers less likely to interpret your characters as plot devices shoehorning them towards a gag. They will see them more like real people who react in ways that are authentic to them. In comedy, remember, a situation doesn’t stay funny for long. It’s how characters react that keeps people laughing.
One personality normally isn’t enough to maintain comedy for more than a few pages. That’s because surprise is a key element in many jokes: you misdirect the reader into expecting one outcome then surprise them with something entirely different, which is often a reaction. Your clean-freak heroine, for example, might squirm after spotting a feral dog in the back of her car. That can be funny in itself for a while. But what about when the dog looks up and turns out to be a homeless man in a bear onesie? He stole it from the washing line of a neighbour she hates and exposing him might get her sucked into the drama. Cue an inciting incident, lots of questions, two contrasting characters and a potential car load of new comedy material.
Character interactions provide rich sources of humour, so you should consider mixing a few if your book only has one major player. Seeing them collide is what makes them entertaining. They point out each other’s craziness and sometimes even bring it to the forefront. Find the perfect personalities to bounce off each other and the jokes practically write themselves. While one character is being hilarious in one way, your reader is already laughing at a joke they haven’t even read yet, anticipating exactly how the other is about to react.
Joke Through Pain
It’s easy to assume that comedy is constantly light when you’ve never dissected it. You don’t have to search far, though, to find the opposite. Dark comedy is effective because of its contrast. It includes a rush of action to keep things fresh, a sense of anticipation, sadness that heightens the surprise readers experience when hilarity ensues. Essentially, it incorporates a proper story structure with the emotional range a protagonist needs to traverse the classic hero’s journey. Finding a balance is key. As Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, once said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
How you do that last part is up to you. An easy way is to remember that not everyone will feel the same way as your main character. Yes, your hero might be hunched over their dying mentor but their loveable sidekick has just burst into the room, totally oblivious. Or picture this: your mentor character is writhing in the throes of death, the hero bright red and ugly crying over him. Then, when he asks the dying man where it hurts, the mentor replies, “My hand… You’re kneeling on my hand. As if dying wasn’t hard enough!”
Finding jokes in your work can be a challenge when you’re too close. Talking about similar fiction to your harshest but funniest friends to see what they ridicule, though, can reveal some useful insights. Thousands of Star Wars fans, for instance, poke fun at the self-destruct hole built into the Death Star. Knowing this, you could include a scene in your space opera where a dark lord is building a similar war machine. At a meeting with his engineers, he could say mid-rant, “What do you propose we do? Build a massive hole in it to let the heat out? Only an idiot would expose the reactor core like that!” Then you could describe an architect behind him surreptitiously sliding a blueprint into the waste paper bin.
In contrast, if you’re writing a re-telling of Cinderella, and your friends make a stupid comment about the impracticality of glass slippers, you could incorporate that into your version. Comment on how painful they are, and how, when Cinderella takes one off for a second at the ball, a maid mistakes it for a champaign flute. Your readers will laugh as your limping princess is forced to chug booze from her shoe before anyone notices, like some medieval sorority girl. Anticipate the jokes that readers will make about your stories and beat them to the punchline. The more surprising it is, the bigger the laugh will be.
All of these tactics can help you to craft a funny story. However, writing humour isn’t as easy as the pros make it seem. Indeed, for every zinger you read, there were a dozen failed drafts. So remember – most funny writers aren’t naturally hilarious. They work hard to create that illusion. But if they can do it, so can you.
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