Airplanes. Ben Affleck making a comeback after Gigli. Space travel. Women not just wearing—but totally rocking—pants on a regular basis. Justin Timberlake being taken seriously as an actor.
These are all things that people once thought highly unlikely, and maybe even impossible, yet they’re all totally accepted facts today.
The lesson here? There’s no such thing as impossible. If you put your mind to it and are willing to do the work, then gosh dang it, you can learn how to be funny.
But before we get into the how of writing humor, I’d like to delve into the why. The suspense of waiting for the how may very well kill you, I know, but what can I say? I’m a risk taker.
What are the benefits of writing humor into your story?
You may be wondering why incorporating humor into fiction and other types of creative writing is even important. You may think that learning how to be funny is secondary to learning how to tell compelling, dramatic stories.
The truth is, writing humor is important precisely because it helps create compelling and dramatic stories. Allow me to break that down into five easily digestible points that are sure to provide you with your daily dose of figurative fiber:
1. Humor can be used to give us a break from other more intense emotions.
You’ve surely heard the term “comic relief” tossed around before. Comic relief occurs when a comic scene or character appears in an otherwise tragic or serious tale. It gives the audience or reader a break from the intensity of the rest of the story.
Shakespeare is big on comic relief. Considering that his tragedies—like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello, to name a few—always conclude with the violent deaths of most of the characters, you can see how some laughs might ease the tension a bit before the imminent bloodshed.
2. Writing humor can be satiric—it can work to highlight the absurdity of a real issue.
Sometimes writing about reality can be a hefty task. Explicitly stating what’s wrong with the world, with society, with your parents, or with your less-than-complete sense of self is not always the most effective or entertaining way to communicate your message. Plus, some topics are taboo—and as fun as it is to say taboo, what this word means is that you’re not really supposed to talk about certain things. Cue satire.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is an astonishing example of satire. Heller uses satire to highlight the absurdity, the illogicality, the painful contradictions, and the nonsensical confusion experienced by soldiers fighting in a world war, as well as the chaos behind the concept of war itself.
Another example of tackling a taboo subject with satire is Oscar Wilde’s hilarious play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which highlights the contradictions between appearances and reality in English society in the late 1800s. In Earnest, deviations from convention are the only ways to escape a world in which believing something is enough to make it true. In the play, this is seen in Algernon’s “Bunburying,” which is widely interpreted as a metaphor for homosexual activity (which was illegal at the time and landed Wilde himself in prison).
3. Writing humor can help create an honest connection between the reader and the narrator or character.
Just as we love the “class clown” in real life, we tend to love funny characters in books. These are the kinds of people who, if they actually existed, would make my grandmother smile wryly and say, “Oh, that one’s a character all right!” I love that woman.
A great example of using humor in writing to help the reader relate to the story is John Dies at the End, a comic horror novel by David Wong. A truly absurd book from start to finish, this comic and sardonic narrative lets the reader inside the mind of the narrator, David. We get a solid grasp of his sense of humor (complete with grammar jokes about apostrophes and dangling modifiers, I might add), but we also get the inside scoop on the intense experiences and feelings he’s having.
Considering that David has unwittingly contributed to the opening of a portal to other dimensions, complete with gods of chaos and squiggly, creepy creatures, you could say he’s going through a pretty tough time. The humor in this book also helps us fall in love with David’s partner in crime, John, who to our relief—spoiler alert—does not actually die at the end.
4. Humor can be used as a contrast to tragedy, making the poignancy of more difficult emotions hit the reader even harder.
Dave Eggers masters the contrast of comedy with tragedy in his semi-fictional memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This book is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s crawling with Eggers’ trademark wit and astute observations about the hilarity of everyday life. Filled with wild tangents and unconventional fourth-wall confrontations, this book is sure to keep most readers on their toes.
Did I mention both of Eggers’ parents die at the beginning of the book and that Eggers must then assume custody of his young brother? Eggers, with his fantastical blurring of fiction and reality, allows the reader to almost forget this. Then, quietly, he reminds us. The result? We’re momentarily heartbroken, only to be uplifted again by Eggers’ next wild tangent. While it may be either wildly pretentious or painfully ironic, the book’s title is quite accurate.
5. Writing humorously keeps the reader interested and engaged.
Even if humor serves no other purpose in your writing, know this—most people respect a good display of wit. Even if you don’t know how to be funny in real life, I suggest you learn how to be in your writing.
Clever writing is intelligent writing, and intelligent writing is respected and encourages engagement. Shakespeare reigns supreme in the wit department, and Wilde runs a close second. For more examples of wit that just won’t quit, I recommend checking out anything written by Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
So there’s the why. Now where’s the how?
As promised, here is your guide to how to be funny in writing. Follow these steps, and you’ll surely be busting guts in no time at all:
1. Give up now.
If you haven’t figured out how to be funny on your own already, it’s not going to happen. What do you think I am, a wizard or something? Go on. Get outta here!
2. Wait, no! I was lying! Don’t go!
I was just doing something unexpected to try to catch you off guard. Did it work? Sometimes the element of surprise is enough to elicit a laugh when writing humor.
3. See what I did there? Aren’t I clever?
“Oh, the cleverness of me!” If it fits your story, making allusions to famous icons and events can put your jokes into context and help readers relate to you. Peter Pan is a go-to of mine, so you can’t have him, but anyone else is all yours. Another way to illicit a laugh is to hearken back to a previous point from your own story in a surprising way. Once you set up a world, weave together inside jokes that you share with your reader.
4. A false sense of grandeur can sometimes be funny, too. Trust me—I know.
Pretending that you know what you’re talking about is a sure way to get people to laugh at you, especially if you quite obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. Sure, it might not be the kind of laughter you’re after, but a laugh is a laugh, right?
5. Right. You wanted to learn how to be funny.
If you really want to learn how to be funny, you’re going to have to do a bit of work. Read some of the works mentioned above, and think about how humor is used in them (using my handy-dandy descriptions as a guide). Then, think about how you can incorporate humor into your own writing.
Make note of the jokes that made you laugh the hardest, and dissect them to really understand how they work before putting those mechanisms into practice.
Your jokes might not be gold at first, but in time, I’m sure you’ll find that you’re cracking jokes faster than my grandma cracks eggs for Sunday brunch. Have I mentioned yet today how much I love her?
Image Source: Braydon Anderson/Unsplash.com