I've been to a few workshops on writing humor, and I've read about writing humor, but the funny thing is, none of them really taught me how to actually write humor. But yet they all said the same thing: Writing humor is hard, harder than writing seriously, because if you fail at humor, you fail horribly.
I heard it so much, it made me fear failure rather than strive to develop that writing talent. For years I avoided writing humor, period. But the catch to that is that I also often hear how humor is a huge draw for an audience.
I read recently in Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts that humor is hard to teach and that some writers believe it can't be taught at all. If you know these writers, send them to this post, or send them to this post.
People think writing humor can't be taught because they don't know how to teach it. Some people can write humor, but can't teach it. They don't know how they are funny because it's just intuitive and natural to them. I was at one workshop on humor, and the only "how-to" tip they gave was that humor had to just come up naturally in the story. But professional comedians slave away and work their butts off writing their jokes, and then practicing them. That's not natural. Sure, some comedians do improv (Whose Line is it Anyway? was one of my favorite shows), so they're more natural, but I believe most comedians have to work to be funny.
Look at shows like The Office. Those writers obviously know how to write that kind of humor. And they use some of the same humor techniques over and over--that's not just happening, that's planned out. It's formulaic. Look at the Marvel movies. They have their own style of humor too. I once read an interview with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, in it he talked about how insanely difficult it is to come up with jokes sometimes.
So yes, writing humor can be hard. But it's not impossible. After all the (non)advice I got on writing humor. (Sure, some of them did mention one or two humor tactics, but not how to do them) I decided to take it into my own hands. So I've studied humor on my own, and I've made my own "How to Write Humor" article that actually tells you (or rather myself) HOW to write humor, by going over 15+ humor methods.
It's way too long for me to include all those methods in this blog post, so today, I'm just sharing two techniques. To see all 15+ methods, you can go here.
Method #1: Overstatements and Exaggerations
An overstatement or exaggeration is playing up something--making something seem bigger than it is.
Humor articles I did read said exaggeration or overstatements are a no-no, and then go on by giving examples like "My room was so messy, it looked like a bomb had gone off." Well, guess what? That's just a bad example. It's cliche. And just. . . blah. (I'll explain why it doesn't work in a second.) The articles are right, don't write that one! But the articles are wrong in saying that there are no good exaggerations. That's not true. There are loads of good exaggerations and overstatements. Most parodies and spoofs are exaggerations.
Here is a spoof trailer for the movie The Number 23. I haven't seen the original movie, but I saw the trailer for it. Watch how this spoof exaggerates that trailer for humor:
If your exaggeration is cliche or generic, it'll fall flat. That's one reason why "My room was so messy, it looked like a bomb had gone off" doesn't work, but the second reason is it's been exaggerated too much. If you exaggerate too much, it'll be ridiculous and sound stupid.
"Wait," some of you might be saying, "but that spoof and so many other stories are hugely exaggerated."
That's because how much you can exaggerate depends directly on what kind of story you are telling. Some stories are like the spoof I shared--their whole purpose is based off the mechanics of exaggeration and overstatement. But most stories aren't like that. At the beginning of your novel, you are setting up reader's expectations about what kind of story this is going to be. If your exaggeration takes you too far out of the realm you've created, it'll fail. You just need to take your exaggeration far enough.
So, if your story is pretty true-to-life and regular, you don't want to compare a character's bedroom to a bomb going off. The voice of your narrator also sets up boundaries for exaggeration. How far you can take overstatements depends on voice.
Read the way J.K. Rowling takes her exaggeration just far enough outside the realm of Harry Potter's world and the realm of her narrator's voice. The set up is that Harry is eating in the Great Hall next to Ron. Lavender arrives, and they start making out. Then Hermione enters (bold mine).
"Hi, Parvati!" said Hermione, ignoring Ron and Lavender completely. "Are you going to Slughorn’s party tonight?"
"No invite," said Parvati gloomily. "I’d love to go, though, it sounds like it’s going to be really good…. You’re going, aren’t you?"
"Yes, I’m meeting Cormac at eight, and we’re-"
There was a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink and Ron surfaced. Hermione acted as though she had not seen or heard anything.
"-we’re going up to the party together."
Comparing two people pulling apart from kissing to a plunger and blocked sink is totally an overstatement, that, coupled with "Ron surfaced," made readers laugh.
Want another example of exaggeration? Here is a (clean) clip from Zoolander.
See how it plays up Ben Stiller's "look" to be outside the realms of reality?
In the Amazing Spider-man when a thief pulls out a knife, Spider-man fall down and says, "You've found my weakness! It's small knives!" and he start's acting like he's terrified. He even asks a hilariously stupid question: "Is that a real knife?" And even funnier is that the thief answers seriously, "Yes, it's a real knife." That's an example of a character using exaggeration. So your characters can exaggerate things for humor too.
So you don't have to blacklist exaggeration.
I also think one reason people have a problem with exaggeration is because it tends to be the go-to humor tactic for beginning writers, who are still learning how to do it and who might not be aware of the other humor tactics available.
Method #2 The Understatement
The technique I see almost always addressed after people put-down the overstatement is the understatement. The articles I read say, "Hey, don't use overstatement. It's bad. Use understatement instead." They refer to understatement with good reason. It can be easy to do and can have a powerful effect.
The understatement is the opposite of overstatement. Instead of playing up a part of your story, you greatly downplay it.
I'll give you an example. In Trigun, the protagonist is an outlaw with a $$60 billion bounty on his head, and he's the best gunman on the planet, partly because, unknown to those around him, he's not human. He has superior skill, aim, speed, and everything to make him basically unbeatable.
Contrary to his outlaw reputation, he loves kids and plays games with them around town, acting like an idiot in the process. In one episode, he enters a quick draw tournament to earn money to help a family in need. The town's kids witness him ace each category. Then we hear this dialogue exchange between two of the kids:
Kid: Woah! Vash is in the tournament!
Kid 2: Now he's cool enough to join our club.
If you're watching the show, you're laughing because "Now he's cool enough to join our club" is a huge understatement, because there is basically no one more skilled--"cooler"--than Vash, so the idea that he wasn't cool enough to qualify for a children's club is hilarious.
This humor tactic works like this: You show your audience something or someone extraordinary, then downplay it. You can downplay through dialogue or just through your narration. You can even downplay through description.
Now, just like the overstatement, this one can go wrong too. I've seen some understatements that just make me want to facepalm because they are so cheesey or unrealistic. In one book I read in elementary school, there was a character who downplayed every near-death situation by saying, "Piece of cake" afterwards, and even back then, I groaned every time, though if I didn't understand why. The worst part, was that "Piece of cake" was the last line of the novel too. (I almost threw up.)
It didn't work partly because it was cliche, so the joke fell flat; the other part was that it was downplayed too much. Just like you can exaggerate things too much outside the realm of your novel, you can downplay too much. It can fail the same way, so pay attention to cliches, your type of story, your narrative voice etc.
Context can help that from happening. In the Trigun example, the kids had no clue that Vash was a super humanoid capable of ruling the world, if he wanted, and they'd never seen him shoot his gun before, so the understatement wasn't stupid coming from them. They meant it genuinely and we understand why.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into Gringott's, one of their goblin companions gets killed when a dragon breathes fire all over him. Ron says, "That's unfortunate." And people laughed because it was an understatement.
Let's take a second and compare the two tactics we've covered so far. They usually work best like this:
Overstatement: set up something ordinary --> exaggerate it
Understatement: set up something extraordinary --> downplay it.
To see all of my humor methods and how to write them, go to my master list here.
Sometimes September C. Fawkes scares people with her enthusiasm for writing and reading. People may say she needs to get a social life. It'd be easier if her fictional one wasn't so interesting. September C. Fawkes graduated with an English degree with honors from Dixie State University, where she was the managing editor of The Southern Quill literary journal and had the pleasure of writing her thesis on Harry Potter. Today she works for a New York Times best-selling author, is penning a novel, and sharing writing tips on her blog, which you can find at www.SeptemberCFawkes.com