Slipping in the humour…

by | February 11, 2017 | General | 16 comments

By Sam Thorne, ERWA Editor

As an
editor, the strangest request I’ve ever had from a prospective author was ‘can
you make this funny, please?’

That’s all
they wanted (other than a proof of the existing story). This chap had sent his
85k words of beautifully-composed gloom to a publisher who loved the story and
the premise, but wanted him to lighten things up in parts so that the true
gloom glowed. Yes, I know that sounds like a total contradiction.

I have to
admit—it was the most intimidating job I’ve ever taken on. Black humour takes
many forms so there were plenty of tools to apply to the job, but returning
this supposedly FUNNY manuscript to the writer gave me separation anxiety. Pressing
‘send’ from my gmail account was akin to wobbling my way onto a stage on
stand-up night and hoping I didn’t squeak into the microphone. Happily, the
author loved the little touches added to his MS, but as it transpired, he was
given a publication offer from an editor who was a fan of his original grim and
loveless offering. That’s not meant as an insult, incidentally—it’s how he
described his own writing (with pride!)

That was
many years ago. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books about how to
write comedy (none of which were particularly helpful), and looking
forensically at the forms of humour across a range of novels, coffee-table
collections, and TV programmes. This is not a hilarious business, I can tell
you. To paraphrase Jimmy Carr (co-author of the fantastic book ‘The Naked Jape’),
examining a joke or script is like dissecting a frog; by the time you’ve got to
the bottom of what made it tick—note the past tense—nobody’s laughing and the
frog has died.

So, before I
get into the meat of this article, I’d like to post a disclaimer. You are
unlikely to titter, guffaw, or snigger at any point. I’m just talking about tools you can use.

The most
intimidating aspect of creating humour is that humour is totally subjective. Of course it is. Whether or not your witticisms will elicit a grin in your reader depends on a few

  • Their life
    experience and prejudices
  • Their mood
  • Their
    natural tendency towards schadenfreude (the laughter reaction at someone else’s
    expense) vs their preference for kindness
  • Their sense
    of enjoying the ridiculous.

people are tickled by different things, so it may help, as a starting point, to
associate different types of humour with different beasts:

The elephant

The elephant
is king of the farce. It’s situational humour brought about by characters with
entirely conflicting goals. Most sitcoms largely fit into this category. But
wait! Some sitcoms are considered to be lacking in substance, while others give
the impression of being up-beat and edgy. Why? Because the situations depicted
are those that the audience strongly relate to, which brings us to…

The owl

The owl is
the wise one, who’s seen everything and has the worldly knowledge. People
grinning at an episode of ‘Modern Family’ quite often do so because of the distinct
feeling of connection. The owl has been there, done that, and worn the tee shirt.
The owl is all about observational humour. The owl is the representative for a
huge branch of stand-up comedy. Yet, even if the situations discussed in a
monologue have the potential to make you laugh, whether you do so or not
depends on the delivery. Not everyone enjoys an observation which is harsh or
close to the knuckle. Which brings me to…

The snake

The snake is
the overlord of deliberately cutting humour. Schadenfreude belongs here, as
does the razor-sharp quip, clever word-play and black humour. The snake represents
one-liners, the put-down you wish you’d used while engaged in an argument. Stand-up
comedians with an abrasive edge belong here.

enjoyment of snake humour doesn’t mean you have a dark soul—perhaps you simply effective
sarcasm, or a twist on a cliché: I don’t
have much shame; I have to ration it.

The bat

The bat is
the creature of the zany. Think groan-humour. Think total surreality or
incongruity. Monty Python’s sketches (and The Holy Grail) largely belong in
this category, as does Airplane, the Naked Gun series, and so on. Stand-up
comedians who fire off a hundred puns in ten minutes fall into this category. If
the majority of your chuckles are generated from bat humour, then you have a
very strong sense of the ridiculous.

humour sources in this way goes a long way to showing whyhumour is so subjective, and why some comedy series or films do
better than others—because they combine the beasts so well. Breaking Bad has a
situational concept (elephant), with a strong snake edge. Blackadder (which
remains one of the most successful British series of all time) combines all
four. I’m sure you can think of a few stand-up comedians who blend owl and
snake to perfect effect.

all this provides a framework for understanding what tickles you, and why. You
might want to keep this guide at hand for a few weeks while you’re reading or
watching films or TV. Get to know your
sense of humour. Make friends with it. Hell, give it a name, even.

So, in terms
of conveying your sense of fun on the page, what tools do you have? Within
dialogue, you have quite a selection:

* understatement (most prevalent in Brit,
Aussie or NZ humour)

* sarcasm and exaggeration (good for
snake or bat humour, depending on tone).

* indignation (arises naturally from
elephant humour, empathy deriving from owl humour).

Humour within
dialogue works best when your characters have very conflicting goals. This in
itself will guide the intonation in your characters’ speech, doing half the job
for you. If you’ve heard a good one-liner you want to use, build your scene around it. Create the context in which this is said. In constructing
a scene where you want your characters’ banter to work well:

  • keep dialogue tags to a minimum. The faster the conversational flow, the better.
  • let the punctuation
    create intonation and tone of voice as far as possible.
  • Play it
    straight. Have your MC laugh at other characters’ lines by all means, but limit
    the number of times that another character falls about laughing at your MC’s
    wit. If that’s going to happen, let the
    reader do it
    . However, if your MC gets into a pickle, there’s no problem
    with other characters having a laugh at their expense.
  • If you’re
    writing omnisciently, or writing memoir-style in the first person, you can get
    away with a far more visible narrator. In which case, you can apply the principle
    of contrast to your speech tags:

“He’d look wonderful in a harness.”

“Or a headlock,” I offered, marching
away before Stella could give me the be-nice-to-Dan speech. 

Some of the most
memorable and effective comic moments come from the laugh generated by
surprise. Without actively trying to be funny or consciously writing
lively banter, you’ll find that you’ll get a lot of mileage out of the concept
of incongruity. It’s hands-down the
easiest tool to use to create that note of levity in your work, whether you’re simply
to lighten the mood after a tense scene, or creating a bit-part personality to
bring the best (or worst) out of your main character.

The trick is
to present a very strange situation or personality with a totally straight face. The incongruity principle covers diversions from the expected such as:

  • an unexpected
    foe: like the hard man who’s reduced to impotent, furious, tooth-grinding
    compliance by his formidable four-foot-tall grandmother. The foe could be
    internal, too. Imagine being a real estate agent with claustrophobia. It’s not
    good if you have to ask your clients to walk themselves around the property…
  • a
    stereotype smashed to pieces: like the nonagenarian who’s hysterical at the thought
    of going into a nursing home because they might not let him take his X-box. Or perhaps
    the bloke who’s really shy at work but who gets arrested for public indecency…
  • an incongruous
    partnership: this is where the best bromances are born. The reader should be
    intrigued to find what two such totally different people could possibly have in
    common. Perhaps the brutish, widowed, aloof personal trainer develops a soft
    spot for the teacher at his son’s school, who’s about half his size and a
    nervous wreck. However, they bond in mutual indignation when someone parks in the
    disabled space…

So – how to
use all this information?

  1.  Write down things that annoy you. Groups
    of people who annoy you. Can you get any mileage out of making them opponents
    to your characters? Even if only as part of a scene to bring out your main
    character’s timidity / wit / annoyance / eloquence / indignant speechlessness?
  2.  Conversely, if a friend makes you crack up
    laughing, think what you were talking about. A situation? A mutual acquaintance
    struggling with a situation? Did they crack an awesome one-liner? If so, borrow
    semi-shamelessly (in other words, ask first).

Yes, humour
is subjective. It’s dependent upon delivery, context, timing and audience. But once
you’re on speaking terms with your own funny bone, your inspiration for
creating grin-worthy prose will increase tenfold.

Sam Thorne

Sam Thorne is an editor, ghost-writer and semi-successful feller of trees from West Sussex, England. After years of enjoying everyone else's steamy stories, albeit with red pen in hand, Sam was finally bullied into overcoming writer's stage fright by a bossy friend, releasing Single-Syllable Steve in May 2015. Sam also has stories in the anthologies Mad about the Boys (House of Erotica) and His Seed (Lethe press) pending release later this year. Sam has a soft spot for historical fiction, everything ever written by Bill Bryson, and the intricate first-world farces of PG Wodehouse. Favourite hobbies other than writing include cooking and unfair-rules football.


  1. Rose B. Thonry

    Excellent, excellent post.

    This comment contributed by one of the Bats (to be exact, one of the old bats).

    Seriously,though, you've nailed it, Tig. Thanks for a top-notch article.


    • Sam Kruit

      Rose, I can't thank you enough for this comment. I know you were sceptical about the premise for this article, so I really appreciate you taking the time to read it anyway, and then taking the time to reflect and see what it could achieve.

      And you're not an old bat 😉

      Many thanks again,

      Tig xxxx

  2. Jean Roberta

    Great tutorial on humour, Sam. It's notoriously hard to explain, though I've had to analyze it when teaching comic material in university English classes.

    • Sam Kruit

      if you have specific areas where you could benefit from more focussed material by way of explanation and example, come my way. I'd be happy to help. Comedy is a really hard thing to 'teach' as such. The best approach is to present an array of linguistic weapons.

  3. Meg Amor

    Aloha Sam. :-). Good article. Humor is very subjective but when it hits the spot – it can stay with us for years. And American and British humor is completely different. I find American humor very hard to comprehend. But probably I'm the Owl. I do love Modern Family. I like clever asides and sarky remarks. If humor pops into my writing – it's by sheer accident. I don't plan it. And it depends on my characters. Mine do a lot of self-depreciating remarks. Lol.

    Thanks and aloha Meg. :-).

    • Sam Kruit

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! I think there's a huge overlap in AU/NZ and UK humour. We share the same brand of sarcasm, which accounts for about 30% of it before you go into all the other unconscious techniques! There's a lot of Owl humour in your Hawaiian series, so I can see that category working for you very well. I've always been a fan of 'outnumbered' (semi-improved comedy about a family of three impossible kids..)

      thanks again!

  4. meno silencio

    Hey Tig, great article here, very useful and well written! I myself have found that the best humour is the humour you don't expect, so I concur wholeheartedly with that!


    • Sam Kruit

      Unexpected touches are fun 🙂 Thanks for the lovely comments – much appreciated. I hope the article is fun for you if you take to assessing your viewing habits over the next months…

  5. Ali Devereux

    Hi Tig! A wonderfully informative and helpful article, as always. When I manage to pull off a funny piece it is usually because the character is off-beat with their own quirky sense of self. Humour doen't come naturally to me so these tips will be inordinately helpful. Thanks for this! Mairead

    • Sam Kruit

      off-beat is good – as is quirky. Makes the character memorable! I'm glad you found the article helpful. I had a couple more detailed one somewhere on tools to use for deep 3rd person POV versus omnisicent voice, but they've gone into hiding….

  6. Belinda LaPage

    An unexpected delight.

    When I encounter a topic I feel familiar with, I prearrange my thoughts, considering the points I would make writing the dam thing. I do think I know a little something about humour, but I haven't (hadn't) the faintest clue about its mechanics, or how to explain it to others, so this was enlightening in a way that I can only describe as–at the risk of repeating mysekf–delightful.

    Well done.

    • Sam Kruit

      Thanks, Belinda. Your support is greatly appreciated, as ever, and from what I've read of your work, your funny bone is very adeptly polished 🙂

      There are about 40 distinct techniques out there, about a third of them confined to the visual arts, and another tenth specific to script-writing. The remainder are split in terms of suitability between the different voices in writing. For example if you're writing in deep 3rd person POV, you want to keep the appearance of your narrator relatively contained. But 1st person / epistolary writing can make use of analogies, similes (and the rule of 3) – as can the omniscient voice. Omniscience has powerful tools of its own, too (like the contrast switch between characters' interpretations of the same situation.) I did have quite a detailed article on that at one point. I'll send it to you off-list if I find it 🙂

      Thanks again

      Tiglet xxxx

  7. Lisabet Sarai

    As one of the least funny authors I know, I salute you, Sam!

    I don't know if this will help me introduce humor in my writing, but it certainly assists me in understanding it.

    (Daddy X is a master of several of these forms.)

  8. Sam Kruit

    Eh, you're not conspicuously unfunny, you know. There are several good one-liners in the Gazillionaire and the Virgin which attest to that!

    I'm glad you can see the merits of this approach to unpacking humour, even if it's not necessarily your cup of tea.

    And yes, Daddy X has a good grip on a significant proportion of the visual/descriptive techniques.

  9. Delores Swallows

    Hi Sam

    Great article – although you forgot to include one of the strategies that you often use in your own writing: ridiculous character names 🙂

    As I'm sure you know, I consider humour to be a very important part of life in general, so I think its inclusion in fiction is very important.

    I'm not sure which animal I'd come under – I think I have some elephant, bat, owl and snake, which is probably a bad mix.

    I've also read the Jimmy Carr book, but as you can see, it's not made me any funnier.

    To show my poor sense of humour, this is something that I laughed at when someone posted it on twitter:
    Oral sex can make your day, but anal can make your hole weak !!

    I thank you. I'm here all week.

  10. Lisabet Sarai

    Delores, you are FAR too modest!

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