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Writing

How to Think Like a Comedy Writer: 7 Tips for Improving Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

What is it about funny stories that make people laugh? The stock answer might be timing. Or a hammy personality, the kind that feeds off the spotlight. A shared sense of humor must be part of it.

All of the above are true to some extent, but a sense of humor is only one component of writing comedy. It takes just as much exhaustive planning, drafting, and skill to pull off as any other kind of writing. When it’s done right, the jokes arrive with a singular kind of magic fairy dust floating around it. It has something extra, something elegant woven beneath the surface that you often miss it entirely.

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Think Like a Comedy Writer: 7 Tips for Improving Your Writing

Comedy writing, whether for stand-up, sitcoms, or movies, deploy a number of techniques to make funny jokes—and they can almost all be used in making your writing better and more relatable, regardless of the subject matter.

  1. Hone your observational skills. Both humor writers and novel writers are generally obsessive cataloguers of human behavior. Comedy writers often take that skill a step further, zeroing in on the funny things and inherent absurdity aspects of real-life behavior. In the same way that inside jokes rarely land, the observations and connections you make in your writing must not rely on context or information that your audience doesn’t have. Comedy relies on empathy—audiences and readers respond best to the situations they might have experienced or could imagine being a part of.
  2. Twist your clichés. Humor relies in part on twisting a cliché—transforming or undermining it. You do this by setting up an expectation based on the cliché and then providing a surprise outcome. In humor writing, this process is called “reforming.” Good comedy, and good fiction, twists clichés to keep the audience engaged and guessing.
  3. Experiment with sentence structure. Just as screenwriters sometimes rely on the visual comedy of beats for big laughs, you can deliver a version of that timing by experimenting with syntax. Try putting your funny expressions at the end of a sentence. Humor is often a release of tension, so the sentence provides that build-up of tension and the pay-off happens most naturally at the end.
  4. Use funny-sounding words. Find funny words. Some words are just funnier than others, so make a list of those that amuse you the most and try them out in your prose, or give them to your characters to say.
  5. Use contrast and incongruity. Are your characters in a terrifying situation? Add something light, like a man obsessing about his briefcase instead of the T-Rex looming behind him. Joke writing often plays with contrast, and you can do the same in your novel or short story to keep your readers interested and engaged.
  6. Inhabit different perspectives. Imitation is a distilled evocation of a point of view. Consider the way your favorite comedians approach an imitation: What can you borrow to flesh out your main characters on the page? Is it a physical attribute, like a way of walking? Or perhaps a way of speaking? What single action best encapsulates their personality and role in the greater narrative arc?
  7. Utilize the callback. One of the more satisfying tools in the humor writing universe is the callback: a repeated allusion to a joke made earlier in the set or script. In TV shows, they become in-jokes for the most loyal viewers; in stand-up comedy, they provide a throughline and give structure to an intentionally meandering story. They can even serve as an eventual punchline.

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